If there’s one thing that’s been sorely missing from our learning institutions in the modern era, it’s the pursuit of knowledge surrounding soil ecology. So when Mallory Cerkleski, an undergrad at Guilford College in North Carolina, offered us the opportunity to contribute to her soil study, we jumped at the chance. Mallory concluded her project early this spring, and to us here at FoothillBio, her results make perfect sense. Mallory conducted her study at the Guilford College Farm, which focuses on development of organic and sustainable approaches to agriculture. She designed the project to examine the potential for improving soil health by implementing cover crops through the winter. She chose several production rows, areas where management had previously tended more toward conventional methods. When we tested soil samples from the study area last fall, we found relatively consistent populations of oomycetes – anaerobic fungi, or molds, that grow in compacted, low-oxygen conditions. These oomycetes were not super-extensive, but sufficiently well-developed to be of concern. We often see similar growth in heavier soils suffering from disturbance events that can be difficult to avoid in a food-production system.
After assessing the soil, Mallory spent the next few months planting and cultivating a variety of cover crops in the same rows (see her project poster, right). In March, she once again sampled the soil; this time, we found only a small fraction of the oomycete development we had observed earlier.
Mallory’s project illustrates the power of living plants to keep soil oxygen-rich. Ground-cover plantings improve soil health through several mechanisms; they protect soil surfaces from the compaction-inducing impact of falling rain, while also preventing the surface from drying; their roots open soil pores and penetrate compaction layers, while also exuding carbon-rich compounds that feed bacteria and fungi. Living plants therefore play extensive roles in increasing a soil’s carbon content and supporting its nutrient-cycling capacity. We here at FoothillBio love to see folks learning about what lives in healthy soil, and how to make those organisms thrive amid the workings of farm production. When it comes to understanding the myriad relationships that make soil ecology work, we still have a long way to go, and we are grateful to see students like Mallory helping to push this field forward. We expect to see Mallory accomplishing even greater things in the future, and we look forward to further supporting students as they delve into this wide-open field of study.