Nature isn’t a monoculture. There isn’t just one type of tree growing, one grass, or one type of flower or fruit, so why have we been feeding our soil (and our bodies) a monoculture diet?
Fields are filled with wheat, corn and soy, and most food products are packed with the same ingredients. By changing this, and diversifying what we plant and choose at the grocery store or farmers' market, we can not only make a huge impact on planetary health, but our personal health as well.
Plant diversity equals stronger soil health
Whether you’re working with a small backyard garden or an acre or more of crops, diversifying and rotating crops is a game changer for soil health. Having a variety of plants growing together mimics a natural environment where everything has a purpose, has a companion, and works to feed the soil a balanced diet.
Feeding the soil a diverse diet initiates the development of a balanced ecosystem and provides for the soil fungi, bacteria and worms. In return, these organisms help the plants grow and thrive and to become more resilient when faced with the adversity of pests, disease and climate change.
It may not always be possible to plant a complete variety, or to change the location of your plants in a smaller garden, which is why cover cropping can be so effective in more intimate garden spaces. The easiest way to fit in diversity is to plant a mix of barley, rye, ryegrass, radishes, turnips, winter peas or clovers, which are cool-season cover crops in the fall (right before the "off" season for gardening). It won’t take up garden space in peak season, but will continue covering and feeding the soil throughout the cold months.
Cover cropping isn’t just reserved for small spaces. It is also extremely effective if you have a bigger growing area, especially if you can add animals to the rotation as well. Incorporating livestock allows them to graze on the planted cover crop while also fertilizing the growing area naturally and trampling and aerating the soil.
Once the soil is diversified and balanced, you’ll start to notice weed suppression, water retention, an increase in organic matter, reduced compaction in the soil, a decreased need to fertilize, and increased soil structure and stability so that the land may continue to feed our population long term.
A diverse soil network translates onto the plate
Have you ever noticed that food from a garden tastes so much better than food purchased from the supermarket? One of the reasons for that is that a garden usually maintains diversity. If you have a limited space, you’re likely not going to use it to grow one big crop of potatoes—you’re going to plant what you eat, so a kitchen garden might include tomatoes, peppers, herbs, carrots and other culinary staples.
Food that is grown in a diverse setting (with diverse soil biology) is higher in nutrients, which also translates to being tastier. So why not expand those flavour profiles by planting even more diversity?
Our bodies, like our soil, need a variety of nutrients, and planting outside the box can encourage us to be a little more creative with our meals. It may feel more complicated to plant or eat seasonally because we’re not as certain of what to make with Swiss chard, kohlrabi, radishes, or other seasonal foods that aren’t our standard garden salads—like cucumbers and tomatoes—but it’s good to branch out and receive different benefits from a variety of vegetables, fruits, meats, dairy products, nuts and seeds.
That means buying produce that you might not ordinarily choose. Look for what’s in season—that means cool-season crops in the spring and fall, and warm-season crops for the summer, and then look for a recipe or ask your local farmer to share their favourite way of preparing these foods so that you can branch out of your comfort zone.
Your body and the planet will thank you for stepping outside the box and trying something new.