A cross-section of the topsoil below a barley crop.

Life begins from the soil — and in many cases — the top six inches of soil that’s commonly referred to as topsoil. In this thin layer of earth, we can find an incredibly rich ecosystem of soil life and nutrients that works together to create strong, healthy plants, and — ultimately — strong, healthy people and communities! While we know that rich topsoil is the key to sustainable agriculture, compaction, erosion, and turning the soil can all lead to a rapid loss of this vital resource. Reverse topsoil degradation and improve the health and output of your land with these simple, natural, and time-tested techniques.

Analyze the Soil

Knowing what you have to work with is the first step to building healthy topsoil. If your land still has a decent layer of topsoil, you might not need to add as much organic matter before you plant. However, degraded, sandy, and heavy clay soils will need more time and work put into them to improve the topsoil before they’re usable.

An Easy Soil Analisis Technique

To analyze your soil composition at home, fill a quart jar with ⅓ soil and ⅔ water, put on the lid, and give it a vigorous shaking before sitting the jar in a windowsill for observation. Within a few minutes, the sand should sink to the bottom, followed by a layer of silt within a few hours, and finally a layer of clay overnight. Mark these levels as each one settles for a clear picture of your soil type.

On top of the layer of clay, you should see a layer of organic matter and particles that are still floating in the water. If your soil is very sandy, clay-heavy, or silty, the answer is usually to add organic matter to ensure a variety of particle sizes in your soil. If you don’t see much organic matter or many particles in the water, you know that you need to add a significant amount of organic matter before planting to improve your topsoil’s fertility and structure.

Establish Dedicated Walkways

A garden path protects rich topsoil.

Many of the problems that we create for our topsoil stem from the simple act of compaction. Every time we step on the soil or drive over it, the air pockets on the soil are squashed and it becomes much more difficult for earthworms and microbes to move around, as well as reducing the penetration of water and increasing both runoff and flooding.

To protect your rich topsoil and maintain a healthy soil ecosystem, raise your planted areas slightly off the ground or establish clear walkways between planted rows with stones, pebbles, grass, or sawdust. Staying off the soil should also allow the soil to stay well-aerated without the need for adding air pockets manually.

Add Organic Matter

Adding organic matter is the number one best thing you can do for your soil — whether the existing soil is healthy, sick, salty, or compacted. Filled to the brim with the “magic” of microorganisms, organic matter builds your topsoil while adding nutrients and improving the soil’s capacity to retain water. These are just a few of the kinds of organic matter you can add to your soil at a thickness of 3-4 inches annually:

Compost

Compost is the substance that results from mixing carbon-rich waste products with nitrogen-rich waste products and accelerating the natural process that helps them break down. The result is a moist, porous, crumbly mixture that’s full of beneficial bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and nematodes.

Worm Castings

Worm castings typically contain denser nutrients than compost but may need to be mixed with the soil in a 1:4 ratio before application. Worms kill pathogens in their stomachs, making worm castings a great non-toxic addition to your soil.

Aged Animal Manure

Aged manure is one of the simplest and easiest kinds of organic matter to add to your soil. Be sure to find out about local regulations about how much time you need to leave between applying the manure and harvesting your crop.

Compost Tea

If you need to boost your soil’s food web over a very large area, consider applying the topsoil food web in liquid form with compost tea. Compost tea is not a substitute for organic matter but can help to enrich the composition of your topsoil while you rotate the addition of other materials.

Mulch

Celery planted in a mulched bed.

Mulch in the form of wood chips, straw, coir, or similar reduces evaporation and shades the creatures that live in your topsoil. Rather than digging this in, only a small amount of mulch should be applied on the surface to avoid upsetting the balance of nutrients below.

Plant Cover Crops

No matter what kinds of crops you plant, cover crops build topsoil in a powerful way when they are dug back in rather than being pulled out. Legumes like soybean, peas, and alfalfa raise the nitrogen levels in the soil while improving aeration and choking out weeds.

At the end of the fallow season, use a roller-crimper to “chop and drop” your cover crop and wait at least three weeks for your green manure to break down before planting your trees or crops directly in the rich topsoil underneath.

Direct Seeding

Once you’ve built up your topsoil, the best way to conserve this resource is to disturb its structure as little as possible. As we’ve mentioned, one important aspect of soil protection is to keep foot traffic off your rows. The other important aspect — popular in regenerative agriculture — is to seed or plant your crops directly without turning the soil, which exposes the delicate topsoil ecosystem to the sun. A tool like a spike aerator or plug aerator can be helpful for aerating the soil without turning it over if it’s already compacted. Be sure to fill these holes with some loose organic matter afterwards to protect the microorganisms that are working in the grounds.

Continue to Build Your Topsoil and Reap the Rewards

A grassy strip between two rows of vines in a vineyard.

As you build rich topsoil year after year, the rewards or your efforts will be easy to measure through regular soil testing and/or the use of probes. You should also see improvements in the efficiency of your irrigation system as moisture is held more effectively in the soil.


If you’re ready to improve your topsoil and boost your crops, contact Fruit Growers Supply Company for a free site visit and detailed soil and water testing. We’re here to help growers of all kinds to boost their yields in a sustainable and cost-effective way. Contact us to schedule a site visit and discover how we can help your agricultural projects thrive.

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