Kevin Brown, Former NRCS Tennessee State Conservationist, Gardening to Improve Soil Health
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.
In 2013, Kevin provided soil health leadership for Tennessee NRCS and partners. There were three priorities for Tennessee, Soil Health, Soil Health, Soil Health. 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.
Kevin follows the four principles of improving soil health. 1. Reduce disturbances, Kevin does not till. Tillage breaks down soil aggregates, reduces soil's ability to infiltrate water, and leaves the soil vulnerable to erosion and runoff. Tillage increases decomposition of soil organic matter, the heart of the soil. 2. He uses all previous crop residue and yard clippings plus compost to cover the soil. In addition, he grows an annual cover crop. This is armor on the soil. It protects against raindrop impacts. The cover provides a constant environment from excess temperatures. It also provides food and shelter for soil biology. 3. He keeps a root and plant growing at all times with his garden crops and his summer and winter cover crop mixes. Carbon is the key to improving soil health. Kevin keeps green plants growing to intercept sun light and produce carbon by photosynthesis. A portion of carbon in plants leak out the roots and feed soil biology. The cycle of carbon and soil biology decomposing carbon aggregates the soil forming good soil structure and cycles nutrients. 4. Diversity of plants provide diversity of soil biology. As soil biology is diverse, they police themselves, resulting in more beneficial soil biology and less pests. With diversity of cover crops and rotating garden crops, there are less weeds, diseases, and insects.
Kevin's foundation is his multi species cover crop system. Kevin normally completes his harvest in mid-September. He keeps a few tomatoes for late harvest. He broadcasts his seed using a typical yard seeder that broadcast the seed. He uses pelleted lime to keep his pH neutral and as a carrier for the cover crop seed. He applies the following mix: Ethiopian cabbage, cereal rye, annual rye grass, KY-31 fescue, Austrian winter pea, hairy vetch, crimson clover, ladino white clover, tillage radishes, wheat, seven top turnips, and winter oats. He uses a lawn dethatcher to assure seed to soil contact without tilling. He sometimes mows crop residue to add coverage over cover crop seed. He obtains excellent and even stands.
After he plants his covers in the fall, there is not much to do until the spring. He terminates his covers usually when the threat of a winter freeze has passed. This year, of course, was a late winter with temperatures in the 30s until early in May with last frost at the end of April. He sprays his covers at the end of April (this year was April 29) with Round-upTM. He then rolls or knocks his cover down by driving his lawn tractor over the cover allowing the mower deck and and tires to lay the covers down. He does not engage the mower. It is best not to mow the cover crop. The roots will continue to leak exudates, and mowing makes it harder to manage high growing covers. The covers were about head high when he terminated. Kevin also uses a home-made device made from a 2 by 4 piece of lumber with angle iron and ropes as a crimper, similar to picture to the right. He planted tomatoes the same day as he terminated.
There has been times when Kevin has not used Round-upTM along with his crimping. He simply just crimped. If gardeners do not want to use Roundup, they can use less species and wait until species bloom together. Kevin uses four species when he intends to terminate completely by crimping. He would use one from the major families of cover crops, crimson clover and vetch from the legumes, cereal rye from grasses, and Ethiopian cabbage from brassicas. He also uses annuals when crimping alone.
He planted all crops soon after temperatures had become consistent. I visited Kevin on May 17 along with NRCS District Conservationist, Trent Cash. By the date of our visit, all crops had been planted and most had emerged. Kevin grows many of the typical vegetables. He grows 12 variety of tomatoes with some being heirloom. He has a total of 28 plants of tomatoes. Besides tomatoes, other crops include peppers, cucumbers, squash, pole green beans, bush green beans, snow peas, lettuce, onions, spinach, okra, and a summer chaos strip which I will cover later in detail. this is representative of what he grows and is not an exhaustive list. Kevin rotates vegetable families in different locations annually.
Kevin killed one strip of his covers for the intent of planting onions and his summer chaos mix. He killed it in March at about 8" in height. With the lingering cold weather, he had wished he had kept it growing longer. It is impossible to completely predict the weather. His strip that was killed earlier is already showing decomposition of the cover. He planted his onions and his summer chaos mix. The summer chaos mix is several warm season species broadcast together to build soil carbon and to allow for sweet corn to be harvested. The rest of the summer mix will be used as cover to be laid down at the end of the season as a summer cover crop. His multi species summer mix consists of: sweet corn for harvest, sunflower, sunn hemp, clay iron cow pea, buck wheat, lablab pea, millet, mammoth red clover. Seed are broadcast and raked in. some of his crop rows has sunn hemp growing between rows.
For planting his summer crops, Kevin sets some transplants, such as tomatoes. He uses a hoe and a rake for some crops. He uses a screw driver for okra. After planting, he applies composted yard waste. He puts some green clippings between rows. Again, his goal is to keep cover on garden at all times, and something growing at all times. No tillage is done. Kevin's goal is not to use water on his garden. The covers infiltrate more water and holds more water making that possible. Kevin is not organic but uses little chemical inputs. Besides Round-upTM, which is used once a year, he uses some 15-15-15 fertilizer for early emerging plants. The compost, legumes, and clippings supply the majority of nutrients. With the diversity and cover, there is not much need for additional weed control. All of the diversity provides beneficial insects which saves Kevin from spraying insecticides. Kevin also keeps a wild area with several wild flowers and other plants that provide habitat for pollinators and beneficial insects. Kevin credits the beneficials, from the nearby wild plantings, as the reason he does not have as many insect pests, thus using less insecticides.
I asked Kevin why would others want to go against tradition and culture and garden this way? He enthusiastically shared the benefits he has noticed. First of all, he began with a Silverton silt loam, severely eroded phase. The soil was more clay than silt loam, Kevin described. He said his passion for soil health and natural resources conservation is his motivation. He has seen his soil organic matter increase to approximately 5%. He noticed even in the drought of 2016, he did not have to water very much. His soils are showing aggregation that is a granular soil structure providing pore space with excellent air and water movement and good root growth. There were numerous earthworms found while digging. We also saw numerous earthworm casts on the soil surface. Previous crop and cover crop residue was being consumed by soil biology. There was no erosion. Hardly any pesticides are needed. Beneficial insects are readily observable. He also stated that tomatoes required no spraying of any pesticides last year.
Although Kevin retired as a public servant for conservation from NRCS. He is not idle when it comes to conservation. Kevin shared with me that "even in retirement I still plan to spread the word and show the benefits of Soil Health at all scales, from gardens and raised beds to production agriculture. I recently completed my course work for the UT/TSU Extension Service Master Gardener program. Part of my volunteer hours needed for certification will be in promoting Soil Health. I’m working with Dr. Natalie Bumgarner at the state level and Amy Dismukes at the Williamson County level in the Master Gardeners program spreading the environmental, educational, conservation, and production aspects of Soil Health." Kevin is also signed up as a NRCS Earth Team Volunteer. He has often offered his garden as a tour site for Boy Scouts and for the Williamson County Soil Conservation District. I cannot think of a better ambassador for soil health and conservation than Kevin Brown. He walks his talk, Soil Health, Soil Health, Soil Health.