Soil Health in the Watershed

What is Soil Health?

It is the capacity of a soil to function properly.  Soil Health incorporates the physical, chemical, and biological properties of soil for improved productivity and environmental quality.

Why is Soil Health so important to the health of Barnegat Bay?

Looking at existing communities within the Barnegat Bay watershed, nearly 88% of the soils may be characterized as sands and loamy sands. These sandy soils have nearly 50% pore space with rapid infiltration rates ranging 6-20 inches per hour. In their native woodland condition these coastal plain soils have little to no runoff and contribute very minimal nutrients to the Bay. The water-holding capacity of these forested soils can easily store and filter at least a two-year storm event or 3.4 inches of rainfall in twenty-four hours.  For more information about how improving soil health throughout the watershed can help decrease stormwater runoff and improve the water quality in the bay, read the Barnegat Bay Partnership Science and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) report, Sustaining Soil Health in the Barnegat Bay Watershed.  To learn more about the importance of healthy soil in your lawn and garden, click here.

Healthy Soil provides several essential services or functions:

Soil supports the growth and diversity of plants and animals by providing a physical, chemical, and biological environment for the exchange of water, nutrients, energy, and air.

Soil regulates the distribution of rain or irrigation water between infiltration and runoff, and regulates the flow and storage of water and solutes, including nitrogen, phosphorus, pesticides, and other nutrients and compounds dissolved in the water.

Soil stores, moderates the release of, and cycles plant nutrients and other elements.

Soil acts as a filter to protect the quality of air, water, and other resources.

What is Soil Compaction?

Healthy soil includes not only the physical particles making up the soil, but also adequate pore space between the particles for the movement and storage of air and water. This is necessary for plant growth, and for a favorable environment for soil organisms to live. Soil compaction occurs when soil particles are pressed together, thereby reducing the amount of pore space. This loss of pore space influences the movement of both air and water in the soil. As a result, there is decreased root growth, as well as biological diversity and activity in the soil. For proper plant growth, void space must be available for air and water movement and storage of nutrients.

Land development often results in soil compaction, which reduces the rainwater infiltration rate to near zero, making these soils almost as dense as concrete. When the soils become this dense, our lawns and athletic fields have shallow root systems.  Because these compacted soils are unable to absorb and utilize water properly, plant growth is unsustainable and the quantity of stormwater runoff, which carries pollutants into our waterways, increases.

The New Jersey State Legislature has passed a law that requires the State Soil Conservation District to establish standards for restoring soil conditions post-construction.  The standards will ensure that disturbed and compacted soil is restored to the greatest extent possible through aeration, soil amendment, and revegetation.

New Jersey Scientists and Resource Managers Working Together to Improve Soil Health

Soil Health Improvement Project (SHIP)

The Ocean County Soil Conservation District,  Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve, Rutgers Agricultural Experiment Station, the American Littoral Society, Ocean County Parks and Recreation and Montclair State University teamed up to implement the Soil Health Improvement Project at Jakes Branch County Park, 1100 Double Trouble Road, in Beachwood. Completed in 2014, the project was funded by the Barnegat Bay Partnership’s Science and Technical Advisory Committee.

SHIP Goals:
1. Identify optimal physical, chemical and biological properties of Ocean County’s sandy soils to improve infiltration and reduce runoff and nutrient loss.
2. Develop simple, low cost and practical soil restoration techniques that are transferable to homeowners.

Scientists used different combinations of physical manipulation and organic matter amendments on compacted soil research plots at Jakes Branch County Park, then tracked the response of the turf to the different treatments. The plots with greatest improvement in soil physical properties and turf cover were those that were both tilled and amended with the greatest amount of organic matter. Tillage improved the physical properties of the severely compacted soil by decreasing bulk density and increasing water retention, which limited drought stress on the turf during the summer months. Amending the soil with leaf compost further decreased bulk density and increased water holding capacity. The greatest improvement in soil physical properties was observed at a soil organic content of 5.5%.

Five Demonstration Gardens were created at Jakes Branch County Park to showcase landscaping options for various site conditions:
1. Wetland Garden
2. Pollinator Garden
3. Woodland (Shade) Garden
4. Sun Garden
5. Rain Garden.

SHIP Research Conclusions:
1. Deep tillage reduced compaction and improved physical properties (soil bulk density and water retention).
2. Amending soil with leaf compost further improved soil properties.
3. Improved soil properties enhanced turf persistence and quality.
4. Amending to 5.0 % SOM produced the greatest improvements in the soil and turf.
5. Non-amended plots had unacceptable turf quality (poor ground cover and weed invasion) throughout 2014.

SHIP Recommendations:

•       When severe compaction is a problem, deep tillage (12 inches) with a subsoiler is beneficial.

•       Soils low in OM (Organic Matter) should be amended with OM sources, such as leaf compost (especially sandy soils).

•       Select an OM amendment that is uniform and mature (C:N ratio < 30:1).

For more information, including the research reports, presentations, garden designs and details, and all other information related to this project, please visit the Ocean County Soil Conservation District’s SHIP webpage.

Earlier Soil Health Initiatives

In May 2010, over 100 agencies, organizations, policy makers, and scientists interested in the impact of nutrient management on water quality participated in a Summit Meeting on the Role of Nutrient Management in Urban and Suburban Landscapes in Nutrient Loading of Surface and Ground Waters.  Sponsored by Rutgers University, New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, Barnegat Bay Partnership, Rutgers University, New Jersey Water Resources Research Institute, Rutgers University, Center for Turfgrass Science and New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, the summit provided a review of research on nutrient fate and transport from turf systems and interpreted this information in the context of formulating best management practices (BMPs) to protect water quality.  The summit also identified the important knowledge gaps regarding nutrient fate and transport from suburban and urban landscapes; identified the appropriate research approaches to address those knowledge gaps; and explored the integration of meeting participants within work/research groups that are addressing critical actions and research needs in nutrient management within suburban and urban landscapes. For more information, read the summary document: Summary of the Summit Meeting on Role of Nutrient Management in Urban and Suburban Landscapes in Nutrient Loading of Surface and Ground Waters. 

In May 2012,S.O.S. – Sustainable Opportunities through Soil,” a conference organized by the New Jersey Association of Conservation Districts (NJACD), was held at Ocean County College in Toms River, NJ. The event, which attracted over 200 attendees, was organized jointly by NJACD, the Ocean County Soil Conservation District, and the Barnegat Bay Partnership. Other major sponsors included Rutgers NJAES and the New Jersey Association of Professional Soil Scientists. The goal of the conference was to develop a better understanding of healthy soils and their necessity to sustainable ecosystems and to initiate discussions in local communities about moving from gray infrastructure (referring to impermeable pavement and the need for engineered solutions) to green infrastructure (such as permeable soil/landscapes, allowing natural ecosystem functions to serve needs).

Additional Soil Health Resources

Ocean County Soil Conservation District
NRCS/ Soil Quality Institute Homepage
Impact of Soil Disturbance During Construction (conducted by the Ocean County Soil Conservation District)


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