Debbie Arrington

Seeds: Treat soil better than dirt

Author Elizabeth Murphy holds a big handful of compost, full of organic matter. It’s a perfect meal for healthy soil.
Author Elizabeth Murphy holds a big handful of compost, full of organic matter. It’s a perfect meal for healthy soil.

When Elizabeth Murphy got her hands dirty, she realized the importance of soil.

“I was working on different organic farms,” recalled the UC Davis researcher and soil scientist. “Everything we were doing came back to the soil.”

Murphy became dedicated to soil and its preservation. She studied soils throughout the West, taught other farmers through Oregon State University’s Small Farm Program and now is studying in Japan.

“We’re having a global soil crisis because people don’t protect it,” she explained. “It provides so much for us; we depend on soil for food. Most people don’t think about soil, but most gardeners do.”

The United Nations shares Murphy’s interest in the health of the world’s soils, and has made 2015 the International Year of Soils.

“Soil is a nonrenewable resource,” Murphy said by phone from Tokyo. “It takes billions of years to create. The Central Valley has great naturally productive soils, but we’re not doing everything we can to preserve it.”

Murphy has compiled decades of research and real-life experience into a new go-to resource, “Building Soil: A Down-to-Earth Approach” (Cool Springs Press, $22.99, 200 pages), a hands-on guidebook designed specifically for home gardeners. In her first book, Murphy breaks some new ground in making soil building – and understanding – much simpler.

“Gardeners know instinctively that soil is important,” she said, “but they don’t know what to do to help it. They may read the numbers on a soil test or a fertilizer bag, but that information and how it helps (soil) is just not intuitive. It can be counterproductive. A lot of people are confused about soil.”

For generations, people worldwide, particularly in developed countries, have treated soil like dirt. That’s led to soil loss and depletion. Once-productive farm land has lost its fertility. Turning this tide needs concentrated effort.

“Globally, this is a big problem,” she said. “Soils are the foundation of all life on Earth. They play a much bigger role and have many more functions than most people realize. Of course, they are essential for feeding the planet: Without productive soils, we can’t produce enough food for an increasingly growing population. Other critical functions soils play include cleaning our water and air, reducing or even helping to reverse climate change effects, protecting global biodiversity, and sustaining healthy ecosystems.

“The bottom line is that if we take care of the soil, then we can help ameliorate some of the global problems we face,” she added. “If we don’t take care of the soil, we actually make these problems much worse, much faster.”

That’s the main message of her book: Nurture your living soil and you’ll live better, too.

Helping soil starts with understanding it from the ground down.

“Soils are a living thing, a creature that breathes and needs to be fed,” she said. “When you think about it that way, it’s easier to take care of.”

The consequences are literally deadly.

“When we stop treating soils like living things, they die,” Murphy said. “When soils die, our crops depend on us to provide for all their needs in the form of expensive chemical fertilizers. When soils die, they lose their natural buffers to extreme weather events and other disturbances. As this happens, the productivity of our farms, gardens and pastures becomes more precarious.”

Healthy soil also helps plants – and people – through difficult times such as California’s epic drought.

How can gardeners become better soil caretakers? Feed your soil’s needs.

“Like any living thing, it needs food, water, shelter and air,” Murphy said. “It starts with plants growing on top and their roots reaching deep down.”

Those plants are part of the soil’s ecosystem, helping convey nutrients and water. The roots help form the air pockets necessary for the life that teems below the surface; 25 percent of good soil is air.

During drought, it’s tempting to not plant anything – especially if you’re trying to cut 36 percent of your water use. But remember, there’s more to a garden than plants.

“Even if you don’t plant a garden, still take care of your soil,” she said. “Put down heavy mulch; that will help feed the soil and retain its moisture. Let plants stay in place; their roots will keep the soil viable.”

Murphy shares updates on her soil crusade via her blog, “Dirty Little Secrets.” Her website ( also shares hints for soil-building and nurturing.

“I want to get more people interested in soils,” she said. “Soils are so sexy and fun. They’re fascinating when you get to know them. But their health is so crucial. And I don’t think we’ll have a choice; we need to think about soil to feed our planet.”