Soil is Alive: How to Keep it Healthy

PEC’s service region in the Virginia Piedmont has long been a pasture-based farming area, and we’ve collaborated with livestock producers on rotational grazing and other land management practices to improve soil health. We are even demonstrating these practices at Roundabout Meadows, our Loudoun County farm property. Healthy soil can make as big a difference for home gardeners as it can for large-scale farmers. We sat down with Melissa Allen, District Manager at the John Marshall Soil and Water Conservation District to talk about the importance of and path to healthy soil.

a field with rows of cover crop between squash plants
Cover crops are part of soil health restoration efforts at PEC’s Community Farm at Roundabout Meadows. Photo by Sophia Chapin/PEC

What is “healthy soil” and why should people care about soil health?

There is a misperception that soil is inanimate, but it’s not. Soil is actually alive and continually changing. Healthy soil is full of microorganisms and is its own little ecosystem that sustains the life of plants, animals and humans. Healthy soil filters contaminants from our water, regulates ground temperature, holds onto water and keeps it from running off the ground surface. It cycles nutrients, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus. It provides structure for buildings, for plants, for our gardens and our infrastructure.

What causes soil to become unhealthy?

Overuse. Repetition. Exposure. Like, are we constantly plowing it or turning it over? Do we have livestock on it too many days a year? Is it left uncovered through winter? Are we disrupting soil microorganisms with chemicals? Anything that doesn’t mimic nature leads to unhealthy soil.

What are some easy ways for folks to encourage healthy soil?

The main thing is that we want to mimic nature. The Soil Health Foundation outlines five principles of soil health. The biggest one is keeping soil covered. Also, minimizing soil disturbance, continual live roots, plant diversity, and integration of livestock. All of these overlap in different ways.

What do you mean by keeping soil covered, and how does someone do that?

We mean avoiding bare soil. The top layer of soil is where your living, organic matter is – it could be two inches or six inches depending on the soil structure and soil type. But when it’s left bare, a two-inch rainfall event can wash all that topsoil away. It could be wind erosion too. And once that topsoil is lost, it can take years to build back up. All that sediment ends up in our waterways and bay, affecting the larger ecosystem.

So, keeping soil covered protects it and the habitat it provides for the microorganisms that keep it healthy. For your basic garden at home, you could plant annual rye, winter wheat, vetches, crimson clover. Even covering with a tarp, a form of plasticulture, isn’t a bad idea. At a larger scale, we recommend cover crops on farm fields, and we also encourage farmers to leave some residue from harvested crops, which serves to capture the raindrop, dissipates the force behind the raindrop and that lessens the potential for erosion.

I’ve heard the phrase “no-till gardening” a lot lately. Is that what you mean by minimizing soil disturbance?

There are three types of soil disturbance: physical, chemical and biological. Physical disturbance is, yes, tillage, equipment use, plowing. Every time we plow a field, we’re disturbing that living topsoil and the microorganisms it holds. When we do that, we destroy the glue that holds the soil together and all the habitat that allows infiltration of water and nutrients. Every time you till, the soil has to rebuild all of that. Chemical and biological disturbance through improper and overuse of pesticides have the same effect.

Where does livestock fit into unhealthy soil?

That’s biological disturbance, if the land becomes overgrazed. Overgrazing limits the plants‘ and crops‘ ability to harvest carbon dioxide and sunlight; in short, regrowth is limited. Rotational grazing helps to reduce the biological disturbance — moving cattle from a field and allowing the plants to regrow and harvest carbon dioxide and sunlight.

You mentioned continual live root and plant diversity. What do these mean?

Before human intervention, our grasslands naturally consisted of cool season grasses, warm season grasses, cool season forbs and warm season forbs. So there was consistently a diverse system of living roots on the land for every season. Whenever you have a plant in the ground, those roots are using up excess nutrients, providing water filtration, serving as a buffer, capturing that raindrop. Avoiding monoculture helps to sustain healthy soil.

How could a landowner get started with some of these principles?

Every county is covered by a soil and water conservation district, and we have an unprecedented amount of cost-sharing funding available this year to help landowners implement some of these best management practices, things like cover crops, waterways in a field, fencing, planting buffers along streams. One of the biggest ones right now is harvestable cover crops, which the farmer is allowed to harvest and sell. And another is for basic cover crops. So, a landowner would need to call their local office and they would schedule a site visit to figure out if they’re eligible, because there are some requirements. Then, they usually submit an application, and we work up a conservation plan and estimate of what it will cost.

Interested in getting started on your land’s soil health journey?

Learn more about soil health and its benefits:

Contact your local Soil and Water Conservation District for information about various cost-share programs (listed from north to south):

  • Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District (Clarke, Frederick, Shenandoah and Warren counties) –
  • Loudoun Soil and Water Conservation District (Loudoun County) –
  • John Marshall Soil and Water Conservation District (Fauquier County) –
  • Culpeper Soil and Water Conservation District (Culpeper, Greene, Orange, Madison and Rappahannock counties)
  • Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District (Albemarle, Fluvanna, Louisa and Nelson counties) –

This story appeared in The Piedmont Environmental Council’s member newsletter, The Piedmont View. If you’d like to become a PEC member or renew your membership, please visit