Soil Health Agro-Ecological Substinence Farming | Molly Oliver Culver harvesting Black Knight Scabiosa at The Youth Farm Wingate High School for Public Service Brooklyn Kingston Avenue raised bed sustainable urban farm


 WELL, it might be obvious. Flowers (and most foods) grow in soil.

Soil happens to be one of my passions – not unusual for a farmer. But in case this interlude on soil seems a bit out of context, allow me to briefly explain:

I began my path to becoming a farmer around the age of 25. I’m 39 now. After several years immersed in learning how to farm agro-ecologically (substinence farming - farming in a manner attuned to the surrounding ecosystem and with conservation of natural resources in mind), I became a farm educator in NYC. I’ve farmed and trained dozens of adults in sustainable farming over the past 10 years.

2019 was the first season since 2008 I didn’t spend crop planning, growing food and flowers, and actively maintaining a production farm. While I’m fully focused on this sustainable floral design business for the moment, I continue to teach about Soil Science, Seed Starting, Garden Planning, Crop Planning, Composting and more around NYC, at the NY Botanical Garden, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the Brooklyn Grange, and elsewhere. On Zoom, lately:)

I should add that what brought me to farming was not so simple. It’s a story for another post. Suffice it to say that I came to farming out of a drive to build a more socially just and environmentally protective world.


As a farmer or gardener you quickly learn that your farm can only be as successful as your soil is healthy. And for soil, health means abundance in a brilliant diversity of microbes — bacteria, fungi, actinobacteria, nematodes, and protozoa… literally billions per teaspoon of microscopic living organisms. These microbes break down organic waste in the environment (this could be dead grass, roots, leaves, dying plants) into basic elemental nutrients that plants can take up. Without this invisible army of microbes, humans literally would not survive.

This is the most startlingly beautiful example I know out there of the interdependence of all life on earth. The food chain is truly humbling and moving; sometimes it brings me to tears or takes my breath away when I think about how I, as a human, depend on millions of microscopic organisms, who work magic underfoot to produce the plants I eat, to grow the plants the animals I eat eat, and to grow the plants I love seeing around me outside wherever I go – from beautiful Magnolias (the kinds blooming right now across Brooklyn) to stately cacti in deserts, where I love to travel in the off season. Your soil is only as good as your microbial population; much like our immunity is only as good as the build up of healthy bacteria in our guts. In many ways, microbes are farming humans if the system isn’t short-circuited by chemicals (read: humans trying to control nature).

While our grandmothers and great grandmothers knew this (for they likely had a garden and knew how to grow things) — indeed while indigenous communities have always known this and still scream out at us settler colonials to GET it — most modern humans have become severely distanced from this knowing. From the laws that eternally governed the natural world.

“To forget the soil is to forget ourselves,” said Mahatma Gandhi. One of the quotes I always put in a powerpoint in soil science classes. Often, students don’t expect this moody intro. But to me, the beauty and art of soil is just this – how dependent on its health we are. Indigenous communities the world over, not so greatly distanced from a spiritual connection with land, know this.

In this pandemic, our interdependence becomes clear. While we may not have been thinking about our interrelation and dependence on soil microbes, we suddenly see how our livelihoods do depend on the health and wellbeing of others. So that co-dependence is a beautiful thing, despite the pain and suffering this is causing right now. To see it, experience it, is to know it. It does strangely give me hope for the future.

As a florist I am 100% dependent on farms. My small business’s success (as well as my personal livelihood and wellbeing) depends on the health and wellbeing of the farmers who grow flowers, and literally on the health of their soil. Their ability to grow lots of flowers while still respecting and ensuring the health and wellbeing of microbes.

That’s really the key here – and why regenerative/sustainable/organic agriculture has always been, in my mind, the beacon for our future survival as a species. I know as a farmer, grower and amateur soil scientist that the human species’ survival relies on plants, thus microbes. And therefore, growing food and flowers in a manner that is actually more about GROWING SOIL – growing, not depleting a diverse web of micro-organisms is the foundation for sustainability.

The floral industry – like many industries in a capitalist system – depends on the health and wellbeing of people and their ability to work, produce and be paid and to consume goods (for example, flowers for events). So, as my favorite soil author Grace Gershuny highlighted with her popular book, it all “starts with the soil.” Without healthy, diverse, biological populations in our soil, we quite literally would not have plants; plants are the basis of all foods and without food we do not survive, thrive, create, consume.

I’ve long believed in supporting small, local farms as they are often close enough that we can have transparent relationships with the farmers. As consumers, we can have some say in how food is grown and what goes in to our bodies. We can have discussions with farmers and vote with our dollars, purchasing food from farms that grow organically or who use organic methods, whether they have certification or not.

Organic and sustainable farms are only as successful as their soil is healthy. This means avoiding aggressive tillage, excessive pest and weed control, and trying to grow a farm as much in harmony with the surrounding ecosystem as possible.

I am hoping that out of this calamity, and in this great pause, it will be the moment many more people begin to awe in and behold the reality of our interdependence with the natural world. Like many “environmentalists” (such a funny term – how could we not be?? The hubris of humans amazes me.) I believe Mother Nature in a fairly deafening way is screaming for us to grasp this now.

There is lots of ancient wisdom around, connecting the dots between soil practices on farms (the source of the food we eat), and our guts and immune systems. Someone new I follow on Instagram, @zachbushmd (who I learned about through a primary inspiration in sustainable floral design, @joostbakker, published) an incredible post showing overlapping maps to show how patterns of soil destruction with the industrial agriculture practice of spraying glyphosate (an antifungal agent) trend with hot spots for Covid-19 in China.

Dr. Bush wrote,

“Each epicenter of the viral infection lies within the watersheds of these glyphosate toxic zones. The glyphosate… in these food and water systems causes widespread loss of biodiversity. Simultaneously the glyphosate destroys the gut barrier of animals and humans to cause widespread immune system vulnerability and overload on the other side of the gut barrier. Once the bacterial and fungal elements of the microbiome are threatened, the viruses are relied upon to fine genomic adaptations to the toxic environment. The viruses swap genomic information between species of bacteria, mammals, etc., until a biologic advantage or niche is discovered. Subsequent widespread dissemination of the virus occurs in areas that are equally as damaged and vulnerable.”

The maps show how Western china has dramatically fewer cases than Eastern China, and coincidentally, dramatically reduced chemical spraying.

Freaking out over this a little this past week, I checked in with fellow flower farmer, student of holistic herbalism, ceramicist and frequent Molly Oliver Flowers lead designer Katrina Siladi. I always love and appreciate the perspective Kat brings to almost any conversation… in particular, this one. She started speaking so eloquently and I asked if I could quote her for this journal entry, and she agreed.

She said, “the agricultural chemicals are just one aspect of the toxins that are impacting our bodies, making them so vulnerable right now.”  Kat then recommended the podcast ‘Botanical Biohacking,’ where she’s been listening in on herbalist perspectives on Covid-19.

“The way Chinese doctors are understanding this epidemic is that our modern bodies are under undo stress, due to toxins (pesticides on food, herbicides on lawns, chemicals in cleaning products, pollution, etc.) at all levels of our lifestyles.”

“Our diets are heavily grain and meat based,” she went on (won’t argue with that)… “According to Chinese energetics, our diet leads to a damp and cool environment in our bodies.  The energetics of medicine looks at polarities of damp and dry, hot and cold, tense and lax. The Chinese, and now Western herbal medicine understand that due to the modern diet, many human bodies are likely damp and cool. This virus is thriving in damp and cool environments, including ecosystems – including Seattle, Wuhan and New York. It’s spreading outside of these areas rapidly. “ My mind was momentarily blown by the sheer simplicity – the sheer power of a thing so small as a virus. And a thing so ubiquitous in our lives as agriculture, and for the 1,000th time in my life, the dangers and the tragedy of the vast separation between people and soil in Western, “so-called 1st world” cultures.

At this time, for immune system boosting and protection, Kat recommends we drink Thyme, Ginger, Garlic: it’s warming and drying. “ If this virus is damp and cool, we want to drain and heat the body.” Kat shared that she’s been learning how herbal recommendations change at each stage of this virus; she wrote me later to say, “thyme, garlic and ginger are most accessible allies for the pre- and first stages for their warming and drying constituents. There’s no one size fits all for herbal medicines and people with complex health conditions should be working with someone a lot if they want to use herbal medicine at this time, and should not be following the advice of Instagram herbalism.”

(Please hit Kat up on Venmo @Katrina-Siladi) and send her some dollars if you can if this segment of the post has been helpful:).

Well, if you got this far, I am impressed.

I am deeply hoping that if there is something to be gained from this unprecedented global calamity and trauma, that it is the last time we will debate the need to protect and nurture healthy soil; the last time we will debate the necessity of regenerative/sustainable/organic farming; the last time we’ll debate the need for paid sick leave; the end of an inhumane era of corporate billionaires and the beginning of an era where our government commits to social and environmental justice. Are these dreams too lofty? I’d love to hear your thoughts…

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