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4 Things to Do with the Soil This Summer

Longer days and warm (lately hot!) sunshine give us more opportunities to enjoy the outdoors. Whether kayaking down the James River, hiking in Shenandoah, lounging in your backyard, or grilling a summertime meal, soil impacts many of the activities we love. 

While you stay hydrated and sun-protected, here are four ways to play in the soil this summer:

1. Get creative in the garden

It's not too late to add mixes of colors to your garden! You could use a mixture of seeds like Ray Steyer's Crazy Summer cover crop mix full of cowpeas, sorghum-sudans, pearl millets, radishes, forage brassicas, and sunflowers. The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation has a tool called the Virginia Native Plant Finder to help you explore what native plants thrive in your region. 

Children sitting around a picnic table outdoors painting.
Photo courtesy of Beth Sastre.

If you love fine arts or incorporating nature into your crafts, try painting with soil

Beth Sastre, Virginia Cooperative Extension Agent with Loudoun County and Commercial Horticulturist, led a group of young outdoor enthusiasts in a soil painting activity through the Garden Sprouts program at Potomac Vegetable Farms.

If you love to sing and play instruments, set up a picnic with friends and sing a-long to The FlipCharts' new song inspired by 4 The Soil! 

Ennis and Phil Carter are the musical duo of The FlipCharts. They shared their song at their Hoot-n-Annie Event, where they partnered with camp pHyre to host a community gathering to celebrate National Soil Health Day on June 23. 

A person holding up a soil covered pair of briefs outside.

2. Bury your undies!

How can you know your soil is alive, biologically active, and not sterile? Well, the answer is "brief." Yes, really! Bury a pair of 100% cotton undies in an area of your garden or cropland where you are curious about its biological activity and wait about 60 days to see what happens and if the undies decompose through time due to the microbial life in the soil. 

Elizabeth Mullins Baldwin and Meagan Dyer of Virginia Cooperative Extension's (VCE) Page County Office have incorporated the "Soil Your Undies" challenge in many of their educational programs.

3. Eat delicious produce and meat

When we purchase produce and meat from growers who do their best to practice the 4 core principles of soil health management, we are "4 the soil!" Visit your local farmers market, talk with the vendors about their work, and consider how you can continue to support their efforts. 

David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklé, authors of What Your Food Ate, talk about the direct link between soil health and human health. While researching for their book, they created a list of resources (with a thousand entries!) to explore these links. 

Researchers published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information encourage us to think about how the soil and the human gut can "by close contact, replenish each other with inoculants, genes and growth-sustaining molecules." The urgency to care for our health from the soil up is increasingly apparent. 

4. Listen to the soil

Worms moving in the soil that is mostly covered in straw.
Photo courtesy of Paul Sanders.

"All living things make sounds. After all, sound is a form of energy," wrote Dr. Jake Robinson of Flinders University in Australia. Dr. Robinson's article, "Secret sounds beneath our feet can help restore soil health," burrows into the growing knowledge of ecoacoustics. He and his research team use special microphones and probes to listen to the organisms in the soil. The more biodiverse the soil's ecosystem, the louder the sounds! "The next time you're walking over soil, tread lightly," he wrote. "You don’t want to interrupt nature’s secret symphony!" 

Another way to "listen" to the soil is to hear from soil health champions and voices who share their journeys toward building healthy soil. While you walk your neighborhood or drive to your day trip, check out the 4 The Soil: A Conversation podcast. The hosts – Jeff Ishee, Eric Bendfelt, and Mary Sketch Bryant –  have enjoyed more than seventy conversations that are all "4 The Soil!"

Burrow In: Resources

Virginia Native Plant Finder, Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation

Soil Health and Career Inspirations with Beth Sastre of VCE Loudoun County, Episode 23 - 8, 4 The Soil: A Conversation podcast

A Soil Your Undies Challenge with Elizabeth Baldwin and Meagan Dyer of VCE Page County, Episode 23 - 13, 4 The Soil: A Conversation podcast

Healthy Soils, Healthy Ecosystems, and Healthy People with Nicolette Hahn Niman author of Defending Beef Part I, Episode 22 - 6, 4 The Soil: A Conversation podcast

Find a Virginia Farmers Market Near You, Virginia Farmers Market Association 

What Your Food Ate with David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklé Part I, Episode 23 - 3, 4 The Soil: A Conversation podcast

Dig 2 Grow Sources David R. Montgomery & Anne Biklé

Does Soil Contribute to the Human Gut Microbiome? Blum WEH, Zechmeister-Boltenstern S, Keiblinger KM., Microorganisms, 2019 Aug 23;7(9):287. doi: 10.3390/microorganisms7090287. PMID: 31450753; PMCID: PMC6780873.

Peeling the Layers of Soil Health Back with David R. Montgomery and Anne Bikle Part II, Episode 23 - 4, 4 The Soil: A Conversation podcast

Secret sounds beneath our feet can help restore soil health, by Dr. Jake Robinson, Flinders University in Australia, article featured on the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative

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