Five Keys to Building Healthy Soil:
1.) When it comes to "preparing the ground" the least amount of mechanical disturbance as possible is best. This almost sounds "unAmerican" because we all "know" that the "greatness of American agriculture" is built on our wonderful technological genius of developing the plow and the tractor that makes large scale agriculture possible. The tractor and the plow have definitely been good for bringing in huge sums of money to equipment manufacturers and dealers but they have not been good for the soil itself. Soil erosion and compaction are continuing serious problems that have resulted from way to much "mechanical disturbance".
2. "Keep it covered". Bare ground is unhealthy ground that invites trouble. The least amount of bare ground the better. Nature abhors bare ground and will do whatever it can to cover itself. (Did you ever wonder why your garden is so good at producing weeds? It is nature's way of saying "keep me covered"! !)
But we all "know" that a good seedbed is bare soil right? And when you are done planting and the crop comes up you still have mostly bare ground. So what can be done about that? On a small/garden scale mulch can be put down to cover the bare ground. On a large scale, its not as easy. But Mr. Brown has an interesting way of planting and covering a large garden. Check out the YouTube clip if you want to learn about his way of large scale gardening ! !
3. "Diversity is key". Nature always abhors "monocultures" (the growing of one or two things). This is why big ag is so dependent on chemical this and chemical that - it is trying to do something (only growing one or two things on a large scale) that is fundamentally opposed to what nature is doing. The golden rule of farming is to mimic nature. The more closely we mimic what nature does the less problems and the more success we have.
4. Keep "living roots" in the soil as long as possible. This is akin to # 2 but I'll elaborate a little. Of course during the growing season there are living roots in the soil. This is good for the soil in many ways. First, it helps hold the soil from washing away (erosion) during rain storms and it encourages the biological life of the soil. But what about after the growing season? This is where "cover crops" come in. There are many different types of cover crops, but one example is "winter rye" that I plant in my garden after removing my vegetable plants in the fall. If I plant at the right time (mid Sept to mid Oct) it will come up about 5 or 6 inches before the real cold weather sets in. This way there is a nice thick green blanket of grass covering my garden the whole winter. This reduces erosion and encourages biological soil activity. In my raised bed I do not plant a cover crop but after I pull the crop residue in the fall I spread a nice thick layer of stable manure and then cover that with tree leaves. Then I take plastic and cover the leaves so they don't blow off during the winter. In the spring I take off the plastic, rake off the leaves and underneath is what remains of the stable manure which has been rotting all winter. Due to the "covering" the biological soil activity has continued working through (much) of the winter and is now ready to lend it's valuable nutrients to the coming crop.
5. Nature integrates plants and animals. Again, we would do well to copy this pattern. Plants and animals grow best together. (Of course this does not mean planting vegetables in the cow stall or allowing the pigs to root around in the garden during the growing season.) Each has what the other needs. The genius of American agriculture is that we segregate what nature integrates (to our own peril). Industrial ag doctrine is to grow "only corn and soybeans" or "only beef cattle" or only this or only that. That's why we have a "farmer" growing 10,000 head of cattle in a 100 acre "feedlot" and 10 miles down the road we have a farmer growing 10,000 acres of only corn and soybeans. To the modern mind this is more "efficient". I suppose it is, but it is also more unhealthy, for the animals and for the plants (and ultimately for people as well). In these "only this or only that" situations the "only thing" that keeps disease and pestilence at bay is a myriad of synthetic chemicals. But somehow to the modern mind "efficiency" usually trumps "health" so that is what economic/agricultural decisions are based upon most of the time. Hmmm ! ! Wondering when and what it will take for "health" (the health of land, crops, animals, people and communities) to be the determining factor in how agricultural decisions are made in this country instead of just "efficiency" and "the bottom line".
Here's to hoping you enjoy building healthy soil so you can enjoy healthy living ! !
Have a great Spring ! !