10 easy ways to improve soil health

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According to a recent United Nations report, 2016 set the record, for the third year in a row, for the hottest global temperature. At the same time, issues such as malnutrition and other diet related diseases, the spread of deserts, loss of arable soil, degradation of water quality, and many other issues are becoming more extreme. These challenges are an increasing threat to our lives and our planet.

This news is not without its silver lining however. Fortunately, the solutions to all these problems, and many others not listed, can be found right under our feet. It is becoming increasingly clear that living, healthy, organic soils have a vital role to play in so many aspects of our lives.

At Integrated Acres, the cultivation of rich healthy soils is our top priority. With this in mind, we’ve put together a short list of simple things nearly anyone can do to improve soil health. Every small action make a difference and together we can face the most pressing challenges of our time.

Avoid Tillage & Minimize Soil Disturbance

When it comes to easy ways to improve soil health, it doesn’t get any easier than to avoid doing something. But how does reducing disturbance help soil? The better question to ask is, ‘how does tillage harm soil?’

Tillage damages soils in a number of ways. It inverts soil profiles, exposing micro-organisms to UV radiation, and dices up worms and other beneficial macro-organisms. Even worse, tilling breaks up the hyphae networks of fungi. Fungi and bacteria make up the structure of soils. Without them, soils are merely lifeless dirt with no structure.

In addition, the loss of structure causes an increase in both wind and water erosion.  The death of billions of micro-organisms causes an increase in the release of carbon from soils. It is estimated that carbon released from soil accounts for nearly half of all the carbon released into the atmosphere since the start of the industrial revolution.

Watch this short video for an example of how tillage effects soil structure:

For alternatives to tilling, see the ‘Cover Crops’ and ‘Sheet Mulch’ sections of this article.

Compost

Stop filling up the landfill with stuff that could be making your garden healthier. Most of your kitchen wastes can go into a compost pile along with leaves, paper and other carbon materials to make a nutrient rich addition to garden soils.

Soil Food Web

Brimming with beneficial micro-organisms, a good compost is more than just food for your plants. A properly made compost can feed the beneficial micro-organisms already in your soil and add a whole host of new life to the party. Beneficial micro-organisms break down organic material and make it available for plant roots. This web of microscopic bacteria and fungi recycle all the wastes of the natural world and make it into nutrient rich fertilizer for healthier, more vibrant plants.

Compost is easy to make at home and does not require any special tools or equipment. A little basic knowledge can insure that your kitchen scraps become the dark earthy gold that gardeners lust after. Stay tuned for future articles where we’ll explore several ways to compost your kitchen waste and much more.

Keep Worms

Worms are another great way to deal with kitchen waste. A worm bin is also a treasure trove of valuable soil amendments. After the worms finish processing your kitchen wastes, the resulting products are worm ‘castings’ and worm ‘juice’.

Worms and worm castings

Worm castings are small in size but huge in impact. Like little packets of nutrients, castings are a perfect addition to your garden soils. In addition to loads of nutrients, worm castings are rich with beneficial bacteria and fungi – the real drivers of soil health.

Worm juice is the liquid excesses from a worm bin. Like castings, worm juice is full of nutrients that feed soil life. Additionally, the juice from your worm bins is rich in humic acids. These acids help to break down organic material in the soil for organisms that lack the digestive enzymes to break them down themselves. As a result, more organisms are able to survive and thrive in your soils.

Whether you are just interested in learning to grow a better home garden or you are looking to restore large degraded landscapes, Integrated Acres provides training to help you succeed. Take a look at our course listings and let us know how we can better serve you!”

Mulch

There is no way to overstate the value of mulch. Mulch buffers the impact of rain, preventing soil capping and erosion. Mulches also insulate soil from UV radiation and temperature extremes. Soils become dry and brittle when they lack a protective layer such as mulch. Dry soils are inhospitable for most organic life.

As many gardeners know, a healthy layer of mulch is the best defense against weedy pests. In addition, some mulches invite in more beneficial organisms like worms, pollinator insects and beneficial fungi. There is really no limit to the benefits of mulch.

Cover Crops

A cover crop is like a living mulch.  Cover crops share many of the same benefits of standard mulches along with several additional benefits. Some cover crops fix atmospheric nitrogen (legumes such as peas, beans and clovers) near plant roots where it can be used as fertilizer. Others prevent leaching of important minerals such as potassium and phosphorus. Some, such as daikon radish, penetrate deep into soils. These deep roots break up compaction and create additional pathways for water, worms and micro-organisms.

All cover crops help to feed life in the soil through sugary, carbon rich, root exudates. Many of these cover crops can be cut and used as mulches themselves when they reach a certain point of maturity (ideally, just before they go to seed).

Plant a Tree

Perhaps not something you would do in your garden soils, but what trees can do for soil health is beyond measure. Trees buffer damaging winds, secure soils with their roots, shade and reduce evaporation, and many other valuable services.

Plant a tree

Some trees are known to shed their own mass in leaf litter 3 times over the course of their life. This leaf litter creates a layer of mulch around the base of the tree. We’ve already discussed the many benefits of mulch. And trees do it for free.

Like cover crops, trees feed the soil through sugary root exudates. Some trees are known to excrete 80 – 90% of all the energy they produce through photosynthesis through their root systems to feed organic life in the soil. All combined, trees are a magnanimous source of soil life.

Compost Tea

A quality compost tea is a soil blend of beneficial bacteria and fungi. Compost tea is brewed using fresh high quality compost. The result is more than a simple liquid fertilizer – it is a power cocktail of living beneficial bacteria and fungi that can infuse new life into poor degraded soils.

There are a myriad recipes for compost tea; some very simple, some highly complex. The number one common ingredient is a source of soil micro-organisms such as compost or worm castings. Most compost tea recipes will also include a food source such as molasses, sea kelp, humic acid, and various other ingredients.

A quality compost tea also requires one other key ingredient. The organisms require large amounts of oxygen. During the brewing process, a blower supplies oxygen to feed the needs of these rapidly reproducing organisms.

Compost Tea Brewing

Bio-Fertilizer

Similar to Compost Tea, Bio-fertilizer uses the power of billions of micro-organisms to improve soil health. In most cases, bio-fertilizer is different in that it selects particular strains of bacteria to help increase the bio-availability of minerals.

Bio-fertilizer production is a fermentation process. A batch is brewed by combining important soil minerals with some specific bacterial foods and a source material that contains the bacteria you are seeking to breed. The bacteria grow rapidly and metabolize many of the minerals in the process. As these minerals move through the life cycles of the bacteria they become “sticky”. These “sticky” minerals are less mobile in soils and more available for plant use.

To learn more about Bio-Fertilizer watch this short and silly video:

…and read more here.

Sheet Mulch

Sheet mulching, or “lasagna gardening”, is a super-charged mulching technique. Making a sheet mulch garden is similar to creating a compost pile right on top of your garden beds. The list of ingredients can range widely and, in our experience, mostly depend on what you have available. A basic sheet mulch usually includes some of the following:

  • First, a light nitrogen layer. This can include any of the following: grass clippings, blood meal or, poultry manure.
  • Second, a cardboard or paper layer which acts as a natural weed barrier.
  • Third comes another nitrogen layer – typically a manure or other nitrogen rich material about 2 – 3″ (5cm) deep.
  • Next is a layer of bulk mulch. Generally, anything from hay, ramial woodchips, leaves or leaf mold, etc… 6 – 10″ (10 – 18cm) deep.
  • And finally, a top dressing – this layer is usually a weed and seed free layer of straw or similar material 2 – 3″ (5cm) deep.

Fungal Slurry

Here’s a fun trick to play with that may both help improve your soils AND give you some delicious mushrooms to eat. Fungal slurries are easy to make and can help to spread beneficial strains of fungi. There is a degree of caution that must be exercised here. Not every fungus you find in the forest is going be beneficial.

Certain classes of fungi, known as mycorrhizae, form symbiotically relationships with many plant and tree roots. Examples of some you might be familiar with are morels, chanterelles, and the ever elusive truffles. These fungal allies help to extend and interconnect the root systems of plants. This increases plants’ access to water and nutrients, vastly improving plant health and resilience.

Mushroom Lifecycle

To make a fungal slurry, simply find the fruiting body (mushroom) of any particular strain of fungi you wish to spread. Blend the mushroom in lukewarm water and spread the slurry in a shady area of the garden. Worse case scenario, you’ll add a little more nutrient to the garden soils. Best case scenario, you’ll give the mushroom an ideal place to prosper, make associations with your plant roots, and provide a delicious snack.

Final Thoughts

We hope this list inspires you to get your hands dirty and be an advocate for soil health. Even small efforts you can do at home, collectively, can have huge impacts on our environment.

Do you have other soil improving methods you’d like to share? Please leave us a comment below and let us know what some of your favorite soil solutions are.


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