Marin Master Gardeners
University of California
Marin Master Gardeners

Get Grounded – Healthy Soil Does Matter

Winter has begun and most of our plants and trees will be entering dormancy and resting. Not so for us gardeners, but we do have different tasks now, and getting personal with your soil is important this time of year.  Healthy soil is the foundation of your garden: healthy soil leads to healthy plants and trees that create food-web habitats for local wildlife and build a diverse and thriving ecosystem.
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Remember the mantra "Feed Your Soil?" Now is the best time to do it before the winter rains arrive.  First, do some cleaning such as picking off old flowers, especially from camellias to reduce petal blight, also remove any from the ground because the fungus will propagate.  Don't use these spent flowers in your compost.  Deciduous trees, shrubs, and vines can be pruned, but not spring-blooming plants until after they bloom.  Now lay down about 3 inches of organic compost over the soil. Cover it with several inches of mulch.  Do not disturb the soil - no deep tilling, or any digging.  Such a simple task, but your soil will thrive and reward you with healthy plants.

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Soil structure is critical for water drainage and for allowing air to reach roots.  Populations of many organisms such as fungi, bacteria, worms and hard-bodied insects create micro-channels and contribute to soil nutrition.  We do not want to disturb this system, especially the extensive network of mycorrhizal hyphae established by soil fungi. The hyphae tendrils wrap around roots and extend far into the soil matrix.  They hold soil particles together and provide essential mineral nutrients such as phosphorous in exchange for plant sugars.

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Healthy soil is about 25% air, so be careful not to walk on it when the rains arrive. The secret to perfect soil is no secret.  Keep your soil alive and healthy by feeding it.  Minimize digging, avoid or minimize insecticides and herbicides which kill soil biota.  Avoid quick-release fertilizers and use organic compost to protect and restore soil fertility.

Solum is the latin phrase for soil and one of its meanings is foundation. Healthy soil is the foundation of our gardens.  More information about soil texture and the best soil composition for plant growth is here.  Tips are also available for compost and mulch from UC Marin Master Gardeners.  
Webmaster Email: banielsen@ucanr.edu