Gardening

Cover cropping is becoming more popular with farmers as it reduces the disturbance of the soil, which helps encourage soil health. Christopher Burtt/Provided

Soil health is a term not many in agriculture or horticulture focus on nearly enough. While dealing with plants, there are plenty of things to focus on regarding the health of the plant, but we tend to lose focus on the most important part of the equation: soil health.

Soil health represents the idea that soil is much more than a medium in which we grow our plants but is a living ecosystem that works to sustain plants and animals alike.

Gardening

This example of the no-till practice of crimping does not disturb the soil, which helps encourage microbial and invertebrate health in the soil. Christopher Burtt/Provided

Soil itself is made up of four main parts: inorganic mineral, water, air and organic matter.

The inorganic mineral portion is the largest portion and constitutes the sand, silt and clay particles that make up what most would call dirt. This is around 45 percent of soil, whereas air and water each make up around half of the soil composition, 25 percent each. These are all integral in the structure and chemistry of soil itself, but the organic matter, though the smallest portion, is easily the most important.

The soil organic matter is made up of living organisms and their detritus. These organisms help break down the nutrients plants need into more accessible products. The health of these organisms is directly correlated with the fertility of the soil. Organisms in soil include everything from microscopic bacteria and fungi to visible arthropods and even the well-known earthworm.

While still little is known about soil health, in agriculture the concept is becoming more important, with practices such as no-till and cover cropping becoming more popular with farmers.

Gardening

A new clover cover crop helps the soil maintain its health. Christopher Burtt/Provided

No-till is an example of reducing the disturbance of the soil, which helps encourage microbial and invertebrate health in the soil.

Tilling practices expose the soil, which in turn reduces the microbial population, which reduces the fertility.

Cover crops act as a type of living mulch.

Gardening

Remnants of buckwheat in a plowed field. Tilling practices expose the soil, which reduces its fertility. Christopher Burtt/Provided

Homeowners, on the other hand, must manage the health and quality of the soil in different ways. While the standard lawn or garden bed does not have the same drain on soil resources as agricultural crops, there are things we can do differently.

The simplest step of soil management is keeping it covered, such as a mulch. And the less we disturb the soil the better. We also can encourage soil biodiversity by having greater plant diversity.

Cover crops and companion plantings can greatly increase the microbial population and reduce the number of inputs in the garden itself. This also keeps a living root in the soil. Plant roots maintain an area of dense microbial activity that, in turn, feeds the microbials, which feed everything else.

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It is difficult to truly measure the health of soil in a quantitative way, but it is still important to have your soil sent off to be tested at your local extension office.

This will give you a break-down of the nutrient analysis and the pH of the soil that ties into improving the overall health.

Gardening

Freshly tilled soil reduces the microbial population and reduces soil fertility. Christopher Burtt/Provided

There are ways of determining the health itself by observing the look and feel of the soil. Healthy soil in general is dark in color and clumps readily. We also can see the quality based on effects it has on the plants. Observing what weeds dominate areas of the garden help better understand what is going on underneath, as well as how well the cultivated plants grow when planted.

If you are adding a lot of fertilizer to your plants, then your soil health may be lacking. Nature will provide the plant diversity on its own if allowed, so by encouraging this, we can reduce the frustrating weeds and have an aesthetically pleasing yard.

With cold weather approaching, work in the garden may be winding down, but this is a great opportunity to work on building healthy soil. Keep in mind, preparation for the next growing season during the cooler months can result in a more robust garden in the spring.

Whenever you scout for a bag of potting soil or top soil at a garden center, it is good to note that proper soil is grown, not bought. When taking into account the health of the soil in your yard, it is good to keep in mind its role in how everything in that yard grows. 

For more detailed information regarding soil health and soil testing, go to Clemson University Home and Garden Information Center's website at https://hgic.clemson.edu or visit your local Cooperative Extension Office.

Christopher Burtt is the Urban Horticulture Extension Agent and Master Gardener Coordinator for Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties. He graduated from Clemson University and his main area of expertise is consumer horticulture with experience in research agriculture. He can be reached by email, cburtt@clemson.edu.