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There are five basic principles to building a healthy soil ecosystem, and most of these can be implemented even if all you have is a small garden plot in your backyard:

Avoid disturbing the soil microbiome with tillage, herbicides, pesticides and fungicides — The less mechanical disturbance, the better. The same applies in your home garden.

The more you till, the faster the soil degrades and is destroyed, as it destroys soil aggregates and mycorrhizal fungi, which houses the microorganisms needed for nutrient transfer. Similarly, by adding synthetic nitrogen to the soil, the biology is radically altered — it starts consuming carbon in the soil aggregate, which destroys the soil structure.

Without soil structure water cannot infiltrate and move throughout the soil profile and be stored via organic matter. The soil aggregates also provide the home for soil biology, which is critical to producing nutrient dense food.

Protect the soil’s surface with cover crops and cover crop residue — Forest and prairie land is completely covered with vegetation and this is the environment farmers need to emulate. That vegetation protects the soil not only from wind and water erosion, but also from excessive heating and cooling. These living plants are what end up actually "growing" topsoil.

In your home garden, you can use mulch, wood chips or lawn clippings to do this. You never want to leave soil bare, as bare soil will have a negative effect on soil biology and the water cycle. Cover crops and other forms of “soil armor,” such as wood chips, effectively prevent water evaporation and lowers the soil temperature. 

There is easily a 20-degree F difference or more between soil that is bare and soil that is covered. When air temperatures reach 90 degrees or so, soil temperatures will rise well above 100 degrees, which will dry everything out and fry the plants’ roots.

“If you have good armor or residue on the soil surface, the temperature there can be in the 80-degree range. Those plants are growing. It’s a huge difference in production for the producer,” Brown says.

Diversify — Having a diverse array of plant life is essential, and cover crops fulfill this requirement as well. Home gardens will also benefit from cover crops, helping to improve the soil, attract beneficial insects and capture more sunlight (energy).

Maintain living roots in the ground as long as possible — In conventional farming, once a cash crop is harvested, there’s nothing left in the field to capture sunlight and keep growing. Maintaining some kind of growth at all times is key. If you have a small vegetable garden, don’t leave it bare once you’ve harvested your veggies. Instead, plant a cover crop in anticipation for the next season.

To make the transition back from cover crop to your chosen vegetables the following season, avoid the temptation to till the cover crop into the soil. Instead, use one of the following methods to kill off the cover crop and prepare the plot for new crop growth:

  • Stomp the cover crop into the ground with your feet or a board (simply attach two rope handles to a 2x4 board and then use the board to step down the crop)

  • If the cover crop has started to form seed heads, you can kill it off by rolling a crop roller or small barrel over it

  • Cut the growth down and leave the residue on top (although it works better if it’s rolled or stepped down)

Once the cover crop has been killed off, you’re ready to plant your vegetable seeds. For a small garden, use a hoe to part the cover crop remains over to the side. Create a small slice in the soil, drop in your seeds and cover with a small amount of soil. If you’re planting a transplant, simply move the cover crop aside, dig the hole and plant as normal.

Integrate livestock and other animals, including insects — Centuries ago, large herds of bison and elk moved across the landscape, foraging, depositing manure and trampling vegetation into the ground. All of this is part of the natural cycle that is missing when animals are kept in concentrated animal feeding operations.

Many have started raising chickens in their backyards again and chickens are an excellent addition to a sustainable garden. Rabbits, pigeons and ducks are other alternatives that could work in some suburban areas, but even if circumstances or local laws prevent you from adding animals, be sure to plant flowering plants that attract pollinators and predator insects, as these will naturally help ward off pests that might otherwise decimate your main crop

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