5 Principles for Building Healthy Soil
Did you know there are straightforward principles that are critical to both creating, and maintaining, healthy, carbon-rich soils? These principles are universal, work at any scale and apply regardless of the ecosystem or soil type. In other words, they are the same any place the sun shines and plants grow.
And, by following these principles gardeners, farmers, and ranchers around the world can rebuild carbon-rich topsoil and create the conditions for regeneration!
1. Limit Disturbance
A healthy balance of microbes in our soil is essential to soil fertility. These tiny soil organisms tend to flourish in the habitat created by pores and gaps in soil structure, especially surrounding plant roots. When this habitat is disturbed, soil microbes can be exposed to the elements. Any extreme change in soil temperature - hot or cold, can kill billions of these tiny, essential creatures. Soil disturbance can occur in a variety of ways including through tillage, which churns up soil and destroys its structure; the use of chemical inputs (pesticides, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and fungicides) which interrupts the symbiotic relationships between microorganisms and plants; and overgrazing, which leads to reduced root mass and increased runoff.
2. Increase Diversity
Nobody likes to eat the same thing all the time and this includes soil microbes! Accordingly, when soil microbes are provided with a diverse and balanced diet both the soil and the plants living in that soil tend to be healthier – just like us. Diversity is also key to building resilience in the ecosystem.
3. Keep a Living Root in the Soil
Soil organisms rely on the exudates of plant roots as an important source of food. Yet we often find large farm fields that are completely devoid of vegetation, "resting" until the growing season. (This is sadly evident when flying across the country). Cleared fields actually remove the primary source of food for soil microorganisms, reducing their populations and in turn damaging soil health and increasing its vulnerability. Planting a variety of cover crops in the off-season is a straightforward way to feed soil organisms and building the soil aggregates that give soils structure.
4. Keep Soil Covered
Nature keeps her soil covered and as stewards of the land we must strive to protect the Earth's "living skin" by keeping it covered at all times too. Planting cover crops and leaving crop residues in place will do the job of keeping the ground covered. This layer of protection serves many purposes including conserving soil moisture, buffering soil life from temperature extremes and shielding soil from wind and water erosion.
5. Integrate Animals into the System
Grazing animals help shape landscapes by providing and moving nutrients with their dung, urine, and saliva. Properly managed grazing animals stimulate plants to pump more carbon into the soil feeding the microbiology and pulling carbon out of the atmosphere. By following these principles you'll create much-needed habitat for the birds, pollinators, insects, earthworms and all of the microbes that drive your system.