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Biodiversity starts in your backyard

How you can understand your lawn’s unique soil requirements

By Perry Brätt

Picture the perfect landscape: mature trees, lush grass, vibrant flowers, rocks, and water features—all figure prominently in our ideal of what makes an outdoor space luxurious and beautiful.

Chances are the earth underfoot is not the first thing that may come to mind when you plan your outdoor landscape but, despite its humble appearance, soil is the foundation all plants and backyard structures rely on. Far from being boring, flat, and lifeless, healthy soil is teeming with a wealth of biodiversity that should factor into your lawn design.

Healthy soil promotes a lush, green yard

A tiny amount of topsoil contains billions of micro-organisms, making it the most biodiverse material on the entire planet. These organisms break down and recycle essential nutrients, improve water flow, prevent soil erosion, absorb carbon, encourage plant growth, and even reduce pests and diseases in the surrounding areas.

There is no doubt you require healthy soil for an esthetically pleasing garden. Plants will not grow where the earth is not robust and properly maintained.

The complex cycle of decomposition is often shown in simple, circular charts with worms as the generic mascot for all soil breakdown. What is left out in these diagrams are the unfathomable variety of organisms, all playing a different role in the success of changing lifeless organic matter into nutrients that can be reused and reincorporated into the cycle of life.

Fungi, bacteria, mould, and other organisms begin the disintegration process through chemicals and enzymes. Earthworms, mites, and other insects then feed on small particles, further processing them into essential nutrients for plant growth. A complete array of micro-organisms works together to nurture the soil and fight off unwanted bacteria.

There is no doubt you require healthy soil for an esthetically pleasing garden. Plants will not grow where the earth is not robust and properly maintained. That said, fertility is only one component. The micro-organisms that have made their home in the soil are necessary for good texture, structure, and nutrition. Aside from obvious considerations for growth, weak soil can cause cracked foundations, flooding, and other damage to your home.

How to maintain the soil

Healthy soil has the right mix of nutrients: usually nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sulphur, calcium, and magnesium. It holds enough water while maintaining proper drainage. It also has low levels of heavy metals, which are harmful to biodiversity and plant life.

To keep soil healthy, you should look after it the same way you plan and look after the plants you intend to place there.

Seek professional advice

It is a good practice to use plants that belong to the region as the vegetation has typically already evolved to survive in the soil conditions of the area.

Robust soil starts with good planning; therefore, it is important you seek expert advice. A professional landscaper will determine the type of soil available before developing your outdoor design. Sand, silt, clay, and loam soils all support different types of plants and require distinct maintenance methods. Further, the right chemical makeup is essential for plants to bloom. The landscaper will formally test and assess the surrounding dirt before commencing any construction and planting work.

Encourage micro-organism production

If the microbiome of your yard’s soil is lacking in volume or diversity, it should be addressed before anything is planted. Micro-organisms require the same essentials every living thing needs for survival: oxygen, food, and water. There are many ways you can encourage micro-organism production in the soil.

  1. Add organic matter: This can be done in the form of compost or organic mulch. Inexpensive leaves and pine needles are also a popular option. You can also incorporate an attractive compost bin into the landscape design to facilitate a sustainable maintenance system.
  2. Moisture is a must: Next, remember to keep the ground moist for a few days. This will encourage the growth of micro-organisms. Water is essential for the biodiversity in soil to thrive, particularly in hotter climates.
  3. Leave it alone: The next step is to avoid disturbing the soil. Excessive tilling interferes with the physical properties of the earth, causing issues with pore space, nutrients, drainage, and ultimately the micro-organisms that need all these things to survive. Note: Overtilling can cause so much damage the soil may not recover for years.
  4. Use landscape machinery: The responsible management of heavy equipment often used in landscape construction is also vital to a good soil structure. Machines rolling over the ground can cause soil to compact. That said, the equipment must be used wisely. Studies have shown as soil density increases, microbes and bacteria decrease, so compact soil is detrimental to the overall health of the ecosystem.

Choose the right plants

Woman adding fertilizing soil in a pot with lush lavender

When planning a soil-smart landscape, one of the key factors you must consider is choosing the right plants. While flora on its own will not typically damage soil environments, people often abuse the environment through poor planting practices and/or ignorance.

For example, if you place too many of the same plants in one section of the landscape, it can deplete nutrients and ruin the soil over time. That said, you should not leave wide sections of the ground bare, either. Soil needs the give-and-take between plants and its own microbes to stay rich and fertile. Empty plots are also susceptible to erosion, depleting not only soil volume but nutrition, too. A varied selection of plants in planned groupings is best for biodiversity, pH balance, and the overall health of the soil.

It is a good practice to use plants that belong to the region as the vegetation has typically already evolved to survive in the soil conditions of the area. This is not to say every native plant will grow on a given piece of land. You will still need to get the soil evaluated to plan and determine the flora that will flourish in a landscape. Additionally, you must also consider other factors such as sun, shade, and available water resources, which affect plant growth. There are as many environments in a region as there are yard types, and native plants can be found for any setting.

Understand your landscape and embrace its uniqueness

Young teenage girl holding watering can and working in backyard garden. Woman gardening and growing fresh organic vegetables on garden bed

Almost any soil type can support a variety of plants. The trick is to embrace the lot (and its soil type) for what it is instead of trying to transform it into something it cannot be. Also, fighting against the soil type and location with respect to plant selection will not only result in poor soil quality over time, it will likely lead to disappointing vegetation growth. Shriveled, diseased, or stunted plants are probably not in line with your vision for your lawn.

Working with the land makes for a much more abundant landscape. It is likely even if you have lived in a region for decades, you can still find novel choices among the native plants available. In North America alone, there are more than 20,000 wildflower species. Narrowing this down to planting zones still leaves hundreds or thousands of choices, no matter where you reside. Of course, the further north you live, the more limited your options become, but a shift in perception to view the beauty of native grasses, moss, and volunteer weeds can help you appreciate the exclusivity of your landscape design as gorgeous, sustainable, and beneficial to your garden’s soil.


Native plants are advantageous to soil health, but they serve other purposes. They attract pollinators, which are beneficial to the ecosystem. Pollinators maintain plant health, which further supports diverse microbiomes in the soil. Native plants can also slow runoff, require less fertilizer, and are more pest resistant.

Weed reduction

Beautiful female gardener removes weeds from garden with hoe rake, cultivating soil, loosens bed before planting, growing vegetable and herbs. Take care of garden. Agriculture, gardening concept

Believe it or not, healthy soil helps to reduce weed growth, too. It may seem counterintuitive, but many weeds, such as bindweed, knotweed, or crabgrass, have evolved to take advantage of dense and nutrient-depleted soil. Others benefit from out-of-balance nutrients. Wood sorrel grows where magnesium is high, ox-eye daisies thrive in acidic environments, and purslane takes advantage of overly phosphoric soil. The weeds that pre-exist in your garden can tell you a lot about your lawn’s health. Cultivating a rich soil with the proper drainage, biodiversity, and nutritional balance will discourage these types of hearty weeds, further benefiting intentional plants.

Peripheral effects

By working towards an attractive and prosperous yard, you are also contributing to a better neighbourhood, an improved community, and a rich planet. Also, consider the peripheral effects of strong biodiversity in soil. The bacteria and other microbes found in the earth are used in modern medical research. Antibiotics, including penicillin, and a variety of drugs that help to treat cancer, tuberculosis, and other ailments are derived from bacteria and studying the molecular structures of diverse micro-organisms in dirt.


It is worth spending time to understand and nurture the soil at the outset to give your outdoor space the best foundation possible. Maintaining soil life and structure should not be an afterthought.

When you are walking in your yard next time, pay attention to the ground you are standing on. The huge variety of micro-organisms beneath your feet are crucial for the survival of every kind of plant, animal, and human on earth. The stronger the soil, the stronger our gardens, trees, flowers, and grasses will be.

Perry Brätt is the founder of Stratton and Brätt, a privately owned landscaping family in the intermountain West region. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University and also has a general contractor and engineer licence. For more information, visit

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