Let’s talk about soil health. We’re going to distinguish between soil and dirt. Dirt is soil that’s out of place, like on your floor or in your truck. Soil, on the other hand, is full of diverse life forms. From insects to microbes, the organisms that call soil home are innumerable and work together in ways that we don’t yet fully understand. Soil, of course, is critical to sustaining food production. Our crops need air, water, sunlight, and nutrients from the soil to synthesize food. Many aspects can make soil healthier or less healthy, and if one of these is lacking, plant growth and crop yield can suffer.
What makes soil healthy?
Before we go any further, let’s distinguish between soil health and tilth. Soil health is the ability of soil to work as a living ecosystem that can sustain life. The USDA breaks it down further and discusses the five principles of healthy soil right here. Soil tilth simply refers to how suitable soil is for growing crops. At Fruit Growers Supply (FGS), we know both are important to our growers’ success.
So, we already know healthy soils are teeming with life, but the physical composition of the soil — the tilth — is equally important. Healthy soil should be half minerals and organic matter, and half water and air. You’ll have slightly different sand or clay content depending on your exact soil composition. However, about half of that space should be open for water and air to flow easily. This healthy space allows roots to grow well, nutrients to be absorbed, and water to transfer to your crops. In addition, healthy soils can incorporate organic matter better than unhealthy soils, contributing to a positive cycle of health, and organic matter breaks down and provides nutrients to your plants.
What makes soil unhealthy?
What makes soils unhealthy, then? Essentially, any practice that deprives the soil of nutrients, decreases that critical open space for water and air, and/or reduces soil biodiversity. Soil compaction is one of the biggest challenges to maintaining healthy soils. When growers drive heavy machinery over their soils, they lose that space for water and air. As a result, the plant can’t absorb water and nutrients, and its roots can’t develop as healthily. Soil compaction is unavoidable, but there are ways to mitigate it. Maintaining a species monoculture on your property is another contributor to unhealthy soils. The biodiverse species in the soil rely on a diversity of plants to keep their populations healthy. While conventional farming methods can be detrimental to soil health and tilth, with a bit of awareness and implementation of best practices, there’s a lot you can do to improve both.
5 things you can do to improve your soil health
1. Encourage healthy root development and growth
Tree canopy and root growth depend on each other. Roots won’t thrive if the tree doesn’t have adequate aerial space, and the canopy won’t develop well if the roots are confined. Both need space for optimal health. With smart planning and planting, you can allow your trees to grow healthily.
2. Increase biodiversity around your plants
You can encourage healthy populations of microbes that support the health and growth of your plants by planting a diversity of native plants in the vicinity of your crops. Supporting the microscopic interactions in your soil will support the health of your plants.
3. Decrease soil impaction where possible
As we already discussed, some soil impaction is unavoidable unless all your operations can be completed by drones. We’re not there yet. Keeping heavy machinery off wet soils certainly helps, as does establishing routes that preserve soil around your crops. Also, be careful with nitrogen applications, as certain forms of nitrogen products can compact your soils.
4. Make sure your soil is getting fresh organic material
Your plants are constantly depleting your soil’s organic content, and therefore your soul needs to be replenished. If you can leave organic material like leaves or compost around your plants, that organic material will eventually be absorbed into the soil and make its way to your plants’ roots. Also, if your soil has a better nutritional value from organic material, you’ll need less fertilizer. You can read all the ways FGS recommends building up your topsoil naturally here.
5. Use appropriate ground cover
While people may only imagine cover crops accompanying corn fields, cover crops are also commonly used in orchards and vineyards. Using appropriate plants as ground cover or cover crops will increase your roots’ ability to fix nitrogen in the soil, improve soil health and tilth, and help reduce unnecessary evaporation.
Soil is the foundation of your operation, quite literally. Improving your soil health will lead to healthier crops and a more stable growing ecosystem. If you’re ready to boost your crops with better soil management practices, contact Fruit Growers Supply, your local agricultural supplier, for a free site visit and detailed soil and water testing. We’re here to help you increase your yields and adopt practices that improve and fit your operations. So give us a shout, or stop by one of our centers today to get started.
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