Healthy Soils Make for Healthy Plants

October 21, 2018 lawanda Newspaper Columns

UW-Extension Master Gardeners must acquire ten hours of continuing education each year to retain Master Gardener certification.  Most months, an hour of education is offered prior to our monthly business meetings.  In September, our speaker was Patrick Lake from the Oshkosh office of the National Resources Conservation Service.  He was an enthusiastic and entertaining speaker.  As part of the NRCS, he interacts mostly with farmers, but he conveyed a very important message for home gardeners who are concerned about the health of their soil and the environment.

        Mr. Lake listed five practices that lead to soil health, which lead to plant health, less need for supplemental water and fertilizer, reduced runoff, increased drought tolerance, reduced pest and disease problems, less work!

        Here are the NCRS’s five tenets for soil health starting with the easiest. 

·         Minimize disturbance

·         Keep the soil covered at all times

·         Keep living roots in the soil 24/7/365

·         Maximize plant diversity

·         Integrate animals and/or animal manures

        Don’t be intimidated by the list, especially the last item.  Each gardener should do as many of the practices as they can and not worry about what they can’t do.

        Minimizing disturbance is important because when soil is tilled or turned, soil microbes release a short-term flood of nutrients into the soil – something you need neither at the end of the season nor in spring before seeds even break germination.  Another way to minimize disturbance is to cut plants off at the soil line at the end of the season rather than pulling them up.  The roots will decompose in place and feed the soil.

        The benefits of keeping the soil covered with mulch is something I’ve covered here many times before.  If you’d like a review, please see  

        Keeping living roots in the soil year-round is another way to keep soil covered and goes hand-in-hand with maximizing plant diversity.  Perennial fruits, vegetables, and flowers along with trees and shrubs have living roots, even when they are dormant in winter.   A larger variety of plant roots in the soil leads to more diversity of soil microbes, and if those microbes can feed the soil year round, that’s all the better.

        Organic matter increases in the soil when tilling is eliminated and when plants and plant residues cover the soil.  Here are some interesting statistics from the NRCS:  Organic matter holds 18-20 times its weight in water and recycles nutrients for plants to use.  Just one percent organic matter in the top six inches of soil can hold approximately 27,000 gallons of water per acre! 

        Retaining water in the soil reduces the need for supplemental watering, helps plants tolerate drought, and reduces evaporation and erosion of soil and nutrients.

        Animals such as chickens, cows, goats and pigs provide many services:  fertilizer in the form of manure, pest control, soil aeration and overall ecological improvement of the landscape.  Not everyone has the space or desire for animals, but if you can at least access some animal manure you get five stars!

Gardening techniques and toolsMiscellaneous

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