For the Love of Gardening  

What works & What doesn't...

Dirty Little Secrets

Do you know the difference between dirt and soil? 

I’m not sure about you, but my hands are “dirty” when I come in from the garden…. not “soil-y”.

But it’s no secret that dirt is pretty much dead soil.

So here’s the thing: “Dirt” is made of Clay: (tiny particles about the same size as bacteria); Silt, whose particles are 10 times larger than clay and Sand, whose particles are10 times larger than silt. That’s pretty much it. Dead.

However, Soil is almost the opposite. Besides having all the same stuff  as ‘dirt’, soil is full of living things like decaying organic matter, microbes, bacteria, fungi and microorganisms.  Very much alive.

Soil has been considered -  until recently - an undervalued resource… but it is not an easily renewable resource. It is no secret to scientists that we are depleting the soil much faster than it can replenish itself.  It takes about 500 years to replace  as little as 25 mm (1 inch) of topsoil that is lost to erosion and the minimum depth we need to grow food, is 150 mm (just under 6 inches). So that means we can say that good and fertile soil really is a non-renewable and endangered ecosystem - ouch…

(Ref. David Pimental, “Population Growth and the Environment” Dec. 1998

Did you know that the United Nations - Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has declared

2015 - The International Year of Soils?

They're concerned too.


They (the FAO) want us to really understand the importance of healthy soil, so here is some dirt from them: 

“HEALTHY SOILS…. are the foundation for food, fuel, fibre and medicine”. 

Did you know there are more organisms in a teaspoon of soil than there are people on earth?

Healthy soil holds more water and because it does, it loses less water to runoff and evaporation both of which lead to erosion.

We can’t always see healthy soil because it is hidden from plain sight - it is covered up.  

So how do we get healthy soil?  by covering it up- what a secret this turned out to be.

Covered crops keep roots alive and create a universe of microbes, mycorrhizae, fungi, and bacteria  which are all necessary for pest and disease resistance and allow the soil soak up and hold water, while making sure all  essential nutrients get to the plant roots.


(read about the toxins in soil under the Black Walnut Tree.... )

NAKED is unhealthy - for soil that is…. Bare soil lets water run off, encouraging erosion and nutrient deficiency. Bare soil is dysfunctional - it is naked, hungry, thirsty and running a fever.

How does it get that way? Tilling agricultural land produces naked soil for at least half the year. When crops have been grown and harvested, usually the land lies pretty well bare for the other half of the year- all the while, blowing away, eroding and heating up.

So what, you say… but bare soil loses carbon; how? through deforestation, tilling, burning fossil fuels and even the use of herbicides and pesticides. When carbon is lost from the soil and exposed to air, it becomes a gas - Carbon Dioxide or CO2 - one of those gases that is affecting our climate.

When carbon is removed from the soil, the microbes that have depended on it, are also lost and the soil becomes - dirt.  Dead soil.

Good news is, there is more organic carbon in our soil than there is in our ground vegetation and our atmosphere combined…. actually, there is over 300% more carbon stored in the soil than above it.  Wow…. 

Plants draw carbon out of the air through photosynthesis and form carbon compounds. If there is more than the plant needs for its own growth, it is emitted through its roots into the soil to feed other organisms that affect soil structure and fertility.

This cover-crop below will protect the soil from erosion.


Soil removes and separates (sequesters) Carbon and stores it which keeps if from escaping into the atmosphere where it is released as Carbon Dioxide (CO2).  Healthy soil full of organic carbon is our ally against climate change because CO2 is one of the gases attributed to the changes in our climate.

We need to keep carbon stored in the soil and the amount of organic matter is critical- so the more organic content in the soil, the greater its potential to store carbon. 

We cannot feed people if our soil is destroyed -

“Sustainable agriculture sustains the people and preserves the land”…. (Tom Franzen)

One of the words we hear almost daily, is sustainability and the inference that we all should be working toward it with our food production. And the answer to that is “soil health is synonymous with sustainability.” 


  • cutting down trees without re-planting- leaving the soil open to wind, rain and erosion.
  • by compacting the soil - construction and heavy equipment - even trotting all over your garden will compact the soil

       - “waterlogging" -excessive irrigation of soils that are poorly drained for agricultural purposes.   

  • urbanization
  • leaving the soil uncovered


- As farmers and gardeners, we can decrease disturbing the soil by tilling it less and less.

-Can you see how the soil in the field on the right is more open to eroding than the green one in the background?

- We need to build up organic matter in the soil because it can hold 18-20 times its weight in water while recycling nutrients.  If we added only 1% of organic matter into the top six inches of soil, it would hold approximately 27,000 gallons of water per acre. 


- Keep the soil covered as much as possible with rotating crops and plant material - called ‘cover crops’  or by using mulch in our home gardens.

- Make sure we have a diversity of plants (and animals for farmers) to energize the soil

If soil is covered all the time with living plants, the soil has an amazing ability to enable micro-organisms to feed the roots with nutrients, while reducing moisture loss through evaporation and lowering the temperature of the soil… which ultimately, reduces plant stress.

This is also true in our own gardens.  We are the stewards of our land… no matter  if our plot is a few hundred acres or a few square feet .


You may notice gardens that are full, like the traditional English garden, are relatively free of weeds. (some weeds may actually  be there but the proliferation of other plants  usually chokes them out or at the very least, hides them).

Weeds (and their seeds) will grow where the soil is bare. Most of us spend so much time pulling every last weed, leaving lots of space between our plants.  If we do not add a significant amount of mulch to that bare soil, the weeds will be back in a matter of days…. hours it seems. 

Cover the soil, either with plants, compost

and mulch.

Mulch will not eliminate weeds, but it will keep the earth covered, moist and compost will keep the nutrients intact, giving your plants the best chance to grow and be healthy.

If you have a larger vegetable garden than most of our city spaces have room for…. there are some good ideas here: - see “Cover Crop Basics”.

What does it all mean for us as gardeners?


If our soil is poor, meaning hard-packed like some soils that are heavy with clay, water won’t drain away and will pool on top of the soil.  If you are like me, I am always tempted to dig up that  dirt and break up the clumps - it used to make me feel like I was making a difference.

But I wasn’t.

With my research, and experience, it only made things worse.  Please don’t dig up your garden unless you really have to - there are times when you  may have to change the level, or remove stones and rocks, but remember this:  There are weed seeds that have lain dormant for many years…. dozens of years in fact…. just waiting to be disturbed - digging makes them grow - but more critically, it destroys the micro-organisms that are so necessary for other plant and soil health.

So, you will have to put back better soil than you took out.


Spread your compost on top of your soil….. take a garden fork and push it down in random places… so you have some holes throughout your beds; rather like aerating it. Rain will wash the nutrients into the soil… 

If you are planting, instead of digging the whole bed, dig a hole for each plant…even if you have to take a pick-axe to do it.  Make the hole bigger than the plant, add compost, plant and add mulch... the plant and roots will take care of the rest. 

Over a season,(or maybe two), the roots will soon be strong enough to break down the soil around the plant. Those hair-like roots use the fungi and mycorrhizae like adding small straws to their ends, extending them into the soil, seeking out the nutrients that are between the spaces in the soil which will then alter the soil texture naturally.

And when you add the water plants need to complete the nutrient cycle, be sure to hold the hose or watering can down at the root.  Water less often and deeply and never from above. It is the root that needs the water and the soil, not the leaves.

In the fall, leave your garden standing…. let all the green go back to the root to give the plant strength to endure winter’s freezing temperatures. Let Nature keep the nutrients cycling through each season. 

In the book “Deep Rooted Wisdom”  are many suggestions for creating gardens that need little or no watering, repairing damaged soil, and lists of plants that create healthy soils without fertilizers.



We need to nurture and protect our soil.

This is a huge issue.  But we can start with our own gardens.

DO Be the change.

DO Cover the soil

DO Add compost

DO Stop tilling 


Thoughtfully consider soil as a valuable resource because:

“No civilization has outlived the usefulness of its soils. When the soil is destroyed, 

the nation is gone.” 

 Lloyd Noble, Oilman and Philanthropist - 1896 - 1950