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The Horticratic Oath

The ancient Hippocratic Oath begins, “First, do no harm…” Each year, new doctors promise to uphold this oath in their medical careers. The idea is simple: doctors should improve a patient’s health, or at the very least, not harm it. What would happen if we, as citizens of the earth, were to take a similar oath towards plants? Perhaps a “Horticratic Oath” is an equally important promise, addressing the foundation of life on earth. Such an oath would need to entail the following:

First, improve the soil.

Soil, the living skin of the earth, is an extremely thin zone of fertility that is crucial to the sustainability of human life and especially for the lives of terrestrial creatures. Soil provides an anchoring point for plants, and more importantly, holds minerals essential for plant health. Healthy soil leads to healthier plants and ecosystems.

Second, work with natural systems.

Plants are miraculous. They use water and sunlight to literally turn air into sugar, transforming carbon dioxide into carbohydrates in order to build cell structures that will become food, fuel, shelter and medicine. The miracle of plants is that they are producers, and if given proper conditions, they produce abundantly.

Third, feed soil biology.

Plants need soil minerals and the vital nutrient nitrogen, which they are unable to access on their own. Billions of microscopic organisms are required to unlock the nutrients stored in the soil and to “fix” nitrogen from the atmosphere—meaning that bacteria in the soil assimilate atmospheric nitrogen and release it as they die so that plants can use it. The unseen microscopic world fuels the entire growing system.

To abide by the Horticratic Oath, we would protect the health of living systems above and below the ground. Aggressive tilling, over-fertilization and synthetic pesticides all degrade soil biology and destroy its organic matter. Carefully maintained organic soils absorb more water, support greater microbial life and allow plants to take in mineral nutrients that make them more disease and pest resistant. From the human standpoint, the payoff is in healthier plants that improve our bodily health and make for better living and working environments. So, let us take the first step of the Horticratic Oath: first, improve the soil.

Darrell Smith is the owner of Earthcare Natural Lawn and Landscapes in Milwaukee. He co-wrote the original Horticratic Oath™ with Sandy Syburg, president of Purple Cow Organics based in Oconomowoc. For more information, email Darrell at

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