Storing wealth in the soil

snow_covered_treesHere in the upper Midwest, the landscape looks desolate right now. Gardens and weeds are dead or dormant. Trees and bushes are as bare as if they suffered some sort of apocalypse — and they did! The air got freezing cold. That’s fatal to most plants unless they make complex adjustments.

What happened, of course, is winter, a regularly scheduled event. Come springtime, everything will turn green again — fast. From one day to the next, the landscape can change before your eyes.

This sudden rejuvenation happens in part because, during winter, nutrients are stored in the soil, which is famously fertile in this corner of the world. That’s how plants survive the hostile climate. Plants recycle their “food” from year to year as leaves fall and annual plants die and decompose.

By contrast, soil in tropical rainforests tends to hold few nutrients. Growing conditions are always good, so nutrients get reused almost immediately.

You probably knew this already. It’s basic environmental science. But it’s not simple science. Soil takes centuries to build up its riches. So if you’re staring at bare trees, you’re looking at the visible part of a complex and carefully adapted ecosystem, starting with what’s beneath your feet, buried treasure in the soil.

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