Caring for the soil is crucial to the long-term viability of our gardens and agricultural systems. Yet one of the biggest mistakes is contributing to soil erosion. In this article, we’ll talk about what’s at stake and 5 ways you can prevent soil erosion.
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Topsoil: America’s largest export
According to the USDA, we export 3 tons of topsoil per acre per year in America alone. The epicenter of damage is the Midwestern Corn Belt, where we grow mostly GMO corn and soy on hundreds of acres of monocultured industrial farms.
Apparently we learned nothing from the 1930s Dust Bowl about how to care for our soils!
Our topsoil now blows away in the hot, dry summer, and washes away in the spring rain, travels down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico, where it smothers aquatic life at an alarming rate. Fertility lost forever. See this 2-minute educational video by PBS.
Experts estimate that with current farming practices, we only have 60 years of topsoil left.
Topsoil is necessary for growing crops. It’s where the soil life is. Topsoil is where soil microbes eat and poop and feed the plant roots. It’s where bacteria and fungi help to hold the soil together. It’s where the essential nutrients are that feed the plants.
Let’s see how our actions can help prevent soil erosion both at the macro and micro levels.
#1: Eschew the corn and soy-based lifestyle
I know the human diet isn’t the first place you’d expect to start with fixing soil erosion, but the truth is that even the majority of us who grow our own food still have to purchase some of what we eat.
The standard American diet is heavy on grain-fed, factory-farm-raised meat, while vegetarian diets also focus heavily on corn and soy. Monoculture farming of grains strips the topsoil whether the grains are fed to humans or animals. The sad truth: corn and soy—as primary dietary staples—are contributing to desertification, according to professor Anton Imeson, University of Amsterdam, in his book Desertification, Land Degradation and Sustainability.
I’m a proponent of Mark Shepard’s Restoration Agriculture solution because he proposes perennial, regenerative alternatives to annual staple crops. The Savory Institute is doing some excellent research into this issue, as well. Watch Alan Savory’s intriguing Ted Talk. Wes Jackson’s research into perennial grains at The Land Institute is equally promising.
Ridding your diet of corn and soy will also help kick GMOs from your diet.
True to my word, I’ve healed my autoimmune disease by following a grain-free diet.
#2: Grow your own produce
Growing our own produce can actually make a difference in land management policy. The more efficient we become at utilizing our small spaces, the less we need gigantic, clear-cut areas for industrial farm production.
Returning depleted farmland back to prairie, forest, and sustainably-managed perennial systems means saving what’s left of the topsoil while at the same time regenerating more. More topsoil means more carbon sequestration (which is beneficial regardless of your opinion on climate change).
Another benefit of more people growing their own food is an engaged citizenry that is willing to take responsibility for its own existence rather than outsourcing responsibility.
#3: Avoid tilling in small spaces
Industrial farming requires tilling, which loosens the soil, allowing it to blow away in the wind and wash away in the rain. Conventional tillage destroys and interrupts the soil life that would have helped to feed the plant roots and hold together loose soil.
There are plenty of variations on no-till farming, such as the method used by Masanobu Fukuoka in The One-Straw Revolution.
In small gardens, large-scale farming methods like tilling aren’t necessary. Learn how to transition your garden to a no-till garden. Try loosening garden soil each spring before planting with a digging fork.
Would you like to learn more about improving the biodiversity of your garden, reducing maintenance, and increasing yield?
You’ll find loads of information just like this in my book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.
#4: Manage water properly
In bare, loose soil, gullies will form during heavy rains and wash away the topoil. In our backyard gardens we can minimize water erosion by designing our gardens properly. We can build garden beds on elevation contours, which catch the water and spread it across the landscape rather than sending it away. This allows the water to slowly sink in over time, irrigating the gardens for us.
Capturing rainwater in rain gardens can also help to slow runoff, minimize erosion, and provide another tool for free irrigation.
Did you know daffodils can help reduce runoff and capture nutrients? Read more in my post Does your garden need daffodils?.
#5: Mulch with Plants
Plants are abundant in most backyards and gardens. Here are some simple ways to take advantage of them.
Mulch with Weeds
Mulching with weeds is a simple, basic task we can do in our own backyard gardens to protect the soil.
When I go out to weed, I take a bucket with me. When I’ve got a full bucket, I find places in my garden where there is bare soil, and I lay the pulled weeds twice as thick as I think I need to. Sometimes I’ll use my pruners to chop it into smaller pieces.
The plant matter will degrade so fast that in a week I may need to do it again! At the very least, if you think it looks weird, it won’t stay that way for long.
The plant matter keeps the soil in place and keeps it moist. Using weeds as mulch also helps to create more nutrient-rich topsoil, so we’re not only preventing erosion, we’re regenerating lost topsoil.
Also, more mulch of any kind means more habitat for beneficial insects.
Check out my post about different types of mulches for other ideas on how to use organic material that you’ve probably already got available to you.
Mulch with Comfrey
Comfrey is what’s called a dynamic accumulator. Comfrey roots can reach deep down and mine the subsoil for available nutrients. The plant then accumulates those nutrients in its leaves. When the comfrey leaves decompose, either by being cut or by dying back over winter, they fertilize the topsoil with these nutrients.
Dynamic accumulators such as comfrey allow us to catch nutrients and pull them up for use. How wonderful to prevent erosion and fertilize every season with comfrey plants that I already own!
I cut the comfrey down as many as 5 times per summer. It is fast-growing and bounces back every time. This is called chop-and-drop. Chop comfrey into small pieces and lay as mulch.
See my post about comfrey for additional details.
Below you can see the comfrey mulch that I laid around some new creeping thyme plants.
It might look funny to lay green cut-up plants as mulch. In the picture below you can see what it looks like just two days later: “Normal”-looking, brown mulch!
There are still tiny patches of soil showing through the brown mulch, so a few days later I mulched this area again. I don’t want any topsoil showing bare.
Mulch with Clover and Flowers
Mulching with flowers is a great way to multi-task in the garden. Prevent erosion by covering the soil with living plants whose roots hold the soil in place. Attract pollinators and beneficial insects to the garden, too!
My top 3 flowers to sprinkle around the garden are: calendula, California poppies, and sweet alyssum. Here’s how I use sweet alyssum as a living mulch. See my article 6 Flowers to Grow in the Vegetable Garden.
Clover provides nitrogen fertilizer while holding soil in place, and its flowers are the most beloved by honeybees! Annual clover makes a good cover crop in vegetable gardens over the winter, and perennial clover does well under fruit trees and berry bushes.
There are many things we can do as consumers and gardeners to actively participate in preventing soil erosion and regenerating new topsoil by having healthy gardening practices.
Need more ideas for building soil in the permaculture garden?
Click here to get your 19-page Guide to Organic Soil Amendments!
- 9 Organic Amendments that Improve Soil Structure & Texture
- Building the Right Compost Bin
- The Lazy Gardener’s Way to Make Fertilizer
How do you prevent soil erosion in your garden?