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Principle 1: Keep the Soil Covered

Updated: Jun 20, 2023

Green leaves sprout up from soil covered by straw.
Photo by NRCS

"Leave no soil bare," says Ira Wallace, a seed saver, educator, and worker-owner of the cooperative Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. In our conversation with Ira on the 4 the Soil: A Conversation podcast, she shares stories about caring for the soil. When we are "4 The Soil," we follow the four core principles of soil health. The first one is to keep the soil covered.

Why cover soil?

Covering the soil is the first step to protecting it from erosion, buffering soil temperature, slowing runoff, and aiding rainfall infiltration.

Buffering soil temperature means the temperature of the soil won't change too quickly and harm the plants. Steady temperatures increase the chance of seeds germinating and growing stronger roots. Soils with high water retention can slow runoff. While rainwater replenishes our lakes and rivers, too much runoff can cause harmful erosion and pollute our waterways. Covering soil also helps rainfall infiltration. "[You're] able to cycle it through without taking away the nutrients," Ira explains. Healthier soil can absorb, store, and redistribute more water.

When and how should I cover soil?

You can use mulch or different types of cover crops, like legumes or brassicas. Ira also suggests using a tarp to cover living plant material, which will suppress growth and recycle the organic material's nutrients back into the ground. In the summertime, Ira throws some buckwheat on soil that she plans to leave open for more than five weeks. In the winter, she suggests adding organic matter and even small tree debris. That is, "if you aren't like us and throw so many greens in there that you have to fight between cover cropping and the greens growing," she says with a laugh.

Learning what the soil needs

"There's hardly anything that's wrong in your garden that a little added organic matter wouldn't [help]," says Ira. When choosing a method of covering your soil, ask what your soil needs. What works best in your climate this time of year? Which nutrients are missing, and what are you planning to grow next? As winter fades into early spring, you can learn more about planting cover crops on our Tips & Resources page with Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education’s Managing Cover Crops Profitably guide and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service's Cover Crop Planting Specification Guide. ~ 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.

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