This Picture Looks Innocent, but There's a Detail Gardeners Don't Want to Miss

Benjamin Possolo
Benjamin Possolo

I'm new to kitchen gardening and learned something in a recent gardening class I took from Kate Frey, a master gardener, that made me hang my head in regret. I've been making a huge mistake each season and it's pictured above. At the end of each season, I rip the plants out, roots and all to make space for new starters. For the last year, it didn't seem to make a difference in my garden. I'd till in fresh compost, plant fresh starters, and my garden would grow happily. However, this Winter, everything died and this mistake may be the root cause.

From what I discovered in this class, at the end of each season, it's best to simply cut the plants at the stem and leave the roots in the soil.* The roots help keep the soil loose and aerated, both essential for healthy soil as if soil becomes compacted, worms and roots can't burrow (what I think happened to the soil in my garden this Winter). Also, worms love to munch on the old roots which slowly transforms it into fresh, healthy soil.

In addition, tilling the soil (of an established garden bed) each season can disrupt the ecosystem below ground. Per tablespoon of soil, there are more microorganisms than humans on the planet. Tilling can be like stepping on an ant pile; you tear up the city below. So, instead of tilling, simply fill the beds with a few inches of fresh compost and let the worms gently work it into the soil over the course of a few weeks or up to a month. If your gardening bed is depleted of soil after the last season, you can fill the beds with equal parts compost and soil.

I've always known that "healthy soil makes a healthy garden," but I didn't realize I've been making this grave error each season. I can safely say, now that I know, I won't ever do it again!

*One exception is if the plant is diseased. If the plant has any sign of a virus, it's best to take the entire plant out and dispose of it (do not compost).