Living Soil Series: Keep your garden soil happy by keeping it covered

Updated: Jun. 2, 2021 at 5:20 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) -Under every great vegetable garden is healthy living soil - soil full of micro-organisms feeding off decomposing plant matter, part of the larger soil food web.

Tracy Robillard from the Alaska Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS, said part of keeping that soil healthy is keeping it covered.

“It could also be just leaving the stubble after you harvested, just leaving that stubble and that crop residue on the ground, so that residue is going to provide some cover,” Robillard explained. “It could also be things like mulching or crop cloth, things like that, especially in small garden settings. I’ve seen growers put out wet cardboard, for example.”

Farmer Bryce Wrigley has been experimenting on his barley farm with different cover crops.

“As we started with the no-tilling, I became more aware of that, and I started thinking, ‘Maybe we could put some cover crops in. I wonder if I put cover crops in, could I reduce the amount of fertilizer that I’m needing?’ Nobody could answer that question.” Wrigley said.

Wrigley tests his soil often. He has been growing various cover crops in a trial to find out if planting cover crops on fields going through a fallow or rest year will help him reduce the amount of fertilizer he has to use.

“I have been raising cover crops now for four years, and I’m still hoping to find out. It probably will take four of five more years,” Wrigley explained, “But I’m hopeful that with the right rotation of cover crops, we can increase the soil fertility and at least reduce the amount of fertilizer we put on, or improve the yields so it makes sense to keep raising cover crops.”

NRCS says for the regular gardener, growing a cover crop means less soil erosion due to wind and rain, but it can also mean fewer weeds.

“They also can help control pests and suppress weeds because a lot of times those root systems in those cover crops can outcompete some of those weeds,” Robillard said. “Cover crops also help because they feed your soil microbes. They also increase the organic matter in your soil. So you want to get the highest amount of organic matter as possible to have healthy high functioning soils. That also leads to increased water infiltration into your soil. So there is a number of benefits to the soil if you keep it covered.”

Stay tuned all this week as we continue our Living Soil Series and go over the principles of regenerative agriculture, including the importance of biodiversity and what it means to keep a living root in the ground.

If you missed episode one, click here: Living Soil Series: Minimize ground disturbance for better garden harvest

For a deeper look at the Wrigley Farm, please visit our story: Regenerative Agriculture: Delta family farm hopes to address food insecurity, help the environment.

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