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Image of soil being scooped.
Even though it's the middle of winter, don't think you're getting out of doing yardwork!

Over the Garden Fence: Winter Soil Care

By Helen Willoughby-Peck, UC Master Gardener, Mariposa

Gardeners tend to think of winter and the cold weather as a period of rest from the chores of gardening. However, this is the perfect time of year to nurture your soil. Enhancing the quality of your soil is not difficult and doesn’t require expensive products.

Image of a bird in the snow.

Birds like soil, too. It’s where they keep the worms!

Soil is a complex, dynamic combination of minerals, air, water and organic matter. Although organic matter is a small fraction of the soil, it is a vital component. It includes plant and animal debris in various stages of decay, teeming with bacteria, fungi, worms and other beneficial organisms that are amazing workhorses creating soil structure, providing plant nutrients, protecting plants from pests and disease and improving water infiltration and storage. One shovel of a healthy soil can contain billions of beneficial bacteria and fungi.

Here are basic tips for improving soil fertility and structure over the winter without much work or expense while encouraging the development of good soil microbes.

  • Mulch, mulch, mulch. Top exposed soil with organic material such as dry leaves, straw, newspaper, wood chips, pine needles, grass clippings and even spent plant material that can be chopped up and dropped onto the soil to break down over time, protecting soil from temperature extremes, adding nutrients, improving moisture retention, suppressing weeds and encouraging soil organism activity.
  • Add well-aged manure or compost before winter rains begin, allowing the rain to soak the nutrients into the soil. Do not use manure from meat eating animals or horse manure as weed seeds are not well digested by horses.
  • To till or not to till? Some research supports tilling the soil especially if you have clay soil. However, other research supports not tilling the soil which may create a ‘compaction pan’ under the tilled earth that resists the penetration of water, earthworms, and plant roots.
  • Don’t walk on your garden beds unless absolutely necessary as it may compact the soil.
  • Grow cover crops in unplanted beds. When cut at the surface, chopped up and placed on the soil, they provide readily-available nutrients for microbes and decaying roots open up channels into the soil which permit penetration of oxygen and water. Cover crops from the legume family (clovers, alfalfa, beans and peas) are especially valuable as cover crops since they fix nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil for subsequent plants to use. However, legumes are planted in early spring and require over 60 days to fix beneficial nitrogen. Cover crops such as rye and barley are beneficial for hard soils as their tough roots can help loosen the soil.


UC Master Gardeners of Mariposa County serve Mariposa County, including Coulterville, Greeley Hill and Don Pedro. For gardening and event information, call us at 209-966-7078 or email at  mgmariposa@ucdavis.edu.

Find us online at http://cemariposa.ucanr.edu/Master_Gardener, on Facebook (UC Master Gardeners of Mariposa County), and on YouTube at “UCCE Mariposa.”

Listen to us on KRYZ 98.5 FM radio Wednesdays at 2 p.m. and Saturdays at 5 p.m.

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