Soil Conservation: Common Strategies and How to Get Involved

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People may think the soil that they live and build upon is static. In fact, the soil moves. In many ways, it can be like a living organism, likely to change in composition or even relocate over time. Although dirt will not move on its own, there are many environmental and human factors that can cause it to change or spread to different locations. This process is known as soil erosion. At high levels, erosion can dramatically change the shape of an area, changing the ability to build, farm, and survive.

Attempts to minimize soil erosion are referred to as soil conservation. Soil conservation aims to prevent the soil from blowing or washing away, but also works to preserve the health of the soil. By considering soil conservation methods and their benefits, gardeners can discover how it can help everyone.

Benefits of Soil Conservation

Soil conservation is highly beneficial for farms, home gardeners, and communities alike. These benefits can be monetary, in the form of higher crop output or less money spent on replacing the soil. They are also important for the long-term success of any growing space, whether it is a large-scale farm or a small community park.

Soil erosion is a natural process that is often increased dramatically by human behaviors. High-intensity farming raises the likelihood that the soil will dry up, blow away in the wind, run away in a flood, or simply be unable to support anything planted in it. Soil conservation provides opportunities to reverse all of these. By keeping the soil in its current position, people can avoid the gradual erosion of a hillside into a river.

Depending on the soil conservation method, it can be highly practical and lucrative as well. Actively practicing soil conservation features benefits, such as:

  • Less time spent tilling and preparing the soil for planting
  • Better output for crops
  • Less watering or fertilizing needed
  • Lower consumption of harsh or toxic pesticides
  • Less damage from runoff into local waterways

Spread out over decades, soil conservation helps to ensure that a farm or garden will continue to produce without causing additional harm to the area surround it. Since some methods are very simple, it is a practical choice for any gardener to try.

Soil Conservation Methods

Figuring out the right kind of soil conservation depends on a variety of factors. A handful of them are easy for almost anyone to employ in home gardens or farms. Some methods are better for experienced gardeners, while others are impractical outside of large-scale commercial use. Trying out different approaches can provide useful information for gardeners and help them determine which ones will be ideal for the long-term.

Contouring

Contouring offers a convenient farming method that also helps to prevent soil erosion. Farmers who must build on a slope can either work up and down or side to side. Contouring designates different crops for growing along the same altitude. The process of tilling and planting is easier because the farmer does not need to go up and down the hill. It keeps the soil at the same level on the hill, instead of creating paths for it to roll downhill.

Terracing/Hedgerows

Terracing and the building of hedgerows creates separate spaces for growing on a stepped surface. These approaches are ideal for hills, as they discourage runoff. In terracing, farmers cut steps into the hill that are at least a few feet deep. These terraces usually have some kind of soil barrier or water conservation method. Similarly, farmers may also plant rows of hedges, bushes, or trees between several rows of crops. The deeper root structure of these long-growing plants protects the crops and retains soil better after wind and rain.

Cover Crops

Planting cover crops provides an easy way to improve crop output without adding much to the workload. Cover crops are popular for grain farmers. They plant a low-growing, hardy species around the rows of the main crop. Cover crops protect the soil from the sun, reducing the likelihood that the soil will dry up and blow away. The use of cover crops has the added benefit of minimizing weed growth, which can dramatically cut down on weeding time or pesticide use.

Composting/Mulching

Many farmers and gardeners use composting or mulching as a way to protect the soil and return nutrients to it. Composting is a process that usually takes several weeks. Gardeners combine plant debris, wood, paper, and plant-based food waste into a pile. Over time, it becomes nutrient-rich and soil-like. They can spread it over the soil to nourish crops. Mulching uses similar types of plant waste, applied directly to the soil after chopping it into pieces. Mulching helps soil retain more moisture.

Soil Barriers and Traps

Home gardeners may already be using types of soil barriers in their yards, and these are quite common on farms as well. Soil barriers simply keep the soil from rolling downhill. People who build terraces for gardening often place pieces of wood at the edge to stop mud from sliding off. Retaining walls are another type of barrier. For large-scale farming, farmers build soil traps in the form of gullies or trenches that they empty out regularly and return to the farm.

Crop Rotation

Each type of crop pulls nutrients from the soil in a different way, and crop rotation can minimize the damage. When rotated on a yearly basis, along with the addition of beneficial components like compost, the soil is less likely to be completely depleted. Depleted soil is more likely to run off or blow away. It cannot retain moisture very well, and it may not have sufficient nutrients to sustain the crops. Rotating one type for another returns different types of nutrients to the soil over time.

Soil Erosion Causes and Effects

Soil erosion can be a natural process, but it also has the potential to devastate. For example, a river cutting into the ground and gradually pushing sand and rock downstream will create a canyon over millions of years. After a massive wildfire, heavy rains can trigger flooding which pushes the soil downhill. These events predate human existence, but are heavily affected by human action.

Even though this can be natural, humans need to act to prevent it. Topsoil is the soil most likely to be lost during a windstorm or flood. This soil provides the water and nutrients necessary for plants, crops in particular, to thrive. Natural vegetation, particularly trees, grow roots deep into the subsoil. They have a higher chance of surviving, and can help to protect the topsoil from eroding around them. However, high-volume farming and deforestation can make it increasingly difficult to maintain topsoil on a large scale. In fact, the World Wildlife Fund estimates that as much as half of the world’s topsoil has been lost in the past 150 years.

Without strong attempts to reverse the damage, people can start to see the effects within a decade. Depleted soil cannot support crops, even the trees that used to thrive there. Over time, a lush forest or jungle can turn into a desert that will support nothing but the hardiest plants. Planning to engage in soil conservation efforts on a large scale is the best way to prevent it from getting worse.

Getting Involved

Many people read dire warnings about the environmental condition of the world and wonder how they can possibly help to change the course. Fortunately, soil conservation is something that anyone can do, and there are several ways to get involved. At first, gardeners can start to employ different methods in their home gardens. People who live in apartments or condos may want to ask the organization in charge of yard and garden maintenance about efforts to minimize soil erosion.

It may also be a wise idea to find out what the local community is doing to promote soil conservation in public spaces and on local farms. When local officials learn that there is demand in the community to help maintain soil health, they are more likely to propose and carry out initiatives that can help on a larger scale. In this way, people can help to ensure that they and others can enjoy the benefits of soil conservation.