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Living Soil Series: Keeping a living root in your garden adds nutrients to your soil

Updated: Jun. 4, 2021 at 5:25 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - Plant roots nourish the microbes living below the soil by providing food sources and by releasing nutritious compounds into the ground. The Alaska Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) recommends keeping a living root growing in your garden or farm as much as possible.

“Living roots typically would mean after you harvest your crop, you would plant a cover crop or some other type of plant to keep that living root,” Tracy Robillard from the NRCS said.

But keeping a living root in the ground with Alaska’s harsh climate can be a challenge for growers.

“It’s a little tougher here for farmers to harvest a crop and then get a cover crop growing in the ground before it freezes over,” Robillard said, adding, “So we are looking at that with farmers across the state, and we are doing a number of field trials to see what species of cover crops work the best and what specific management practices can farmers do to ensure the success of that cover crop, of that living root.”

Farmers like Bryce Wrigley are up for the challenge. He has several experimental cover crops growing on his 1,700-acre barley farm in Delta Junction.

“The idea is that we are going to put a living root in the soil, we are going to shade the ground, we are going to armor the ground, maintain that cover. At the same time, we are going to put cover crops in that will open the soil up so that rainfall will get in, and we are going to bring in a greater level of biodiversity in terms of the insects,” Wrigley said.

With little research done on the subject, Robillard hopes more farmers will try out the method. “I think we just need to get more people involved and get more growers who are willing to try it, and to just learn from each other and just see what is going to work for our unique climate here in Alaska.”

Keeping a living root in the ground at all times has multiple benefits. Living roots provide erosion and weed control, and lessen soil compaction. Plant roots also put off root exudates into the surrounding ground. These exudates become messengers that allow communication between soil microbes and plant roots. Without these exudates, nutrients from the ground have a harder time reaching plants.

Another benefit - living plants draw down carbon from the atmosphere.

“Those plants are essentially taking CO2 from the atmosphere, and through photosynthesis they are converting that into plant energy, and that carbon is then stored in the soil,” Robillard said. “So even from that carbon sequestering, there is tremendous hope in building up healthy soils, not just in large scale agriculture, but anywhere and anyone who gardens or even with your lawn. There are so many things we can do in our day to day lives to improve the soils around us.”

The NRCS said gardeners, and at-home growers can practice this concept by covering bare soil on their property.

“The recommendation is, don’t leave that soil bare. Keep something growing in the garden all the time once you have harvested your vegetables - what else can you grow in the ground?” Robillard said. “Look at perennial seeds versus annuals, and you would want to have a mix of both. There are a lot of eco-lawn mixes on the market right now that will have a variety of different grass seeds, or even mixed with clover and yarrows and fescues.”

Robillard said the Natural Resource Conservation Service is here to help local growers with free assistance. “The way that works is we would have a conservation planner come out to your property and walk your property with you, and take a look at the natural resource concerns that you have. We will look at your soil, plants, animals, air, energy, and water. We will identify if there are any issues there, and we will make recommendations on conservation practices you may want to implement to help address those resource concerns.”

More information about the Alaska Natural Resource Conservation Service and the assistance they provide can be found on their website. https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/ak/home/

If you missed an episode of our “Living Soil Series,” check them out here:

Episode 1: Living Soil Series: Minimize ground disturbance for better garden harvest

Episode 2: Living Soil Series: Keep your garden soil happy by keeping it covered

Episode 3: Living Soil Series: A healthy garden is a diverse garden

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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