Compaction Test: A penetrometer is used to measure the level of compaction on soils that have cover crops and on soils that do not. Compaction can have a negative impact on many things, such as plant rooting, water infiltration, biological activity, storm water runoff, and more.
Infiltration Test: A controlled test is performed in the field to measure the rate of infiltration (how much and how fast 1 inch of rainfall will infiltrate into the soil). This is important to soil moisture levels, runoff erosion, and ground water recharge.
Earthworm Count: This count is done by a visual inspection of soil cores to look for biological life--particularly earthworms. A measure of earthworm activity correlates well with the health of the soil. More worms mean more tunnels, more air space, more water infiltration, more places for roots to grows, and more incorporation of organic matter.
Slake Test: A comparison of the stability of soil aggregates. The more stable a soil the more resistant to erosion it is.
Respiration Test: The Solvita test, a measure of the CO2 coming off the soil, is conducted on soil samples. Since CO2 is a product of life in the soil, it can be used as a measure of the microbial life in the soil. A healthy soil is a “living soil”!
Soil Temperature: Temperature readings are taken on site to look at differences in both soils with cover crops and those without. Soil temperature can affect many things, such as seed germination, microbial life, plant stress and health, and water retention.
Soil Moisture: A measure of the soil moisture at a predetermined depth is taken to compare sites. Soil moisture also affects several parameters similar to soil temperature.
Cover Crop Biomass: Biomass will be sent to the lab to measure the nutrient content. The amount of nutrients cover crops can pull from the soil and hold will affect the nutrients that are available to the next year’s crop. This reduces the potential for excess nutrients to move off site causing potential harm to water quality.
Basic Soil Test: Soil samples are sent to the lab for fertility analysis. In general, we would expect that soils with cover crops will have more nutrients (fertility) available for crop uptake than soils without cover crops.
Other Lab Test to Compare Soil Quality/Health: These tests include, Soil Microbial Biomass, Active Carbon, Mineralizable Nitrogen (all done at University of Missouri), and Haney Test (completed at Ward Laboratories).
Our goal with this program is to provide real on-site research specific to each farm that can be used to make future decisions when it comes to cover crops. We’re reaching to define the benefits of using--or not using--cover crops as part of the farming operation.
Ginger Davis, Conservation Administrator
This is the Season of Giving. During this season, we often think of how we can best give back. Many people in Hamilton County will take this time to give to the less fortunate by volunteering at soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other charities across the state. These places will be staffed with smiling-faced, happy volunteers eagerly doling out food and other assistance to those whose need is the greatest. Families across the country will come together in the spirit of giving and return home beaming with pride and contentment knowing deep in their hearts that they have made a difference.
We at Hamilton County SWCD propose a new way to give back at home, work, and in shared spaces that will ultimately improve the health and well-being of everyone by giving back to our soils. When we give back in this way there is no smiling face looking back at you, there is no immediate gratification, but the impact you can make to our society will last for many years to come. Our soils nourish us, protect us from pollutants, and give us structure and stability--and they need our help! Decades of earthmoving and poor management have strained our soil and destroyed its internal well-being. But all is not lost! There are several ways to give back to our soils and see results.
Soil is always a great way to give back to yourself, neighbors, community, and future generations. No matter if the urge to give back stems from religion, a desire to participate in the community, or just because you want to be selfless this season--giving back to our soils can satisfy these needs! This is because when we give back to our soils and natural resources, we improve the quality of life for everyone.
Soil serves as:
Soil takes a very long time to make. It can take up to 1000 years for just 1 cm of topsoil to be produced,but it only takes one year to begin see improvements in the soil we already have! With all the issues we face with rainfall, clean water, food production for a growing population, and urbanization there are a few key things to help improve our natural resources locally and globally.
Step 1: Start a Compost Bin. Compost bins are one of the simplest ways to improve our soils. They help add nutritious organic matter back into our yards and also recycle our food scraps and organic wastes. Soil with added compost contains more available micronutrients and minerals. With compost we can create healthier garden beds and landscapes that have an active underground ecosystem of earthworms and microorganisms.
Step 2: Keep Soils Covered. Keeping our soils covered protects them from erosion and insulates them from direct sunlight and rain. Below ground, a variety of root depths and types helps to hold the soil in place. Roots secrete small compounds that add to the structure of our soil. Above ground, covered soils are protected from direct sunlight that harms microorganisms. Underground life is key to having attractive and fruitful plants. Additionally, impacts from rainfall are a major cause of surface erosion. Planting a dense layer of foliage above ground protects your soil from raindrop erosion and keeps your valuable topsoil in place.
Step 3: Plant several types of plants. Planting multiple types of plants promotes biodiversity above and below ground. Diversity is beneficial for several reasons. A diversity of soil organisms helps decomposition and nutrient cycling, prevent pest species from becoming dominant, and maintain soil structure and overall health. Planting diverse plants above ground helps provide a variety of different habitats below ground for soil life to inhabit. Each organism in soil requires a slightly different habitat, so the more diverse your plants, the more habitats you create. The more habitats you have, the more you can reap the benefits of a healthy soil! Remember: most soil organisms cannot grow outside of soil, so it is necessary to preserve healthy and diverse soil ecosystems if we want to preserve our beneficial microorganisms.
Step 4: Minimize Disturbance. We disturb the soil in many ways. You can help by planning your walking paths and driving paths so that you minimize compaction of the soil. Additionally, reduce the number of times that you move the earth. Moving soil disrupts the microbial system below which in turn disrupts all the benefits microbes provide. Plan so that you only disturb when necessary. There are times when we must dig, level, or move soil but try to do this very sparingly.
Step 5: Test the soil for pH and chemical balance. One of the most basic ways to improve the soil is to ensure the pH is within the correct range. The ideal pH level allows nutrients to be available to plants and encourages healthy growth (see chart). Ideal soil pH depends on the type of plant you want to grow and can range from 5.5 to 7.5 on the pH scale. A majority of plants would prefer to be in the very slightly acidic range. For specific plants, look up their preference and amend the soil to that level If your soil pH is out of the desirable range, amendments can be added to improve the chemical health of your soils.
Step 5: Sit back and watch for the Worms. This one is easy if you follow the guidance above. Earthworms dramatically alter soil structure, water movement, nutrient dynamics, and plant growth. They are not essential to all healthy soil systems, but their presence is usually an indicator of a healthy system. Earthworms perform several beneficial functions.
Provide channels for root growth. The channels made by deep-burrowing earthworms are lined with readily available nutrients and make it easier for roots to penetrate deep into the soil.
Bury and shred plant residue. Plant and crop residue are gradually ingested by worms and deposited deep into the soil as earthworms pull surface residue into their burrows.
So, this year consider giving back in a more indirect way that will have a lasting impact in our community by trying something new. Give back to our soils to increase worms, increase nutrients for plants, and improve drainage. Our future generations will appreciate you for it.
Taylor Wilson, Conservation Technician and Outreach Assistant
Teter Retreat and Organic Farm, in partnership with The Indiana Wildlife Federation, received a grant from Duke Energy Foundation to add a new nature trail to their property. Teter Retreat and Organic Farm sits on 125 acres and is located near Strawtown; northeast Hamilton County. Well known for their participation in local farmer's markets providing organic produce, Teter is also home to many acres of river habitat along the White River. However, like many areas along the river, the native species are threatened by invasives such as Asian Bush Honeysuckle and Callery Pear. This grant is intended not only to provide access to recreation at a beautiful site, but also open the site up to restoration efforts to remove invasives and enhance wildlife habitat.
For more information and updates check here!
The most common thing people can do with their leaves is compost them. This is the process of collecting your leaves in piles along with other organic yard waste and letting them break down over time naturally. It’s best to aim for a mixture of both green (wet) and brown (dry) organic wastes for the fastest and easiest breakdown of materials. Some people like to put their piles in a confined space, like a wooden box or plastic barrel, and others simply make piles in an area near their vegetable or flower gardens. The key, however, is to turn the compost periodically to aide in the breakdown process. Adding compost to your soils can increase the fertility and organic matter, which in turn will help in many other areas, such as soil tilth, soil microbial health, water infiltration, decreased compaction, and more.
Another potential use for leaves is as a weed suppressant. Either chopped or whole leaves can be spread around plants to help shade and control weed emergence in the Spring. Since the leaves do not contain weed seeds typically, you won’t be adding any new seed to your planting environment. If the area you’re spreading leaves in is open to windy conditions, I find that chopped leaves do better at staying in place. However, either form of leaves will work! Caution: One thing to note is that walnut leaves, limbs, and nuts can have an adverse effect on some plants. These are toxic to tomatoes, potatoes, blackberries, and several others. Be aware of what is in your leaf matter and what plants you spread it around. For more information, check here!
Mow Over the Leaves
Sometimes the easiest option is to just mow over the leaves several times as they fall throughout the season, allowing them to become part of the existing soil organic matter. The key to this method is to keep up with the mowing/chopping process before the leaf layer becomes too thick. If you have a heavy amount of leaves this may not be a viable option. A compromise might be to mow over the leaves the first pass without the bag attachment, and then mowing a second pass with it attached. This will allow you to pick up the bulk of the bigger leaf pieces while allowing some of the smaller chopped pieces to work down into the grass canopy.
Moisture Retention and Protection
An additional option would be to chop the leaves and then spread them around various plants to aide them through the winter months. The chopped leaves will help retain moisture and warmth around sensitive plants. It is easy to forget that winter months can be very dry for plants. Additionally, freeze-thaw cycles can damage sensitive shallow roots of certain plants. Adding chopped leaves as an insulator can help protect them from this.
Store Root Vegetables
Although this is not as common, you can use leaves as an insulation in areas where you store root crops in. Long ago, many farms had a root cellar, where the temperature was cool throughout the winter but never dropped below freezing. Typically this was an outside structure with a door leading to an excavated area slightly below ground level. Root crops could be placed in there in layers, with fresh fallen leaves spread between each layer, and then over the top as a suitable natural insulation. Some gardeners still practice this.
Haul Them Away
One final potion is to have the leaves hauled away or take them somewhere yourself. Many communities in Hamilton County have pick-up services or places you can take your leaves. There are also commercial places that will accept them for composting purposes. We have listed some options below, although this may not be a complete and exhaustive list for the county. If your city isn't listed or you live outside of city limits, see your garbage contractor for more information.
HCSWCD Partners with Be Well Family Care and Kiwanis Club of Carmel to Promote Urban Agriculture and Food Security
Andrew Fritz, Urban Agriculture Conservationist
This growing season the Hamilton County Soil and Water Conservation District partnered with Be Well Family Care in Carmel by providing a Garden Tower™. The Garden Tower™ is like a super-planter capable of growing up to 70 or more plants within a very small space while also having the ability to create its own compost.
“The Garden Tower demonstrates how people with no yards, those living in apartments, the elderly, or folks of few resources can grow a ton of food with very little maintenance and with ease. With patients coming to Be Well Family Care, they get to see the garden in action,” Andrew Fritz, urban agriculture conservationist with the Hamilton County SWCD, said.
Additionally, youth who participated in the Carmel’s Kids Serving Carmel Camp, a program of the Kiwanis Club of Carmel, planted the Garden Tower™ this spring. This provided a teaching opportunity to learn about where food comes from and food security within the county.
Andrew Fritz, Urban Agriculture Conservationist
At the beginning of the harvest season we started a program encouraging gardeners in Hamilton County to donate their extra garden vegetables. Our goal was to reduce wasted, spare neighbors from a deluge of tomatoes and cucumbers, and and help alleviate nutritional scarcity among those who face food insecurity in Hamilton County.
In just seven weeks, the Hamilton County SWCD office successfully collected 119 lbs. of peppers, tomatoes, squash, and zucchini from local gardeners that were then donated to local food pantries in Hamilton County. To put that weight in perspective, 119 lbs. is approximately 1,000 USDA food servings (Source: Pounds to Servings Calculator). That's a lot of food!
The program works like a canned food drive only instead of cans of food, gardeners drop off their surplus garden vegetables at our office on a weekly basis. We then delivered the produce to a participating food pantry. This year we donated to the Noblesville Township Trustee Office.
Fresh food packed with nutrition is not a common item at many food pantries. Thanks to you, food pantries were able to distribute more nutritional foods to the community.
Andrew Fritz, Urban Agriculture Conservationist
For many gardeners the summer vegetables have stopped producing and now it's time to prepare for spring by putting your garden to bed. To ensure your soil is alive and recharged for next spring, consider doing the following:
A) Remove Disease Host Plants
B) Terminate (remove) All Other Weeds
C) Cover Your Soil
Read below to learn more about each step in preparing your garden or download the PDF here!
Foraging can be a great way to reap the benefits of protecting your soil and water resources. There can be wild edible plants as close as in your own backyard, if you know what to look for. Foraging and cooking can be great ways to not only connect with your natural environment, but also to connect with people around you.
Part of the quest for soil protection is to keep it covered with a diversity of plant life. Planting edible varieties may be a way to enhance your land use--just make sure you aren't planting invasives! Some examples of Indiana edible natives to plant for next year include nut bearing trees like walnut, hickory, and black raspberry.
Even though it's late in the season there are still some species waiting to be harvested! One example is Hawthorne. Hawthorne trees produce small red berries called haws. When you go to harvest your haws check for the overall health of the tree and signs of Cedar-Hawthorne Rust.
Remember: Harvesting or ingesting the wrong species of plants can have dire consequences, which is why experts suggest that you identify a plant based on three separate characteristics. Verify AT LEAST THREE between the fruit, stem, bark, flower, root, leaves, etc. Check here for an identification guide, and remember:
Never ingest or handle any type of wild plant without being certain you know what it is. If you have any doubt, LEAVE IT OUT!
Claire Lane, Urban Conservationist
While planning, consider things like utilities, HOA covenants, and overall neighborhood aesthetic sensibilities. Backyard native plantings are a great opportunity to educate friends and neighbors on the beauty and function of native plants. The SWCD has signage available and little actions like keeping tidy borders and using a bench or birdhouse to show care for the area can help people see that your natives aren't "weeds" resulting from lack of care but actually a beautiful, tended home for pollinators and a sustainable choice for your yard!
Remember, a prairie isn't just something 'out there in a park somewhere' but quite possibly, literally, in your own backyard.
How to create your own backyard meadow:
Whether you have 10 square feet or 10 acres, replacing turf grass with native plants is a great way to reduce maintenance on ecologically sterile areas of your property and replace them with vibrant, diverse native plants that support pollinators, wildlife, water quality, our ecological heritage, and our ecosystem.
Consider the existing vegetation on your property as well as underground and above ground utilities, easements, invasive species and potential weed pressure. Use local resources such as your SWCD, INPS chapter and members, Master Gardeners, and Grow Indiana Native resources to guide planning and source quality seed and/or plants.
Terminate existing turfgrass
Seed/Plant - Mid-September - late November is a great time to seed natives. Fall plantings favor flowers and don't require watering.
March - April seeding favors grasses.
May - June seeding allows for more soil preparation and spring weed control but may require supplemental watering.
Maintain - Weed control during the first years is critical. Mowing will be necessary ~1x month the first year to combat annual weeds. Target noxious weeds with hand pulling or herbicide. More info is available here.
Enjoy - Consider certifying your garden through the Grow Indiana Native Program. It's free!
Seeds should be planted no more than 1/4 inch deep.
Need more info and details? Checkout the resources, guides, and links at hamiltonswcd.org/seedpack & IndianaNativePlants.org
Taylor Wilson, Conservation Technician and Outreach Assistant