What you can do to improve soils

One simple rule of thumb: Give more than you take

kids planting in raised bed gardens

Healthy soil will repay the effort you put into caring for it by supporting the growth of plants and the ecosystems that will also nourish wildlife.

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Soil didn’t always exist. It grew slowly over the millennia as rocks weathered into smaller particles and dust. As land-dwelling organisms died, their decaying bodies added nutrients that would help glue particles together and absorb moisture. Soil science can now teach communities how to rebuild poor or lost soils.

It will take time and patience. During that time, people need to protect the nutrients and fiber-rich materials that fall onto soils (or that are deliberately mixed into them). But the benefit: Healthy soils will nurture plants and a healthy ecosystem that supports all types of wildlife.

But first, people need to “reverse” their attitudes about what our landscapes should look like, argues Ea Murphy. She’s a soil scientist in Tacoma, Wash., and author of Building Soil (Cool Springs Press, 2015). “We don’t want to clear the soil and have it open,” she says. “Wherever we can,” we need to add nutrient-rich “organic matter,” she says. She’s referring to the decaying remains of once-living organisms.

Much of this organic matter can go on top of soil to keep it moist and healthy. Examples include compost, yard leaves and grass clippings. In fact, by letting fallen leaves and other plant debris stay on the ground, “soil will mulch itself,” she says.

a bucket of compost
Throwing yard wastes and plant-based kitchen scraps into a compost bin, like this one, will allow microbes to break down the materials. Eventually, they will decay into nutrient-rich fibrous materials that can be blended with topsoil to improve its structure and health.Grahamphoto23/iStock/Getty Images

And while most people view animal feces as dirty, soils view them as gourmet food. But not all animal wastes are equally beneficial. Manure from barnyard animals is rich in vitamins, minerals, fats and more. What people should never throw onto their soils, Murphy emphasizes, is cat or dog poop, because both animals can shed harmful parasites

Want to help local soils? Look for bare, open areas in your yards, fields or nearby community gardens. By adding nutrients and texture to these, “you’re adding to the soil, making sure it’s alive,” Murphy says. These soils also will absorb carbon dioxide from the air, using what would otherwise be a greenhouse gas. Planting up these areas may then attract pollinators that can aid wild and cultivated plants, says Murphy. “That’s a small way to add to a city or an area.”

Even in winter, she adds, try to keep soil covered. “Growing clover, vetch or fava beans is fun. After they grow, pull them onto the compost pile,” says Murphy. “Then make sure to add that compost to the soil later.”

And always, she says, “give more than you take.” Keep in mind, Murphy notes, that by weeding and harvesting you are taking. “You have to give back by covering the soil, adding plants.”

In time, once people get into a rhythm of feeding their soil, eventually the soil will take over, she notes, and “sustain itself.”

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