How to Prevent Soil Erosion for Gardening and Farming

Soil erosion is a pressing issue for environmentalists, farmers and gardeners worldwide. To grow the best crops and plants, you need the healthiest, most nutrient-dense soil possible for a thriving natural environment. How can you conserve your valuable topsoil from erosion? 

Here are some ways you can prevent soil erosion for gardening and farming:

  1. Replant tree cover (reforestation and afforestation). 
  2. Plant grass and cover crops.
  3. Cover your soil with mulch (organic or inorganic).
  4. Control water flow to prevent water erosion.
  5. Plant windbreaks.
  6. Reduce tillage and improve farming techniques.
  7. Avoid soil compaction.

Fertile topsoil (the upper, outermost layer) is foundational for the health of interrelated ecosystems, on a macro level, and for a bountiful garden, on a micro-level. In this article, I outline seven great ways you can prevent soil erosion.

1. Replant Tree Cover (Reforestation and Afforestation)

Reforestation refers to planting trees where prior forests have been cut down. Afforestation, on the other hand, refers to planting new trees where there previously had never been any at all. It’s the creation of new forests. 

As of 2021, the planet loses 64 acres of forest each year. It is important to counteract deforestation because trees play a vital role in ecosystems, and they fight soil erosion in helpful ways. 

Trees provide multiple benefits for gardeners and farmers alike in preventing valuable and nutrient rich tops from being eroded and washed away. Here are some ways planting trees will help your soil. 

Protecting Topsoil

Trees have extensive networks of roots, which help to bind the top layer of soil firmly. Topsoil is the most nutrient-dense, fertile, and productive of soil’s layers. It is approximately 5-10 inches deep (13-25 centimeters). 

This top layer of soil contains the nutrients your crops and plants require to survive. Poor or displaced topsoil results in lowered soil fertility and, ultimately, fewer plants and crops.

Sadly, soil erosion (through wind erosion, water erosion, tillage erosion, etc.) impacts this important layer the most, as it is the uppermost layer.

Planting trees and vegetation is one of the best and most effective ways to preserve soil’s fertile top layer. Roots assist in binding soil particles together, keeping the topsoil in place, and preventing its harmful displacement. 

Trees As Protection From the Elements

Additionally, trees act as windbreaks to prevent soil erosion caused by wind. Eroded soil can be picked up on windy days and lead to dust storms. So, creating windbreakers (trees, shrubs, etc.) is an effective preventative measure.

Tree foliage also slows the speed of water hitting the soil. Water’s erosive property is reduced when it is slowed. Tree leaves shield dirt from the full impact of falling rain.

Another great thing about trees is that their leaves supply the soil with hummus/leaf litter. This shelters the earth from degradation. And the decaying leaves provide the ground with nutrients. 

Barren land without any or much vegetation (trees, plants, grasses, or crop residue) is the most susceptible to the elements (wind and water) which cause soil degradation.

Furthermore, if you are concerned about water flow down a slope or incline, and the soil is too steep or infertile for smaller plants, planting trees can help to prevent landslides and further soil removal. 

Trees and other vegetation are excellent means to hold the soil together. Their extensive roots help bind soil in place, trees (and large plants) act as windbreakers, and leaves lessen the impact of rain while also providing leaf litter to cover the ground.

2. Plant Grass and Cover Crops

Related to the above, grass and cover crops (and similar vegetation) protect arable land and help you to avoid bare soil. Although soil on hills and slopes can easily displace and relocate, choosing effective plants and cover crops can prevent this.

Cover crops are crops explicitly planted with soil conservation in mind. Examples are winter rye and clover, but there are so many varieties. They are planted between main crops and between periods of regular cash crop production.

If you’ve got bare ground, you should seek to cover it up and shield it.

Green Manure

Another great thing about cover crops is that they provide green manure. This refers to produce planted with the intention that it is dug back into the soil. These crops provide the soil with extra nutrients and minerals.

Green manure “improves soil structure, water retention and draws minerals up through the soil profile, making them more available to plants.” To combat erosion and help out your land, ensure as much flora as possible.

Choose Plants to Prevent Soil Erosion

Certain plants are highly effective in protecting the soil. For your garden, you will want plants that are aesthetic, vigorous and have extensive roots. Here are some ideas (including flowering ground covers) for your garden:

  • Periwinkle
  • Japanese Spurge
  • Black Mondo Grass
  • Border Grass
  • Spotted Dead Nettle
  • Interrupted Fern
  • Candytuft
  • Sweet Woodruff
  • Hosta

3. Cover Your Soil With Mulch (Organic or Inorganic)

How else might you cover your soil to prevent displacement? In addition to planting trees, grass, and cover crops, you can use mulch of various materials to shield your soil. 

These ground covers can be a fantastic way to fight soil erosion.Mulch refers to any material (organic or synthetic) you use to cover your soil. Like cover crops, mulch is so beneficial in avoiding bare ground.

Not only does it stop erosion, but it also keeps nutrients from being washed or blown away, protects soil from direct sunlight, retains the moisture in, and prevents weeds. Mulch also protects your soil from compaction.

Also, mulch comes in so many forms. The primary two categories are organic mulch and inorganic mulch. Many organic types contain extra nutrients and minerals to keep the soil healthy. However, inorganic mulch can last longer.

Organic mulch comes in types like:

  • Leaves
  • Compost
  • Grass clippings
  • Bark
  • Woodchips
  • Animal manure
  • Straw
  • Hay

Inorganic mulch might take the form of:

  • Plastic sheeting
  • Rubber mulch
  • Geo-textile
  • Nylon
  • Jute matting and hessian
  • Cardboard

Other great options include laying down artificial grass, turf, and rocks to weigh the soil down. By weighing it down, you prevent corrosion and erosion from the elements.

It is advised to keep your soil covered year-round. Especially when you’re not planting crops, you should use mulch. But if you’ve got plants, you may not need additional coverage as the plant’s roots will keep the soil secure. But the added protection won’t hurt!

Whatever material you choose, it will not only prevent soil erosion but give you added weed protection.  

4. Control Water Flow to Prevent Water Erosion

Whether you’re combating soil degradation while gardening or farming, it’s crucial to keep in mind water flow. Water erosion can destabilize soil through flooding, heavy rains, storms, and flowing water and runoff water (especially if flowing down slanted land). 

Runoff water is excess water (rainwater, stormwater, meltwater, etc.) that land cannot absorb. It then moves along the surface of the soil, potentially displacing the dirt.

Nevertheless, there are methods you can apply to avoid the corrosive damage resulting from an over-abundance of water.

Limit the Amount of Water Used

Of course, water is vital for sustaining healthy soil and life. Soil needs a healthy amount of retained moisture to remain sustainable. However, it can be extremely erosive if there is excess water impacting soil. 

Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. While you are keeping this information in mind, it is advised to limit the amount of water you use on crops and plants. Also, cover crops and mulch, as discussed earlier, can shield soil from excess water.

Besides affecting soil, an overabundance of water can ultimately alter drainage patterns. Thankfully, there are ways to improve water flow and drainage.

You can read my other article on fixing soil that doesn’t absorb any water here: How to Fix Soil That Doesn’t Absorb Any Water

Fiber Logs

Unfortunately, water erosion can be amplified when you’re working with a hill or slope. The orientation of the land lends itself to soil displacement. The steeper the slope is, the more likely it is for soil to shift downwards due to water.

This can occur in both gardens and on agricultural land. 

Fiber logs are an effective preventative measure in the case of sloping land. These “logs” are made from fibrous materials and are placed on the incline to stop water from bringing mud further downhill. The water is then absorbed by the soil.

Coir logs, for example, are a type of fiber log that consists of coconut fiber wrapped inside coir netting. They usually last from 2 to 6 years. Coir logs have been used on hills, riverbanks, streams, and other areas susceptible to erosion.

Retaining walls built on slopes can also work in the same fashion. Further, they can stop badly eroded soil from tumbling downhill. Retaining walls can be constructed in your garden or on your farmland.

Improve Drainage

Whether you’re erosion-proofing your garden or farmland, improved drainage systems should be installed to ensure water is diverted effectively. You should identify where water tends to accumulate (for example, runoff water) and where it’s coming from. 

Water follows gravity. If you’re noticing pools of excess water in a certain area, you could try raising the land. And if you are gardening, ensure that the incline is running away from your house and not towards it (to prevent property damage).

Installing gutters and drains are other strategies to control water flow. Additionally, you could also create a drainage creek for excess water to flow down.

Install Flumes to Redirect Runoff Water

Runoff water on hills can be controlled by installing flumes. Flumes are artificial structures that perform the function of naturally occurring channels for waterflow. It usually takes the form of a declined gravity chute with raised walls on either side. Constructing a flume that redirects your runoff water to drainage can prevent water corrosion of your soil.

5. Plant Windbreaks

Like water, wind can displace topsoil and lead to land degradation. But by planting windbreaks, you can mitigate the worst impact of strong wind.

Windbreaks are rows of trees, shrubs, hedges, and other flora which are designed to shelter your soil from the hazard of severe wind erosion. These windbreaks have been used to protect home gardens as well as agricultural land.

How does it work? When wind impacts a windbreak, the air pressure on the windward side increases, resulting in a decrease of air pressure on the opposite side. Overall, wind speed and gusts are reduced for your soil.

As discussed above, deforestation and land clearing have been impacting the number of trees, thus leaving the soil open to erosion. By planting rows of trees or shrubs to act as windbreaks, you’ll also be helping to bring the number of trees back up.

6. Reduce Tillage and Improve Farming Techniques

Man-made contributions to soil erosion are agriculture, logging, deforestation, and the use of pesticides and fertilizers, amongst others. Thankfully, there are methods to mitigate the damage caused by tillage erosion and conventional cropping.

Reducing Tillage

Tillage refers to the use of mechanical means to cultivate farmland. When modernized tillage practices became commonplace, they enabled farmers to efficiently cultivate and prepare a large land surface for seeds. However, there are downsides.

Although tillage allows for weed suppression, pest control, the leveling of soil, and the mixing in of fertilizer and manure, extensive tillage has disastrous effects on topsoil. This deep and pervasive disruption to the soil ecosystem leaves it susceptible to erosion.

Here are some ways that tillage can lead to soil erosion:

  • Soil aggregates break down more rapidly, disrupting soil structure.
  • Creates compacted soil and loose soil, which are vulnerable to water damage and wind erosion, respectively.
  • Reduces the amount of crop residue which buffers against rain.
  • Soil pores break down, resulting in less water penetration and increased runoff water.
  • Excessive tillage does not allow sufficient time for replenishment of topsoil.
  • Fragmented soil structure leads to less productive, fertile soil and decreased yield.
  • Affects the water quality of surface water.

For these reasons, it is clear that minimizing tillage aids soil conservation efforts.

Strip Cropping

By planting crops in strips, farmers can increase their yield while also preventing soil erosion. According to the Earth Observing System: “Strip cropping suggests planting several cultures in strips alternated in crop rotation.” 

By using strip cropping, a farmer can protect their more fragile crops and their crops that need to be scattered more widely. This technique is often implemented on sloping land, but it can also be an effective measure to take on more level soil.

If certain types of crops are more at risk of erosion, they can be planted next to strips of a more erosion-resilient crop for added protection.

Terraced Hillsides

As we know, hillside soil is vulnerable to displacement and the negative effects which result from degradation. Conveniently, there are effective methods you can implement to counteract the force of gravity.

You may have seen images of beautiful, terraced rice fields. Not only is it aesthetically pleasing, but by converting a hillside into terraces, you can grow your crops on even the steepest of slopes. Remember to plant windbreaks and to use retaining walls. 

Wet Season Spelling

Grazing animals and livestock can damage the quality of farmland over protracted periods. Wet season spelling involves removing grazing livestock from pastures during the growing season. This limitation of livestock grazing gives the land a chance to replenish itself.

7. Avoid Soil Compaction

You may not realize it, but walking around on bare soil might not be a great idea. Compacted soil results from exposed soil being stepped on by humans, animals, and machines. Eventually, all this pressure presses the soil particles together too tightly.

The consequence of this compacted soil is that it leads to accumulations of runoff water. The water is unable to penetrate into the soil, so it runs off on the soil’s surface, which results in soil displacement. 

Also, new plants have a more challenging time burying their roots into deeply compacted soil. 

If you need any further proof of how great leaf litter, cover crops, and mulch are at protecting soil, it’s because they also protect against compaction.

The Causes of Soil Degradation

According to expert sources, roughly one-sixth of the planet’s land has been damaged by soil degradation (which equals about one-third of agricultural land). Historically, the major causes of this erosion have been natural – wind and water. 

However, the more recent, widespread, artificial alterations to the environment have contributed immensely. 

As humanity’s population has multiplied over the decades, more land and natural resources are cultivated and transformed to satisfy the agricultural and resource needs of a growing number of people. These changes often leave soil vulnerable to erosion.

Any process that leaves dirt exposed for too long can cause degradation and displacement of topsoil. Although different soils have greater or lesser resilience to erosion, this doesn’t prevent the widespread impacts of the loss of topsoil.

Here are some of the natural and man-made contributors to soil erosion:

  • Tillage erosion from agriculture, farming, and cropping practices
  • Deforestation, logging, and land clearing
  • Use of pesticides, fertilizers, and chemicals
  • Wind erosion
  • Water erosion 
  • Insufficient vegetation
  • A lack of cover crops or mulch
  • Grazing livestock
  • Climate change (droughts, floods, rapid weather changes)

Water Erosion

Water is vital for crops, but, as discussed earlier, excessive amounts can have a corrosive effect. This primarily occurs due to flowing water, water runoff, heavy rain, and storms. 

By adapting the soil conservation techniques discussed in this article, it’s possible to help build soil resiliency.

There are four main types of water erosion of soil:

  • Sheet erosion: This is when topsoil is removed in thin layers.
  • Rill erosion: This kind of water erosion results in small and deep channels.
  • Gully erosion: Erosion that causes deep and wide channels.
  • Bank erosion: This process involves the steady undercutting and slumping of rivers by the aggressive movement of water.

Wind Erosion

Just like us, plants and soil rely on air and water. But too much of either can greatly damage soil over the long turn, resulting in sheet, rill, gully, and bank land erosion. 

Wind erosion is caused by wind power that disturbs the most valuable layer of soil you’re trying to protect. The effects of wind damage are far-reaching.

For example, in drylands across the world, wind erosion is the major cause of soil degradation. Strong winds can pick up topsoil and create disastrous dust storms that contaminate the air and damage vegetation.

Sadly, it is predicted that an increasing number of droughts caused by global warming will worsen the state of wind erosion. It’s vital that you implement windbreak strategies mentioned previously to stop this from occurring. 

The Importance of Soil Conservation

Many of us do not think much about the amazing properties of soil. Contained within the soil is an intricate ecosystem that sustains itself and interacts, in an organic exchange, with other ecosystems, including plants and animals.

A mere handful of soil contains a complex ecosystem of organic matter, particles and pores and a countless amount of microorganisms naked to the human eye. Each of these components works together to keep the soil fertile.

So, preserving healthy, fertile topsoil is critical. On the macro-level (of environment and society), soil erosion threatens the wellbeing of both flora and fauna. And on the micro, personal level, your garden or farm requires hardy soil to flourish.

If soil conservation is not performed, over time, soil erosion will become more serious and lead to desertification. 

The Impacts of Soil Erosion

Sadly, eroded soil is a global issue that impacts the environment and human societies in many ways. Eroded soil results in:

  • Fewer crops and less food
  • Damaged biodiversity
  • Environmental disasters
  • Contaminated water
  • Affected air resources. 
  • Blocked rivers.

Displaced sediments from soil erosion can block rivers and cause flooding. Flooding caused by eroded soil has occurred across the globe, including in Indonesia, India, Colombia, and the Congo, for example.

The economic cost of soil erosion is estimated to be $8 billion dollars globally per year. Lowered crop yields, less food, and ecological damage and disasters are all consequences of unchecked erosion.

For all these reasons, it is vitally important that people implement sustainable practices to best conserve soil. By implementing strategies outlined in this post, you can help to preserve the soil in sustainable ways.

Alexander Picot

Alexander Picot is the principal creator of TheGrowingLeaf.com, a website dedicated to gardening tips. Inspired by his mother’s love of gardening, Alex has a passion for taking care of plants and turning backyards into feel-good places and loves to share his experience with the rest of the world.

Recent Posts