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Photo credit: Karolina Grabowska.
Why Healthy Soil Is a Priority
Soil is more than just a medium for growing your plants – it has a life of its own! Each scoop of soil contains millions of microbes that keep the tiny ecosystem functioning, which is essential for growing food and creating living landscapes. When we think about soil as a living system, we can better understand how its health can change based on how we treat it.
Soil health plays a major role in the health of all living organisms. We need to care for the soil in our landscapes, just as we care for plants, animals, and other humans, for it to function properly. It is important to consider ways to protect and boost your soil when planning for your farm, landscape, garden, or flower bed.
Maintaining healthy soil benefits your landscape by:
Healthy Soil vs. Unhealthy Soil
Healthy soil is teeming with life and nutrients, while unhealthy soil is challenged by erosion, invasive species, and more.
Primary components of soil:
Soil has four primary components: water, air, minerals (rock fragments), and organic matter (anything that originated from a living organism). The minerals and organic matter are the building blocks of soil structure, but the air and water between those building blocks is just as important for creating healthy and stable soil.
Even though the overall portion of organic matter is small, it is a very important component of soil. It provides the basis for life in soil ecosystems. Organic matter consists of plant and animal residue at various stages of decompositionDecomposition The process of organic matter breaking down into smaller parts.. This material provides critical nutrients that plants need to grow and fuels the soil food web by feeding the organisms that break down decaying material.
The mineral component of soil is sorted into three categories (sand, silt, and clay) based on the size of the particles. Sand particles are the largest and allow water to quickly pass through. Silt particles are much smaller and can facilitate a good balance of water retention and drainage. Clay particles are significantly smaller and don’t absorb water quickly. Most soils have a combination of mineral types, which create different textures and soil characteristics.
Pathways for air and water
Space between soil clumps is important for creating pathways for air and water to react with other chemicals in the ground. These spaces also create habitat for microorganisms that support decomposition and facilitate nutrient cyclingNutrient Cycling The transformation of a chemical as it moves through a system..
Highly compacted soil doesn’t have space in between soil particles. This type of soil is hard for plants to grow in or for water to trickle through. On the other hand, soil with too much space between particles tends to erode, falling apart and blowing away in the wind or washing away in the rain.
How do we assess soil health?
We can look at physical, chemical, and biological characteristics to get a sense of how the soil is functioning. Basic soil tests, like those that assess texture or measure water drainage, can be done in your yard, your field, or the classroom. In-depth chemical analyses can be completed by sending samples to soil labs.
What are the best ways to keep soil healthy?
Keep soil covered.
Bare soil and soil underneath impervious surfacesImpervious Surfaces Surfaces that water can’t pass through., like roads and pavement, are more vulnerable to disturbance. Covering the soil with plants or other soft materials keeps it moist and cool, helps suppress weeds, and protects it from the impact of rain and wind.
Minimize soil disturbance.
Disturbing soil frequently destroys its structure and causes it to lose the pore space that is essential for water and air flow and the movement of soil organisms. Disturbance can be physical (compaction from heavy machinery), chemical (overapplication of fertilizers), or biological (overgrazing by livestock).
Minimize disturbance by:
- Minimizing soil tillageSoil Tillage Preparing soil for cultivation by digging, stirring, or overturning it..
- Limiting the use of heavy machinery or vehicles that compact the soil.
- Using environmentally sensitive methods to control garden and farm pests.
- Preventing livestock from overusing any particular area of your field.
Maximize plant diversity and keep roots alive in the soil year-round.
A landscape with a variety of plant types is better able to support soil organisms and is more effective at cycling nutrients, energy, and water. Continuous presence of living plant material ensures that microbial activity persists and that the soil food web stays intact.
Maximize diversity by:
- Planting cover crops to provide your soil with healthy nutrients year-round
- Rotating crops seasonally to restore diverse nutrients