Healthy Soil is the Backbone for a Bountiful Garden

Healthy soil is the first step toward having a bountiful garden and those dead leaves you neglected to pick up last spring can be the secret. Who knew that that lack of time raking and bagging was actually a good thing!

Here, the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) and soil scientist Jessica Chiartas shares how leaves are decomposed by worms, bugs, and microbes – and turned into nutrient-rich compost and soil for your garden.

healthy soil

Leaf litter during fall in Madison Wisconsin. If added to garden beds – as is, or mulched – it provides insulation and nutrients for the soil. Credit: S.Fisk


Healthy soil and the “Soil Food Web”

Invertebrates — earthworms, beetle larvae, millipedes, mites, slugs, and snails — that live in the soil shred plant materials into smaller and smaller pieces, increasing the surface area on which soil bacteria and fungi can prey. Mulching the litter with your mower helps speed this process along, but in natural areas like forests, nature does all the work to create healthy soil!

Next up is something you might call mold. Scientists call it fungi. Fungi send out filamentous threads, called hyphae, that operate much like plant roots. These hyphae release acids and enzymes necessary to break down dead plant material. This makes nutrients available to plants to sustain their own growth. You may have seen this whitish “mold” under leaves and thought poorly of it. It’s quite hard-working, and adds a lot to your soil.

As the litterfall is consumed by the decomposer food web, water and inorganic nutrients (such as nitrogen and phosphorus) are released into the soil, where they can be taken up again by plants to foster new growth.

“So, do yourself a favor this spring (and next fall) and leave the leaves,” says Chiartas.

This article is reprinted with permission from Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) and originally appeared in the SSSA blog You can follow SSSA on Facebook at

The Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) is a progressive international scientific society that fosters the transfer of knowledge and practices to sustain global soils. Based in Madison, Wisc. and founded in 1936, SSSA is the professional home for 6,000+ members and 1,000+ certified professionals dedicated to advancing the field of soil science. The Society provides information about soils in relation to crop production, environmental quality, ecosystem sustainability, bioremediation, waste management, recycling, and wise land use.

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