High-performing and productive, soil is important to all

by: COURTESY PHOTO - This cover crop experiment planted last fall, shows how plants in the pea family along with other crops can be used to increase soil health between seasons even in small spaces and even during the winter.There is a misconception out there that only farmers need to be concerned with the health of the soil. Some people seem to think the lushness of their lawns and ripeness of their tomatoes depend only on the pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and water they add to the equation.

While these things might seem to save you some time or effort, in the long run they certainly aren’t saving you any money.

What is soil health, anyway? We’ve been hearing this phrase a lot lately in the conservation world. Basically, soil health describes how soil functions and is measured by its ability to do many things, from holding water to providing habitat for soil microorganisms to supporting plants. While the structure of soil does matter, scientists are coming to understand more and more just how important the biology of soil is.

In addition to particles of silt, sand and clay, soil is made up of organic matter. It supports the soil food web, a complex community of plant roots, nematodes, fungi, bacteria, arthropods and protozoa, which in turn support both the above-ground food chain and plant health.

There are about 50 million microbes in just one teaspoon of healthy soil. Building soil health in yards, gardens or fields is important to supporting this microbe community so people can continue to reap the benefits it provides. To do so, considering both the biology of the soil and its structure in management is important. That principle applies from small garden plots all the way up to large fields.

There are many benefits of healthy soil. Healthy soil is high-performing and productive, which is important for farmers and gardeners alike. It can also increase the yield of gardens and farms while reducing the cost that comes with certain chemicals and watering. Good soil health also protects natural resources and can help reduce erosion and other challenges.

There are four basic principles to maintaining soil health that we often discuss with farmers. Each of them can be scaled down to the home garden or yard:

n Keep the soil covered as much as possible. For farmers, this might mean putting in a cover crop between seasons or between rows of plants. When it comes to lawns, consider replacing some of the grass — a monoculture that isn’t doing the best job of building soil health — with native plants and non-invasive ornamentals to create a more diverse landscape.

n Disturb the soil as little as possible. For farmers, this may mean changing or eliminating tillage practices. Every time a piece of heavy equipment runs over the soil or a blade slices into it, the soil becomes more compacted and disturbed. Reduce this problem by minimizing or eliminating rototiller use, creating pathways to direct foot traffic and planting more permanent vegetation that won’t need to be changed each season.

n Keep plants growing throughout the year. For farmers, this ties into the cover crop ideas above and can be applied to home gardens as well. Experiment with native shrubs and bushes, particularly those that provide attractive flowers in the spring, which support pollinators, and vibrant berries in the fall, which support wildlife.

n Grow a diverse mix of plant species. For farmers, this may mean getting away from only growing one crop during one part of the year. For gardeners, this could mean considering different varieties of vegetables with different growing seasons to plant in succession. For lawns, try a diverse mix of native grasses rather than a monoculture of just one. Admittedly, this could give a lawn a different character and texture, but it may also reduce its susceptibility to weeds and demand for water in the summer months, depending on which grasses are chosen.

Want to learn more? Visit for the dates and times of weed watcher workshops, agricultural soil health workshops and a streambank erosion control workshop, all happening in April, or call 503-648-3174, Ext. 121.

Jennifer Nelson is the outreach coordinator for the Tualatin Soil and Water Conservation District.

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