What Is Living Soil?

Written by Robert Hammell

The key to productive agriculture starts with high-quality soil. This is especially true for cannabis, where the soil quality affects not only potency but other aspects like terpene profiles and taste.[1] Because of this, a new trend is emerging for cannabis growers called living soil. But what is living soil, and what are the benefits of using it compared to traditional growing methods?


What is Living Soil?

Living soil is soil that relies on various composting methods to produce soil that more closely mimics a natural environment.[2] By relying on compost, a complex micro-ecosystem of bacteria and insects develops to break down the various composting materials to release their nutrients into the soil. With traditional agriculture, not enough attention is paid to the microorganism living in the soil, and many scientists believe it has hindered agricultural development.[3] With living soil, the complex biome recycles organic material to revive and replenish the nutrients in the soil. This is where the technique gets its name, because not only is the soil full of living things but also because the soil itself is constantly growing and changing.


Why is Living Soil Beneficial?

There are several reasons why living soil is emerging as a popular agricultural technique.[4] For starters, it is a more sustainable option for continual agricultural growth. Instead of constantly replacing the soil from external sources, living soil is able to resupply its nutrients independently. This also means that it does not rely on harmful pesticides or additives to support its growth. This natural growing technique also means that farmers can significantly cut costs because they don’t to employ their capital on these external resources. Additionally, this technique only requires constant addition of compost material to be sustained. This material would typically be discarded anyway, but instead is being repurposed in a way that ultimately benefits not only the farmer but the crops as well.


Techniques for Developing Living Soil

The University of Minnesota released a helpful guide for maintaining living soil.[5] It does require constant attention, but the results are pretty easily achieved. While the composting material may produce different results, there are a few key components to getting started.[6] The first part is to start with rich soil that not only has healthy bacteria, but also insects and earthworms as well. From there, it is important to feed the soil. This does require water, but it is also important to add organic material for the living things to break down. Once the health of the soil is established, it recommended adding some kind of cover crop like rye, mustard, or clovers.[7] This helps to limit the exposure of the soil to harmful external elements like wind or extreme temperature. From there, the last thing to remember is to rotate the crops, and not always plant the same thing in the same soil. This will allow the soil to naturally replenish itself over time.


Reference List

  1. Zheng, Z., Fiddes, K. & Yang, L. A narrative review on environmental impacts of cannabis cultivation. J Cannabis Res 3, 35 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s42238-021-00090-0

  2. Johns, Christopher. “Living soils: the role of microorganisms in soil health.” Future Directions International 20 (2017).

  3. Anderson, G. L., Caldwell, K. N., Beuchat, L. R., & Williams, P. L. (2003). Interaction of a Free-Living Soil Nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans, with Surrogates of Foodborne Pathogenic Bacteria. Journal of Food Protection, 66(9), 1543–1549. https://doi.org/10.4315/0362-028x-66.9.1543

  4. Manter, Daniel K., et al. “Why we need a national living soil repository.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114.52 (2017): 13587-13590.

  5. Living soil, healthy garden. (n.d.). UMN Extension. https://extension.umn.edu/managing-soil-and-nutrients/living-soil-healthy-garden

  6. Duda, Gustavo Pereira, et al. “Perennial herbaceous legumes as live soil mulches and their effects on C, N and P of the microbial biomass.” Scientia Agricola 60 (2003): 139-147.

  7. Gruver, L. S., Weil, R. R., Zasada, I. A., Sardanelli, S., & Momen, B. (2010). Brassicaceous and rye cover crops altered free-living soil nematode community composition. Applied Soil Ecology, 45(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apsoil.2009.11.007

About the author

Robert Hammell