Tayport’s Take on Our Soil to Sky Course

In keeping with our June/July theme — Your Soil, Your Data — in this article, we host the opening words of a wonderful blogpost by Kaska Hempel of Tayport Community Garden in Scotland. Kaska, with help from garden volunteers Laura & Cathy, participated in our first course — #Soil2Sky.

Intrepid soil testers — Kaska, Laura and Cathy from Tayport Community garden

As gardeners, we hardly have to be reminded about the importance of soils for growing. We know that without productive soil our gardens and crops fail. Understanding soils in our own growing patch and how to care for them is the first step to a productive garden. With this in mind, this month we have explored soils at the Community Garden with a free online course From Soil to Sky, offered by the GROW Observatory project. In the process we also contributed our data to the GROW Observatory project database, which will help build a picture of soils across Europe and monitor their health through remote satellite sensing.

Kaska was joined by Cathy, one of our bloggers and experienced Tayport gardener, to work through the 4 week online course, which finished last week. Cathy worked through the hands on activities in her own garden, and last Sunday, they both joined forces with another volunteer, Laura, to put our growing patch at the Tayport Community Garden through its paces.

The course covered a vast amount of material and we picked out some highlights for you below.

Soil is Earth’s living skin

The driest definition of soil describes it as 45% minerals, 25% water, 25% air and 5% organic matter. After exploring the course’s other materials we prefer to think about soil as Earth’s living skin instead:

“Most of the planet is not living. It’s mineral, it’s never known life, it’s just this rock and yet soil starts forming on it and it creates this very thin layer where life is possible.

Soil is the interface between biology and geology — it’s the living skin of the Earth.”

Those lines come from an inspiring documentary film Symphony of the Soil, produced in celebration of the Year of the Soil in 2015. Kaska wrote more about this and growing her own soils with worms in her post from last year.

Healthy soil protects us

Cath and Laura examining land cover and canopy cover in a low raised bed area chosen as a representative site for our GROW Observatory analysis at Tayport Community Garden.

Much is made of soil as provider of our food (up to 95% of our food is grown in soil) but it looks like healthy soils are equally important for keeping us safe from floods and climate change. We were stunned to learn that with careful management soils can store up to 75% of our carbon dioxide emissions and have a substantial impact on preventing climate change. In recognition of this, the French government has included management of soils for carbon storage as part of France’s climate change prevention strategy. If we follow in their footsteps we’d also end up with healthier, more productive soils as a bonus.

At a global scale, the interplay between rainfall and temperature is the major factor determining the type of vegetation which evolved to grow in a particular area (or its biome). This interplay influences how much moisture is available for plants — the more moisture available, the larger and more lush the plants in the local biome (this is all to do with balance between PET and AET but we will leave the technical terms aside here). In Tayport we have a reasonable, but not overwhelming, annual rainfall of 664mm, combined with relatively low average temperatures of 8.3°C (Source: climate-data.org). This means a reasonable amount of moisture allowing for development of a wet/dry temperate forest biome. Of course, our changing climate means that we are expecting our area to get wetter and warmer in the long run, which will influence not only the local biomes but also the types of crops we are able to grow (for the most up to date predictions see the RHS report on Gardening in a Changing Climate published in 2017).

The microclimate of each locality also has significant influence on growing conditions. At Tayport we are near the river and the sea and their influence causes our winter temperatures to be slightly higher than inland Fife, so we miss out on many snow and frost days. Since we started working at the Garden last year, we have realised that the site is also very windy, despite being surrounded by lots of trees. During April’s drought this meant that the soil had been drying out very quickly and we’ve had to protect it and the young seedlings by covering planted areas with fleece.

Topography also plays a role — our Garden site is fairly flat so at first sight you would not expect much variation in growing conditions. But when you look closely it actually does have a minor slope of 2–3° in several directions, and a few small dips. Last year’s winter flooding highlighted the impact of these minor topographical features on water content in the soil as the lower-lying areas became waterlogged and muddy. The dry winter and spring made those much less obvious this year but this may become more of a problem with the expected increase in longterm average local rainfall due to climate change. So far we have tried to adapt to the wetter areas of the Garden by using high raised beds and creating a living willow tunnel/wildflower meadow area….

To read more, go to the original blog post

To read more about the course — Citizen Science from Soil to Sky — visit the course page on Future Learn

Tayport Community Garden is run by PLANT (People Learning About Nature in Tayport), Tayport Community Trust’s group, and that it is funded by Big Lottery Fund and Climate Challenge Fund.