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Tests You Can Do For Soil Health

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2017 September Issue Newsletter

By Jack Kittredge

Do you ever wonder whether you are building your land’s best possible soil health? Have you thought about the relationship between your farm or garden soil and the excess carbon in Earth’s atmosphere?

Beyond the typical mineral analysis of soil there is the question of soil life and vitality – which is a very good “proxy” for soil carbon. In most cases if you have lots of soil carbon you are going to have lots of soil life, and vice versa.

As a part of our soil carbon program at NOFA/Mass we have developed a number of tests adapted from agricultural institutions like NRCS and Cornell, which are simple and hands-on and which can be done in current or planned farms and gardens determine soil quality, vitality, and carbon sequestration capability. The best procedure is to run these tests annually on the same ground and note changes since the last time – is your biodiversity growing, is there greater vitality, are your changes in management giving you what you want?

We are currently able to run these tests for a small number of growers at a reduced price (it costs about $250 to send a person to your farm to run all the tests, and with outside funding we offer them at $50 to the grower). However, we also are hoping growers will run these tests themselves. Most do not require much in the way of expensive materials or equipment—those that do, we can help with. This and subsequent articles will describe the tests.

Test #1: Soil Surface Biology (based on work by the Soil Carbon Coalition)

Summary: This test simply lists the biology on the soil surface in a defined area. In subsequent tests the same location is viewed and changes in diversity and green soil cover are analyzed.

Site Location: Record the site location carefully, giving a detailed description of distance from permanent landmarks using – depending on size of area and distance – either a tape measure or surveyor’s tape. Draw a map with landmarks and distances noted so that the location can be found again in subsequent years.

Procedure: To conduct the test, throw a hoop the size of a hula hoop (about 30” in diameter) on a representative section of the ground in the area you wish to test. Then estimate the percent of the surface within the hoop that is covered with green plants, that which is covered by mulch or plant detritus, and that which is bare soil. Now list the kinds of plants growing there and the percent of the hoop occupied by each type, then list the kinds of other life (molds, moss, lichen, fungi, worms, insects, etc.) growing there and the rough area occupied by each. Note signs of insect occupation like anthills, ground-nesting bee mounds, insect eggs or surface aggregates. Comment on any quality issues shown by plants – color, leaf structure, stem turgidity, signs of pest or disease problems. Take a photograph of the hoop on the soil.

Results: Record, and, if applicable, compare the results of this test with previous tests, especially ones at the same time of year. Is your coverage with green plants increasing? Or, is your exposure of bare dirt increasing? What are the relative percentages of plant detritus? Compare the health of the existing plants between tests – especially the same species from year to year. Are they stunted, yellow, or weak, or are they growing strong and with healthy color? Depending on the purpose you have for the area of the testing, are the plant types consistent with what you want – i.e. do the plants present indicate waterlogged conditions (such as moss, nutsedge or other living things that thrive in waterlogged areas) or dry areas (like yarrow and ant-hills)? How has the insect life changed?

Conclusions: Consider quality and density of plant life, and percentage of preferred plant types. Consider any changes in beneficial insect, pest and disease presence. An increase in overall healthy plant cover indicates an improvement in soil health, as well as increases in beneficial soil life indicators such as mushrooms, surface aggregates, and an increased presence of plants that indicate the conditions you are seeking.

This is just one of the tests that, together, give a comprehensive assessment of soil vitality. We will give descriptions of the other tests in articles to be published in subsequent newsletters. 

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