By Julie Martens Forney
If you’ve already put your garden to bed for the year, you’re not alone. But before you lock up those garden tools for the winter, here’s a great idea for getting a jumpstart on your spring garden: Spend a bit of time improving the soil in your beds. Not only will it put you on the path to a healthy, productive garden, but it’s also one fewer thing you’ll need to tackle in the spring.
Here are seven simple things you can do now to prep soil now for next season:
Take a Test
Consider doing a soil test to determine if you need to add pH-raising materials like lime, or acidifying items like elemental sulfur. For the most accurate results, use a soil test kit from your county Extension office.
Leave the Roots
Still have some plants left to remove? Instead of digging to get every last root, just give the plants a quick tug and take what comes up easily. The part of the root system that’s left behind will feed beneficial microbes, whose digestive efforts produce humus. Humus not only helps keep soil moist and aerated, but also assists plants in getting the nutrients they need to flourish. (An important note: If plants are diseased, you need to remove all of the roots to avoid allowing the disease to overwinter in the soil.)
Place a 3- to 4-inch layer of compost on your garden, then use a digging fork or broadfork to gently work it into the soil. If you get your compost in place while soil is still warm, the microbes and beneficial soil-dwelling critters will start working right away to break it down and get it ready for spring.
Spread Some Manure
Manure applied during the spring needs to be composted first. But when you apply it in fall to a garden that won’t be planted until spring, you can go ahead and use the fresh stuff (assuming you can handle the odor!). The ammonia that’s present will disappear over winter, leaving you with rich organic matter come spring. Best manure bets for your garden are cow and horse (in that order), followed by sheep, and you’ll want to apply a 1-inch-thick layer. If desired, sprinkle the manure with blood meal, water it in, then cover the whole thing with a tarp or layer of leaves and straw to really get it cooking. Organic farmers call this a “six-month winter compost.”
Sprinkle with Fertilizer
If you don’t want to go the manure route, try lightly applying an organic fertilizer like greensand, rock phosphate, kelp meal, bonemeal or bloodmeal. When they aren’t overapplied, organic fertilizers like these release nutrients slowly over a period of several months. Adding them to the garden in fall gives them ample time to be transformed into materials that will be readily absorbed by eager spring roots.
Pile on the Leaves
No matter what form of compost or fertilizer you’ve put on the garden, cover it with a layer of fall leaves that you’ve chopped up with the mower. This is a great way to insulate the soil and encourage worms to stay active longer into the season.
Plant Cover Crops
Another option for prepping your soil is to plant a cover crop such as clover, red wheat, cereal or annual rye, agricultural mustard, fava beans, alfalfa, sorghum, or wooly pod vetch. Any of these crops will pull nutrients up from the subsoil, remove excess water, and (when you turn them under in the spring), return nitrogen and organic matter to the soil. The one drawback to this method is that you need to sow seeds while the soil is still warm enough to allow for germination, which usually means late summer in colder regions and early fall in warmer areas. If you’re too late to plant this time around, just add it to the calendar for next year.
Invest a little time in your soil this fall and you’ll reap the rewards next spring and summer.