Step Up Your Gardening Game With Healthier Soils

800 450 Stroud Water Research Center

Enhance your soils and local water quality by bringing the principles of regenerative agriculture to your home garden. 

Lisa Blazure

By Lisa Blazure

Stroud Water Research Center’s team of watershed restoration professionals has been educating farmers about the benefits of healthy soils for many years. But did you know that the same management principles for farm fields also apply to home gardens? 

The four tenets for building healthy soils are: 

  1. Minimize disturbance (both tillage and chemicals). 
  2. Keep the soil covered. 
  3. Always have a living plant.
  4. Increase diversity.  

Those principles hold true from a thousand acre crop field all the way down to a backyard raised-bed garden. These practices all support the soil microorganisms.

Raised beds in a healthy soil home garden.

There are many benefits to building healthy soils. Healthy soils enhance water quality because they infiltrate rainwater so there is less water runoff eroding farm field soils and washing pollutants into local waterways. They also require fewer fertilizers to grow crops, thereby reducing nutrient pollution.

But there is growing awareness that soil management may also influence the quality of the crops grown in the fields. This is often referred to as nutrient density. Studies are showing that not all produce and grains are created equal.

The Bionutrient Institute is collaborating with some Pennsylvania farmers participating in the Soil Health Benchmark Study to determine if soil health management correlates with crop nutrient density. Early results have shown widely ranging results. For example, they found an eightfold difference in the antioxidant levels in blueberry samples. Protein content in oats and wheat showed three- to fivefold variation. In some cases, regeneratively grown crops outperformed certified organic crops.

How do healthy soils influence crop nutrient density? It is highly dependent on the interactions between soil microbes and plant roots. The microbes digest soil organic matter and can mine nutrients from soil particles. Some specialize in certain minerals, others are generalists. So the more diverse the soil microbe community, the more activity to break down nutrients and make them available to the crops.

How to Garden for Good Soil

To learn more about how to build healthy soils in your home garden, check out this newly published fact sheet. It is just one of many fact sheets available on the Watershed Restoration Resources page.