A healthy soil is biologically alive and should look, feel, smell, and function as a living body and system. We can help increase soil health and begin to restore how soil is meant to function by following the four core principles of soil health management: keep the soil covered, minimize soil disturbance, maximize living roots in the soil, and energize the soil diversity.
As the Natural Resource Conservation Services describes, “Soil health is defined as the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans.”
Soil (unlike dirt) hosts diverse biological activity, including worms, fungi, microbes, bacteria, and plant roots. Soil testing, such as offered by Virginia Cooperative Extension, can provide insights into the health of our soil. We can also test biological activity through activities like the Soil Your Undies Challenge or just digging with a spade to look, look, and smell the soil.
Soil health in action looks like a lively, resilient ecosystem. Plants grow sturdy roots, roots interact with soil organisms to form glues and gums to help soil stick together better, which helps in retaining and filtering water. Animals graze on nutrient-dense plants, giving organic matter back to the soil to feed the underground livestock (worms, protozoa, fungi, bacteria, etc.). Humans plant a diverse harvest to nourish both ourselves and the soil.
Healthy soil has been said to look and feel a bit like crumbly chocolate cake. It may not be as tasty, but its earthy, rich scent can remind us that soil is like a kitchen to many living microorganisms. See 10 more facts about healthy soils from this list written by Food Tank.
Different types of soil have a measure of health, even if some are less productive than others based on the content of sand, silt, and clay. For instance, here are some soils across Virginia. Near the Chesapeake Bay, the soil can be more sandy and not as fertile as soil in the Shenandoah Valley because of more silt and clay content. Other soils can be amended to begin to build organic matter and start to enhance biological activity. In areas where topsoil has eroded, like some clay soils in central Virginia, this may need to be a high priority.
But all soil, no matter what type, needs our attention and care. Building soil health is an ongoing process to learn about and restore the soil.
We can start with four simple questions: Is my soil covered? Have I disturbed the soil? Are living roots growing throughout the year? How diverse is my crop and livestock rotation or mixture?
Various partners and agricultural communities across Virginia have been working to reverse degradation and regenerate soils. One such group is the Virginia Soil Health Coalition, established in 2013 to help build networks of support and education among soil health experts, farmers, and everyday decision makers.
Let's advocate for healthier soils with a growth mindset. Improving soil health takes time, but our continuous and collective actions make a difference.
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About the Blog
Join the movement! 4 The Soil is a campaign by the Virginia Soil Health Coalition to raise awareness of soil as an agricultural and natural resource. By caring for the soil, we can build healthier communities, stronger economies, and a more resilient landscape.