Soil health is a fundamental part of growing clean, healthy food.

Soil is a composition of living and inanimate materials such as plant substances, minerals, and millions of creatures, many of which are too small to see. Plants depend on these micro-organisms, including microbes, fungi, bacteria, and insects, to process the valuable nutrients in the soil.

The first step toward improving soil health is getting a soil test. Tests can be ordered through University of Idaho Extension, Blaine County, in Hailey (208-788-5585) or through private companies online. Test results will explain how to incorporate different inputs to maximize your soil.

Beyond addressing specific soil deficiencies, you can apply compost to boost the quantity and quality of microorganisms. Compost is decomposed organic matter filled with beneficial microorganisms and can be applied at various points in the crop’s life cycle. Pay attention to where your compost comes from! Compost that has had contact with pesticides and other toxins can do more harm than good.

Another great way to build organic matter and microorganic life is to plant cover crops, or non-harvested plants that are grown when beds would otherwise be sitting fallow. Legumes such as peas and vetch help fix nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil, making it available to plants. Other cover crops, such as Sudan grass, protect the soil from harsh sun and leaching rain, then provide massive amounts of organic matter to re-incorporate at the end of the year. Cover crops can be planted in empty beds throughout the growing season, or in the fall to provide cover throughout the winter.

Healthy soil is at the root of successful vegetable production! Getting your soil tested and working to improve soil fertility is your best long-term investment in the productivity of your farm or garden.

Born and raised in the Wood River Valley, Sara Berman is greenhouse director for The Sage School and co-owner of Squash Blossom Farm in Hailey.