Build Better Soil
Throughout the growing season, garden plants work together with microbes to break down and use organic matter within the soil, depleting its nutritional content. Furthermore, during the off season, unprotected garden beds are at risk of erosion, a process that strips away the topsoil, contributing to additional loss of nutrients as well as soil compaction, which reduces water infiltration and drainage, damaging the soil structure.
Over time, this seasonal cycle can leave your garden infertile and unproductive. But this problem is easy to avoid by adopting a few soil-friendly habits in the fall.
When the growing season comes to an end, the soil-building season begins. This is the time to focus on rebuilding organic content, conserving nutrients, preventing erosion, and avoiding soil compaction.
1. Dispose of Old Garden Debris
First, harvest all you can before the first frost. Then, remove spent plants and compost them. Dead edible plants attract pests and can increase the chance that disease-causing pathogens make their way into soil, so it is best to remove them before winter arrives.
Composting generates heat that kills insects, disease spores, and weed seeds, and breaks down matter into a soil amendment that retains a bulky structure and nutrient value plants love. Apply the finished compost to your spring and summer garden to promote strong, healthy plants.
2. Loosen Soil
In the past, tilling has been a top fall chore, and has been touted as a solution for opening the soil structure to improve drainage and stimulate soil microbial activity, which is true in some cases. If you are planning on adding to your garden or starting a new garden bed or vegetable plot in the coming spring, tilling can loosen the soil that has never hosted a garden or has endured foot traffic.
Aim for about 8 to 10 inches of soil depth to account for future root growth. Add some compost and let the soil do its work over winter before full spring preparation and planting.
For established beds, it is better to skip yearly tilling, which can stimulate fungi and bacteria to consume soil organic matter. Sand- or clay-based garden soils that are low in organic matter are degraded by tilling. Instead, take steps to avoid compacting soil if possible (such as walking in paths, not on beds). And if the beds compact again, till only when needed to ensure air reaches roots.
3. Aerate Established Soil
Turning just the top few inches of soil ahead of seeding fall cover crops can work in organic compost or soil amendments such as bone meal and shredded fall leaves, and give the growing medium a boost. This no-till gardening is preferred by many. After removing summer garden debris, add a layer of compost to the soil surface before planting a fall cover crop or cool weather garden crop. Follow up with a layer of organic mulch to minimize erosion; let the amendments sit and work their way down into soil over winter.
4. Plant a Cool-Weather Crop
Extending the growing season with some cool-weather crops takes a little effort, but offers up fresh vegetables well into fall. In climates where winter temperatures seldom dip below freezing, it is possible to grow cool-weather vegetables like lettuce, spinach, turnips, and kale through the winter.
In addition to providing tasty produce, these winter veggies are good for the soil. Actively growing plants eliminate soil compaction and erosion, improve drainage, and add beneficial organic matter to the soil.
5. Plant a Cover Crop
Winter garden cover crops, like winter rye, hairy vetch, and winter peas and other legumes are grown solely for their soil-building capabilities. They eliminate erosion and compaction of the soil, and help retain fertility by scavenging nutrients. Planting cover crops is one of the best things you can do for your garden soil.
6. Recycle Fallen Leaves
The garden is a perfect place to dispose of fallen leaves. Use a lawn mower to mulch and bag the leaves before spreading them in a 3-inch layer on the garden bed. Mix them into the garden soil for a boost of trace minerals and a source of earthworm food.
Or, pile them up to 2 feet deep or more, shredded or not, and cover them with permeable fabric to hold them in place. The decomposed leaves will be incorporated deeply into the soil by assorted soil dwellers, transforming the bed by spring.
7. Add Organic Soil Amendments
It takes time for bacteria and fungi that live in the soil to turn compost, soil conditioner, and organic fertilizers into a part of the soil. These materials feed soil-dwelling microbes, which release nutrients that plants can use. In warm weather this happens quickly, but the processes slow down in the cold.
Plus, adding fresh manure from your chickens or your neighbors’ horses in spring can do way more harm than good. Fresh manure needs at least 6 months to age and let high levels of ammonia leach out. Applying these products in late fall ensures they will age and that the nutrients will be available for an early spring planting.
Wait to add bagged (or aged) manure until the soil reaches 50 degrees Fahrenheit and work it into the soil immediately.
8. Mulch Perennial Crops
Fall is also the time to care for the soil around perennial vegetables like asparagus, rhubarb, horseradish, and sunchokes. When the plant tops have died back for the season, remove and compost them. Then pull any weeds and apply a fresh layer of organic compost that will slowly replenish the soil all winter long. Finally, mulch around the plants and in the pathways between them.
9. Cycle Your Homemade Compost
Fall is a good time to use up old compost in the garden and free up space in the compost bin for new material. Whether you mix it in or spread it on the surface, a fall application of compost replenishes the soil organic matter that was used up during the growing season. It increases the living space for beneficial soil microbes, and cool weather veggies and winter cover crops grow better with the added nutrients.
10. Let The Cool-Weather Weeds Grow
It may sound counterintuitive, but let the weeds grow in fall and winter. Cool-weather weeds like chickweed and henbit provide a valuable service, similar to cover cropping, by holding the soil in place and scavenging nutrients. Even among the crops you’ve planted they are unlikely to cause real damage. So let them grow until late winter, then hoe the tops off and add them to the compost pile.
RELATED: Keep, Don't Kill: 9 Weeds to Welcome
11. Map and Plan
Although you are quite familiar with your vegetable garden layout by fall, you might not remember come spring the location of plants and how each fared. Taking a few notes before winter hits can help you prepare for the coming year.
Rotating crops is essential to balancing nutrients in the soil you’ve worked so hard to prepare. Vegetable families vary in how much of a particular nutrient they take up and in the types of diseases or insects they attract. Make a quick sketch or notes about the locations of your tomatoes and green beans before pulling them all up so you can switch them next year. While you’re at it, note problems you had so you can do a little research and avoid repeating mistakes.
12. Appraise Your Soil
If you’re unsure about your soil or noted problems like slow plant growth or soil that drained too quickly or not at all, use the garden’s downtime to test the soil. Get some clues from neighbors and gardening associations in your area, since soil types can be similar across regions. For an even better idea of your soil’s health, test it for pH and nutrient levels.
Send out for comprehensive testing if you’re serious about improving soil health over winter, or try a home test kit, like the MySoil Test Kit, the top pick in our researched guide to the best soil kits. Then, use the results to amend the soil as best you can.
RELATED: How to Test Soil pH
13. Build a Hugelkultur Raised Bed
Raised beds solve some soil issues and with hugelkultur, a traditional permaculture practice, you can build healthy soil with rotten wood and plant debris. Layer organic materials, including logs of old trees, from largest (or least decomposed) to smallest (think grass clippings) as you mound up to create a mini ecosystem. If mounded correctly, a hugelkultur bed can stand on its own. Or you can bury it about 10 inches deep in a trench.
For a more contained and attractive approach, use hugelkultur to fill most of a large raised bed. As with the mound, place the largest logs or branches on the bottom and add smaller ones as you go up. Let it sit all winter to begin decomposing and settling. Fill the top of the bed with your preferred mix for raised beds, in effect saving some money on purchased soil at the same time you’re practicing a sustainable gardening method that reuses organic materials.
14. Cover Empty Beds
Cover vacant garden beds to keep topsoil and soil amendments in place and help protect soil structure and makeup over the cold months. First, heap on some compost or an organic mulch; there is no need to work it into the soil. Then, find an old blanket, cloth, or permeable landscape fabric and cover the bed. The blanket or fabric will let in some moisture, but not full snowfall or rainfall at once, reducing compaction of the soil.
In spring, remove the cover and let the organic compost take in some air for a week or so before mixing it into the soil.
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