Soil Health for Backyard Gardners

TACD Soil Health Specialist Mike Hubbs explains the science behiind soil health practices and how home gardeners can use these practices to improve their home garden. Master Gardener and TN NRCS Retired State Conservationist Kevin Brown demonstrates the soil health practices he uses in his home garden.

Interpretation of Haney and PLFA Analysis

Soil Health Concepts Leading to On-Farm Prescription, Interpretation of the Haney Soil Health Tool and Phospholipid and Fatty Acid Analysis (PLFA)

As I previously discussed in the two previous articles on "Concepts to On-farm Prescription" articles, farmers need to add active carbon into their farming operation. Active carbon is produced by having a plant growing or present 365 and 24/7. That is, we need to have green plants present to intercept sun energy (photosynthesis) to transfer that sun energy to carbon in the form of sugars. These sugars are then translocated throughout the plant that ultimately leaks from the roots. These sugars are then consumed by soil biology. As carbon increases, soil biology increases. I also discussed in the last article that you need to protect carbon increases by minimizing disturbances such as tillage. Also, we need to leave the soil covered. All of these principles protect the food sources and habitat protected. Another principle of soil health is to add diversity. The additional diversity adds quantity and quality of soil biology. The last soil health principle is integrating livestock which brings manure, urine, and saliva to the crop field. These low carbon-nitrogen ratios additions also provide a short-term explosion of soil biology.

The foundation of improving soil health is to increase and protect carbon inputs while the soil biology consumes the active carbon and aggregates soil and cycles nutrients. Many farmers who practice the soil health principles see anecdotal benefits. I want to discuss in this article the interpretation of Soil Health Tool known as the Haney Test developed by Rick Haney, USDA-ARS and a biological soil health test known as Phospholipid and Fatty Acid Analysis (PLFA). I will hit the highlights of these two soil tests. I encourage readers to check out both tests on-line by typing the name of these tests to find out the steps of taking the tests and how they are performed in the lab. I concentrate on the highlights of some of the components and provide a practical discussion on how to interpret the tests.

Read more: Interpretation of Haney and PLFA Analysis

Planting Green

Soil Health Concepts Leading to On-Farm Prescription - Planting Green

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I want to begin a new series of articles called Soil Health Concepts Leading to On-Farm Prescription. No one knows the farm as well as an individual farmer who is farming their own land. We consultants, agronomists, etc. provide the science of soil health and cover crop management. This series will address many topics that hopefully will lead to adoption by farmers prescribing these concepts on their individual farms.

I recently returned from meetings in Iowa, where we held seven round-table discussions across the state with many producers, Conservation District Commissioners, and NRCS. One of the topics that came up in our discussions was planting green. The Tennessee Association of Conservation Districts (TACD) recently hosted Steve Groff (Cover Crop Coach, International Speaker, and Cover Crop Farmer) at three meetings. One of his topics was planting green. I am a subscriber of Cover Crop Innovators ( that many cover croppers and consultants are members of this group. Cover crop innovators has a weekly webinar on cover crop topics. Recently, the group covered the 10 hottest trends in 2018, and the number one on the list was planting green. Prior to beginning this article, I quickly reviewed Planting Green on the internet. Many articles were available. I selected three: John Deere, The Furrow, Warming Up to Planting Green;, 7 keys to Success for Planting into Green Cover Crops; and Penn State Extension, Planting Green - A New Cover Crop Management Technique. The Recent National No-till Farmer's Conference at Indianapolis also had topics on, yes you guessed it, Planting Green. 

I began writing Profiles of Soil Health Heroes in December of 2014. Since then we have accomplished 50 Soil Health Heroes. In many of these, I share the farmers' testimonies that many are planting green. So, this topic is not new for Tennessee, but it is one of the hottest topics in the cover crop conversations.

Read more: Planting Green

Soil Health is about Function

Soil Health Concepts Leading to On-Farm Prescription, Soil Health is About Function

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This is the second in my series of Soil Health Concepts Leading to On-Farm Prescription. Soil Health is defined as the capacity of soil to function. Recently, Tennessee Association of Conservation Districts (TACD), at their 75th annual convention, passed a resolution. The resolution summarized said that cover crops or any other conservation practice is not soil health, but soil health is the capacity of soil to function. 

I want all potential readers when downloading this article see the importance of soil function. There are five recognized general functions, 1. Productivity and bio-diversity, 2. Handling of water (partitioning water), 3. Nutrient storage and cycling, 4. Filtering and buffering, and 5. Plant support. I am sure you can expand on this list. The bottom line is that soil health is about improving the function of soil. No-till, cover crops, nutrient management, pest management, crop rotations, etc. are tools to achieve better soil health.

Read more: Soil Health is about Function

Kevin Brown

Kevin Brown, Former NRCS Tennessee State Conservationist, Gardening to Improve Soil Health

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Conservation partners reading this newsroom article are no strangers to Kevin Brown. Kevin, recently retired as Tennessee's NRCS' State Conservationist. Kevin came to Tennessee in 2007 as the State Conservationist. He began with the USDA Soil Conservation Service, later changed to NRCS in June, 1977. He served in many positions over 41.5 years, including State Conservationist in Ohio and Deputy Chief of Management in headquarters. Kevin assisted in writing the 2002 Farm Bill. Because of his passion for Soil Health, he assisted NRCS in setting up the foundation of the current NRCS' National Soil Health Division.

IMG 3947newIn 2013, Kevin provided soil health leadership for Tennessee NRCS and partners. There were three priorities for Tennessee, Soil Health, Soil Health, Soil HealthIMG 3933new. Kevin is responsible for Yours Truly working with TACD as a Soil Health Specialist. At my retirement with NRCS, he asked me to take the position, and he worked with TACD to set up a cooperative agreement to fund my position. With his background, it is not surprising that Kevin practices soil health on his home garden. Kevin has moved 16 times during his 41.5 years. He has always had a garden. He has never tilled a garden. That is a testimony we do not hear very often with home gardeners. As I drive across the state, one area that I still see considerable tillage being practiced is in home gardening. I want to use this news article to say there are ways to improve soil health in gardening. Kevin's way is a way out of many ways to improve soil health. Following the principles of soil health will help gardeners improve soil health. 

Read more: Kevin Brown