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5 Principles of Soil Health: In the Garden

By the end of summer the garden was looking pretty raggedy, so for the past several weeks I've been busy cleaning out the beds, transplanting fall seedlings, and sowing root crops. Late, I know, but we had very hot weather all the way through the first week of October. I waited for cooler temperatures and rain to moisten the soil.

While I worked, I took some photos, because I want to make a record of my new gardening workflow. Specifically, I want to make a note of the principles we've learned from videos by Gabe Brown (Keys To Building a Healthy Soil) and Ray Archuleta (Soil Health Principles). They discuss five specific principles, all learned from observing natural processes.

5 Principles of Soil Health
  1. No mechanical disturbance
  2. Soil covered at all times
  3. Diversity of plant species
  4. Living roots in the ground as long as possible
  5. Animal impact
These principles have not only changed how I do things, but how I see things. They have changed my perception of soil stewardship. At the end of this blog post is a list of posts detailing what we've learned and how we've applied it to our pastures and other areas. Here's how I've been applying them in the garden.

Example: one of my cowpea beds. It was one of the first beds I double-dug 2-and-a-half years ago for a hugelkultur swale bed.

Most of the plants are dead, and much of the mulch has decomposed.

Living root in the ground, because there is symbiotic relationship between living plant roots and soil microorganisms. It's these organisms that do the work of building soil.

Instead of pulling the plants, I cut them off just above ground. The
dead roots will add organic matter to the soil as they decompose.
CAVEAT: I do pull weeds by the roots. I only leave veggie roots.

Of the living cowpeas, I cut off most of the vine, but leave some leaves.
This keeps living roots in the ground, which feed soil organisms.

No mechanical disturbance. Some soil disturbance is natural; birds scratch and critters dig. Using a shovel leaves chunks intact and the microorganisms can recover. Tilling destroys the soil ecosystem.

Soil covered at all times. Most of us learn about this the hard way. Leave soil bare, and nature will plant it with all kinds of "weeds." Better to get it planted with what we want from the get-go.

 I neither raked up nor tilled in the leaf mulch. Rather, I left it, covered it
with woodchip compost, seeded, & covered the seeds with more compost.

Diversity of plant species - each bed is planted with root crops, greens, and a sprinkling of low growing Dutch clover.

Animal impact - I admit that animal impact is minimal in the garden. Occasionally, I fence some of it off for the goats with the electric netting. Cats make an impact as well, but not a good one! They seem to think that any freshly planted bed is a litter box!

While I was doing that, Dan milled new border planks for the beds.

Just waiting for everything to grow.

This is definitely a work-smarter-not-harder approach to gardening! I've even had some success in keeping the dreaded wire grass at bay. I'll have another post with pictures on that soon. In the meantime, here are the links to my soil building series that I mentioned above.

I especially recommend that you watch those videos. They explain the rationale behind the five principles and give excellent examples of why they work.

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