Each growing season the garden soil works hard to support plant growth and house many varieties of lifeforms. Just as gardeners are feeling tired from a long season of hard work, our soil is tired as it is increasingly depleted of nutrients. By giving some attention to the soil during the off season you can set your garden up for another successful grow.
Proper soil management can maintain and even improve the soil quality year after year. This is an obvious benefit to the gardener as healthy soil is a foundation for healthy plants. Fall is the perfect time to replenish the soil by adding organic material. Compost brings with it many decomposers that break down green waste and make the nutrients available for the plants. Decomposers also help create air space in the soil which promotes healthy root growth. Compost can be made of green waste gathered from the garden as well fruit and vegetable scraps from the kitchen. If you happen to raise animals such as chickens or cows, the manure can be composted to create nutrient-rich organic matter for the garden. In the fall cover the garden beds with manure. As the snow piles on top through winter, the manure will break down leaving you with a rich and healthy spring garden. If you don’t have your own supply of compost, you can purchase it and have it delivered. The benefits are worth the investment.
If you choose to add compost to your garden beds you should also consider how you to protect the soil from run off during the non-growing season. One option is to plant a cover crop. Cover crops can add nutrients back into the soil while the roots hold the soil in place. Another option for protecting the soil through the winter is to cover the beds with fall leaves. A leaf “blanket” will break down through the off-season contributing to the organic matter in the soil. Before you throw a pile of leaves in your garden pay attention to the varieties of leaves you have. Some trees have higher acidity and should only be used in moderation. Shred the leaves, which can be accomplished by running over them with a push mower and incorporate them into the soil. Use a thin layer of whole leaves on the surface. These will need to be raked off of the beds in the spring.
One hot topic in soil management is whether or not to till the garden. Some gardeners prefer to till in compost and other soil amendments. However, over-tilling can lead to soil compaction. If you choose to till you can minimize compaction by following these practices. Avoid having bare soil in the garden beds. Bare soil is easily eroded and compacted by rain. Use paths as much as possible to avoid walking on the soil that will be planted. This is especially true for wet soil as it can be more easily compacted. For smaller gardens, a metal rake will work well to incorporate compost.
Before cleaning up your garden tools for the winter get that soil prepped for next year. The efforts now will pay off in the near future as you uncover nutrient-rich, thriving soil that will be ready to be planted in the spring.
Cynthia Domenghini is an instructor and coordinator for K-State’s horticultural therapy online certificate program.