Embracing Diversity: How to Build Soil Health in Your Backyard

Duane Hovorka, Agriculture Program Director
Woman with diverse planting

Diversity is one key to building and maintaining healthy soils, whether on your farm or in your garden or yard.

Plants feed beneficial microbes in the soil. Through photosynthesis, plants use energy from the sun to turn carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates. Most of those carbohydrates feed the plant, enabling it to grow roots, stems, and leaves. But plants also pump some carbohydrates through their roots into the soil, feeding the bacteria, fungi, and other microbes in the surrounding soil.

Those microbes in turn help the plants. Some bacteria break down dead roots and leaves, releasing the nutrients for the plant to use. Some microbes take nitrogen from the air and fix it in the soil, where plants can use it. Beneficial fungi help plants better access water and nutrients.

Healthy soil has a large and diverse mix of microbes. Different plants feed different microbes, so the more diverse the collection of plants growing on the surface, the more diverse and resilient the microbe population below ground will be.

So when you are planning and planting your garden and yard, strive for a diverse mix of plants, and rotate your annual plants from year to year.

Native American Tribes like the Iroquois planted corn, beans, and squash together. Beans grow up the corn stalk, and as a legume they fix nitrogen in the soil for nutrient-hungry corn plants. Squash covers the ground with large leaves, shading out weeds. The three plants produce more when grown together than they do when grown separately.

A diverse mix of flowers, especially native plants, will produce healthier soil than a flower bed full of just one species. By selecting a diverse mix of flowers and herbs, you can also ensure blooms throughout the growing season, bringing color to your yard and creating food for pollinators.

In your yard, a diverse mix will do better and require less care from season to season and year to year. No one type of grass does well in a cool wet spring, a hot dry summer, and a frosty fall, but a diverse mix of species will keep your yard looking good and your soil microbes eating well throughout the year. Clover, another common legume, will pull nitrogen from the air into the soil to feed grass, and pollinators will benefit if you mow around the clover and let it flower. Dandelions provide nectar for butterflies and other pollinators, and send roots deep into the soil.

By embracing diversity in your garden and yard, you can build healthy soils that will produce healthier plants, while making your garden or yard easier to maintain and more resilient to changing weather.

Learn more about building soil health in your backyard

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