MacArthur 'Genius' David Montgomery Speaks: Real Dirt on Soil

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When gardeners dish the dirt, they may speak of soil, either their own or the soil they wished they had.  It really is the bed in which you make your garden lie.  So 2008 MacArthur 'Genius' award recipient David Montgomery, author of  Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, is the perfect speaker to help peer into our soil's soul and see what sustainable means to the planet's soil.

Speaking at March 4th's Down and Dirty: the Scoop on Soil, Dr. David Montgomery will share his thoughts on the human relationship with soil. Today's gardeners interested in growing food, enjoying beauty and living sustainably have many of the same challenges that humans have faced throughout history.  Plant nutrition, soil erosion, healthy harvests, sustainable production all have underground dimensions: any garden's foundation is literally the soil.

But today's gardeners have somewhat different selections in front of them. With power tools and plastics, mineral or organic fertilizers, heirloom or hybrid seeds, pesticides or biological controls all offered to consumers, the marketplace teems with options.  Many of them are described as "good for the planet" or "eco-friendly" (in fact, one could argue that any gardening effort is the first step in the right direction).  But the marketplace still requires decisions and trade-offs, whether between cost and quality or between water conservation and local crop yield, or this season and future seasons.  And sometimes it hard to see the future and take the long view, even with the intent to consider ecological well-being.

So I'm looking forward to hearing the really long view on dirt and soil.  Dr. David Montgomery is geomorphologist, studing in the ways landscapes evolve. His professional work includes studies of the evolution and near-extirpation of salmon, fluvial and hillslope processes in mountain drainage basins, the evolution of mountain ranges (Cascades, Andes, and Himalaya), and the analysis of digital topography.  But something caused him to aim his knowledge and skill at understanding human societies and the soils they live on.  Over time, it seems like they have an effect on one another.

As I understand it, human societies from ancient Greece to the tropical Mayans depended on their soil for sustenance.  Inevitably, human activity causes some erosion.  Soil becomes dirt, in other words.  Some societies have a nomadic history, and moving to new places, they gained access to new soil.  Settled societies have had ways to re-invigorate their soil (composted manure from livestock, burying fish for Nitrogen, even seasonal river floods).  But in the course of all history, is soil really as important a factor to civilization success as war, or even climate change?

Perhaps you'll have to read or hear Dr. Montgomery to decide for yourself.  The overall impression I get is that is that, yes soil matters (just as gardeners have been telling one another for years).  And the reviews I've read make me wonder: what if we are running out of dirt?  How serious is that?  How prevalent is that in cities? In our urban gardens?

Now in its third year, the Passion to Action: Sustainable Landscaping Symposium is sponsored by Denver Botanic Gardens, the Front Range Sustainable Landscaping Coalition, Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado and Colorado Gardener.  This year's theme is Down and Dirty: the Scoop on Soil, and follows a popular and successful 2009 symposium examining water in front range landscapes.

The FRSLC has worked with the Gardens numerous times in the past few years to present topics that are of interest to green industry professionals (landscapers, growers, designers, contractors) and to gardeners interested in sustainable gardens and landscaping.  I am excited to see the full slate of speakers that day; it's next Thursday, March 4, from 8 to 4:30.  Registration is still open: please remember to sign in if you're a member or have an existing account.

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