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Are you treating your soil like dirt?

Healthy soil is crucial for our plants and our environment

Where's the soil? It's alive under there: The raised bed is covered with straw mulch, and the ground soil is allowed to be "littered" with straw and leaves. The stepping stones keep the gardener on the path, avoiding compaction of planting areas.

Where's the soil? It's alive under there: The raised bed is covered with straw mulch, and the ground soil is allowed to be "littered" with straw and leaves. The stepping stones keep the gardener on the path, avoiding compaction of planting areas. Kathy Morrison

Any gardener who spends time poring over catalogs, debating plant varieties and choosing seeds, yet ignores the importance of the garden’s soil, is limiting the plants’ eventual success.

Soil isn’t just dirt. It’s alive with organic matter and multitudes of organisms, in addition to being about 45 percent minerals, 25 percent water and 25 percent air. Healthy soil gives plants their best life, and every gardener should be well-acquainted with their microclimate’s soil.

During a time of year when gardening activity calms down, California chooses to celebrate Healthy Soils Week, via the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources division, which includes the UCCE Master Gardener Program. The celebration runs through Friday, but the resources are available year-round.

New this year are a couple of excellent 45-minute talks that were presented live on Facebook and now are available on YouTube:

“Healthy Soil: In nature, sometimes less is more,” by Mike Corby, a UCCE master gardener in Contra Costa County. He discusses the components of soil and why each is crucial. He also explains why it’s important not to disturb the soil environment too much, by tillage, compaction or – here’s a surprise – pulling out the roots of spent plants (such as tomatoes.) Better to cut them off at ground level and let the roots compost naturally in the soil environment, he says.

“Harnessing the Magic of the Soil Food Web: Turning Dirt into Gold,” presented by Kit Veerkamp, a landscape architect and UCCE master gardener in El Dorado County. She notes how a healthy soil food web controls disease and keeps pathogens in check. She discusses composting and has some interesting things to say about the harm that weed cloth can cause.

I also recommend "Tips to Keep Your Garden Soil Healthy,” a talk from 2020 presented by Dustin Blakey, the Inyo/Mono counties' farm adviser and master gardener program coordinator.  He notes that a huge percentage of gardeners load up their soils with excess amendments and nutrients, trying to find the perfect "recipe" for, say, their tomatoes or their cucumbers. "Focus on improving garden soil, and don't fuss about a single crop," he advises. 

More soil resources:

This page from UCANR,  Healthy Soils - Basics, has lots of great information, including a quick quiz to test how much you know about soils. Links there provide hours of reading material on soil, but here’s a list from that page with a quick summary of what healthy soil is and does:

A healthy soil will:

  • provide the nutrients needed
  • have a good pH (often given as 5.5-7.0)
  • have active soil flora and fauna
  • hold water that is available 
  • be free of contaminants 
  • have good soil structure which helps with greater water infiltration and good aeration for healthy root growth
  • provide protection against erosion. In addition to good soil coverage by mulch or compost, good structure with increased infiltration helps.
  • is free of soil chemical and physical barriers,
  • is free from crusting,
  • provides a medium for good crop emergence and plant growth, etc.

Clicking on the For Homes & Gardens tab on that page brings up more specific and very useful information for the home gardeners, covering topics such as common home soil problems, practices to improve home soil; soil pH and how to test it, soil texture, and amendments.

A week hardly seems enough time each year to cover the topic of healthy soils. But it’s worth exploring during the dark days of winter – your plants will appreciate it this spring.

Some of our winter garden topics you might have missed:

December rose care: Start pruning now

Garden checklist for week of Dec. 4

How cold is too cold for my citrus tree?


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of Feb. 18:

It's wet to start the week. When you do get outside, between or after storms, concentrate on damage control:

* Keep storm drains and gutters clear of debris.

* Clean up tree debris knocked down by wind and rain.

* Where did the water flow in your garden? Make notes where revisions are necessary.

* Are any trees leaning? See disturbances in the ground or lawn around their base? Time to call an arborist before the tree topples.

* Dump excess water out of pots.

* Indoors, start peppers, tomatoes and eggplant from seed.

* Lettuce and other greens also can be started indoors from seed.

* Got bare-root plants? Put their roots in a bucket of water until outdoor soil dries out. Or pot them up in 1- or 5-gallon containers. In April, transplant the plant, rootball and all, into the garden.

* Browse garden websites and catalogs. It’s not too late to order for spring and summer.

* Show your indoor plants some love. Dust leaves and mist to refresh.

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