Soil is not a 'dirty' word
Most people, especially children, have a fascination with soil. For many, there's something satisfying, a feeling of getting "down to earth" with "getting your hands dirty" working with plants in your garden and yard. Many people even relish that "wet dirt smell" (called petrichor) after a good rainstorm or when watering plants.
On the other hand, there are also many people who think that soil is dirty and who admonish their children, "Don't get dirty!" when they play outside.
Soil does not deserve this bad reputation. In fact, soil (or dirt) is one of the key components — along with water, sunshine and air — for sustaining life. Without soil, there would be no life ... no plants, no bugs, no birds, no animals, no humans.
In fact, soil itself is teeming with life. As we view the landscape around us, with the trees and plants and animals, most of us don't even realize that the soil beneath our feet has just as much, or even more, life and diversity of life than what is above ground!
Soil is one of the building blocks of life. Without soil, there's no structure support for anything in life. Soil — especially healthy soil — is one of the key components in creating a healthy life for all living things.
But, some may say, "Soil is dirty? How can that be healthy?" According to the Carlton County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), soil health is very important to life and all of us should be concerned about the health of the soil around us!
To understand what soil health is and what we can do, we first have to understand what soil does and why it's important.
Besides being structural support for growing roots and bearing the weight of people, vehicles and buildings, soil performs other critical jobs needed for life.
First, soil (and the living bacteria and creatures in it) are responsible for decomposing dead plants and animals and turning dead material into nutrients for the living. Most nutrients that plants, animals and people need — such as carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, etc. — are stored, cycled and changed in the soil from dead matter into forms that living plants and animals can use. Simply, the living depend upon the soil and what it provides from the dead. In fact, too little dead matter can cause unhealthy soil.
Second, soil filters out the chemicals, pollutants and other toxic materials from decomposition and disposal. Microbes, bacteria and insects in soil work to buffer and degrade most toxic materials into non-toxic substances, but only as long as the toxic material doesn't overwhelm the soil's filtering and decomposition system. Too much toxicity causes unhealthy soil.
Finally, soil regulates where water goes, whether it permeates into the soil or flows across the land into water bodies. Along with this, soil and plants regulate what the water will carry by either holding onto or releasing objects, such as leaves and branches, oils, salts and chemicals of all types. Too much water can also cause unhealthy soil by washing away too much good organic matter or topsoil or by leaving too many toxic materials.
So, how can we tell if soil is healthy? How can we help it become and stay healthy? According to Laura Christensen and Kelly Smith, conservation technicians (for agriculture and forestry respectively) with Carlton SWCD, there are several things people can do to improve soil health on their property. Here are a few they suggest.
• Add organic matter: This includes composting vegetation and adding it to garden beds, leaving residue from a previous crop in the field, or planting cover crops. According to Christensen, "organic matter enhances nutrient and water-holding capacity, improves soil structure, protects soil from compaction and erosion, and supports a healthy community of soil organisms."
• Avoid excessive tillage and soil compaction: Tilling can do more damage than good as it breaks up the soil structure, destroys habitat for organisms, and actually causes more compaction. For farms and gardens, Christensen encourages people to explore less invasive management techniques such as no-till, cover crops, or strip till.
• Keep the ground covered: "Bare soil is susceptible to water and wind erosion as well as drying and crusting," said Christensen. Landowners can accomplish this in many ways, including leaving crop residue or planting cover crops on the fields. "Growing soil building crops on an upper field (can help) the field below it (become) too wet less often," added Smith.
• Manage pests and nutrients efficient: Chemical fertilizers that are necessary and applied at the proper time and in the proper place can get the job done right. However, Christensen warns that if they are mismanaged, chemicals will "harm non-target organisms and pollute water and air."
• Increase diversity: "Healthy and diverse trees, shrubs and plants help control pest and weed populations as well as minimize disease," according to both Smith and Christensen. In addition, each different plant draws different nutrients and substances from the soil while also giving different substances back to the soil. By diversifying vegetation, we can keep a balance of what's going in and what's going out of the soil as well as guard that no one nutrient is completely stripped out.
• Monitor soil performance: Christensen urges people to make systematic observations to determine whether changes in the soil are significant and to monitor which practices are effective and which are not.
Carlton SWCD staff can assist with any or all of these activities. To begin with, they can help get soil tested to find out how healthy or unhealthy the soil currently is. Whether in a garden, pasture land or farm fields, soil tests can tell a lot about soil, including the levels of organic matter, key nutrients, and compaction.
SWCD staff can also analyze the soil by looking at the landscape and diversity of plants. And, in addition, they can help residents improve soil health through planning and funding assistance, according to Smith.
"Projects we can assist with include crop rotations and cover crops, reducing tillage, livestock grazing and hay land management along with projects to establish or improve trees and shrubs," Smith said. "These projects can reduce weeds, lower your fertilizer bills, increase crop yields, and lengthen growing seasons through drought-flood and hot-cold spells."
Whether we are landowners or not, the health of the soil around us is important. With healthy soil, we have clean air and clean water, healthy crops and forests, and productive gardens and grazing lands which yield nutrient-rich foods for people and animals. Healthy soil also gives all of us the beautiful scenery we enjoy, full of vibrant, colorful flowers and healthy trees, as well as diverse animals and birds and bugs. If you are concerned with what you eat, drink, breathe, or see, you have a stake in the health of our soil. Soil is not a "dirty" word, and, in fact, healthy soil is important, not just for farmers and landowners, but for everyone.