What is soil erosion? You don’t find many homesteaders talking about it. If you research soil erosion, you’ll find information mostly aimed at commercial agricultural farmers, not homesteaders. I personally think the reason we don’t hear much about it in homesteading today is because we have better systems in place than stripping the land like commercial agriculture.
However, soil erosion happens every year on every homestead to some degree. A great deal of to what extent it happens depends on how you garden, your soil type, and where you plant. Maintaining the vitality of the soil is the goal of every homesteader. Choosing the best manure for gardens is a vital part of enriching your soil.
While there are many different factors which can cause soil erosion, they can be broken down into two main categories: water and wind.
Soil erosion occurs naturally. The term soil erosion refers to the wearing away of topsoil by the natural, physical forces of water and wind or through farming practices such as tilling. To us, as gardeners, knowing what is soil erosion will go a long way to helping us preserve our soil’s fertility.
Topsoil is high in organic matter. When it’s washed away, often to the bottom of a pond or creek, you can’t use it to grow veggies. Soil erosion reduces your garden’s productivity and costs you time, energy and money.
The process can be a slow one which continues relatively unnoticed until the damage is done. Yet, it can occur quickly causing serious loss of topsoil. Many of my farming acquaintances are now dealing with this problem with the heavy, flooding rains they’ve experienced in central Louisiana this last month.
There are some contributing factors which can accelerate the process of soil erosion. These are usually found in overworked fields or garden spots which haven’t been managed for soil vitality. They are compacted soil, low organic matter, loss of soil structure from over-tilling, poor drainage from the soil type not being amended, and soil acidity.
Water Erosion from Rainfall and Runoff
The harder the rainfall, the higher the erosion potential. The impact of raindrops on the soil surface is like a mini bomb breaking down the soil. This is especially harmful when the soil is bare. Runoff is a greater threat during spring months when the soil is typically saturated, snow is melting and vegetative cover is at a minimum. Of course, this depends on your region too.
Tilling, crop planting, and harvesting practices which reduce soil organic matter cause poor soil structure and result in soil compaction, contributing to an increase in erosion. Have you ever tilled the garden and then had a hard rain? Have you ever watered your seedlings from the top and had a hard crust form? It’s the same idea. This crust seals the surface causing water to runoff instead of being absorbed. While a soil crust might decrease the amount of erosion from the impact of heavy raindrops, there is an increase in the amount of runoff which contributes to more serious erosion problems.
Slope of the Plot
The steeper and longer the slope of a field or garden, the higher the risk for erosion. It’s always a good idea to pick the most level spot for your garden. In fields and gardens, I’m a firm believer in cover crops and deep mulch for soil fertility and for protection from what is soil erosion. Knowing how to lay mulch properly is a great first step.
The potential for soil erosion increases if the soil has little to no plant or mulch cover. Cover crops protect the soil from the impact of heavy rain and slow down the movement of runoff water which allows excess surface water to soak in. What a great idea for prevention of soil erosion—grow your own barrier! This is especially beneficial to any area of your homestead with steep slopes. Even if you’re not gardening on the area, preventing soil erosion will help the whole of your homestead.
When asked by new or even experienced gardeners about cover crops, I always advise them to grow cover crops in every bed not required for current cropping, in every season of the year. There are some which can be grown along with your veggies and I suggest using them too, I do!
When cover crops are turned under or laid down, their green biomass feeds the soil. Bacteria and other members of the soil food web community feed on them allowing every part to be utilized in enriching and improving the soil. As they decay in place, the soil is not only fertilized but loosened. This allows air and water to penetrate more deeply.
Grain cover crops, especially buckwheat and rye, have extensive root systems and add a lot of biomass to the soil. Eventually, this creates humus. Cover crops in the legume family set nitrogen in the soil for a big boost in fertility. We plant a fall crop of peas and beans in the spot we will be planting corn the following year based on our crop rotation. This enriches the soil with loads of nitrogen and prepares the bed for the corn. Besides that, we get a little extra crop out of the deal.
As some of you might know, we don’t till in our garden any longer. For those of you who do, remember the potential for soil erosion by water is directly related to tilling, depending on the depth and direction, the type of equipment you use, and the number of passes you make. The less the disturbance of vegetation, the more effective you’ll be in reducing water erosion. Minimum till or no-till practices are effective in reducing soil erosion. We practice deep mulch gardening and have experienced enriched soil and better yields.
Wind erosion occurs in areas which are susceptible to it. Under the right conditions, it causes major loss of soil. Very fine soil particles are carried high into the air by the wind and transported great distances. This is called suspension. Fine to medium size soil particles are lifted a short distance into the air and fall back to the ground damaging crops and dislodging more soil. This process is known as saltation. Larger sized soil particles which are too large to be lifted by the wind are dislodged and roll along the soil’s surface. A process called surface creep. The abrasion resulting from windblown particles breaks down the surface of the soil causing soil erosion.
Over time, the soil surface can become filled in and broken down by abrasion. This causes a smoother soil surface which is susceptible to the wind. Excess tilling can contribute to soil structure breakdown and increased erosion, especially in wind prone areas. Where we’ve gardened in the past, we haven’t had wind erosion problems. As I’m learning to garden in a new growing zone, I’m discovering we will have some issues in this zone, zone 6/5. I’m learning from the local old-timers, deep mulch gardening will fix any problem we may have.
During times of drought, like the Great Dust Bowl, the speed and duration of the wind bear a direct relationship to the extent of soil erosion. During the winter, the effect can be akin to freeze-drying of the soil surface. If you see an accumulation of soil downwind or in an area sheltered from the wind (leeward side) around barriers such as fencerows, trees, buildings, or snow which has a brown color, these are indications of wind erosion.
A lack of windbreaks (trees, shrubs, etc.) allows the wind to transport soil particles over greater distances. This increases abrasion and soil erosion. Knolls and hilltops are often exposed and suffer the most damage. On our journey to Idaho last year, I saw a great many windbreaks along the interstate in Wyoming. Some were concrete, some were metal, and some were wooden structures. They allowed the wind to pass through, but kept tumbleweeds, the majority of them anyway, from filling the interstate.
The adoption of conservation measures which are effective in your climate, will reduce soil erosion from water, wind and tilling. Soil erosion can be a challenge on new homesteading land. Familiarizing yourself with your homestead layout will go a long way toward any conservation measures you want to practice. Look for the signs of erosion and take the necessary steps to repair damage, prevent future occurrences and improve your soil’s productivity.
So now that we know what is soil erosion, what tips can you share with us from your experience to help us take the steps we need to prevent this nemesis from taking place on the homestead?
Safe and Happy Journey,
Rhonda and The Pack