Keep the soil covered year round
This is another of the practices our farmers use to improve their soil health. In a broadacre context, such as for growing the lovely oats that make our Dirty Clean Food Oat Milk, this can look like growing a multi species cover crop in between the oat crop rotation, using a stripper front on the harvester to retain as much of the stubble as possible, and using sheep or cattle to graze over the remaining stubble and flattening it into a mulch layer on the ground.
It also means refraining from burning stubble in autumn, and using a disc seeder to seed the oats crop, which is able to cut through the thicker stubble much better than tynes on an air seeder bar.
Keeping the soil covered year round in a veggie patch context means a combination of growing your veggies, cover crops or green manures, and also mulching to ensure the soil isn’t exposed to the sun and the air. The cover crop above is one I seeded for chicken pasture. It was meant to be grazed in another couple of weeks but May and her flock of delinquents found a gap in the fence this morning. So today it is!
If you’re not growing a crop to keep the soil covered, then mulching provides organic matter for microbes to feed on, stops the topsoil from drying out, and suppresses weeds. Kinda like the ozone layer protecting us from the sun, or wearing clothes and sunscreen to protect our skin.
So get that mulch layer down! My favourite at the moment has been adding a layer of well composted compost, high in beneficial fungi, then layering it with lupin or pea straw. The trick with straw is making sure that there is enough nitrogen (needed for breaking down carbon) that the straw doesn’t pull the nitrogen up out of the soil and away from the plants.
On my garlic I’ve used some barley and wheat straw that we got for free from a local farmer, so I’m making sure I add a touch more nitrogen in the form of liquid powerfeed to help it break down.
If you pull back your mulch layer and take a look, you should see signs of life in your healthy soil - such as these worms, an earwig and a few slaters I unearthed under my garlic mulch. It should smell really good too, so don’t forget to use all your senses when you’re learning to create healthy soil!