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Prepare Your Soil in Fall for Next Year’s Garden | Almanac.com

3 Ways to Feed Soil and Cover Garden Beds Before Winter

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Best time to improve your soil is in the fall

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Healthy soil means healthy plants and FALL is the time to feed and cover your garden soil—before winter sets in! We’ll tell you about three simple and inexpensive ways to cover the garden with nourishing organic matter!

We’ll let you in on a little secret that it take many gardeners a few years to figure out: Soil is the bedrock of any successful garden. What many folks do not realize is that best time to improve your soil is in the fall. 

How often do you see bare soil in nature? Not very often. And there’s a good reason for this. Bare soil is easily eroded by wind, rain, snow, and weather elements—washing away all the nutrients. 

Covering the Garden

In the garden, covering the soil during wintertime offers a number of benefits. It gives weeds a tougher time of it. By using organic matter such as compost or manure or leaves, you’re gradually feeding the soil—specifically, the life within the soil. This, in turn, feeds the crops you grow in it.

So, what’s the best way to build the best possible soil? You don’t needn’t to buy expensive soil amendments; much of the way you improve the soil is free or very cheap. Here are a few ways to both cover and feed the garden.

1. Compost or manure:

You should be composting almost everything: kitchen scraps, pruning, leaves, cardboard, grass clippings. It’s free! Once you add a good mix of ingredient, you’ll get a lovely compost which is a powerhouse in the garden.

Manure is fantastic as well, but it has to be from a trusted source. You don’t want it contaminated with herbicides which could pass through a horse or cow and inflict damage on your crops.

Add compost or aged manure about an inch deep across your bed to keep the soil covered over winter, weeds suppressed, and worms busy. The worms will drag it down to the soil so the microbes can work on it, too, releasing all those nutrients in time, and feeding your crop for next spring.

You can transport manure in the back of your car; if it’s fresh, stack it someplace for about a year because fresh manure is too strong for most plants.

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2. Fall leaves, grass clippings, or wood chips

You can also make use of readily-available organic materials that haven’t rotted down, especially those autumn leaves! Just spread the out onto beds! Learn more about using leaves.

Or, spread wood chips around fruit bushes and it will keep weeds down as well as slowly release nutrients to feed your plants. 

By the way, let’s dispel a myth. Wood chips do not rob the soil of nitrogen. Left on the surface, they create nothing but goodness, similar to a woodland floor.  When you wish to plant, just push the wood chips aside.

3. Field Bean Cover Crop

Another way to build soil is to plant cover crops.  They cover the soil to prevent erosion, improve soil structure, and suppress weeds.  It’s a little late for many cover crops but one crop you can always plant is super super hardy field beans. Bury the seeds a couple inches into the soil and they’ll grow until spring. You’ll end up cutting them down BEFORE they produce pods so that they can focus on fixing nitrogen from the air for their roots. When you chop them down, you can put the top growth into the compost heap for a full cycle of soil health!

Other examples o cover crops are winter wheat, winter rye, and annual ryegrass. Seed those cover crops are seeded in fall about six weeks before the first expected frost date. To plant, you simply broadcast the seed, lightly cover it with soil, and water. Let the cover crop grow until early spring, then till it under. Wait a few weeks after tilling before planting. See our Cover Crop Guide

Get a Soil Test

How do you know if your soil has the right amount of nutrients for excellent plant growth? If you’ve never tested your soil, we recommend a basic soil test. It’s something recommended every 3 to 5 years. 

Soil testing services are offered by most state university extension services. It only takes a few minutes to take a representative sample and send it off.  See how to take a soil test and a list of Cooperative Extension Services to call about a free soil test kit. Or, see three simple DIY soil tests for a quick and dirty evaluation of your soil

A basic soil test usually measures phosphorus, potassium, soil pH, and organic matter. (A proper pH is important for nutrient availability to plants.) The soil test service will also give you recommendations and solutions with suggested materials to add to your soil.

Happiness is a positive soil test, one that lets you know that you have been doing something right! 

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It can take years to get the levels of pH, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus in garden soil up to the optimum levels. See more about NPK Ratios And What This Means.

This year in our garden, we got the best soil test results ever! Everything is in the optimal to high range meaning we can ease off on applying amendments. I’m glad to have this report from the extension service to go by since too much of a good thing can do more harm than good.

Once you have your results, you may need to adjust the soil pH. The pH is the measure of the soil’s acidity/alkalinity. Most vegetables grow best in soils that are slightly acid, falling between the 6.0 and 7.0 range on the pH scale.

Add lime if you need to raise the pH and sulfur to lower it to within these levels. (NOTE: Do not just add lime or sulfur without knowing your pH. This would be detrimental to your plants.) Since we burn wood, we usually use them instead of lime to sweeten the soil.

The only recommendations from my latest soil test were to:

  1. Nitrogen: Spread 2 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet using either 33 pounds of soybean meal or 15 pounds of dried blood. I’ll stick to the soybean meal since the idea of dried blood makes me squeamish!
  2. Potassium: To maintain the perfect potassium level they recommend using 14 pounds of Sul-Po-Mag to supply 3 pounds of potassium per 1,000 square feet.
  3. Phosphorus: Absolutely no extra phosphorus is needed so any commercial fertilizer mix should have 0 for its middle number.

As mentioned above, manure and compost are excellent sources of nutrients but I might skip the free goat manure this spring and just use our home-made compost since the amount of organic matter in our soil also tested in the high range.

I’m very excited to be on track for another fruitful year in the garden come spring! Maybe you will be as pleasantly surprised as I was with my soil test. 

Reconsider Tilling in the Fall

If you have a small garden or a raised garden bed, consider leaving the soil left untilled. All that tilling does is disrupt soil structure, create more erosion, and kill earthworms. For a small garden, simply dig by hand to remove any weeds, old plants, and debris. To add your compost and soil amendments, simply add a layer on top and you can turn the soil lightly with a garden fork to mix the amendments.

Now, if you have a large garden, digging up all your weeds and old plants may simply be too much work. In this case, add organic matter before you till, and then consider covering the soil with some form of mulch to avoid erosion.

garden-1176406_1920_full_width.jpgI hope this gives you a game plan for the necessary action to take to bring your garden up to snuff. Remember: Look after your soil and your soil will look after you!

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