November 2, 2019

5 Principles of Soil Health: In the Garden

By the end of summer the garden was looking pretty raggedy, so for the past several weeks I've been busy cleaning out the beds, transplanting fall seedlings, and sowing root crops. Late, I know, but we had very hot weather all the way through the first week of October. I waited for cooler temperatures and rain to moisten the soil.

While I worked, I took some photos, because I want to make a record of my new gardening workflow. Specifically, I want to make a note of the principles we've learned from videos by Gabe Brown (Keys To Building a Healthy Soil) and Ray Archuleta (Soil Health Principles). They discuss five specific principles, all learned from observing natural processes.

5 Principles of Soil Health
  1. No mechanical disturbance
  2. Soil covered at all times
  3. Diversity of plant species
  4. Living roots in the ground as long as possible
  5. Animal impact
These principles have not only changed how I do things, but how I see things. They have changed my perception of soil stewardship. At the end of this blog post is a list of posts detailing what we've learned and how we've applied it to our pastures and other areas. Here's how I've been applying them in the garden.

Example: one of my cowpea beds. It was one of the first beds I double-dug 2-and-a-half years ago for a hugelkultur swale bed.

Most of the plants are dead, and much of the mulch has decomposed.

Living root in the ground, because there is symbiotic relationship between living plant roots and soil microorganisms. It's these organisms that do the work of building soil.

Instead of pulling the plants, I cut them off just above ground. The
dead roots will add organic matter to the soil as they decompose.
CAVEAT: I do pull weeds by the roots. I only leave veggie roots.

Of the living cowpeas, I cut off most of the vine, but leave some leaves.
This keeps living roots in the ground, which feed soil organisms.

No mechanical disturbance. Some soil disturbance is natural; birds scratch and critters dig. Using a shovel leaves chunks intact and the microorganisms can recover. Tilling destroys the soil ecosystem.

Soil covered at all times. Most of us learn about this the hard way. Leave soil bare, and nature will plant it with all kinds of "weeds." Better to get it planted with what we want from the get-go.

 I neither raked up nor tilled in the leaf mulch. Rather, I left it, covered it
with woodchip compost, seeded, & covered the seeds with more compost.

Diversity of plant species - each bed is planted with root crops, greens, and a sprinkling of low growing Dutch clover.

Animal impact - I admit that animal impact is minimal in the garden. Occasionally, I fence some of it off for the goats with the electric netting. Cats make an impact as well, but not a good one! They seem to think that any freshly planted bed is a litter box!

While I was doing that, Dan milled new border planks for the beds.

Just waiting for everything to grow.

This is definitely a work-smarter-not-harder approach to gardening! I've even had some success in keeping the dreaded wire grass at bay. I'll have another post with pictures on that soon. In the meantime, here are the links to my soil building series that I mentioned above.

I especially recommend that you watch those videos. They explain the rationale behind the five principles and give excellent examples of why they work.


Hill Top Post said...

There's some great information here. I appreciate the tip on leaving roots in the soil to decompose.

Leigh said...

Hill Top, thanks! It's funny how one can think they know "everything" and subsequently learn a lot!

Rain said...

Good post Leigh. It's really important to have good soil, I think we tend to overdo it a lot of the time, just purely out of not really knowing what to do!

Sam I Am...... said...

I definitely need to learn more about this. Thank you for the links!

Ann said...

How regional is "no mechanical disturbance?" We know from experience here (CO front range) that if we don't turn over a bed at least once a year it happily returns to solid, almost un-diggable clay. Also, we find a lot of cutworms and pupae to kill when we turn over a bed. We don't rototill once a bed is established. But we do turn it over once a year with a shovel, digging in compost when that bed's turn comes. (We only produce enough compost for a few beds each year so we rotate them.)

The Wykeham Observer said...

My garden has improved a lot since I stopped tilling. Phil

Leigh said...

Rain, it's easy to take more than we put back. I know I had to figure out the best way to do that with what we've got, and I think for now, this is the best we've done for our soil so far.

Sam, soil science is a fascinating subject! It's been an answer to a prayer and an eye opener, for sure.

Ann, I don't think a shovel is considered mechanical, as in not a machine like a rototiller or tractor pulled plow and cultivator. From what I understand, it's the pulverizing of the soil that destroys texture, humus, and networks the microorganisms create. Those two videos are absolutely excellent at explaining it. Figuring out how to add more organic matter than we use each year has been a challenge for us, and my yield and plant health suffered for it. We all have to work out solutions to our particular gardening challenges!

Phil, we used to till to try to keep the wiregrass under control. If allowed to, it will completely take over and choke everything else out. My double dug beds and aisles covered with cardboard and mulch have really helped. We really like having eliminated the chore of tilling.

Goatldi said...

I got a gold star simply by default?

When I moved here one of the most glaring “got to go now” was a rather long area with a border of logs on one side and rocks on the other .

It had two large cedar trees, an ancient Lilac struggling to survive and two very tropical looking plants which I was told were some type of lily. The kicker was some variety of ground cover (not ivy) but very invasive and had been allowed to take over the whole area and was regularly watered by a auto drip system.

I pulled the whole drip system and waited for it to die. Then I string mowed the vines and removed the leafy parts to the burn pile. Yes I will wait for rain before burning 😝

Then I sat and waited some more for the roots to die. Just last week I removed the dead roots with a shovel by gently turning and raking. Shook the remaining dirt clinging to the roots and they too went to the burn pile. I don’t want to see that stuff raise from the dead!

Now reading this information I think I did the “right” methods . Garlic goes in tomorrow. Now if I can just eradicate all the darn weed cloth the previous owners laid down I might be on the soil restoration

Cockeyed Jo said...

We just weed whacked ours to about an inch high, buried it all under wood chips, straw and compost (3' worth) and covered it all to let it compost in place. Within two months the weeds were pushing their way back through all of it. I ended up pulling up the black weed barrier, weeding it all by hand, and putting another 1' of wood chips on top before covering it again. Finally no weed breakthroughs. So we should be set for spring planting.

I'm replanting garlic, leeks, and onions next week in the orchard, God willing.

Leigh said...

Goatldi, weed cloth! I made that mistake once too. One of my worst! It sounds like the previous owners didn't have a vegetable garden. (?) I should clarify that this is how I'm working previously prepared beds! Yeah, starting from scratch is a challenge! Sounds like you did very good indeed.

Jo, established weeds are a real battle, especially some of the weeds here in the SE. Nice to hear you made some progress! I know it was a lot of work though.

Goatldi said...

Weed cloth to me is just about the hand of the devil. Until we get a good couple of rains I won’t know exactly where it all is .

No they weren’t gardeners of any sort. They in fact spent 12 years in this lovely cabin and never so much as opened a window. But yet they had horses paradox no?

Goatldi said...


Since I cannot recall any mention of it could you advise from what you have studied the wisdom of if your soil has been woefully abused over the years is it permissible to turn it with a rototiller (it is very packed too) and then proceed in the appropriate fashion?

Leigh said...

Goatldi, to each their own I suppose. Seems like in general, horse folks are a different sort. As far as tilling, even in Permaculture they do earthworks, i.e. an initial arranging of the land to suit the goals. I double dug those beds I'm working in this post, so I got things started with major disruption. But the soil was poor anyway, and I had a plan for improvement. So yes, I'd do what was necessary to make a start. On the other hand, some people till regularly and have wonderful gardens. I'm just happy with this way and am getting better results!

Goatldi said...

Laughing here and not meaning to take a poke at any livestock group. But I have many horse friends and yes they do see the world from a different perspective. Although the dear friend who sold me my first goat was a Morgan horse breeder long before she was a goat person. Good to know what you say. I will take a stab at the tilling aspect this winter. That way I can eradicate the weed cloth as I can see it and I can also press on in forward motion.

Chris said...

I've seen Gabe Browns video's before. I'll have to see if I've viewed the one, you linked to though. I appreciate Gabe has come from a farming background, so he knows what he's talking about, when it comes to switching to longer-term systems. He's experienced the effects of the short-term, bare soil and till tactics, which only destroyed his soil health and forced him to buy more inputs to get a yield.

Gabe is one of those farmers, who was the canary in the mine. But before it killed him, he got out and found a way to change tracks and make it understandable. Permaculture definitely teaches this too, but not everyone wants to understand permaculture - believing it to be a religious cult, instead of a set of design principles. Gabe however, puts it in simple agragrian terms, specialising in how to treat your soil to get a crop every year.

I found it very interesting these strategies are starting to control the wire grass though. I mean, it makes sense, as it's a plant that evolved to steal broken ground, with a vengeance. Heal the ground, and you steal it's evolutionary advantage away.

When I was removing sweet peas from my container plants recently, I cut them off, instead of pulling them. Even though it's a container, I knew the nitrogen would still be released for the remaining plants. The two silverbeet, have suddenly gotten enormous, compared to another in a different container.

So there's definitely advantages to preserving soil life. As opposed to the clear slate thinking, we've been programmed to adopt. I've enjoyed following your posts, and hope you continue to discuss the topic of soil health, as you learn more.

Cockeyed Jo said...

Leigh, The kicker was, last year I had all the garden weed free (except the ones I wanted like plantain and clover. This year I wasn't able to get out there are they took over and then some.It's like starting from scratch again. The reason I chose weed barrier cloth for the garden area was to allow rain and snow melt to water in the composting material for me. Since we didn't have to till this year, I figured Mel would at least weed her garden, she only did half and didn't mulch in her plants. You know what I say about bare ground and Mother Nature filling it. Yuck!

Leigh said...

Goatldi, I agree, you've got to do some preliminary ground work (hey, a pun!) to get a good start on a new garden. Sorry to hear you have to deal with weed cloth! What a spruce goose that stuff is.

Chris, what amazes me is that Gabe does so well with only about a foot of rain per year. He really has an interesting story.

That's a good idea to leave good roots in containers too. I'll say again that some folks seem to do very well with traditional methods, but areas where we used to till are the most problematic for us now. Live and learn!

Jo, that would be a tough pill to swallow. Having neglected weeding myself in years past, I know what a headache it can become! But it points to the need for constant diligence by the gardener, no matter the techniques.