The 5 Principles Of Soil Health Were Developed For Permaculture & Farmers, But They Also Apply To Gardeners & For Allotments.

In this article I’m discussing the five principles of soil health as, though often considered as being more applicable to farmers and those practising permaculture on a large scale, they can be applied to even the smallest garden or plot.

So here’s my updated explanation of each principle for gardeners.

Soil Health Principle One: Keeping Soils Covered

Soil compaction and loss of soil structure means the plant roots can't penetrate. The plant is then stunted and suffers when drought hits. We then see The Effects Of Drought On Plants?
Soil compaction and loss of soil structure means the plant roots can’t penetrate. The plant is then stunted and suffers when drought hits. We then see The Effects Of Drought On Plants?

In nature soil is rarely bare. Nature abhors a vacuum and will fill any space with new life as soon as it can. So if, due to landslide, erosion or whatever, land is exposed, plants will soon colonise it. This is the natural state of things. We’d unwise to ignore what nature has been doing for millennia.

The easiest way is to keep your soil covered at all times is with plant residue or cover crops. This is especially important in the UK’s wet winters, as it helps to prevent erosion and keep soil in place. Especially now we are getting more heavy rains and flash floods. Plant residues/mulches, such as straw, leaves, and grass clippings, also help to improve soil structure and fertility and improve nutrient recycling and the nitrogen cycle. Cover crops, such as ryegrass, clover, and vetch, can be grown over the winter months to protect the soil and provide food for soil organisms.

Or better still, where it makes sense, grow winter crops. Crops such as brassicas and leeks are very hardy and can stand a lot of cold weather, winds and even snow.

Think about the soil cover as being a suit of armour, there to protect your delicate soil.

Here are some tips for implementing soil armour in your garden:

  • Collect grass clippings and scatter amongst your veg. I use grass mowings to suppress weeds and protect the soil from extreme heat, heavy rains and the cold, depending on the time of year I apply them.
  • If you don’t have mown grass add a layer of mulch or well rotted farmyard manure around your plants to help retain moisture and suppress weeds. It’ll also feed your plants.
  • Plant cover crops in empty beds and borders over the winter. Never leave land empty for more than a fee days at most. In my area the farmers are brilliant at this. A few weeks ago they spent the morning cutting a field of maize at the bottom of my garden. In the afternoon they cut the hedges and overnight they sowed the new crop of cereals using min-til (minimum cultivation is a process where they don’t plough, they cultivate the top inch or so of soil only, or drill the seed direct into the soil without any cultivation). So the soil was bare for the absolute minimum amount of time. Gap planting is a way to do this in the garden throughout the year, so land is never left fallow (in my view the whole idea of resting the ground, or fallowing land, is trying to fight the way nature has evolved over millennia).
  • Use green manures to add nitrogen to the soil and improve soil structure. Crops such as lava beans (broad beans) can add fertility and provide a crop. So can some other vegetables. Other green manures are sown to protect the soil and add carbon, fibre and nutrients back into the soil when they die. If you choose species such as buckwheat, they die when the frost hits them. So no effort is needed to clear the land. And you could put the buckwheat between rows of brassicas that will mature in spring. That way you have the soil covered all winter with less risk of erosion and it’ll suppress the weeds.

What Keeping Soils Covered … Doesn’t Mean

Cover should be natural. It doesn’t mean covering the land for long periods with plastic sheets, old carpets, weed suppression material or similar. I’m less concerned if its just for a few weeks to warm soil up in spring but otherwise I believe it is a bad idea (I’m sure many will argue they’ve done it for years with no problem and it works for the. Fine, carry on then, but I’ve seen so many problems from the mass of slugs under sheets to the weed problems when all the weeds eventually get some dayight and swamp out crops!)

Soil Health Principle Two: Minimise Soil Disturbance

Cultivation, or tillage, is the process of turning over the soil, and we now know it can be harmful to soil health. Tilling disrupts the soil structure, releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and makes the soil more vulnerable to erosion. In the UK, where we’ve our far share of heavy clay, excessive cultivation can lead to compaction and soil panning. This makes it difficult for water and air to penetrate the soil, and it restricts root growth. To minimise soil disturbance, UK gardeners should use no-till or reduced-till practices whenever possible. Better still in my view, is No Dig. And I say that after decades of ploughing, rotovating and deep cultivating. I now realise those practices did more harm than good and wish I’d understood this earlier.

Here are some tips for minimising soil disturbance in your garden:

  • If you don’t want to go No Dig, avoid digging over your entire garden every year.
  • Use a fork to loosen the soil around plants rather than a spade.
  • Add compost or other organic matter to improve soil structure and reduce the need for cultivation.
  • Amend your soil where you can to improve drainage and reduce soil compaction.

Soil Health Principle Three: Maximise Plant Diversity

Growing a variety of plants with different root structures and nutrient needs is beneficial for soil health. This helps to improve soil structure, increase nutrient availability, and reduce pest and disease pressure. In the UK, there are a wide variety of native plants that can be grown as vegetables, flowers, and herbs. For example, deep-rooted plants, such as carrots and parsnips, help to improve drainage and aeration. And non-native such as daikon do a wonderful job of breaking up the soil whilst producing a veg to eat. Nitrogen-fixing plants, such as beans and peas, add nitrogen to the soil.

Here are some tips for increasing plant diversity in your garden:

  • Grow a variety of vegetables, flowers, and herbs. Mix them together, with flowering plants in veg beds and veggies in flower beds. Many plants are edimentals, that is to say edible ornamentals. So they fit into either the veg or flower beds. We Brits have perhaps been a little fixated on separating plants out into categories and could relax this attitude a bit.
  • Choose plants with different root depths and nutrient needs.
  • Growing crops in rows or big beds is traditional. But more and more gardeners are now growing in beds (raised or not) and can easily mix small batches of plants together with, say, a dozen or two beetroot next to a small block of lettuce, next to a few spring onion. The diversity means pests find it harder to find the plants they want to eat, nutrients extraction is diverse and we can just drop in a few module raised crops as spaces appear due to harvest. Clearly some crops are less flexible, I’m thinking soft fruit, asparagus etc. But that’s no problem as we can just drop the other plants around them. This method mitigates against traditional crop rotation. But rotations were developed as a farming method and have always had limited use in gardens and on allotments.

Soil Health Principle Four: Continual Living Plant Or Roots.

Keeping a living root in the soil as much of the year as possible is another important principle of soil health. This helps to feed the soil food web and protect the soil from erosion. In the UK, where winters can be cold and wet, it can be challenging to keep a living root in the soil year-round. However, there are a number of ways to do this, such as growing winter veg, sowing winter cover crops and using mulch to protect the soil from frost.

Here are some tips for keeping a continual live plant/root in your garden:

  • Sow cover crops/green manures in empty beds and borders over the winter.
  • Use mulch to protect the soil from frost and retain moisture.
  • Grow winter vegetables, such as kale, leeks, spinach, overwintered peas & beans, a well as brassicas.
  • Sow early-spring crops, such as carrots, peas, and potatoes, as soon as the soil is workable.

Soil Health Principle Five: “Livestock” Integration

This really has an agricultural emphasis and integrating livestock into the gardening system isn’t easy. Not many of us have sheep or cattle!

But in a sense it is possible in a way that benefits the soil and it is an important principle of soil health. It can be done by composting livestock manure and using it to feed the garden. Livestock can also be used to graze cover crops and help prepare the soil for planting. And if you don’t have four legged livestock think about poultry. Chicken and ducks can be very useful in the garden. They can clear a lot of slugs and other pests.

Here are some more tips for integrating livestock into your garden:

  • Compost livestock manure and use it to feed your soil.
  • Alternatively, apply well rotted farmyard manures direct to the soil. Leave them on the surface overwinter and the worms will take them down and improve the soil structure without digging.
  • Allow “livestock” to graze cover crops in the garden during the winter.
  • Use livestock to help prepare the soil for planting by tilling with its feet. Chicken can be very good at scratching the soil surface and getting it ready for seed sowing. And where I lay deep layers of grass mowing I find that the blackbirds are often amongst it searching for hidden treasures! They also scatter the surface enough to dislodge any weed seedling that dare to show their cotyledons.

By following these tips, I believe the majority of UK gardeners can greatly improve the health of their soil and create more productive and sustainable gardens.

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