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.