How healthy is your soil? This is a question that we should all be asking ourselves. Soil is the base of all terrestrial ecosystems, farms, and gardens. Despite this, most people routinely overlook the topic of soil health. Our reliance on conventional fertilizer and agricultural methods oftentimes leaves out crucial factors of soil health. Did you know that a handful of soil is home to billions of beneficial bacterial and mycorrhizal fungi? Soil is the rich, brown, ubiquitous substance that all our lives depend on. With that said, are you ready to become a Steward of the Soil? The job of a Steward of the Soil is simple! Just incorporate the following practices into you gardening “toolbox” and you will be improving the health of your soil in a short period of time.
Tilling and compaction reduce soil health
Tilling is a widespread practice in gardening. Gardeners use tilling to help break up soil particles and encourage good plant growth in the now “fluffy” soils. As gardeners, we have heard that routine tilling is necessary every time we plant a new crop. Recent studies, however, show over-tilling and excessive soil disturbance is detrimental to soil health. The process of tilling can destroy soil clumps, sever fungal hyphae, and cause compaction over time. Each of these factors reduce soil health. Instead of tilling every season, consider a no-till or reduced till approach to encourage soil health.
Organic matter increases soil health
Organic matter is the living or once-living component of our soils. It is decomposed leaves and plant debris, worms and insects, and an immense variety of microorganisms. Soils that have low organic matter are not as good at holding on to water or nutrients. Due to this fact, these soils tend to be less fertile. Soils with high organic matter however are much better at holding water and capturing nutrients. These soils tend to much more fertile and provide food and habitat for helpful bacteria, fungi, and other soil-dwellers. Next season, try adding compost or composted manures to your garden. Each time you do this, soil fertility slowly increases, water storage ability increases, and nutrient holding capacity increases in the soil.
Cover crops increase soil health
Cover crops are beneficial plants planted in the “off” season. We typically plant cover crops after we harvest and before the next season’s planting. A wonderful impact using cover crops is cover crops add a living mulch over our soils. In this role, they provide physical cover from the elements and provide food and habitat for mycorrhizal fungi as well as other organisms. Secondly, mature cover crops become “green” manure. As green manure, they are incorporated into the soil as organic matter. Over time, increased organic matter improves soil quality or health. In Florida, gardeners usually plant cover crops are in the summer. Three examples of cover crops include Sunn hemp, black-eyed peas, and Sorghum-Sudan grass.
Soil health and diversity
Planting a diversity of plant species is especially important for soil health. Using many species in your garden provides habitat for beneficial insects. Diversity encourages many fungal and bacterial species to co-habitat. Additionally, plant diversity promotes water infiltration through the soil. Crop rotation is extremely beneficial along with species diversity. Not only does rotating crops reduce plant diseases and pests, but it also helps reduce nutrient depletion in the soil. Before next planting season starts, draw up a garden plan that encourages exceptional diversity and how crops are rotated in and out.
Shields for soil health
The last step in building soil health is to keep it covered. This cover can be mulch, cover crops, straw, or any other protective barrier. Covered soils erode less, experience less temperature extremes, have increased biological activity, and hold more water. Covered soil also protects the precious soil aggregates that influence soil structure and soil health. Bare soil, on the other hand, erodes, has higher temperatures, less biological diversity, and poor water-holding ability. Next season, try using straw, pine straw, or other organic mulches in your garden to protect your hard-won efforts. To learn more on the importance of healthy soil in our landscape, read more here.
This information was compiled by Mack Lessig, Community Gardens Program Coordinator for Manatee County Department of Ag and Extension Services in partnership with the University of Florida/IFAS. 941-722-4524 Ext 1821 or MLessig@ufl.edu
Our plant diagnostic clinic is open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm. Bring us your landscaping and gardening questions.
If you want to grow commercially, reach out to Lisa Hickey. She is the Sustainable Food Systems Extension Agent who brings research and diagnostics to the commercial fruit and vegetable producers. Lisa.Hickey@ufl.edu, same office number, extension 1817.