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Healthy Soil for Healthy People

Healthy soil is the key to healthy food and, in turn, healthy humans — find out how to improve yours.

| September/October 2017

  • Tilling your soil in the fall actually does little good for the garden. It's best to limit digging only to when it's necessary for planting.
    Photo by iStock/Martin Poole
  • Adding compost is the best way to improve soil quality.
    Photo by iStock/nixoncreative
  • A healthy young sweet pepper seedling in a pile of rich brown soil: fresh, young and full of life!
    Photo by RapidEye

Organic gardening requires a deep interest and an optimistic outlook, but the biggest need is healthy soil. This time of year, with many fewer crops waiting to be planted, opportunities to improve our garden soil open up daily. Three of the simplest soil-improvement methods — composting, cover cropping and mulching — give the best returns when they are undertaken in the fall, perhaps because this closely follows nature’s blueprint. With no human help, fallen leaves and spent plants form a patchy winter mulch, with cold-hardy weeds popping up in open spaces.

Off-season soil improvement methods make the most of these natural seasonal processes. Mulches and cover crops support the soil’s determination to cover itself with something, for example a fuzz of winter weeds. Soil does not like to be bare in any season, and bare soil will always attempt to heal its open “wounds” with weeds. Mulches and cover crops do much more by increasing the soil’s organic matter content and its microbial diversity, which in turn enhance its ability to store nutrients and water. A garden that is neatly tucked in for winter is also a reassuring sight on cold, dreary days.

Make and Spread Compost

To get access to your soil, start by pulling up spent plants and weeds by the roots, and cut them into smaller pieces before throwing them on your compost pile or into an enclosed composter. Several pest insects and common diseases can overwinter in plant tissues, but they don’t have a chance in the hot chaos of a compost pile. Pulling plants so the roots rot in compost rather than in garden beds also can help prevent root-rot diseases, because soil microorganisms that depend on dying roots are deprived of an easy food supply.

With withered plants out of the way, consider spreading an inch or two of homemade compost over the beds, even if it is coarse and chunky. Compost made from summer’s garden waste is not especially rich in plant nutrients, but it is a treasure trove for the soil’s food web of bacteria and fungi. Spreading compost over resting beds boosts soil biodiversity, and creates a pleasing habitat for crickets and other voracious eaters of weed seeds.

Try Winter Cover Crops

Cover crops that are sown in fall and either pulled up or turned under in spring hold the soil with their fine network of roots, help the soil handle excess water, and even help hold nutrients in the soil. Studies from Iowa have shown that rye and other grassy cover crops can reduce winter soil erosion and nutrient losses by more than half.

Cereal rye, which usually can be purchased as “rye berries” in health-food stores, will germinate and grow in cool soil, so seeds can be planted well into fall in most climates. Hard winter wheat “berries” can be planted the same way, but some of the hardest-working winter cover crops — nitrogen-fixing vetches and clovers — need to be sown in September, while the soil is still warm.

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