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Principle 4: Energize with Diversity

Cow grazing in a green pasture on a rolling hills
Photo by NRCS

"What we do on the few square feet of land, or few square acres of land in our small businesses, or in our department at the university, or on our farm, or wherever it is, that's where the change is going to start," said Ari Weinzweig, CEO and co-founder of Zingerman's Community of Businesses based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Weinzweig joined us on the podcast in episode five and episode seven to explore how building healthy organizational ecosystems relates to building healthy soil ecosystems. Both need diversity to thrive. When we are "4 The Soil,” we follow four core principles of soil health. The fourth principle is to energize with diversity. Using different crop species and integrating livestock enhances biological, chemical and physical aspects of the soil. It improves the whole system.

What does it mean to energize the soil with diversity?

​Diversity energizes the soil biologically, chemically, and physically. ​ Biologically, a variety of plants supports different bacteria and fungi which helps build resistance to disease and pests. Diversity above the ground supports diversity below the ground. It also aids rainfall infiltration and nutrient cycling in the soil. We can see these benefits in the physical soil structure, plant growth, and even the health of animals grazing on the land. Plants and animals naturally grow in communities. Forests and grasslands host multitudes of plant, animal, and microorganism species. Certain plants enhance others' growth, and finding these connections can aid soil structure and increase the nutrients in the soil. Weinzweig described how better connections can enhance both the quality of an organization and soil health. "In the soil metaphor, I started to look at it like mycorrhizae, you don't see them but they're creating a lot of health in the soil." That is, mycorrhizae are soil fungi that form a mutually beneficial relationship with plant roots to enhance nutrient uptake and water availability. Mycorrhizae also can improve soil structure and biological activity.

How do we energize the soil with diversity?

Crop rotation and companion planting are also a method of energizing with diversity. Piedmont Master Gardeners also suggest wide beds and different spacing for crops. Soil can also benefit from integrating livestock for specific purposes. Livestock can help manage weeds, balance the carbon-nitrogen ratio, and recycle nutrients, minerals, and vitamins. Growing diverse native plants also strengthens soil health. Native plant roots extend deeper and wider than nonnative plant roots, which helps break up dense, clay soils and move water more easily. Native perennials are particularly helpful in building soil health. ​For instance, as grasses and forbs regrow year after year, their long roots continually feed the soil, support nutrient cycles, and prevent erosion. They naturally practice the third principle of soil health, maximizing living roots through their year-round root systems. Virginia's landscape spans a lot of different types of soil, so take a look at native plants growing in your region. We can energize the soil with diversity in many different ways, especially when we look for beneficial connections and approach with humility, as Weinzweig described. "[We can bring] better energy…bringing love to our interactions, a service mindset so we're giving not taking," said Weinzweig. "We want to make a positive lasting impact on our ecosystem."


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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