Cowpea intercrop
Cowpeas are intercropped with squash to attract pollinators and beneficial insects, and to add nitrogen to the soil. Straw mulch adds organic matter, shades out weeds, improves water retention and minimizes disease transmission from the soil to plant leaves. Photo by Beatrice Dingha, North Carolina State A&T University

Understanding the link between soil health and healthy plants is fundamental to developing ecological pest management strategies. Practices such as conservation tillage, cover cropping and composting promote healthy crops by improving their growing conditions.

Conservation tillage reduces disturbance to the soil’s structure and to soil food webs. It leaves vegetation on the surface that protects the soil from erosion. Cover crops add living roots in the soil that compete with weeds, keep soil in place and reduce compaction.

Once terminated, cover crop residues add organic matter that promotes important beneficial soil biology. This includes soil invertebrates and microorganisms like mycorrhizal fungi that help your crop scavenge otherwise out-of-reach nutrients, as well as other beneficials that prevent disease-causing organisms from infecting the crop.

Composts and manures improve water-holding capacity, suppress disease organisms and provide stable plant-available nutrients to your crop. When grown in healthy soils, crops have access to enough nutrients to support the natural physical and chemical defenses they rely on to resist pathogens and insect pests.

 Learn more about soil health practices by exploring SARE’s What is Soil Health? interactive infographic and Building Soils for Better Crops book. SARE’s Steel in the Field includes profiles of weed and soil management implements, while Cornell University’s Resource Guide for Organic Insect and Disease Management describes cultural practices you can use in a variety of crops.

Project Highlight: Rolled Cover Crops

In vegetable production trials (LNE10-295) at Rodale Institute in Kutztown, Penn., rolled cover crops provided effective weed suppression compared to the use of black plastic mulch. At the same time, the cover crop significantly reduced labor costs and eliminated plastic waste. A rolled rye and rye-vetch cover crop had only 5% of the weeds as compared to beds planted with black plastic. In addition to smothering weeds, the cover crop provided organic matter and reduced soil erosion. Learn more about ecological approaches to weed management in Rodale’s guidebook, Beyond Black Plastic.