Taking care of the soil is crucial for the long-term viability of gardens and agricultural lands. Here’s what’s at stake and how to prevent soil erosion.
This page may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure for more info.
Topsoil: The World’s Largest Export
According to the USDA, each year some 30–40 billion tons of topsoil are eroded from the croplands of the world. The epicenter of damage in the U.S. is the Midwestern Corn Belt, where we grow mostly GMO corn and soy on hundreds of acres of monocultured industrial farms.
Evidently 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, traveling 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.
We need topsoil in our own gardens, as well as on our farmland.
Let’s see how our actions can help prevent soil erosion both at the macro and micro levels.
#1: Grow your own produce (Micro Level)
It’s easy to think that backyard gardens have no real effect on the problem at large. However, having more backyard gardens could legitimately affect topsoil problems at the macro level!
Growing our own produce can actually make a difference in land management policy.
The more efficient we become at utilizing small spaces for growing food, the less we need gigantic, clear-cut areas for industrial farm production. Those clear-cut areas are huge problems for soil erosion, not to mention other depressing consequences like habitat destruction and watershed destabilization.
Moreover, returning depleted industrial farmland back to prairie, forest, and sustainably-managed systems not only prevents more soil erosion from occurring. It also means regenerating topsoil (making more!), which occurs in natural ecosystems.
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. This is preferable over outsourcing responsibility to businesses who don’t consider the long-term viability of ecosystems as an essential business ethic.
Would you like to yield delicious harvests while partnering with nature? Check out my mini guide, The Permaculture Inspired Vegetable Garden.
#2: Avoid tilling in small spaces to prevent soil erosion (Micro Level)
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.
In small gardens, large-scale farming methods like tilling aren’t usually necessary. Did you know that fungal networks and the sticky exudates of soil organisms naturally hold soil together so it doesn’t blow or wash away, even when it is loosened?
There are plenty of variations on no-till farming, such as the method used by Masanobu Fukuoka in The One-Straw Revolution.
#3: Manage water properly (Micro Level)
In bare soil, gullies form during heavy rains and wash away the topoil. In backyard gardens, we can minimize erosion by designing gardens to prevent runoff.
How about building garden beds on elevation contours, to catch the water, slow it, and spread it across the landscape rather than sending it away?
Did you know daffodils can help reduce runoff and capture nutrients? Read more here: Does your garden need daffodils?
#4: Mulch with plants to prevent soil erosion (Micro Level)
Plants are abundant in most backyards and gardens and can help reduce soil erosion.
Mulching with weeds, herbs, and flowers is simple! When I go out to weed, I take a bucket with me. I pull or chop back weeds, as well as vigorous-growing herbs and flowers.
When I’ve got a full bucket, I find places in my garden where there is bare soil, and I lay the pulled or chopped plants down as mulch.
Plant matter holds the soil in place and keeps it moist. Green plant matter decomposes over time, adding more nutrient-rich topsoil. As such, you’re not only preventing erosion, but also regenerating lost topsoil.
Also, more mulch of any kind means more habitat for beneficial insects. Win-win!
Check out my article about different types of mulches in the permaculture garden for more ideas.
#5: Eschew the corn and soy-based lifestyle to prevent agricultural soil erosion (Macro Level)
I know the human diet isn’t where you’d expect to focus in order to fix the grand soil erosion problem. But hear me out. The truth is that even the majority of us who grow our own food still have to purchase some of what we eat.
And our purchasing power matters, perhaps just as much as our gardening efforts.
The standard American diet is heavy on grain-fed, factory-farm-raised meat. Meanwhile, a standard vegetarian diet also focuses heavily on corn and soy.
Monoculture industrial farming of grains, like corn and soy, 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, says professor Anton Imeson, University of Amsterdam, in his book Desertification, Land Degradation and Sustainability.
Here are some ecosystem-enriching farming alternatives:
- Mark Shepard’s Restoration Agriculture proposes perennial, regenerative alternatives to annual staple crops.
- The Savory Institute is doing excellent research into holistic management of farmland. 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 industrial corn and soy will also help kick GMOs from your diet, which can also reduce herbicide exposure. Another win-win!
There are many things we can do as consumers and gardeners to actively participate in preventing soil erosion and regenerating new topsoil. Backyard gardening and voting with our purchases can indeed effect the long-term viability of precious farmland and ecosystems. Huzzah!
How do you prevent soil erosion in your garden or help farmland as a consumer?
- Building a Compost Bin (5 Ways)
- How to Keep Herbicides out of your Compost Bin (even if you don’t spray)
- Make a Worm Bin for Composting Food Scraps
>>> Get my free 19-page Guide to Organic Soil Amendments for more ideas: