4 Strategies for Improving Soil Health: Garden, Farm, or Homestead

soil is more than just dirt

Growers have 4 key strategies for improving soil health in the garden, on the farm or at their homestead. Old-school growers may balk at the concept, yet studies show that focusing on soil health can increase the efficiency and profitability of a garden or crop-field, and provides an ecological benefit at the same time. What’s more, the health of the soil determines the health of the entire ecosystem, so by improving the soil, growers can provide an ecological benefit to the world around them.

Note: This is Part 2 in a series of articles and posts about Soil here on the Runamuk blog. Follow this link to read Part 1: Cultivating Soil Health.

soil is more than just dirt
Soil is so much more than just “dirt”! Photo via Food Tank─non-profit organization seeking solutions to nourish ourselves and protect the planet.

Try using these 4 strategies to begin improving soil health in your garden, or on your farm or homestead:

1. Reduce tillage:

the organic no-till farming revolution
Andrew Mefferd’s new book, which we will be giving away in the next few weeks!

Improving soil health is largely a matter of maintaining suitable habitat for the myriad creatures that comprise the soil food web. Every time we til the soil, we break up the soil aggregates and the life that exists within the soil is forced to start all over, re-building their homes and their population. Because organic residues decompose more slowly under a reduced tillage system, it lowers the soil temperature so that organic matter can accumulate. Simply by tilling less, we can increase our soil’s organic diversity and activity.

 

More and more, farmers are taking it a step further and turning to a no-til operation. Andrew Mefferd of One Drop Farm, for example, who recently published: “The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution: High-Production Methods for Small-Scale Farmers“.

Note: Check back soon for an upcoming book-review and giveaway!

2. Keep the soil covered:

cover cropping for soil health
Cover-crop of oats, field peas, and dwarf essex rape at Runamuk Acres.

Most people are thinking about erosion when they think about cover crops, but cover cropping does so much more than just “hold the soil”. Cover cropping decreases the breakdown of soil aggregates and increases the organic matter within the soil.

Soil microbes prefer a temperature somewhere around 75 degrees. Any colder and they tend to slow down; a little warmer and they’re on vacation─if the soil temperature gets too hot, you can even kill the microbes who live there. In a bare soil tillage system the soil temperatures can easily get up over 100 degrees!

In turn, this leads to an improvement in the soil structure and stability, increasing the soil’s moisture and nutrient holding capacity. Cover crops offers exactly the kind of habitat soil organisms are looking for.

3. Maximize plant diversity:

New research shows that plant diversity is the key to healthy soils.

A Lancaster University-led team of scientists produced new evidence that increasing plant species diversity can protect soil in grasslands by improving soil structure, thus maintaining the soil’s overall health.

In a series of experiments at field sites in the UK and Germany, scientist tested the soil’s structural stability when planted with a variety of grasses, herbs, and legumes. The researchers found that soil structure improved with higher plant diversity, and the diverse properties of different plant roots were the key factor in keeping soil healthy.

The reason for this is that plants’ roots excel at different things. Legumes are better at getting water into the soil and maintaining root-soil strength, while grasses have fine rooting systems that enhance the stability of soil─making it more resistant to erosion.

What’s more, different plants and their roots offer different habitats for microorganisms in the soil. By increasing the diversity of plant species in the garden or field, you’re inviting a broader spectrum of microorganisms to your soil, which increases your soil’s ability to ward off pests and diseases.

4. Manage Nutrients:

soil healthThe cooler soil temperatures found in a no-till or minimal tillage system promotes organic matter to accumulate, thereby increasing the soil’s microbial life. Yet, the activity of those microbes tends to be a little slower than when organic material is incorporated into the soil through conventional tillage. Surface mulch in conservation tillage systems takes longer to break down, and also impacts the mobility of certain nutrients─Nitrogen in particular.

Nutrients are usually stratified in conservation tillage systems because of the lack of substantial mechanical soil mixing. Stratification refers to the accumulation of soil nutrients in certain areas more than others. Nutrient levels tend to be higher near the soil surface where amendments are applied and where crop residues decay. This stratification can further influence rooting patterns, the availability of nutrients, and the effectiveness of herbicides (should you choose to use them).

It’s important to note, however, that studies have not found significant differences in the nutrient uptake of plants in these stratified no-till systems. Most issues associated with no-till and minimum tillage fertilizer efficiency can be overcome with good fertilizer management and a top-notch soil testing program (including taking more soil samples and getting an analysis annually) to accurately determine fertilizer rates.

Again, I encourage you to reach out to your local cooperative extension for a soil test kit. Spring soil tests provide a better indication of available Nitrogen than fall tests.

Work With Nature

It is important to remember that as gardeners, farmers, and homesteaders, we are actively participating in, and cultivating the natural processes at work around us. This farmer believes that─as growers─we have a responsibility to work with those natural processes, rather than against them. I believe that humanity has an obligation to care for, and look out for the other lifeforms we share this planet with. We have an obligation, too, to ensure the livelihoods of generations that come after us. Environmentally-conscious farming practices are how we do that.

Check back soon for the next article in this soil series! Subscribe by email to have the latest articles and posts from Runamuk delivered directly to your in-box! OR follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram for a glimpse into the day-to-day goings-ons at this Maine conservation farm!

strategies for improving soil health

Garden Cover-Cropping at Runamuk

garden cover cropping

Last week was all about cover-cropping the garden here at Runamuk. The chickens had completed their work and I had my new broadfork, along with some seed to put down; there’s something particularly intimate and romantic about working soil, so I was especially jacked up for the project.

garden cover cropAside from the continued focus on the Runamuk apiary, getting the chickens established and prepping the garden for next year are my main goals this first season at the Hive House. Above all else, I’m concerned with the long-term agroecology of my new farm. Because we are all connected on this planet, and because healthy soils are fundamental to the overall profitability and sustainability of my farm, I’ve made it my priority to start with the soil and work my way up.

A Word About “Agroecology”

Agroecology is the science of applying ecological concepts and principles to the design, development, and management of sustainable agriculture systems.

The agroecologist views any farming system primarily with an ecologist’s eye; that is, it is not firstly economic (created for commodity and profit), nor industrial (modeled after a factory). Agroecologists do not unanimously oppose technology or inputs in agriculture, but instead they assess how, when, and if technology can be used in conjunction with the natural, social and human assets.

This method of agriculture requires a deeper understanding of the complex long-term interactions among resources, people and the environment. Since a love for nature and my fellow man is at the heart of Runamuk, this is how I choose to run my farm.

Prepping the Soil for a Cover-Crop

While there is indeed an existing garden─approximately 25 feet by 80─it was only growing weeds when we arrived at the end of June. I put the chickens on the plot to let them do the work for me, and in 5 short weeks they managed to eliminate the weeds entirely, exposing bare ground for cultivation. They really did an amazing job, and─as an added benefit, the patch got fertilized.

garden when we arrived
This is what the garden looked like when we first arrived at our new #foreverfarm.
chickens working the garden
Here are the chickens at work on the garden.
chicken prepped garden
Once the ground was exposed I moved the chickens over and the soil could be prepped for cover-cropping.

Up til this point I’d only shuffled the fencing along; moving the chicken tractors and the fencing to an entirely new spot while still keeping the birds inside was a little challenging, but I got it all in the end─without any shenanigans, I might add. I’ve put them on a section of earth just next door to the original plot, which I’ve dubbed “The Garden Adjacent”, with the intention of expanding the garden to double the size.

Once I had the chickens off the garden, I eagerly took up my new broadfork and set to work.

broadforkI’ve always loved digging in the dirt. Love love LOVE it! The manual labor, the smell of the earth, the glimpse of microbial life beneath the soil-surface. And I’ve always been particularly partial to my spading fork. The broadfork is simply a larger version─with TWO handles─and easier on my back and body to use. Even still, it took a bit to really get the hang of using the broadfork, and to develop a rhythm with it.

Now─I’m in pretty decent shape for my (nearly) 38 years, but the broadfork offers a really great full-body workout and it turns out that I just couldn’t fork that garden continuously for the 10 hours it took me to complete the job. On Sunday I did 4 hours, then I had to take time off from Johnny’s to get the forking done before the rain that was forecasted for Wednesday. I left the office early on Monday, forked the garden til it was too dark to see, and then was back at it come sun-up Tuesday morning and went to work late that day. Thankfully this is a slow time of year in the Call Center, and my supervisor and colleagues there can allow me some flexibility.

Peas-and-Oats

johnny's peas and oats mix
The peas-and-oats cover-crop mix from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

Once the cultivation with the broadfork was complete, I happily I brought out the seed I’d bought to cover the garden with. I went with Johnny’s peas-and-oats mix because it’s a super easy to manage cover-crop. The peas─like any legume─help to fix nitrogen in the soil, and the oats serve as a nurse crop, sheltering the seed during germination and then offering crop support for the pea plants. Both are annuals and will be killed this fall by the first hard frost we get, and if I leave the plant residue on the plot it will provide a great mulch layer for my new garden.

I followed Johnny’s recommended sowing rate of 5lbs/1000sq.ft. for the peas-and-oats and bought (2) 5-pound sacks to do that 2,000sq.ft section of earth, along with a package of inoculant.

Question: What is inoculant? and do you really need it?

garden combination incoluant
Garden Combination Inoculant─good for ALL legume-family crops.

This is something we are frequently asked in the Call Center at Johnny’s Selected Seeds. What I tell folks is that it’s not the end of the world if you don’t inoculate your legumes; you’ll still get a crop of peas or beans, or whatever it is. Inoculant is simply a packet full of microorganisms that are specific to legume-family plants, which aid in the legume’s nitrogen-fixing abilities. Personally however, I’ve always felt that anything I could do to help the little guys in the soil do their work of facilitating the availability of nutrients and water for my plants is worth the extra $5 and an extra step. But that’s just me; you’ll have to make that call for yourself.

To apply the inoculant I simply took a pail, dumped the first 5-pound sack of seed into it and added half the contents from the package of inoculant. I stirred the seed around with my hand (it’s not harmful in the least), seeking to ensure that all of the seed was evenly coated with the dark powdery inoculant.

Seeding the Garden for a Cover-Crop

It just happened to take 16 passes up and down the garden with the broadfork to complete this first half of our new garden, so it was easy to plan how I would walk down through the plot with the seed and hopefully ration it so that I had enough to do the entire space. I knew Johnny’s said I’d bought enough to do the job, but I also know from experience that when sowing by hand it’s easy to sow too heavy, and then you run out of seed before you cover the whole plot.

And even with my experience and careful planning, I was still too heavy-handed with the first half of the peas-and-oats mix. I found myself rifling through my seed-stash looking for something I could mix with the second half to stretch it out so that I could get the rest of the garden cover-cropped. Lucky for me I work at a seed-company and have access to “up-for-grabs” seeds; my “seed-stash” is sick…no, seriously─I have a problem, lol.

dwarf essex rape via johnnys selected seeds
Dwarf Essex Rape cover-crop; photo courtesy Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

I found a 10-pound sack of Dwarf Essex Rape seed; score! Rape is a member of the brassica-family and somewhat cold-tolerant, which is really ideal because sometimes we can have several more weeks of growing season after that initial killing frost, so this plant will linger into the fall, but still won’t survive our Maine winter so I won’t have to worry about tilling anything under next spring. I mixed some of this with my remaining peas-and-oats, added the rest of the inoculant, and then managed to finish seeding the garden.

Why Not Just Till it Under?

One of Runamuk’s Instagram followers has asked why I’ve done all this work by hand rather than simply taking a rototiller and tilling the plot under? Perhaps you were wondering too?

Certainly that would have been a quicker alternative and I wouldn’t have been so sore afterwards, lol. However, as an agroecologist I’m concerned for the organisms living in the soil and the impact that tilling would have on them. Tilling destroys their homes and populations. I want to encourage their numbers, help them thrive and aid them in their work so they will in turn aid me in my work: building a farm that not only supports it’s farmer, but which also works in tandem with nature, even helping nature.

That being said, I’m not necessarily opposed to tilling; it has it’s place. If I were facing heavily compacted clay soil I would have brought in a tiller, but as it is, the soil here is a nice sandy loam and this spot has been cultivated for years so I didn’t feel the plot really warranted tilling. The soil was workable with the broadfork, and I am strong and capable. I enjoy the work, and I take pride in knowing I’m doing my best to work with the natural forces in play all around me. So I did it by hand and I feel really good about that.

So Satisfying

broadforking at sunset long shadowBy the time I was on my second cup of coffee Wednesday morning, it was drizzling outside and my cover-crop was being watered in. The whole project was so immensely satisfying: clearing the garden with just the chickens, investing in the broadfork, using it to work the soil, and laying down that precious cover-crop seed─the whole experience was really very intrinsically rewarding to me. And that’s why I’m a farmer: because its fulfilling, because I enjoy it, and because I feel called to do this work and live this life. Thanks for following along!

What are your thoughts on cover-cropping? Have you ever tried it? Or, how do you feel about the notion of agroecology??? Leave a comment below to share with the readership so we can all learn together!