Basic soil health principles

Plant Materials Center Cover Crop Trial © Matteson
An undisturbed soil performs valuable services that are not obvious, such as flood control, waste (nutrient) recycling, and water filtration and storage. Agriculture is not a natural system – no new news. Farmers and gardeners disturb soil to prepare a planting bed, control weeds and pests, and to provide nutrients to crops. Wise managers seek to understand their soil and use practices that reduce impact, ultimately allowing the soil to do the work it does best. To improve soil appreciation and management, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has launched a nationwide soil health initiative, Unlock the Secrets in the Soil! A click away you will find a wealth of soil health information and resources, videos, publications, farmer profiles and more. Dig in!
The NRCS offers these four basic soil health principles:

  • Keep soil covered. Vegetation, plant residue and organic mulch protect the soil surface and feed billions of organisms that cycle nutrients and combat pests. In turn, the organisms create vital soil pores where roots find air, water and nutrients.
  • Have living roots in the soil as much as possible. Most soil biology exists within millimeters of the root. Plan crop rotation that includes cover crops to keep the soil healthy. Grow the next crop before harvest; investigate which cover crops can be inter-seeded while the cash crop is in place.
  • Encourage diversity above and below ground. Plant diversity, again, through rotation and cover crops, will support balanced and diverse soil populations that reduce weeds, combat pests and build good soil structure (pores).
  • Minimize soil disturbance. Tillage is the most difficult agricultural habit to change. At first, try fewer passes with the tiller and limit traffic to designated areas. Intact soil works for you; disturbed soil costs you time and money.