Ok, I totally cannot take credit for that title- that honor goes to Laura over in Wolfe County.

Hey, it’s spring!!! Yay! And tomorrow is April! (Already?!) It’s another quiet Friday here at HQ, and today we’re piggybacking a bit on last week’s newsletter- soil testing- and covering general soil health this week. Because…

Healthy Soil= Healthy Garden= Healthy People

Someone better stop me.

Before we get started, it’s important to remember that soil should never be kept bare. Think of it this way: You have a wound from an accident or surgery and it needs some time to heal. Would you cover that wound with a bandage and perhaps an antibiotic ointment…or leave it exposed to dirt, bacteria, air, etc? Soil is the same way. Not only is bare soil much more exposed to the elements, it’s also much more susceptible to erosion and other natural damage- think scorching or saturation.

The “OM” Factor

OM refers to organic matter, and it comes in many forms, namely in the form of plant residue and animal wastes (manure). Plant residues, such as grass clippings, leaves, straw, and pine needles provide excellent sources of often-leached nutrients. Manures (from chicken, cow, or horse), once aged, provide ample nitrogen. You can also incorporate green manures, which you may know more commonly as cover crops, which are grown solely for the purpose of being incorporated back into the soil once they reach full maturity.  Remember: much like adding amendments to your soil, too much of a good thing is not beneficial. You can find more resources on making sure amendments are added efficiently at this link. 

Mulch Madness

One of the most practical applications of organic matter is using it as mulch. Mulch simply adds in a protective top layer to the soil, combating soil erosion, retaining moisture, and stunting weed growth. The great thing about mulch is that many of the forms of organic matter listed above- grass clippings, leaves, pine needles, etc- are right in your own backyard! Win-win! Commercial mulches, such as biodegradable plastic, can also be used. Plastic mulches are especially useful for warming the soil. Just be sure to dispose of them at the end of the growing season because they won’t break down easily. We at Grow Appalachia are big fans of good ol’ shredded paper. Friendly disclaimer that if you are involved with Grow Appalachia, please remember to purchase organic only products. 🙂

To till or not to till? 

Let me start by saying that tilling is not bad. Sometimes soils are so rocky and unadaptable that it has to be mechanically broken up for it to be plantable (Yep, I’m just making words up here). Especially here in Kentucky it’s common for growers to have overly clayey soils. But if you find you have relatively workable and adaptable soil, you may want to consider implementing a no-till or minimum till system.

Look at it this way: Soil is so much more than just “dirt”. It’s a very intricate and complex biological system full of microscopic organisms and nutrients. When you till, you disrupt the natural processes occurring underneath the soil’s surface. Going no-till has many of the same benefits as mulching. In fact, mulching in a no-till system is critical to achieve success, but the one drawback is that you have to apply the mulch THICKLY.  And no-till doesn’t mean no-more-work-in-the-garden; as the mulch breaks down, it will need to be reapplied. However, once the site is properly established, and with the exception of occasional upkeep, there is very little labor involved in a no-till system.

Cover Story

I talked earlier about cover crops. Their concept has been around for ages but I think many folks now are really starting to take hold at just how effective they are in promoting good soil health and fertility. What’s so handy about them is that depending on the nutritional needs of your soil, you can choose which crops to plant. An example: if your soil needs a little extra nitrogen, plant legumeswhich- in the cover crop world- are peas, alfalfa, and clover. If you need additional biomass, plant sorghum sudangrass. Some varieties of cover crops become ineffective once they go to seed, so keep in mind the time of year as well.  For a more in-depth look at cover crops, you can refer to this HQ blog all about them! 

A final word…

There are A LOT of options out there for improving soil health, so try one or many to suit your individual needs. Remember that you are not going to have healthy, beautiful soil overnight. Be patient. Allow Mother Nature time to work her magic (it’s worth it!).  Good, meaningful things take time, so if you get stuck at any point, reach out to your NRCS agent, extension agents, or us at HQ!

Here’s to good health! Soil health, that is!

Resources/Further Reading:

What is Organic Matter?

No-Till Gardening

“The Dirt on Soil Health”- GA HQ blog from 2015

Different varieties of cover crops