Winter Soil Care – Keeping Soil Alive

A shovel in the dirt.

By David S.

For gardeners in many areas, when the last of the summer garden is done, the garden goes unnoticed until spring or early summer. That’s such a waste of a golden opportunity to change the focus from growing plants to growing healthy soil. This blog discusses the winter garden chores that help you grow healthy soil so that next year’s crops are even better. 

What is soil biota? 
Soil biota is the life of the soil – all of those tiny organisms – good or bad – that live in the soil. What are they? They are:

  • Bacteria – A group of which converts nitrogen into a form that plants can use. Some also lock carbon in the soil, which is a portion of how atmospheric carbon levels decrease. 
  • Fungi – are decomposers, but mycorrhiza fungi have a special relationship with plants. They act as conduits that help funnel water and nutrients to the plants. The plant repays them with compounds that the plant produces, including plant sugars. 
  • Protozoa – help to turn nutrients in the soil into minerals that plants can then use. 
  • Nematodes – have two functions in garden soil. First, they help create nutrients out of larger organic blocks, and second, they prey on soil pests, such as harmful nematodes, larvae of garden pests, etc. 
  • Mites – help to decompose organic compounds in soil. They are a big help by turning garden scraps into compost. There are harmful mites, but you rarely see them when beneficial mites are cared for by the gardener. Beneficial mites will kill harmful mites. 
  • Springtails – are an ancient insect that plays a fantastic role in soil health. They are decomposers meaning that they eat organic matter and convert it into usable nutrients when they excrete it. 
  • Spiders – are an above-ground help for garden soil. These are predators who help to keep other insects under control. 
  • Worms – are also decomposers, meaning they eat the organic material in the soil and convert it into usable nutrients for plants. They have a more significant role as aerators and plumbers of a sort. Their tunneling helps air and water move through the soil, which helps plants and soil biota to thrive. 
  • Insects – of which many are beneficial help to protect plants from pests. In the soil, they help aerate the soil, and many are decomposers. As they eat soil, they convert the organic matter into nutrients that are easier to uptake by plants. Beetle larvae are one such example. 
  • And others

The range of jobs that soil biota accomplish helps defend plants from pests, helps them find and uptake nutrients and water, and helps turn the soil in which plants grow into healthy food plants can use. Soil biota lives in the humus and topsoil layers of the ground.

Humus in the wild would be the layer of decomposing vegetation on top of the ground. It can include fall fruit, leaves, branches, and sometimes an entire fallen tree. 

What does soil life do over the winter?
In the wintertime, soil biota is hard at work. The ground is primarily warm, except the very top layer, which can freeze. Soil biota lives at different levels of the soil depending on soil conditions. Down where it is warm, microbes are busy converting larger blocks of nutrients into smaller units that plants can use when they wake up from their dormancy. 

Networks of mycorrhiza fungi are building networks beneath the ground and responding to plant root signals. As a result, many plants slow down during the colder times of the year. Their roots, however, are still active and growing. 

Some members from the long list of soil life disappear during the winter. Spiders are not active; adult insects have either died off or are immobile. An essential aspect of insects is their lifecycle. Insects are never truly gone. We don’t notice them because they are in another form. Depending on the order of insects, they might be present in the soil as eggs, larvae, or pupa. When conditions are good, they change forms and begin the fulfillment of their lifecycle. 

Why soil health matters to next seasons crops 
During the winter, soil biota works to reestablish the nutrient level in the soil that plants will need when they start growing in the spring. Nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium are three of the major elements that plants need. One helps them to produce green leaves.  Another helps them build solid roots, and the third can help them build a healthy immune system and reproductive system. 

By encouraging soil biota to thrive, you encourage your landscape and garden to thrive. Healthy soil is one of the easiest and more powerful ways to help plants produce beautiful blooms and gardens to produce outstanding yields. 

Organic farming and landscape focus on soil health. Agriculture often focuses on synthetic inputs that make plants grow faster. Over a decade, agriculture has lost essential aspects of its soil. The humus layer is gone. The topsoil layer becomes thin and compact.

In an organic garden or farm, the humus layer is something the farmer adds – mulch. The simple act of adding a humus layer to a garden or even around shrubs draws the soil biota to the surface, where they begin to make food for the plants. 

Why winter soil health helps your in-ground shrubs, perennials, and trees
Focusing on soil health all year long is an excellent way to keep the garden and yard soil healthy. When you focus on soil health in winter, you set up your garden bed and landscaping areas to be in a position to support the plants around your home when they come out of dormancy. Even for those plants that do not go dormant completely, soil health is essential. 

The cycle of plants, whether those are annuals or perennials, is constant. Fall and winter for many plants is a staging time that prepares the plant for spring growth, flowering, fruit production, and root propagation. So when do suckers appear on your apple trees? They do so in the late spring.

Paying attention to soil health in the spring helps set up the soil to support plant growth, the production of blossoms and fruit, and invigorate the plant’s immune system to fight off disease and pests as they emerge. 

Stop into any of our five Southern California locations and browse the large selection of bioactive products. These are products that contain many organisms that help you create healthy soil. Also available is an array of mulching products, earthworm casting, composts, and aggregates. Healthy soil should be loamy and well-draining but still hold water. These ingredients help the soil become healthy, productive, and thriving.

Do you like what you see? Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get content like this every week!