A focus on soil health could boost yields in the field and in the garden

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CAPUTA, S.D. (KOTA TV) - Spring seems to have sprung, which gets people thinking about gardening. Have you thought about what kind of program you are going to use on your garden beds? Have you thought about not tilling the ground? Area ranchers know a little bit of soil health goes a long way.

Matthew Odden with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Rapid City says soil health depends on five principles.

1. Keep the soil covered

Shredded paper, straw, and mulch are all options to utilize as ground cover in your garden beds. Keeping the soil covered will trap some of the moisture, keeping your soil soft when it is time to plant.

2. Minimize disturbance

Odden says the biggest disturbance to the soil is tillage.

"That is very catastrophic to the soil and for soil aggregation and all the soil biology that is happening there," Odden said.

Instead, use a hand shovel to for items like tomato plants, and create trenches for row crops. Once you drop the seeds in cover the trench with dirt.

3. Consider cover crops.

Cover crops can trap topsoil, creating less wind erosion. Simple crops like wheatgrass could be planted in your garden as a cover crop, easily snap the stem to stop growth and stop it down when you are ready to plant.

"Cover crops work great cause you can grow multiple different crops and I always encourage people that if you are going to put in a cover crop, try to put in some crop types that you don't get in the rest of your cropping system," Odden said.

4. Maximize diversity of plants grown

This is a technique Shawn Freeland uses on his ranch near Caputa.

"My number one thing when I think of when I wake up 'how can I improve my soil?'" Freeland said, "To me, soil diversity is the key to everything. I think if we can get our soil fixed our yields will go back up, our inputs will go down. Its the key to profitability."

5. Add livestock to the system

While this may be harder to do in city gardens, there are still ways to implement things like manure or compost that act the same way.

Freeland says these methods have helped him create healthier soil for his operation.

"It's not just trying to do something different, there is definitely a financial benefit to soil health," Freeland said.

And your garden is no different than ranch land.

"Soil is soil whether its 5,000 acres or just your little backyard plot, this is really important to keep that soil living and healthy," Freeland said, "if you take the time, put the money into it and invest in your soil it will pay you back."

For more information or gardening tips, visit the NRCS Website or SDSU iGrow