Gardening Soil


Ill.: Soil Science Society of America staff

There you are at your local grocery store. Maybe you have a shopping list and maybe you don’t. Perhaps you’re already hungry or are pressed for time. Maybe someone in your household has a food allergy or is on a special diet. The store may be offering promotions or featuring particular products. These are just some of the many factors that determine what actually comes with you to the checkout line. So, how could you possibly add ‘soil friendliness’ to your long list of considerations as you troll the grocery aisles?

With so many considerations and choices, how do you grocery shop to be “soil-friendly?” Photo: Morguefile

The good news is that it may not be as hard you might think, especially because soil-friendly eating lines up well with recommendations for eating healthfully: a diverse diet rich in plant-based foods.1 The newest guidelines suggest half your plate be fruits and vegetables!

The food you buy at the grocery store also has an impact on the entire food supply system. For protein sources, the USDA recommends varying “your protein routine.” By eating different types of foods, you’ll help create demand for a wide variety of agricultural products, which is better for soil. Food diversity helps with biodiversity and soil fertility when land is used to grow multiple crops.

Often overlooked at the grocery store, beans, chickpeas, lentils, and other ‘pulse’ crops are top-shelf when it comes to soil-friendly eating. Pulse crops are able to pull nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil. This process is called ‘nitrogen fixation,’ and provides a natural fertilizer, which is available for subsequent crops. Growers typically plant pulses as part of a ‘crop rotation’ system in which one plant, like corn or wheat, is grown one season, and a pulse crop, like kidney beans, is grown another. Pulses tend to increase the overall efficiency of water use and disrupt cycles of pests, weeds, and diseases. In our diets, they not only provide protein, but essential minerals and dietary fiber. Compared to other protein sources, pulses are quite economical.

Dried beans, peas, and lentils offer protein- and fiber-rich nutrition, as well as benefits to the soil. Photo: Morguefile

The list of healthy foods that add to soil fertility is long and can certainly include meat that is produced sustainably. For example, when livestock are grazed on pastures, the environmental impact can be much lower than when they are fed grain, which requires a lot of land, water, and agrochemicals to grow. There are other beneficial practices that ranchers can use such as mixed forages. Researchers in New Jersey are using perennial cover crops and various trees in a ‘silvopasture’ system to increase overall efficiency of their farms. In Brazil, researchers are grazing cows on land with tree legumes.

Perhaps the easiest ‘win’ of all for soil-friendly eating is actually eating all the food that you buy. Every bit of food that made it into your shopping cart required land, water, nutrients, and energy to produce. These resources are wasted if the food ends up in your garbage. If you are unable to eat all of your food, be sure to invest in a composting system, to return these valuable nutrients back to nature next growing season!

The article above article by Christine Negra, Versant Vision LLC, is from the excellent site Soils Matter, Get the Scoop! of the Soil Science Society of America, a go-to source for valuable and honest information on the soils we garden in.

1. For more about dietary guidelines, visit the USDA website Dietary Recommendations for Americans, 2015-2020.  

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.


  1. Gads! I just wrote in my rants on Wednesday about wasting lemons while there is a tree full of them right outside. (It is a long story.) Anyway, one of my other rants, although irrelevant to how food affects the environments, is the packaging! There is a store in town that provides all sorts of nice produce that I can get only there. They brag about their environmental stewardship and solar panels on the roof and lack of grocery bags and recyclable water bottles and all that, but so much of their produce is SO overly package in all sorts of sturdy plastics. I try not to be too offended, but seriously, some of the packaging is a serious deterrent to purchasing.

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