Soil and the City, Episode 4: Romancing the Soil – Towards Making Amend(ment)s

by Amy Bell, PLA, ASLA, ISA Certified Arborist FBT Architects Landscape Architect

This six-part blog series investigates the reasons why we have fallen out of love with soil (or at the very least taken it for granted) and how we can rekindle that relationship through an amended approach to the design and construction of our everyday places.

Soil and the City, Episode 4: Romancing the Soil – Towards Making Amend(ment)s

Last week we documented a rather messy breakup with soil, but today we’ve come to our senses and decided to ask for a second chance. With luck, a little romance will go a long way. Let’s get back on that bicycle and review the basics:

Step 1: Get Soil’s Number
Making the first move may seem daunting, but it’s relatively simple. To begin, we need to remember that soil is actually there (though we might need x-ray goggles to see it). The urban environment provides ample hiding places for soil, yet it persists under the pavement and weed barrier fabric ­– the ultimate contrarian.

Getting soil’s number is like unearthing a new kind of truth window. An aperture that reminds us that even under our feet, truck tires, parking lots and building foundations, fascinating stuff is happening down there. The prospect and mystery of a soil ecology that continues to survive despite our best efforts is infinitely alluring.

The act of “getting that number” opens up an avenue for communication, but as with any relationship there is protocol. Attention to detail, patience and sensitivity will lay the groundwork needed for authentic progress.

Step 2: Craft the Perfect Date
Now that we have soil’s attention (or rather soil has regained ours) how do we win it back? Dr. Ruth suggests listening to your partner. Find out about them. Get to know them. Some prefer a swanky cocktail on a rooftop patio while others want to cozy up to a fire with a robust bottle of wine. Speaking from experience, a box of chocolate truffles will do the trick. But I digress.

In our arid climate we have extraordinary soil types not found elsewhere. Lew Wallace said it best: “All calculations based on our experiences elsewhere fail in New Mexico.” Soil tends to be complicated but its complexity is matched with its resilience, challenging us to get creative with courtship.

Biological activity in soil happens in New Mexico over a relatively extended time period and can be wiped out with comparatively little effort. This is one of the aspects that makes our high desert soils spectacularly interesting. Its persistent ability to propagate life despite extreme adversity is beyond admirable but we must also accept its fragility and sensitivity as part of the package. There’s much we do not know about desert soil biomes, crusts and life in the desert in general but who wants a boring partner anyway? Down the road we’ll be grateful for a companion that likes to keep it fresh.

Despite nuances and unique characteristics related to geologic makeup, elevation and microclimate, the mingling of three main ingredients – water, organic matter and air – will generally cook up a fruitful soil rendezvous.

The sensual qualities of water are irrefutable. Give soil the right amount of water and it quite literally becomes putty in our hands.

Returning to the Southwestern indigenous approach to growing food, we’d do well to pay attention to where the water goes. Microbes and the related biological network need moisture to show up to the party and soil needs water distributed across the landscape. Slow, spread and sink it. While supplemental watering is often advisable, irrigation water has minerals and salts that can build up and become harmful over time. Rainwater generally has an acidic pH that our soils and plants desperately need and requires relatively minimal infrastructure to get it from the sky to the ground.

Organic Matter
It’s always a good idea to feed your date. Microbes need carbon or else they get hangry. Landscapes that allow natural processes to play out return this material to the soil with little effort. Plants drop leaves and needles, animals die and decompose, microbes rejoice and the cycle continues. We disrupt this process by removing leaves, laying down weed barrier fabric and encouraging the propagation of infertile plants that aren’t ‘messy.’

Albuquerque has dramatically reduced our water waste with xeriscaping as one of the main strategies. While water conserving practices are commendable our tendency toward ‘zero’scaping has gotten out of hand. While gravel mulch serves to shade the soil it gets much hotter than an organic mulch and contributes to already smoldering urban temperatures. Furthermore, gravel is devoid of any organic matter and effectively sterile, especially when sprayed with pre-emergent herbicides.

Unfortunately it has become more convenient to purchase costly chemical herbicides, protective wear and application devices to unnecessarily prune, bag leaves and poison weeds multiple times per year. We blame soil for being high maintenance, but really we ought to put down the curling iron and look in the mirror.

It’s time to redefine “low maintenance.” Allow leaves and plant detritus to rest where it falls.

What? Laziness actually improves soil health? Indeed. Go ahead, darling, leave your socks on the floor. Soil will thank you.


Who doesn’t like a bit of fizz in their champagne? Soil is a sucker for bubbles.

Healthy soil structure has air pockets in a diversity of sizes. This allows for critical gas exchange, holding and releasing water and nutrient distribution. Sadly, urban soil is still in a constant state of suffocation.

Pavement needs a compacted base to prevent subsidence and any major construction site has heavy equipment bearing down on the soil. At the end of a project we dig little holes, drop in the plants and wish them the best of luck. And they need it. Compacted soil is an unfriendly environment for any living thing, but it’s not impenetrable.

The best case scenario is compromise, essential to any healthy relationship. Break up the soil in compacted landscape areas before planting. Save and stockpile topsoil and redistribute. At the very least, add the first two ingredients (water and organic matter) in the right amounts and you’ll start to see the soil begin to repair itself. Rejoice! Bring out the bubbly!

Step 3: Don’t Forget to Call
How long should we wait before the second date? As we know, soil isn’t unforgiving. The hardest part for us is really the first steps, but in time our date nights with dirt will become a comforting habit.

To summarize: Acknowledge the existence of soil. Apply rainwater and organic matter. Tread lightly. Repeat.

Next week we’ll bask in the shade of one of soil’s most amazing gifts – trees – and ponder on their role in helping us reconnect with the earth.

Next week’s installment is Episode 5: Trees – the Love Child of Soil, Water and Air.

Images by Amy Bell.