Fall is an excellent time to build up your garden soil. As you clear the garden for next year, a few additions to the soil can make all the difference in the garden beds. Whether vegetable or ornamental, soil health is the foundation of a successful and productive garden.
What Does Your Soil Need?
We live in an instant gratification society. We want fast veggies and endless flowers. But try to think of your garden as a long term project. Every year you build upon the next. Adding to the soil to make a better growing environment for our produce. As things decompose, add more.
Any self-respecting garden book usually starts with a chapter on soil. Trying to use quick-fix chemical solutions to plant problems is just a band aid. Why not start with working on soil quality first? I’m reading a book by Charles Dowding right now called How To Create A New Vegetable Garden. This book provides a whole new concept in starting a garden. His advise is to feed the soil not the plants. Not a new idea but few do this.
My favorite gardening book, The Garden Primer, has a wonderful opening chapter on soil. The concepts are so logical, copying nature. Decomposing matter feeds the soil as it breaks down giving nutrients a place to be useful for the tender new plants. New additions of soil amendments introduce new biological organisms. This brings balance to the garden soil unlike artificial remedies.
If you have poor soil quality, you may want to consider doing a soil test through your local Cooperative Extension Office. This can cost around $40 and may be a bit cheaper during the colder months. Most garden centers sell soil test kits for a few dollars. I got our soil tested a number of years ago. The results showed that I needed to add organic matter. Not too hard to fix!
Have you seen the jar test? It’s a method of adding your soil to a jar of water then allowing the layers of different soil types to form. A thorough explanation can be found at Preparednessmama.com. I love the idea of analyzing your soil just by looking at it in a jar!
Fall top dressing of your garden beds can be very beneficial. A few inches of compost or aged manure can do wonders. Soil improvement can help retain moisture in the garden also. If you are in the habit of cutting and cleaning up your beds in fall, follow this with a layer of good stuff. You can get some delivered or purchase some in bags. In the spring, your garden will be all ready for you!
When it comes to bagged compost, not all products are that great. Some often even have very little to add to the garden. Bagged manure can be somewhat sterile and there is no guarantee of what is actually inside. Often, it’s a case of ‘you get what you pay for’!
Building Soil On A Budget
You may want better soil but have very little money to invest in your garden. You could start by improving one area at a time. Do you live near a farm? Some farmers give aged manure away although this could introduce new weeds. Make sure whatever you pick is well aged and don’t forget to ask about their farming practices. Just because something is free doesn’t mean it’s good for your garden. Hay fed to livestock that was treated with herbicides can potentially produce a dangerous mix for your garden.
There is way more to mulching in the garden than bark mulch. When it comes to vegetable gardening, the choice of mulch can do wonders for the soil. Some people use pine needles, hay, compost, grass clippings or autumn leaves. Whatever you choose, make sure you do some research first so that you know the pros and cons. Many of these items are either inexpensive or free.
Start A Compost Bin
Not composting yet? There is no simpler way to deal with kitchen and garden waste than by building a basic compost bin. One big pile can work or you could try a more elaborate three bin system for larger quantities of plant matter.
In fall, turn pile over and sift what is in the bottom. Last year we sifted my pile and got six wheel barrow loads of homemade compost! A reward for all those trips out to the pile.
Cover Crops or Green Manures
One other fall friendly soil building technique is growing a cover crop. These may include alfalfa, winter rye, hairy vetch and buckwheat. The roots of these quick growing plants work the soil and leave behind beneficial nutrients. They can also be helpful in eliminating soil erosion, holding the soil against fall rains.
There are annual and perennial green manures. Perennial types may be harder to deal with. A fall cover crop can be easily worked into a yearly crop rotation. If you have an empty bed in fall, plant out your cover crop and let it grow through the fall. Be sure to mow or cut plants before they go to seed. In the spring, the debris can be turned into the garden before planting. These kind of soil building cover crops practically do the work for you!
Ever thought of starting a worm compost bin? I did this past spring and I have been collecting the manure ‘tea’ from the bottom of the bin. Soon, I will harvest the castings for use in my greenhouse. It is a fast way to deal with kitchen compost items. For a simple bin design go to Getting Started With Worm Composting. Just check and feed your worms weekly.
These are just a few ideas for building your soil this fall. I hope that some of them will be helpful to you and your garden!
In parting this week, I leave you with a few garden photos. There are so many pictures that I take that never get shared. Just having a little fun with light and morning dew!
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