BINETTI: Some dirty truths about working with soil

October 2, 2013 

The first week of October is a good time for dirt work.

There is a grass-roots movement to get back to the basics and consider more than just the grass roots, tree roots and shrub roots in a garden. It is time to understand and feed the soil itself.

Even those who don’t have a garden or grow food are beginning to realize that our soil holds the dirt on growing healthful food and providing the fertility we need to feed everyone on our planet. Mother Nature has provided us with a free and healthy way of improving our soil and the world around us.

Leaves fall to the ground in October. The soil is nourished by fallen leaves.

The cycle of falling leaves and decaying summer plants is how organic matter is returned to the soil each autumn to provide nourishment for the next crop of plant life in the spring.

So why do we rake, bag and then pay to send away our fallen leaves and cut grass? Small yards, tidy gardeners and lack of time to store and compost our own October organic matter is to blame, but sometimes it is a simple lack of understanding about the most important living organism on our planet – our soil.


1. Your soil is alive. Every teaspoon of soil is teeming with tiny microbes that feed off of organic matter, breathe, reproduce and keep the rest of us alive.

2. Removing all of the leaves, decaying plants and insects from your soil destroys the balance of carbon, nitrogen and living soil creatures – so plants struggle to grow.

3. Autumn leaves provide a blanket of insulation for the soil and this helps to protect not just the earthworms and plant roots from the cold, but also offers protection for all those tiny microorganisms that live in your soil.

4. Your soil needs air for the tiny critters to breathe. Compacting your soil by stomping on it, driving on it, or even walking across it forces air to leave the soil by compressing the soil particles together. Soil needs to be loose enough to allow air pockets.

5. Without air pockets your soil cannot absorb and hold water. This not only causes run off and erosion, but a lack of air causes the death of all those good soil microbes.

6. Lack of organic matter can starve the good soil critters. This means they stop multiplying, giving off oxygen and breaking down nutrients. Next, the plant roots stop growing as they cannot penetrate the compacted soil.

7. Your garden beds do not like to be raked and leveled and cleaned of all debris in the fall. This leaves fine soil particles on top of the soil exposed to the winter rains and cold. These particles will bond together and form a fine “crust” that repels water and oxygen. Nature never intended soil to go naked in the fall. Work debris and leaves, compost and manure into your vegetable and flower beds just a bit and leave the soil uneven so the hills and valleys can collect rainfall while the organic matter is only partly buried as it continues to decay and feed the soil over the winter months.

8. Earthworms, moles, voles, beetles, centipedes and all those other creatures you can see living beneath the surface of the soil are good for your soil structure. They provide passages for air and water as well as break down leaves and organic matter.

9. Natural fertilizers such as manures, compost, seaweed, alfalfa, leaves and mulches of wood chips, moo doo and bark all breakdown to feed and improve the soil over time. Using man-made plant foods from a box or in a liquid form will feed the plants, but will not feed and improve your soil. “Natural” fertilizers release nutrients slowly – the way nature intended.

10. Flowers might be pretty, but healthy soil is a beautiful thing – the source of life itself storing all of the food, air and water we humans need to survive. It is time we stop paying money to haul away the “soil food” nature provides us in the form of fallen leaves and use this natural resource to feed our soil instead.

So what to do with all those October leaves? Pile them, compost them, shred them, store them or just leave them on top of the soil to feed, insulate and protect – just the way nature intended.

Please remember one thing: Always remove large leaves from your lawn and diseased leaves from around the base of plants.

Marianne Binetti has a degree in horticulture from Washington State University and is the author of several books. Reach her at

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