With lawn care, it’s easy to focus on the “roof” (grass) while ignoring the “foundation” (soil). The living systems occurring above and below the ground surface are determined by the properties of the soil. We often ignore the soil because it’s hard to observe. If you learn to feed the soil, you will let the soil feed the plants.
Soil properties are Physical, Chemical and Biological:
Physical – aggregation and structure, surface sealing, compaction, porosity, water movement and availability
Chemical – pH, soluble salts, sodium, nutrient holding capacity and nutrient availability
Biological – macrofauna, microfauna, microorganisms, roots, biological activity, organic matter
When we test a stream for water quality, we do chemical tests for dissolved oxygen, pH, turbidity, etc. That gives us a good idea of what is happening in the stream. However, the best way to tell the health of a stream is to study what is living in that stream – the macroinvertebrates (animals without a backbone that you can see, often the larval and/or nymph stages of insects). It’s the same with soil.
The only existing soil tests are for the chemical properties. While this is important, the chemical picture of your soil makes up about 5% of the actual story of what is happening in your soil. Physical properties make up about 20% of the story and the biological properties make up 75% of the story of your soil!! 75%!! Organic matter is 5% of your soil composition but it plays a key role in the physical and chemical properties of your soil.
Enough with the percentages! What does this mean for you and how can you increase the biological diversity in your soil.
Conventional garden techniques involve spring or fall tilling, removal of all plant debris in the fall, and leaving your soil naked over the winter.
These are possibly some of the worst things you can do to your soil:
Spring and/or Fall tilling = Loss of aggregation and collapse of soil structure, burns up organic material, reduces water capacity.
Removal of plant debris = Removes food/carbon from soil critters, pulling plants disrupts soil structure.
Naked soil over winter = promotes weed growth, erosion, starves micro and macroorganisms, and leaching of nutrients.
Your soil ends up on life support and the plant health and production is entirely dependent on outside forces. Your soil and future plants becomes dependent on fertilizers, are more susceptible to pests so they needs pesticides, need watered more frequently, and are less robust and drought tolerant. Additionally, you have to bring in mulch to suppress weeds and maintain temperature and moisture.
Now let me blow your mind! All that hard work you are doing to clean your garden beds and rid your yard of leaves this time of year is the opposite of what you should be doing for good soil health. In other words, I’m giving you the go ahead to be a lazy gardener. This doesn’t mean your yard looks terrible but redefining how you leave your yard and garden beds for the winter, will ensure you have healthier soil come Spring.
How to be a lazy gardener:
- Never EVER leave your garden beds naked over the winter. Leave the plants where they have grown. Pulling the plants disrupts the relationship between the root and the organic matter in the soil. You are starving the millions of microbes and organic matter in the soil who are feeding off the roots if you pull your plants.
- Wildlife use the stems and decaying matter for shelter, food, and nesting material. Many native pollinators use stems of plants to lay their eggs in. Bumblebees build nests in messy areas of your garden to overwinter and raise young in the Spring (p.s. bumblebees don’t sting and are very important pollinators!)
- Mulch your leaves instead of raking and bagging them. Never ever blow leaves into a storm drain. Use the leaves as mulch in your garden beds adding a FREE source of nutrients to your soil.
- Letting leaf piles decompose and the leaf mold can be used as a soil amendment to improve structure and water retention. Compost your leaves and you will have a nutrient-rich compost to add to your garden next Spring.
- Share your leaves with neighbors, friends, schools, etc. Some communities pick up leaves and make compost to sell or give away.
Yes, your winter garden will look different than it has in years past, but I promise you, your soil will be healthier over time and you will have to water less, stop fertilizing all together, and your plants will thrive. Let the soil work for you!
For additional information, see the links below:
7 Reasons Not to ‘Clean Up’ Your Fall Garden
Why You Should Leave the Leaves
Blog author: Amy Roskilly, Conservation Education Specialist