Soil Health Guide 2018-02-14T11:43:38+00:00

Soil Health Guide

The Soil Health Guide provides growers with background information on soil health, and how to manage for soil health in the field.

The Soil Health Initiative encourages growers to use a suite of conservation practices. The goal of these strategies is to improve soil health, plant health, nutrient efficiency, and the soil’s ability to infiltrate, store, and clean water.

Conservation and responsible stewardship of natural resources is a foundation of the soil health mindset.

person planting tomato into mulch

To create healthy gardens, we start with soils. The soil health system aims to mimic nature in the way we grow food.

Soil health is “the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans.”

Soil health is protected and enhanced by creating the conditions in the garden or farm for natural biological processes to occur. In natural (ecological) systems, organic matter is maintained, water conserved, nutrients cycled, and biological activity thrives.

The soil health system is founded on 4 core principles, which motivate specific conservation practices.

Principles

This ecological system incorporates 4 core soil health principles. These 4 principles create a recipe for regenerating soil health. Keep in mind that all 4 principles work together as a system. Growers will achieve maximum soil health benefits when all 4 are in practice.

  1. Minimize Disturbance – Disturb the soil as little as possible.
  2. Maximize Soil Cover  Keep the soil covered as much as possible. 
  3. Maximize Biodiversity – Using crop rotation and cover crops.
  4. Provide Continuous Living Roots – Keep plants growing throughout the year. 

Benefits

When growers are practitioners of the 4 principles of soil health, there are many positive results. Soil health benefits people and the land. Key improvements include:

  • Increased plant health
  • Increased plant productivity
  • Increased soil organic matter
  • Increased soil water-holding capacity
  • Increased soil aggregate stability
  • Increased water infiltration
  • Improved nutrient use efficiency
  • Enhanced and diversified soil biology
  • Reduced weed pressure
  • Reduced pest pressure

Conservation Practices

Conservation practices are methods growers can use to put the 4 principles into action on the ground.

The sections below guide growers through the main points and strategies to implement the conservation practices.

These practices are also often referred to as conservation cropping techniques, conservation farming, or soil health management systems.

The results of soil health practices can vary based on soils, climate, weed pressure, and other factors in the garden.

The practices listed in this guide are informed by:

  • NRCS specifications for conservation farming
  • Indiana Conservation Partnership, and other conservation professionals
  • Farmers and growers
  • SWCD staff experience in the field

Conservation practices are a suite of strategies that regenerate soil health and include:

  • Cover crops
  • Mulching
  • Crop rotation
  • No-till / Low-till
  • Nutrient management
  • Native and targeted plantings for beneficial insects and pollinators

A cover crop is an un-harvested crop grown as part of planned rotation to provide conservation benefits to the soil. Cover crops are grown between vegetable seasons to protect and improve the soil. Their living roots build organic matter that keep garden soils alive and healthy.

Common cover crops used in urban farms are:

  • Oats
  • Hairy vetch
  • Crimson clover
  • Cereal rye
  • Radish
  • Sorghum Sudangrass

Many cover crops are planted in the fall after vegetable production and harvesting. There are species that will “winterkill” and die during freezing temperatures. These are best planted before early spring plantings. There are species that will overwinter, and regrow in the spring. These are best before late spring plantings.

Purposes

  • Improve soil health
  • Increase soil organic matter
  • Protects the soil from wind and water erosion
  • Minimize soil compaction
  • Suppress weeds
  • Manage plant pests and diseases
  • Improve nutrient and water use efficiency
  • Improve water quality
  • Conserve soil moisture
  • Conserve water
  • Improve crop production
  • Enable no-till / low-till

Applying plant residues, such as cut cover crops, alfalfa, and straw to the soil surface. Increases nutrients for crops through the growing season.

Vegetative mulch is used on garden beds in the spring after cover cropping to improve soil. Mulch is added on top of beds before transplanting, or after seeds begin to establish.

Purposes

  • Improve soil health
  • Increase soil organic matter
  • Protect the soil from wind and water erosion
  • Reduce compaction from the impact of heavy rains
  • Suppress weeds
  • Facilitate establishment of vegetation
  • Improve plant productivity
  • Improve plant health
  • Improve water quality
  • Conserve soil moisture
  • Conserves water
  • Moderate soil temperature
  • Keep fruits and vegetables clean
  • Reduce airborne dust
  • Enable no-till / low-till

Growing a diverse number of crops in a planned sequence to increase soil organic matter and biodiversity in the soil. Crop rotations are generally done after each season yet can be done within a season if a single growing bed or area is used for both early and late vegetables.

Purposes

  • Improve soil health
  • Increase soil organic matter
  • Protects the soil from wind and water erosion
  • Manage plant pests and diseases
  • Improve nutrient and water use efficiency
  • Improve water quality
  • Conserve soil moisture
  • Conserve water
  • Add diversity so soil microbes can thrive
  • Provide feed and forage for livestock
  • Provide food and cover habitat for wildlife, including pollinator forage, and nesting
  • Improve crop production

A way of growing crops with minimal soil disturbance. Crops are sown directly into untilled or minimally tilled soil. This method protects ecosystem functions, and maintains the soil’s structure and life within the soil.

Purposes

  • Improve soil health
  • Increase soil organic matter
  • Protect the soil from wind and water erosion
  • Minimize soil compaction
  • Improve nutrient and water use efficiency
  • Improve water quality
  • Conserve soil moisture
  • Conserve water
  • Improve water and air quality
  • Improve crop production
  • Protect soil ecosystem and habitat for wildlife, pollinator, and beneficial organisms
  • Reduce energy use from tillage
  • Reduce particulate emissions from tillage

An approach to managing soil nutrients in order to meet crop needs while minimizing the impact on the environment and the soil.

Purposes

  • Budget, supply and conserve nutrients for plant production
  • Increase plant nutrient uptake
  • Improve physical, chemical and biological properties of the soil
  • Improve water quality
  • Improve crop production
  • Protect air quality – reduce odor and nitrogen emissions
  • Minimize pollution of surface and groundwater resources
  • Guide proper use of manure, composts, fertilizers, and amendments

  • Nutrient Management Plan for Organic Systems – Excellent resource and tables for amendments, composts, and manures.  This guide was created for the western states, but the information can be valuable for Indiana growers.

Establishing and maintaining native and targeted plantings for pollinators and beneficial insects. This approach is an ecological way to promote growth of plants with strong defenses, increase stress on pests, and enhance habitat for beneficial organisms.

Growers can proactively manage pests through native plant field borders, hedgerows, cover crops, and insectary plantings (plants grown to attract beneficial insects). Control pests by learning what to look for – scout (look) for and quickly remove pest eggs and larvae.

Other descriptions for these methods include “Conservation cover” and “Integrated Pest Management.”

Purposes

  • Improve soil health
  • Increase soil organic matter
  • Enhance wildlife, pollinator and beneficial organism habitat
  • Increase plant pollination
  • Improve crop production
  • Improve air quality
  • Improve water quality
  • Reduce ground and surface water quality degradation by nutrients
  • Reduce surface water quality degradation by sediment

The USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service maintains a field office technical guide (FOTG) with standards and specifications for conservation practices.   The NRCS and the Indiana Conservation Partnership utilize these standards to assist landusers in conservation planning and often require financially incentivized practices to meet standard.  Though the standards often include information and considerations that may not be relevant to small farms, gardens, or urban areas,  the Marion County SWCD finds the wealth and detail of information as a beneficial tool for people implementing conservation practices on the land.  Useful standards and biological technical notes in Marion County include but are not limited to:

 

The “root cellar” is a library of resources related to vegetable production, conservation farming, and soil health management.

Soil Health Systems and Organic Resources

Growing Vegetables

Climate

Permaculture, Food Forests, and Agroforestry

oats growing with snow on them