Maximizing Living Roots

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Part three in our mini-series on the soil health principles by Mark J. Kopecky, New Mexico State Agronomist,
United States Dept. of Agriculture/ Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA/NRCS)

Hartman Farms, Deming. Photo: NRCS NM.

“Maximizing Living Roots” falls in the half of the circle that’s focused on feeding the soil. When I first saw this phrase, I confess it struck me as a bit odd: since living roots can’t exist without whole living plants, why not just say “maximize living plants?”

After a while it dawned on me—if we had a monoculture of a single species of living plants with either short, fibrous roots or just deep taproots, we could potentially maximize living plants, but not necessarily roots. In order to maximize living roots, we need the widest variety of plants growing together that the site can maintain (more on this in the next blog post when we cover diversity).

The diagram below shows a nice illustration of the differences in plant roots among various types of plants. When we have the maximum concentration and variety of plant roots, then we’ve truly maximized living roots.

Source: National Park Service

So, what’s the big deal about roots, anyway?

Well, we’ve always known that roots are helpful in forming soil aggregates and weaving them together, and we knew that when roots decompose after a grazing event or a crop harvest, they provide food for all the organisms that live in the soil. 

But we’re learning that roots are important because of the amazing things they do while a plant is actually growing. You see, plants were never designed to live as isolated, individual organisms—they require a great variety of microbes that perform various functions for them to stay healthy and vigorous. 

Plant roots secrete sugars, proteins, and other substances (root exudates) into the soil that recruit and nourish these organisms. Sometimes people say that plants “leak” these compounds into the soil, but that’s really an incorrect way of describing the process. Plants govern the types of substances they exude, and the type and amount of exudates varies according to the life stage and needs of the plant. 

Some examples of the interactions plants have with microbes are things we’ve known about for a while—symbiotic biological nitrogen fixation by rhizobial bacteria and actinomycetes is one good example. We’ve also known about the huge role mycorrhizal fungi play in plant nutrition. But we’re learning new things, too, like how important free living bacteria and archaea are in providing nitrogen to plants that aren’t hosts for the symbiotic bacteria. We’re also learning how mycorrhizae can link different species of plants together—not only for nutrition, but to help the plants protect themselves and each other from insects and pathogens.

Research by James F. White, PhD, Rutgers University New Jersey

An example of a game-changing discovery is the rhizophagy cycle, where plants actually “farm” bacteria that they use for food, defense, and physiological function. These are all examples of interactions that are initiated and governed by the plants and illustrate how soil functions best as a complete community.

By maximizing living roots, we maximize the volume of soil that the roots occupy and we maximize the amount and types of “liquid carbon” exudates that go into the soil. This maximizes the types and populations of the microbes that live in the soil, helping all the plants to thrive. This also maximizes the substances and organisms that will eventually become the types of stable organic matter (“humus”-like substances) with great beneficial properties such as water and nutrient holding capacity, aggregate stabilization, etc.

These few thoughts barely begin to address the amazing world of roots, but I think you’ll agree that this principle of soil health touches on some very important and essential interactions.

Roots of a diverse cover crop.

Radish is often used in cover crops to break up compaction. Photos: USDA/NRCS.

Explore the next principle of soil health!

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