Organic farming is a sustainable and holistic approach to agriculture that focuses on improving soil health through natural methods. Working with soil that has been degraded by tillage, over-fertilisation, compaction, and contamination is all too common these days. When faced with these challenges what can you do to grow crops while improving the health of the soil? Each challenge will require a slightly different plan but there are some key concepts at the core to Improve Your Soil.
Core Principles of Soil Health.
By understanding the Principles of soil health we can start to assess what has been happening to reduce the soil's fertility. Consider what conventional farming methods are used and if they align with these practices.
Reduced disturbances - Common practices such as tillage, driving heavy machinery over soil or using soil ripper harms soil fertility. Along with massive releases of CO2, the disturbance to the soil reduces the populations of soil microorganisms. The continuous function of the microorganisms in soil is what maintains its fertility. By reducing disturbances to the soil we allow time for the microorganisms to provide their beneficial functions year after year.
Soil Coverage - Barren soil which is exposed to the harsh elements of heat, wind, intense UV and cold will degrade far quicker than soil which is covered. By having a diverse mix of plant life protecting and covering the soil we allow the microorganisms a safe home to survive all the environmental pressures. The root zone of the plants is a perfect environment for microbes to thrive as plants are exchanging Root Exudates with the soil. These exudates are carbohydrates which feed the microbes and allow the Carbon to be stored in that soil system thus building its fertility.
Livestock - The relationship between plants, animals and soil goes back far on the timeline of the life of the earth. As energy from the sun is cycled from plant to animal it should end up back in the soil. By carefully managing grazing we have livestock cycling nutrients back into the soil but ensuring enough time between grazing for the plants to recover. It is the manure of the animal that is needed in the soil, packed full of nutrients, microbes and carbon! In a garden setting you can use composts made with manure to achieve the same benefit.
Just with these three principles, you can begin to regenerate soil at a rapid rate. So when dealing with soil that has been degraded how can I use these Soil Health Principles?
How do I start Regenerating my Soil?
A key component of Soil Regeneration is the use of compost, which is a rich mixture of organic materials that are broken down by microorganisms to create a valuable soil amendment. Compost is essential to creating an inoculation of beneficial microbes in the soil, which can help to improve soil fertility and promote plant growth. Making compost the correct way is important because not all composts are equal, we need to ensure the compost has the right type of microbes present to achieve soil regeneration. By following the correct composting recipe or testing our compost we can be confident that it will be able to regenerate the soil.
Growing a diverse blend of cover crops to protect the soil and build its organic carbon levels. By having a multi-species mix of cover crops you ensure that a range of beneficial compounds is introduced to your soil. Typically these crops provide a specific benefit to your soil from storing nitrogen to building soil structure. Through the action of root exudates, we can build the biomass of microbes in the soil. Many harmful compounds and toxic substances can be degraded by the action of microbes. For example, glyphosate (roundup a toxic herbicide) is neutralized by Azospirillum which is commonly found in composts.
So a simple solution to restoring soil is to apply a good layer of well-made compost and grow cover crops over it. Here time is key, we need to give the microbes time to start working as the cover crops start to grow. If you want to speed up the process think about applying compost extracts throughout the season. Allow the cover crops time to work into the soil and for the microbes to begin dealing with the problematic compounds in the soil. Doing this well before the growing season is upon you is advised. Once it is planting season you can mow the cover crops down and plant directly into the soil. A soil test before planting is the best practice so that you know your crop has all they need to thrive. If all goes according to plan your crops will be planted in soil that is farther productive than if you had just left the field fallow.
How can I feed my plants while maintaining Soil Health?
Once you've planted your crops in your prepared ground, what else can you do to boost your crop without damaging the soil biology? By looking into organic crop fertilisers that work synergistically with living soil and plants to promote healthy growth. Plants without adequate access to nutrients will not be able to protect themselves from pest attacks but it is a fine line. If you over-fertilise, your crop will be far more susceptible to pest attacks which is often the case with synthetic nutrients. Crops fertilised like this will grow very quickly but need constant applications of pesticides to prevent crop loss. Using products known as Bio-Stimulates you can avoid over-fertilisation as they carry a very low nutrient value. What Bio-stimulates do contain are secondary metabolites which is an organic compounds made from the nutrient building blocks known as NPK. An example is Amino acids which is a proteins made of primarily nitrogen along with a range of other elements. The complex nature of this bio-stimulate causes an increase in both plant vitality and soil microbial activity. There are many different Bio-stimulate products available and along with DIY methods of creating your own Bio-stimulates.
Creating a compost extract from Worm castings is a great way to boost both the soil biology and the crop. Vermicast is the digested material from a worm's gut, it has wide range of benefits to both soil and plant health. Packed with microbes this material will inoculate soils with a wide range of beneficial organisms to kickstart the soil food web. As we know, the activity of these microbes provides long last benefit to many aspects of soil health. Additionally plants also receive a health dose of natural PGRs (plant growth regulators) which can be classified as another bio-stimulate. Mostly the PGRs vermicast are Auxins or Cytokinin's which stimulate the growth phase of your crops. These hormones are naturally occurring and work best when applied to seedlings or young plants.
How do I know if my Soil health is improving?
One of the most important things to consider when practicing organic farming is testing your soil. Putting in time and investment to gardening/farming without data on your soil is a never a good idea. Soil will play a major role on the success of your crops so making sure your soil is optimised for your desired crop is vital. My business, SoilScopes, offers soil testing services that can help you understand the unique characteristics of your soil and make informed decisions about how to improve it. If you wish to understand your soil better testing it is the key to that. It is always best to evaluate your soil improvement strategy by using a baseline and a post improvement test. This way you can see how much of an impact your methods made.
If you are interested in learning more about organic farming practices and the role of composting in improving soil health, I highly recommend checking out my E-Book, "A Guide to Living Soil and Composting" by Wesley Soule. This comprehensive guide covers everything you need to know about organic farming, including how to create and maintain a healthy microbial community in the soil, and how to use compost to improve soil fertility and promote sustainable farming practices.