When you think of Iowa, the first thing that probably comes to mind is cornfields, maybe baseball fields in cornfields, but still – cornfields. This might lead you to believe that farmers and other ag workers are the highest stakeholders when it comes to soil quality. After all, much of their livelihood revolves around having quality soil to produce quality crops. While this assumption makes sense, it isn’t entirely accurate. There have been incredible strides made in the agricultural field to reduce the amount of runoff into nearby rivers and streams in the last decade. But for those of us who aren’t farmers or don’t work in the agricultural field, what can we do to improve soil quality? And why should we?
Why is Soil Quality Important?
Without soil it would be impossible to sustain life on earth. It may seem a little extreme, so let’s break it down. Soil is the medium in which plants grow. Plants which we eat. Plants which are eaten by what we eat. So, no soil, no food. Plants also produce oxygen, which we need to breath and thus live. No oxygen, no breathing. No breathing, no people. (1)
Soil also acts as a natural filtration system for both water and air. When it rains, water that is able to go straight from concrete, asphalt, or another hard surface makes its way directly to our water sources – and all the pollutants and junk go right along with it. Pollutants are filtered from water that travels through soil prior to making its way to rivers and streams, thus improving water quality. Additionally, soil stores carbon. This means less carbon is making its way into the atmosphere. Carbon stores in the soil also help to reduce the effects of climate change and improve flood or drought resilience (2).
Is Your Soil Healthy?
These are only two of the many reasons to care about our soil quality, and they are pretty big reasons. But what can we actually do to maintain and even improve soil quality? First of all, it is important to know how to determine if you soil is good quality or poor quality. And the obvious clue is to look at vegetation. What does the grass look like? Is it lush and green, or is it brittle and patchy? How does the grass handle a long time without water? Does it maintain most of its vibrant green color or does it quickly turn brown? The healthier the soil, the healthier the grass, and much of the health of a soil is determined by its ability to retain water.
Once you’ve observed your grass and determined your soil may not be in great shape, you can take the steps necessary to improve it. Soil that is too compact or too dense can’t adequately absorb or retain water. Another major impact on water retention is the amount of organic matter present in soil. Organic matter consists of decaying plant and animal materials which improve nutrients in the soil. (3)
Fixing Poor Quality Soil
Once you’ve checked your grass and figured out that your soil quality is poor, the process in remedying these two areas is simple, even though it may be time consuming. There are two basic steps: first aerate, then compost. Aeration involves tilling if there is no existing turf (such as with new construction) or deep tine aeration (poking holes in the ground to create “macro pores”) if there is an existing lawn. Then compost is spread over the aerated soil. (3)
These two simple steps have a tremendous impact on soil quality. Aeration helps water be absorbed deeper into the soil, and compost and organic matter improve water retention and nutrient content of the soil. Both of these factors help boost vegetation health and durability, which in turn impact water quality, air quality, and food supply. All in all, those cornfields, which are such a trademark of Iowa and other states in the Midwest, wouldn’t be quite so striking if our soil wasn’t such good quality. But as the landscape of the state changes and the impact of poor soil becomes more apparent, it is impossible to pass responsibility solely on to farmers. It is everyone’s responsibility to take care of the soil, and not just because it will make our yards prettier.