Soil Management Practices for Your Farm or Garden

Follow these soil management practices while farming or gardening to keep your soil bank healthy and your plants and crops flourishing.

| February 2015

Soil Management Practices

Taking good care of your soil is an important step to successfully growing crops and plants on your farm or in your garden.

Photo by Fotolia/NinaMalyna

What does a sustainable and resilient farm look like? Farms with a Future (Chelsea Green, 2012), by Rebecca Thistlethwaite, introduces readers to some of the country’s most innovative farmers who are embracing the entrepreneurialism of farming. This excerpt, which provides some information on maintaining the best soil for farming and gardening, is from Chapter 7, “Soil and Water Management.”

Buy this book from the GRIT store: Farms with a Future.

The bank account that supports your entire farming operation is your soil bank. Despite the foundational importance of the soil, you would be surprised by how little it is attended to by farmers and ranchers around the globe. The way we treat our soil is akin to the way we abuse credit cards. We overspend beyond our means, the debt grows larger, and we can barely afford to make the interest payments, let alone make a dent in the principal. With our soil we continue to take, take, take away the principal nutrients, and our meager supplements of fertilizers do almost nothing to stem that loss. Even though organic farms are supposed to write up and enact a soil management plan, I have seen many of them imitate the same poor practices as nonorganic farmers who aren’t required to write a plan. Too many of us act as though topsoil is a renewable resource—it is not.

What are some of the inferior soil management practices that persist to make farms unsustainable, and how do we restore soil health? Much of this section is drawn from the fabulous and thorough publication Sustainable Soil Management Guide, published by Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (ATTRA), also known as the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. Here are what too many of us farmers and ranchers are doing wrong:

1. Compaction is rampant. In the quest to get crops in when the soil is too moist, we cause tremendous compaction. In our quest to mechanize everything, we cause compaction. When we use the same implement that reaches to the same depth or flips the soil in the same way, we cause compaction. Unless you are farming or ranching on “virgin” soil, you might as well assume that you have soil compaction. Now what?

• Rotate your crops, especially between shallow-, medium-, and deep-rooting crops. For example, lettuce and strawberries are shallow rooted, while grains are deep rooted.
• Plant mixed pastures with grasses, legumes, and broad-leaved plants. Their diverse rooting structures will help open up the soil. Also throw in some perennials that develop really deep-rooting structures. This works great in strips between tree crops, too.
• Rent or borrow a deep ripper every few years. You don’t have to own it, nor should you come to rely on deep ripping. Yet it can redress serious compaction, particularly deep hardpans.
• Don’t plow to the same depth every time, and use different implements when you do plow. For example, relying on only a rototiller that plows to a similar depth every time is a sure cause of compacted hardpan.
• Rotate annuals with perennials, such as vegetable crops with pasture or hay crops. A nice rotation I have seen is two years of vegetable crops followed by three years of pasture. The rooting structure of the pasture plants not only opens up the soil but can also pull up deep nutrients and add significant organic matter.
• Test your soil’s moisture content before you bring equipment into the field. Dig up some soil, and squeeze it in your hand. If the soil drips water or holds together like a lump of clay, it is too wet to cultivate.
• Think about how you might be able to extend your season without resorting to working your fields when they are wet. For example, could you start crops as transplants in a greenhouse for a month or two before you set them out in the field? This holds true for livestock as well. Could you have dry shelter for your animals during the rainy seasons so that they aren’t trampling all over your fields when the soils are wet and saturated?
• Watch your irrigation so you aren’t oversaturating your soils, which could lead to compaction.
• Building soil microbiology and organic matter, correcting pH, and achieving a proper calcium-to-magnesium ratio will all contribute to better-aerated, better-draining soils that are more resistant to compaction.
• Even incessant foot traffic during the rainy season can cause compaction. Enter the fields as infrequently as possible when it is wet.

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