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

The Dirt on Broadforks

broadfork

What’s the dirt on broadforks anyway? Have you heard of these tools? Have you used one yourself? What if I told you that there’s a tool out there which reduces the need for tilling? What if I said that─when used in tandem with other practices aimed at promoting agrodiversity─this tool promotes soil health, encourages wildlife and ecological diversity, as well as increases or improves production of your farm or homestead operation? What if I told you this miracle tool doesn’t even require gasoline or electricity?

the dirt on broadforks

As a conservationist I naturally align with the concept of soil preservation as the key to a sustainable farm or homestead: afterall, it is our soil’s ability to function as a vital, living ecosytem that sustains the plants, animals and humans upon it. There’s already a fabulous amount of wildlife and biodiversity here at our new location, but the soil is a little on the poor side. The grasses grow sparsely, and the back pasture has only been minimally managed to provide an annual hay crop, so improving the health of the soil is one of the first things I want to focus on. I’ve known about broadforks for years, but it’s only now that Runamuk has a permanent location that I can really begin to dig deep and build upon the soil for the long-term viability of my farm. The time has finally come: I bought a broadfork─and I am so stoked.

Why use a broadfork?

broadforkIf you’re at all concerned about preserving or promoting soil health, the broadfork is a great tool to have in your gardening arsenal. Using a broadfork the grower can preserve soil life by reducing tillage or avoiding it all together.

This is a simple, yet powerful tool which efficiently loosens the soil without flipping it upside down. The vertical tines penetrate the soil, leaving it’s profile still upright, allowing water and air to penetrate. This creates an ideal environment for root-growth and makes it possible to build soil levels and a rich humus.

Healthy soil is comprised of varying layers, each serving a different purpose. Bacteria, fungi, earthworms and other invertebrates take up residence in the different stories, each layer offering conditions that are just the right level of moisture and aeration for it’s particular inhabitants. When you til or double dig you disrupt this ecology, destroying your soil’s population and causing them to divert their attention from doing their work to rebuilding their homes.

Reducing tillage to encourage soil health can allow you to grow more intensively, and produce better-looking crops in your loose and well-aerated soil. Many market-growers are siting this as the key to their success─check out Eliot Coleman, Curtis Stone, Jean-Martin Fortier, and Richard Perkins! And even if you’re not trying to go to market with your crops, you can still maximize yields by promoting healthier soil in your garden.

History

The broadfork was introduced and popularized in the United States in the early 1990’s by Eliot Coleman, author of the New Organic Grower, which has become something of a bible for many market growers today. Coleman discovered a tool called the “grelinette” in use in France, where it had been invented by Andre Grelinin in the 1960s.

How to use

Firstly, it’s important to realize that a broadfork does not completely eliminate the need for tilling. If you’re attempting to cultivate an entirely new patch of ground, I’d encourage you to look at it as a long-term project: do an initial tilling in order to break up the sod and loosen the soil. Also, if the soil becomes too compacted over the years, you might consider bringing the tiller out again. However, if you are able to maintain rich, healthy soils in your gardens and avoid compaction, the broadfork may very well be the only tool you’ll ever need for bed preparation.

It’s really simple to use, with the added benefit of providing a great work-out. The grower simply sinks the tips of the tines into the garden bed, then steps onto the crossbar with his/her full body weight to sink them in deeper. Using the leverage of the handlebars, the soil is loosened by working the handles back and forth with a rowing motion.

Check out this video featuring my colleague, Adam Lemieux (the JSS “Tool-Dude”), to see this tool in action:

There are many different makes and models of the same tool out there, produced by a myriad of different companies. By all means, I encourage you to do your homework and find the one that meets your particular needs. I went with Johnny’s 727 broadfork: 27-inches wide, with 7 tines because I intend to adopt the industry standard of 30-inch beds in the gardens here at Runamuk’s #foreverfarm. Also, I get a pretty sweet discount as an employee.

Starting With the Soil

I’ve waited years for the chance to steward my own piece of Earth─for the chance to try the practices and methods for agroecology that I’ve so long studied. Now that Runamuk finally has a permanent location, I can focus more on the long-term health of the land I’m working─starting with the soil. You can expect to see more articles forthcoming about soil health, agroecology and conservation-agriculture.

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