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Does your soil need organic matter?

The 5 Priorities of Soil Health Management

People standing and kneeling outdoors looking at the soil.
A farm field day at N.S. Farms in Charles City, Virginia, owned and operated by brothers Aaron and James Black.

Have you heard about the benefits of growing and building organic matter in the soil?

To build soil health in our yard, field, or farm, building the soil’s organic matter is an important first step. This is one of the five priorities of soil health management, outlined by Chris Lawerence of Virginia USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)

We can learn what the soil needs by testing the soil. Then, if the soil shows signs of low organic matter and depletion of certain nutrients, you can plan what type of carbon-based organic matter to add to it. 

Benefits of organic matter in the soil

Organic matter helps the soil hold nutrients and water, improve aeration and soil structure, and ultimately enhance root growth and microbial activity.

"When we first plowed our native ecosystems, one of the biggest changes in those ecosystems was the replacement of perennial root systems with annual root systems that were much smaller, [created] less biomass and fewer exudates,"  said Dr. Stuart Grandy, Professor of Natural Resources and the Environment at the University of New Hampshire, on Episode 23 - 26 of 4 The Soil: A Conversation.  "And we now know that that was a huge factor in the loss of soil organic matter." 

A farm field day at N.S. Farms in Charles City, Virginia, owned and operated by brothers Aaron and James Black.

Types of organic matter

Organic matter generally consists of fresh residue from  plants, living organisms, an actively decomposing part, and a more aged, stable part called “humus.” 

Of these different parts, "We know that roots play an [outsized] role in the accumulation of soil organic matter," said Dr. Grandy. 

To keep living roots in the soil, you can grow plants native to your region. Native plants have big root systems and adapt to the regional climate. However, if you are growing food or harvesting crops, you can incorporate cover crops into your system. Cover crops can be planted to cater to what nutrients the soil needs to be replenished. 

"It [cover crops] maximizes living roots over the winter, and it also helps with the water quality objectives, reducing erosion and taking up nutrients over the winter, which is a critical time," said Robert Shoemaker, nutrient management specialist with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) on Episode 22-4 of 4 The Soil: A Conversation. Robert has worked with farmers who use rye, hairy vetch, or a mixture as cover crops.

Along with maximizing living roots, we can add organic matter to the soil through yard waste and compost. Virginia Cooperative Extension's publication Building Healthy Soil describes various organic matter types and how to add them. 

If you have shredded leaves, crop residues, straw, or similar yard waste, shred and mix them into the soil in the Autumn. The shreds decompose through the colder seasons and keep the soil covered. 

You can also add mulch in the springtime. Mulch helps keep the soil temperature warm, slows runoff, and holds other benefits listed by the Virginia Cooperative Extension's page on Springtime Mulching.

If you have grass clippings, manure, or fertilizer (necessary according to the soil test), then you can incorporate those in the soil to add nitrogen or add them to the compost pile.

A farm field day at N.S. Farms in Charles City, Virginia, owned and operated by brothers Aaron and James Black.


Soil Health Virginia, Natural Resources Conservation Service - United States Department of Agriculture 

Explanation of Soil Tests, Virginia Cooperative Extension 

Episode 22-4: Investing in Soil Health, Balancing Soil Fertility -- Robert Shoemaker of Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation 

Building Healthy Soil a Virginia Cooperative Extension publication written by Diane Relf, Extension Specialist, Environmental Horticulture, Virginia Tech, Reviewed by John Freeborn, Assistant Master Gardener Coordinator, Horticulture, Virginia

Springtime Mulching by Virginia Cooperative Extension

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