Tending the winter garden

As my garden settles in for a winter's rest, I've thought about its blanket of soil. What can I do to make it healthier? How active are the microbes within it? Over the years I have realized the importance of good tilth, more fundamental to a garden's well-being than any plant purchased.

For many years gardeners have suggested turning the soil, even double digging, to get the soil full of oxygen. Recently I've been reading some of Lee Reich's writings where he suggests a much simpler method for healthy soil, one which is much gentler on the back. He has a Ph.D. in horticulture from the University of Maryland and is the author of several books, including "Weedless Gardening," "The Pruning Book" and "Landscaping with Fruit."

He suggests that we look to nature and see how soil naturally improves. In the forest, leaves fall and remain until they decay. Underneath those leaves and needles are more layers with the most decayed layer on the bottom.

Over time, soil stabilizes and develops a network of large and small pores. The large pores provide drainage and aeration; the small ones hold water and can channel it up or sideways to the roots. The application for us, then, is to add organic matter on top of our soil, without tilling it into the soil, and let the nutrients seep in naturally.

He does not recommend tilling because too much oxygen is put into the soil, which awakens thousands of dormant weeds. When the topsoil is disturbed, the existing organic matter in the soil also burns up faster. Reich suggests that we can control weeds better in our garden if we don't disturb the soil too much.

We question, then, how we can aerate our soil if we don't till it? His answer is somewhat roundabout. The great offender to lack of oxygen in the soil is compacted soil.

We must not plant in places we walk. Designate permanent areas for walking and permanent areas for planting. Use path guidelines, like pebbles, stones, pavers or wood chips, to delineate safe passages through the garden. Leave a good distance from the plantings for pathways because roots can spread out as far as 6 feet.

A third simple way to keep soil healthy is proper watering using drip irrigation. We have to decide what we want to thrive. Weeds do not need to be watered, plants do. In drip systems, the water enters the soil and moves through the large pores and spreads within the natural underground web workings that time has established.

Think of good soil this way: it is both a sponge, accepting and holding water it needs immediately and in the future, and it is also a sieve, allowing excessive water to follow gravity's downward pull through large pores. Most plants need about 1/2-inch to 1 inch of water a week, about a quart to half-gallon per square foot. When you mentally measure the areas of your garden, you can see the money/resource savings of drip systems because they set up the "Goldilocks" ideal - not too much and not too little.

A fourth way to improve the soil is to add about 4 to 6 inches of mulch either in late fall or early spring. Check with local dairy and sheep farms for dried and washed manure. Buy a yard or two of compost, rather than by the sack, from one of our local businesses. Also think about turning fall leaves into leaf mold rather than burning them or taking them to a fill. Create a 6-foot-diameter wire fence that is about 3 feet to 4 feet high. Rake fall leaves and dump them in.

Over a two-year period, leaves will transform to a rich, crumbly leaf mold, something gardeners covet. It can be used as a mulch. A few things to be careful of when using leaf mold: Some plants like coreopsis, delphiniums, pansies, sedums, coral bells, etc., don't like their crowns covered and could rot. Don't pile leaf mold next to trunks because mice could hide there and gnaw on the trunks.

What I've appreciated most from reading his books is that he thinks of the home gardener and suggests more efficient and less back-breaking methods. I like his approach. He particularly likes the idea of a property that sustains and feeds the owners, an idea similar to the victory gardens of World Wars I and II when economic times were tough and people wanted to reduce the pressure on the public food supply. Eleanor Roosevelt even planted a victory garden at the White House. We might do well if we do the same!

Beverly Hoffman's Sequim Gazette column appears the first Wednesday of each month. She can be reached via e-mail at

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