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What to Add to Garden Soil in Spring

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How to prep the soil for spring planting

If you haven’t gotten your soil in shape for the coming growing season, now’s your chance. It’s important to top up your soil’s nutrients at this time of year, every year. Learn about compost versus manure and what to add to your garden soil in the spring!

What to Add to Your Soil

It is important to top up your growing areas with organic matter (such as garden compost, animal manure or leaf mold) at least once a year.  Think of organic matter as feeding the soil, not the plants. Nutrient-rich soil is the lifeblood of a thriving garden—improving soil structure, enriching soil, and nourishing the vital microbial life within it. 

Without a thriving soil life, plants growing in the soil would struggle. In nature, soil isn’t left bare for long – there’s a constant cascade of organic matter landing on it, which then rots back down into the soil to keep soil microbes, worms, and all manner of beneficial bugs healthy. These guys in turn unlock nutrients, making them available to searching plant roots, so you can see why our role in feeding garden soil is so important.

Adding Compost

Soil life loves being fed with this honestly gorgeous stuff and the result, of course, is happy plants. Compost is already well decomposed, and it’s really rather rich stuff. On an established vegetable garden, you only need about an inch or, say, 3 cm of compost added to the soil every year. Just spread it out evenly over the surface with a rake. There’s no need to dig it in! It will gradually be incorporated into the soil by earthworms and other beneficial soil organisms.

Learn more about your type of soil and how to improve soil health.

Few gardens produce enough compost to keep all beds and growing areas covered. Typically, I find I have to buy in at least one of these bulk bags of compost every year. You’ll need more if you don’t have a compost bin yet.

Adding Manure

Well-aged (well-rotted) manure at least 6 months old is suitable for adding straight to the soil. It can’t be fresh or it will ‘burn’ plants – literally harm them and compromise growth. 

If you have the time, it’s certainly worth looking around locally. Many stables, for example, are only too happy to give the stuff away for free, but you’d need to make sure there’s no risk of herbicide contamination from what the animals have been eating and, unless it’s quite old and therefore well-rotted, you’ll then need to stack it when you get it back home then leave it for at least half a year to continue decomposing before it’s safe to spread. If you don’t have stables or a farmer nearby, it may cost about $75 delivered. This isn’t an extravagance when you consider the time it saves.

Learn more about the best manure for the garden.

Compost Versus Manure

So should you go for manure or compost as your primary source of soil-supercharging goodness?Garden-made compost is always going to win out. You’re recycling what you have to hand, and it’s generally the richest material  – certainly over bought-in composts anyhow. 

But if you run out of that, well-rotted manure comes a close second. We’ve tried different composts in garden beds – spent mushroom compost, and compost made from garden waste collected from the kerbside – and both my garden-made compost and well-rotted manure give better results. Garden-compost is so good because it’s absolutely loaded with all the beneficial life that plant roots drool over!

When to Spread Organic Matter

The best time to spread organic matter is between late autumn and early winter, before snow makes it impossible and so that your magical muck or crumbly compost has all winter to break down and soften up in the frosts – for the soil life to then get to work on.

But few of us are perfectly organized, so just try to get your organic matter on and spread before winter’s finished, so it’s got at least a couple of months to meld with your soil before it’s time to plant.

If you can’t get your hands on enough compost or manure then you do have other options – and here are two of them.

Raked Leaves

Under this fruit bush, it’s fine to use mulched or raked leaves, which you raked up in the autumn. There’s no hurry for the leaves to rot down – they will eventually – so these are serving almost as a sort of slow-release fertilizer. They’ll get into the soil in time, and the roots will have their fill!

Straw
Or, use partially decomposed straw. They’ll also rot down into the soil over the winter months, feeding these fruit bushes and and perennial vegetable beds such as rhubarb. 

It’s always worth working with whatever organic matter you have to hand – the cheapest, most accessible stuff. It’s all good!

No-Dig Gardening

As mentioned above, it’s best to simply spread the organic matter on top. While it’s fine to mix with the top layer of soil, it’s best to avoid digging down. Mother nature doesn’t use a spade, so why should we? Digging just uncovers more weed weeds. The no-dig gardening method is healther for the ecosystem. Learn more about no-till or no-dig gardening—an easier way to grow!

A Trick on Clearing Weeds

Earlier additions of organic matter give you the opportunity to deal with weeds early. 

When you sow a garden, you want a nice, weed-free seed bed. In the late winter, just rake the surface of the soil ever so slightly to disturb any weed seeds that might be there. Then you want them to germinate. If you want to get a head start, cover the garden bed with something that’s going to trap warmth, such as an old window pane or clear plastic. It will get the weeds to germinate a little earlier than they otherwise wood. Once germinated, take off the window pane or plastic cover. With your hoe, slice off the weeds at ground level so the bed is nice and clean. 

Now cover your clean beds with plain brown cardboard and it will stop any weed seeds from blowing in from elsewhere, and just hold the bed in a state of statis until you’re ready to plant in spring.

Watch the video to see all of these techniques in action and get more detail. 

Avoid Weeding in Winter

Overwintering annual weeds can be left untouched to develop into a mat of foliage that will protect the soil from erosion and heavy rain, in the same way that a cover crop would. ‘Weeds’ can be wild plants such as chickweed or bittercress, or self-sown salads like mache (corn salad). Hoe these annual weeds off in spring before they have set seed. You can leave them on the soil surface or add them to the compost heap.

Now you have everything prepped and ready for the growing season! 

What’s the next step? Plan the garden! Use the Almanac Garden Planner to lay out beds right on your computer. The Garden Planner automatically calculates plant spacing, tells you the best companion pairings, and warns you about crop rotation. We have garden templates you can just drop in, too, plus free live chat with expert gardeners this year!

About The Author

Catherine Boeckmann

Catherine Boeckmann loves nature, stargazing, and gardening so it’s not surprising that she and The Old Farmer’s Almanac found each other. She leads digital content for the Almanac website, and is also a certified master gardener in the state of Indiana. Read More from Catherine Boeckmann

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Susan (not verified)

6 years 3 months ago

Hi, what are your thoughts on chicken manure over cow manure? Also live in North Idaho and never heard of comfrey? Any ideas on where to get it?

Angela (not verified)

7 years 3 months ago

Hello,i live on the Costa del Sol in Spain where in July and August temperatures can reach 40c. As our soil is mostly rock i would like to make a raised vegetable bed and also start a compost heap. My questions are these 1)i am terrified that a compost heap here could catch fire(fire being our biggest fear here) is this possible?2)i intend to use concrete bricks as a framework but read that it causes a change in ph levels,could you please explain this better?3)i am a relatively new to vegetable growing so could you please tell me what kitchen refuse is good for a compost heap? Thank you for any help.

Deeda (not verified)

7 years 5 months ago

I have been looking for 3 years now, and canNOT find any at the local garden centers. I am thinking we are going to have to do an on-line search and order in the mail. I'd much rather support the local nurseries, but ..............
:(

Nat (not verified)

7 years 5 months ago

In reply to by Deeda (not verified)

hello Deeda,

I would encourage to ask your neighbours and friends because as many have said Comfrey can become quite overwhelming to manage and many would be glad to get rid of some. You can also ask the local garden shops for they might have some in their own yards!

Thanks

Comfrey is indeed difficult to obtain and you grow it from cuttings or young plants rather than seeds because the forms that spread seeds are highly invasive.  Comfrey is best grown in its own area away from your main plants, often by a compost bin or separate area.  You can obtain non-invasive type Bocking #4 from Coe’s Comfrey (www.coescomfrey.com) who will mail out cuttings to all the States but not internationally or to Canada.  Be aware that some people (including references on that site) recommend comfrey for purposes other than composting and feeding the soil.  However, it’s not considered safe for direct human consumption though it’s excellent for use as a mulch or as a nitrogen boost for a compost heap.

Barbara Couturier (not verified)

7 years 5 months ago

Where do I get seeds for this plant in all of my days I have never seen seeds for this.