by Michael Neevel
April 2022

Crimson clover fixing nitrogen in the new orchard.

At Koinonia, one of our goals is to work with nature to help build and maintain a healthy soil. We do this by stocking up carbon and encouraging biodiversity, resulting in healthy, nutrient dense pecans.

The microbial life in our soils is responsible for making nutrients available to plants as needed. Bacteria and fungi decompose organic matter, breaking it down into nutrients the plant can use. A healthy diversity in microbes also helps to balance out and, in many cases, actively block harmful organisms from damaging plants. They are also integral to creating a healthy soil structure by binding the smallest particles into larger chunks, which leaves open spaces between where water and air can flow.

So how do we help these miracle critters do their good work? One of the most important things we can do is to build organic matter on and in the soil to keep them fed and happy. We spread compost, manure, and mulch for the bacteria and fungi to eat. We also allow a diversity of orchard floor plants to grow tall and deeply rooted before mowing. Plants take carbon from the atmosphere and send out sugars through their roots in order to feed beneficial microbes right at the root zone. This all adds organic matter that microbes use to create good soil and healthy plants.

A diversity of microbes and plant life leads to a diversity of other creatures acros the food web. Pesticides use harsh chemicals to destroy all organisms. This leaves the door wide open for more, sometimes worse, pests. You also run the risk of creating a resistance to the pesticides, requiring the use of more, and harsher, chemicals. By allowing a return to the natural balance, we can let predators do their work of reducing pests without our overzealous interference.

In our pecan orchards, we want to imitate something closer to a forest ecosystem rather than a lawn or dedicated pasture. Because of the large amount of acidic and carbon-heavy branches and leaves that fall and naturally rot on the ground, the orchard soil has more fungi than bacteria. The bacteria have a harder time decomposing those materials and don’t thrive as much in acidic areas. Over hundreds of millions of years, certain fungi have formed symbiotic relationships with most plant life. The host plant shares some of its energy made from photosynthesis, and the fungi attach to and extend the reach of the roots, providing better access to water and nutrients. These fungi are called mycorrhizae, and they are just one of the many helpful kinds of microbial life we want to encourage in our orchards. 

Compost tea, or technically in our case compost extract, is another one of the methods we use to increase soil health. We start with fungal dominant compost, place it in a tank of water with other ingredients to feed the fungi and bacteria, and bubble it for around 18 hours to dislodge the microbes from the compost and into the water. We then spray this through the orchards to help make more nutrients available and to increase the microbial biodiversity.

All of the things we do here in our orchards aim to create a healthy soil, leading to a healthy ecosystem, and a healthy crop. It’s just one more way we can demonstrate a better way of caring for and working with nature, and letting nature do the same for us.

We learned most of what we know about soil health and taking care of pecan orchards from our dear friend Betsy Ross. You can learn more about our friendship with Betsy here. And you can see her work and legacy at Sustainable Growth Texas here.

Bud break happening in the new orchard.