Where I grew up, we did not have a county fair, but instead a “Buckwheat Festival” which celebrated buckwheat pancakes. I’ve often heard stories about “old timers” planting buckwheat because it could thrive in poor soils. Buckwheat is not as well known or common as it was several years ago; however, it does have the potential to be a great addition to your landscape and would be a wonderful summer cover crop, which is just one way to help improve soils for a more climate- resilient garden.
Positives about buckwheat include that it matures quickly, is easily seeded by broadcasting, is relatively inexpensive to purchase by seed, is not “fussy” about where it grows, and germinates quickly. It does not mind low-pH soils and can even out-compete weeds! It has shallow roots and is easily terminated — so planting a new crop after it is no problem — or, if it is still growing in the fall of the year, a frost will kill it. Lastly, it is a wonderful nectar and pollen source for a wide variety of insects.
There is a whole group of plants in the Leguminosae (a.k.a Fabaceae) plant family and are referred to as legumes, a word that many people may have heard but may not know the special details about. Have you ever heard that legumes make their own nitrogen or that they are plants that never need nitrogen fertilizer? Well, both those statements are true!
Healthy soil can sustain plant growth, prevent environmental damage, mitigate stormwater runoff, and help recharge and clean groundwater.
Soil type is probably not something that people consider when they move to a new property, so it reminds me of the statement “you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit”. However, it is no secret that soils are not all created equally in their ability to grow plants. To make matters worse, the soil is constantly being manipulated to accommodate our needs. When infrastructure like roads and buildings are constructed soil is moved and in many instances, there may not be any native soil profiles still intact on the property. Often a small layer of topsoil is put back onto the landscape after construction and regrading of the land, but there is no guarantee that it was the topsoil found there before construction began. Once the excavation is completed there is no going back. This article from Penn State Extension, Can Disturbed Soils Grow Healthy Landscape? is a great read. If you suspect that the soil you are planting vegetables into has been hauled in from another location, it is wise to get the soil tested for lead content. Some labs also test for heavy metals like arsenic (As), cadmium (Cd), and chromium (Cr), which can be found in soils on old industrial sites.
Soil is the gift that can keep giving, but there are some management practices that can help improve all soils. The physical, chemical and biological processes of soil are all interconnected. If you want to learn more about your own soil, I recommend the Kansas State publication that walks you through the steps to Estimate Soil Texture by Feel. Knowing the soil texture in your garden is one piece of the soil puzzle.
Soil organic matter increases water holding capacity, improves water infiltration, serves as a source of micro and macronutrients, and provides large particles for micro and macroorganisms to break down. Soils that are high in clay or sand can benefit from the addition of organic matter, which comes from anything that was once alive. Macro and microorganisms help to break down organic matter and release nutrients into the soil. There are many forms of organic matter that include compost, plant material, livestock waste, humus or leaf litter.
Cover crops are another way to improve your soil because they capture excess nutrients that are left over from the growing season and prevent the nutrients from becoming environmental pollutants. Cover crops also prevent soil erosion from wind and rain during the late fall, winter, and early spring seasons when weather is not appropriate for most vegetable or agricultural crops. Once cover crops are terminated they can be plowed into the soil and add organic matter. This is called green manure. I’ve found that in my own garden, cover crops can also help prevent weeds from growing. Some cover crops like forage radishes die and create natural pathways through the soil for water to flow.
Other management practices to help your soil include regular soil testing to monitor any changes and keep the soil pH in the correct range for your desired plants. Limit soil compaction by keeping vehicles, equipment, and even people from walking through gardens, especially when the soil is wet. At the very least, I think the best practice for improving and keeping your soil healthy is to leave it alone as much as possible, keep it covered with plants that are not invasive, and let the natural processes of the Earth work together to benefit the soil.
By Ashley Bodkins, Senior Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Garrett County, Maryland. Read more posts by Ashley.
This year, the University of Maryland Extension Master Gardener Grow It Eat It Program celebrates the resource that supports all life on earth – soil! Look for soil education programs offered by your local Master Gardener program, and visit the Home & Garden Information Center website for more information about soil health.
As a first-year college student studying horticulture (and later agronomy) I had no idea what I was in for when I signed up for that first Introduction to Soil Science course. Growing up, gardening and working on my family’s dairy farm, soil was something that we often talked about, mainly if it was wet or dry, rocky or smooth, and of course to stay out of the garden when it was wet; however, I really didn’t understand how important managing it was or how many different parts could be studied!
The technical definition of soil is the natural body composed of solids, liquids, gasses, and living matter that is capable of supporting plant life and has properties resulting from the five factors of soil formation. Wow! A mouthful of words, but a key point from this definition is the word NATURAL— soil is what covers the earth naturally and helps to absorb and disperse solar radiation and precipitation. It also provides an anchor for plant life. With harsh treatment, this living portion can be damaged and thus can take many years to build back. It is important to know too that healthy soils help to mitigate climate change as they store a huge amount of carbon in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2) and organic matter.
Next, go deep. Scoop a few soil samples in your garden, going at least 6 inches down. Mix the sample and let it dry. Scoop a cup or two into the bag, box it up, and mail it to a lab.
You’ll have your results in a week or two. The test will tell you your soil’s pH, nutrient levels, and percent of organic matter. You’ll also get specific fertilizer recommendations for what you’re growing.
You can also help keep soil healthy by not walking on it, especially when it’s wet. That causes compaction. Air, water, nutrients, and roots have a tough time moving through dense soil.
Instead, create paths or strategically place stepping stones so you can walk between rows of plants.
I know you’re eager to garden, but don’t work wet soil. This also causes compaction.
To test if your soil is dry enough to work, grab a handful of and squeeze it into a ball. Now, bounce it gently. If it stays intact, your soil is too wet to work. If it crumbles it’s ready.
And never, ever till wet soil. That wrecks its structure and the soil community. Think Armageddon.
Great gardens grow from the bottom up. Protect and improve your soil to ensure it rewards you with year after year of productive plantings.
By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.
Food gardens are in transition in October. Cool-season crops hit their stride and cover crops replace tired warm-season crops. Rather than put the entire garden to bed we may decide to coax more food from the ground with row covers, cold frames, and over-wintering crops. Either way, fall cleanup (“garden sanitation”) and soil protection and improvement this fall help ensure a healthy and productive garden next year.
Remove stakes, trellises, hoses, temporary fences, plant labels, and other gardening materials.
Clean up and remove all above-ground plant residues. Many diseases can survive over the winter on small pieces of leaves and stems. Some pest insects will hunker down under protective layers of dead weeds and crop debris. Either bag up and dispose of these plant wastes or compost them. All parts of the bin or pile must heat up to >140⁰ F. to kill plant pathogens and weed seeds. (Japanese stiltgrass should be bagged up with regular trash for landfill disposal.)
Empty the growing media from container gardens and store it in a trash can or heavy-duty trash bags. Soil-less growing media and compost lose nutrients and break down physically over time. Mix last year’s growing media 50:50 with fresh growing media and/or compost next year.
Soil Protection and Improvement Tips:
Instead of pulling plants out of the ground, cut them off at ground level leaving the root system intact. This reduces soil disturbance while adding organic matter.
Don’t leave the soil bare. Cover it with shredded leaves or some other type of mulch to prevent erosion. Rake leaves into a loose pile and mow over them with a lawnmower to cut them up. They will be much less likely to blow away if they are broken up. The leaves will reduce weed growth and can be retained as mulch next spring.
It’s getting late for planting cover crops. If you have seed, you can take a chance on sowing before the end of October. The soil temperature should be at least 45⁰ F. to 50⁰ F. for germination of cover crop seed. You can enter your zip code to learn the approximate temperature of soil in your area.
Bury plant-based food scraps in garden soil. This keeps them out of the landfill and recycles plant nutrients in the root zone. Unfenced gardens may attract wildlife.
As much as possible, use organic matter generated from your yard and household. Organic matter brought in from outside sources carries potential risks. Manure, straw, and hay may be contaminated with long-residual phenoxy herbicides or troublesome weed species.
Invasive jumping worms have been appearing more frequently in gardens and landscapes. They are spread by the movement of soil and organic matter like mulches.
Test your soil. For $15-$20 you can have an accredited lab test your soil. You’ll get some important baseline information on soil pH, nutrient levels, and organic matter. Lead testing is included with some basic soil tests (e.g., University of Delaware). Most vegetable and fruit crops grow best in 6.0 to 6.8 pH soils. If your pH is too high or too low some nutrients may become unavailable to plants, causing deficiency symptoms, or overly abundant, causing toxicity symptoms. If recommended by the lab, you can apply lime or sulfur to your soil this fall so they can start changing soil pH.
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.
Microbes 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.