Improve Soil Health for a Climate-Resilient Garden

Soils, plants, and animals are highly interdependent. Soils support and feed microbes and plants which feed animals. Dead plants and soil critters replenish the soils’ organic matter and nutrient supply, completing the cycle. We know that healthy soils produce healthy plants. Many experts believe that improving soil health is the most important thing we can do to make our farms and gardens more climate-resilient. 

Why are soils so important in dealing with climate change? 

  • They store huge amounts of carbon in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2) and organic matter, all of the living, dead, and decomposing plants, microbes, and animals that live in soil. Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas that is warming the planet. Deforestation, the removal of wetlands and peatlands, and soil tillage cause the release of huge amounts of CO2. Warmer temperatures cause more rapid organic matter decomposition and turnover, especially if soils are tilled and uncovered.
  • Climate change is causing mid-Atlantic weather to be warmer and wetter with more extreme weather events, including periodic drought. This increases the risk of soil erosion and nutrient run-off from intense rainfall, and the risk of plant stress from excessively wet or dry soils. 
Soil from a landscaping project that moved off-site in 2018. Maryland averaged 73 inches of rain that year!
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Vegetable Crops to Plant Now

Mid-September is a transition time for vegetable gardeners. You may be doing some garden clean-up, recording the successes and failures you were too busy to think about when they happened, and deciding how to manage the soil this fall and winter. We’re also slowly removing the warm season plants that are well-past their prime and wondering how to keep the fresh produce coming! It’s too late to plant peas (they rarely do well in the fall) or a late crop of broccoli or cabbage. So what to do with the open beds and spaces that won’t be planted in garlic, leeks, and shallots or cover crops?

There’s a long list of crops, mostly leafy greens, which you can plant now and harvest before and after frost arrives. And you can probably find seed packets for some crops in local garden centers, hardware stores, and food markets:

  • Leaf lettuce, spinach, radish
  • Broccoli raab (rapini), kales, collards, mustards, arugula
  • All sorts of Asian greens such as tatsoi, mizuna, mibuna, komatsuna, hon tsai tai, autumn poem, and Chinese broccoli
  • Turnips produce delicious fall greens. Some of the quicker maturing cultivars like ‘Hakurei,’ planted in early-mid September, will have enough time to make turnips before frost

Mixed fall greens in a Salad Box
Mixed fall greens in a Salad Box. Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld, UME

Making it Work

Start by removing crop debris and raking the soil so that it’s relatively smooth. Spread an inch or so of compost or rake in 2 lbs. of cottonseed meal (6-2-1) or equivalent fertilizer per 100 sq. ft. of growing area. If you practice no-till techniques simply move mulch to the side and drag a garden tool, tool handle, or stick through the soil to make a shallow furrow. Wet the ground prior to planting if the soil is dry. Seeds will germinate quickly in warm, moist soil.

No-till planting- mulch is moved to the sides and a stick makes the furrow Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld, UME
No-till planting- mulch is moved to the sides and a stick makes the furrow.
Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld, UME

Fall gardening means shorter days, lower sun angle, and less intense sunlight so it helps to increase the recommended space between seeds. Cover the planted rows, beds, and containers with a floating row cover to reduce insect feeding, increase plant growth, protect against frost injury, and extend the harvest period. The cover can float on top of the crop or be draped over a frame. Secure the cover to the ground with rocks, pins, bricks, or boards. Consider using heavier floating row covers in October/November, and for overwintering crops, that give 5-10⁰ F. of frost protection. Type “floating row covers” into an online search to find a variety of sellers.

: #9 wire makes an excellent support for floating row covers Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld, UME
#9 wire makes an excellent support for floating row covers.
Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld, UME

Floating row covers protect fall crops at the Howard Co. Conservancy Community Garden Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld, UME
Floating row covers protect fall crops at the Howard Co. Conservancy Community Garden.
Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld, UME

Water regularly, thin plants if needed, and start harvesting leafy greens, either by breaking off outer leaves or cutting plants to the ground to re-grow. Kale, spinach, and arugula, will overwinter reliably with floating row cover protection in all but the coldest areas of Maryland (would love to hear from Western Maryland gardeners about their experiences). These crops will re-grow impressively in spring.

Overwintered spinach coming back to life in spring Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld, UME
Overwintered spinach coming back to life in spring. Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld, UME

Don’t delay- the time is now! Taking advantage of longer, warmer fall weather for growing vegetable crops is a smart climate change adaption strategy.

By Jon Traunfeld, Extension Specialist

No-till gardening and weed barriers

In a mid-March post, I wrote about the advantages of using heavy-duty weed barrier fabric to smother weeds and create a no-till plant bed. In mid-June, I found myself with two beds that were starting to get weedy. The winter cover crop that had protected the soil was quickly decomposing and crabgrass and broadleaf weeds were emerging.

Rapidly growing weeds are quickly brought under control with weed barrier fabric.

I threw on 3-ft. wide strips of the weed barrier material and after five days of very hot weather all of the vegetation was dead. Continue reading

Beyond dead dirt: healthy soil is alive

This post is modified from an article originally published in The Delmarva Farmer (2/13/2018)

Most people would probably be surprised to know that bacterial cells outnumber human cells in our bodies by 10-to-1 and that just one teaspoon of healthy soil contains more than 1 billion bacteria and fungi (microbes for short). Yuck, right?  Well, not exactly.

SoilMicrobes have gotten a bad rap because the small fraction of bacteria and fungi that cause disease get all the attention.  In fact, most microbes are friendly, and neither humans nor plants can live without them.

Although the chemical and physical properties of soil have dominated discussion (and soil testing) in the past, the focus is now changing as soil is recognized as a living ecosystem.  With this change, it is becoming clear that sustained agricultural productivity requires farming practices that protect the soil and increase the diversity of life underground.  Home gardeners can also benefit from gardening strategies that protect and promote the living things in their garden soil.

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