Small-scale gardens provide sustainable food without damaging soil

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(NaturalNews) Urban and small-scale farming is a growing trend that's healthy and sustainable for the environment. Luckily, this trend is catching on fast, not just in the U.S. but in Europe too.

Today there is a waiting list of more 90,000 people attempting to acquire allotments, or plots of land used for small-scale gardening. Applicants are excited to participate in a practice that produces healthy food and is better for the environment.

Alpha Galileo, the world's independent source of breaking research news, revealed soil in Britain's allotments was "significantly healthier than intensively farmed soils."

The findings published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, discovered small-scale crop growing in urban areas produced "food sustainability without damaging the soil."

Even though chemicals leave soil damaged and stripped of essential nutrients, conventional farmers say pesticides are mandatory in order to produce enough yield to feed a growing population.

According to Alpha Galileo, conventional farming is very intensive and results in "significant declines in soil organic carbon stocks, as well as reducing the ability of soils to store water and nutrients, and damaging soil structure, which can lead to soil erosion."

Conventional versus organic

Organic farmer, Jamey Gage, operates a small family owned farm located outside of Austin, Texas. The focus at B5Farms is to provide "delicious, nutritious and synthetic-free food."

In an interview with Natural News, Gage described some of the biggest differences between conventional and organic farming, including the use commercial fertilizers such as synthetic nitrogen.

Conventional growers usually plant a widespread area of a single crop like corn, cotton or soybeans, in order to produce enough yield to compete with other producers. Each season, the growers will plow any previous crop residues in the soil, adding synthetic nutrients instead.

"These synthetic nutrients can be produced in much higher concentrations than occur in natural substances and thus require smaller applications," said Gage.

Fertilizers used by conventional growers contain "inert substances" in order to allow more widespread application. Not only do they contain harmful metals, but commercial fertilizer production requires the burning of fossil fuels.

According to Gage:

"These 'inert substances' have been found to contain industrial wastes, toxic metals, and byproducts of fertilizer manufacturing. Some nutrients like nitrogen are quickly depleted by soil microbes and growing plants (particularly corn) and must be replenished with every planting by conventional growers.

This synthetic nitrogen is relatively cheap and fast acting. Studies have shown that synthetic forms of nitrogen damage microorganisms in the soil and, over time, deplete carbon stores. This limits the water holding ability of the soil and contributes to atmospheric CO2 levels. These forms of nitrogen have also been shown to easily leach into waterways creating algae blooms and harming aquatic life. Also, quick infusions of nitrogen are notorious for creating insect (particularly aphid) and spider mite population explosions that require applications of pesticides."

Soil sustainability

Attempting to measure sustainability in Britain's allotments, ecologist Dr. Jill Edmondson from the University of Sheffield, sampled soil from 27 plots on 15 allotment sites and also took samples from local parks, gardens and nearby agricultural land.

Edmondson measured a variety of soil properties including "soil organic carbon levels, total nitrogen, and the ratio between carbon and nitrogen (which are all directly related to the amount and quality of organic matter in the soil) as well as soil bulk density, an indicator of soil compaction."

The ecologist found significant differences between the samples and found that allotment soil was substantially healthier. She found that "allotment soil had 32% more organic carbon, 36% higher carbon to nitrogen ratios, 25% higher nitrogen and was significantly less compacted."

Carbon helps soil maintain moisture and is removed by the atmosphere, while nitrogen facilitates plant growth.

Carbon and other nutrients used by organic farmers help maintain a healthy ecosystem by feeding microorganisms. These microorganisms make additional nutrients available to crops. Organic farmers also apply nutrients in smaller applications.

Also, studies have shown that organic forms of nutrients are less likely to leach into waterways than their synthetic counterparts.

Energy use

Small-scale sustainable farming also wins when it comes to energy use.The Rodale Institute found that growing organic corn requires 10,150 megajoules of energy (approximately 78 gals of gasoline), compared with 17,372 megajoules of energy for conventionally grown corn.

The synthetic nitrogen-based fertilizer makes the difference, representing up to 41 percent of energy used in conventional techniques. Nitrogen is also used for organic farming, but is less-energy intensive and often derived naturally.

"I plant beans to supply nitrogen to my crops, even when I do not anticipate selling the beans," said Gage.

Gage also plants beans, peas and peanuts in areas that will be planted with heavy feeding crops the next season to provide nitrogen without additional cost or carbon footprints. When he needs outside inputs, he uses waste from other agricultural productions, like manure from poultry and mushroom producers located in the county adjacent to his. This requires little transportation costs or carbon expenditures.

"Native Americans were known to grow corn, squash and beans together as a classic example of companion planting that is still practiced by organic growers today," explained Gage.

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