Keep Soil Rooted

A field of tall grasses

Roots Support Plant Growth

This is part four of our six-part Farm Gate series on soil—the foundation of our sustainable future.

You might recall from grade school science class that roots play an important role in supporting plant growth. They take up water and nutrients from the soil, which help the plant transform sunlight and carbon dioxide into sugar and oxygen. The sugar feeds the plant, helping it grow, while the oxygen is released into the atmosphere.

What you might not know is that a significant amount of the sugar the plant produces is released into the soil through its roots. Why would a plant give up most of its lunch? Because it gets something better in return.

The sugars the plant releases feed soil microbes (bacteria and fungi) that in turn provide the plant with essential nutrients it can’t create or access on its own. This creates a natural cycling of nutrients between plants and soil microbes. When this nutrient cycle is functioning well, it supports healthy soil structure, improves water infiltration and reduces crop dependence on fertilizer. In other words: healthy roots make healthy plants and healthy soil.

Winter makes it difficult to keep living roots in the ground year-round, but there are steps you can take to keep soil rooted longer. Consider growing a perennial crop as part of your rotation or at least including a hardy winter crop like winter wheat. You can also plant a cover crop. Cereal rye establishes as late as mid-October, stays dormant under the snow and then resumes rapid growth shortly after snowmelt.

Root systems need healthy soils to thrive. At the same time, soil needs healthy root systems to thrive. This mutual dependency is a good reminder that soil is not a static resource, but a complex biological system of interdependent components. A healthy soil ecosystem, which includes a robust root system, will work as a unit to produce healthy, strong plants in our fields and gardens.

Other articles in this series

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