By Gabe Brown, Soil Health Academy Instructor

It’s the time of the year when many of us are thinking about growing a garden.  With the ongoing pandemic highlighting the importance of having a healthy immune system, it is more important than ever that we do what we can to ensure that we are growing and consuming nutrient-dense food.

How do we do that?  It starts with understanding.  We need to understand how plants get nutrients.  No, it is not as easy as buying a bag of fertilizer from the local garden center.  Plants get nutrients via soil biology. That’s right, the nutrient density of the food you grow depends on soil biology!

Time for a Garden

So, to promote soil biology, we need to provide a desirable home and habitat for the microbes that live in the soil. How we take care of our garden directly determines the nutrient density of the food we grow.

Growing a garden begins with preparation.  Many of us grew up believing that a garden needs to be tilled in order to have a “proper” seedbed.  Actually, that is one of the worst things you can do.

Our soils are sub-aquatic ecosystems. Biology lives in and on thin films of water in the pore spaces between soil aggregates.  Tillage destroys soil structure and these aggregates, which are key for water infiltration and in providing a home for biology.  No home, no biology.  No biology, no nutrients.

Some of you may ask, “How am I going to be able to plant seeds if I don’t till?”  The answer is to have a well-aggregated soil that is covered with “armor.”  That armor, or skin as some prefer to call it, protects the soil from wind erosion, water erosion, moisture evaporation, high temperatures and it provides food for biology, including worms.

We can provide soil with armor in a variety of ways.  The best way is to grow a cover crop and then roll it down.  While alive, the plants that make up this cover crop take nutrients out of the atmosphere and, through photosynthesis, convert those nutrients into a myriad of carbon compounds. Plants, in turn, use some of those carbon compounds for growth and some are translocated to roots where they are exuded into the soil to feed biology.

Once the cover crop has grown, rolling it down will allow you to plant into it and the resulting decaying plant residue will continue to provide armor for the soil.

To plant through this armor, simply “part” the residue with a hoe or rake.  Do not part the residue any wider than needed to plant your seeds or seedlings, because that will only encourage weed seeds to germinate.  If you do have some weeds starting to grow, just cover them with grass clippings or hay.

The cover crop can also include species that attract pollinators and provide a home for predator insects that will keep pest species in check.

If you live in an environment that does not allow enough time to grow a cover crop, roll it down and also seed your vegetables, a very good option is to create a larger garden space.  This allows you to grow a cover crop on part of the garden while growing your vegetables on the rest.  The next year, you can plant your vegetables into the rolled down cover crop plot and plant cover crops in the previous year’s vegetable plot. Then simply alternate from year-to-year.

Another way to provide armor is to use grass clippings or hay.  If using grass clippings, make sure they were not sprayed with herbicides, otherwise it may harm your vegetables.  If using hay, I would suggest using alfalfa hay.  It tends to have fewer weed and grass seeds and its higher nitrogen content is beneficial to soil biology.

When planting your garden, follow the principles of nature.  Nature loves diversity.  In nature, plants are much more collaborative than competitive.  Do not plant wide-spaced rows.  Instead, for example, plant a row of sweet corn and plant a row of green beans 8-12 inches on one side of the sweet corn row and plant a row of peas, 8-12 inches on the other side.  The peas and beans will climb up the corn and, being legumes, will help provide nitrogen to the sweet corn.

If at all possible, run some chickens in your garden, to eat the grasshoppers and grubs.  Allow them to glean any vegetables left in the fall.

Use these methods and you will be following the principles of nature:

  1. No mechanical or chemical disturbance.
  2. Armor covering the soil surface.
  3. Diversity.
  4. Living root in the soil as long as possible.
  5. Animal integration.

By following these principles, you will soon notice positive changes and will enjoy gardening even more.  Your plants will be more prolific; they will be less prone to pests and disease; their colors will be more vibrant; and your tastebuds will enjoy unparalleled flavors.  To top it off, your gut microbes will enjoy those nutrients and provide your immune system with the boost it needs.

For your health, plant a garden.

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