Did you know there are straightforward principles that are critical to both creating, and maintaining, healthy, carbon-rich soils? The important thing to note is that these principles are universal and apply regardless of the ecosystem or soil type.
1. Minimize Soil 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 misuse of chemical inputs (pesticides, chemical fertilizer and herbicides) which interrupts the symbiotic relationships between microorganisms and plants; and overgrazing, which leads to reduced root mass and increased runoff.
2. Increase Plant Diversity
Nobody likes to eat the same thing all the time and this includes soil microbes! Accordingly, when plant has a diverse and balanced diet it tends to be healthier and more resilient - just like us. Diversity is also key to building resilience in the ecosystem (The don't keep all your eggs in one basket metaphor comes to mind).
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
Animals help shape landscapes. When properly managed, domesticated animals provide and move nutrients with their dung, urine, and saliva. They disperse seeds, balance predator and prey relationships and even help manage water flows. In natural systems there are always animals in a landscape. So welcome birds, pollinators, and a variety of insects in your system.
These principles work at any scale - so try implementing them in whatever growing space you have access to from a community garden in need of some attention to a seemingly barren parcel of farmland.
By making this information more widely known, we can create the conditions for regeneration!