The best time to prepare the soil for spring is in the fall if you are not going to be planting winter crops. The final chore of the growing season is not just to clean up the garden, but also to get things ready for the next. This makes for less work in the spring when there are so many other chores to be done. There are a number of techniques that can be used to prepare your soil.
Adding Compost to Soil
Fall is a great time to add compost to the soil. This is due in part to the fact that so many compostable materials are so readily available. You can save grass clippings throughout the summer and fall, and in many cases can get your neighbor’s clippings as well. Leaves are available in abundance. However, you should chop leaves before mixing them into the compost pile. This makes the pile less likely to become matted, which would make it break down more slowly.
Using compost in the fall is also great because you can just mix together whatever you have, and add it to the soil. Unlike other times of the year, unfinished compost can be dug in because it will have six more months to break down into the soil. As components of the compost continue to rot, they will condition the soil adding nutrients and beneficial organisms as it goes. When spring comes around again, the soil is conditioned and ready for planting.
Planting Cover Crops for the Winter Months
A great way to add nutrients to the soil over the winter months is to sow cover crops in the fall. Cover cropping also protects soil from erosion while loosening the soil deeply with their root systems. There are a few different crops that grow quite well over the winter to be incorporated into the soil in the spring.
Common cover crops include legumes such as vetch, winter peas and clover. They should be inoculated before planting to help them germinate more quickly. Other crops are cereal grains like rye and oats. They grow easily and can be broadcast on the soil and scratched in a bit. These cover crops help to choke out weeds that would grow over the winter, spreading seed for the next planting season.
Adding Soil Amendments in the Fall
These are anything added to the soil to change its nutrient levels or soil make up. You can also adjust the pH of the soil by adding amendments. Take a soil sample to your local extension office where they can test your soil, and let you know what may need to be added to increase your garden’s fertility. After the growing season, some of the essential nutrients will be lower in your soil, and the fall is the best time to correct this.
Protect Beds Over the Winter Months
Your beds will need some protection from erosion during the winter months. Although you can accomplish this by planting cover crops, you can also mulch and cover the beds to protect them. You can mulch with grass clippings or with leaves. Straw can also be used. Place a layer of four to six inches. The materials will break down over the winter, and can be dug into the soil in the spring. You can also cover beds with plastic in order to heat the soil and speed up the breakdown process. Plastic will also protect the beds from soil erosion.
Remember that gardening does not end when the last plants are pulled from the garden. It makes a lot of sense to prepare the soil in the fall so that there is not as much work to do in the spring. You will be happy to see the great soil you have created when it is time to plant again.
Want to learn more about soil preparation for the fall?
Check out these resources:
Fall Vegetable Gardening from Virginia Cooperative Extension
Soil Preparation of the Vegetable Garden from NC Cooperative Extension
Vegetable Garden Soil Preparation from Arizona Cooperative Extension
Bill Paradis says
Serious gardeners should use all of these techniques, depending on how they manage their crop rotations, but this article leaves out a lot of important details.
Adding compost makes sense after any crop is harvested, but the degree of decomposition should not be taken lightly. Compost that is “finished” should be saved for areas that will be planted early in spring, and applied then. Less mature compost should not be used on the assumption that it will break down over the colder months – one never knows how much the decomposition will be slowed by unpredictable weather. Unfinished compost should only be used in areas that will be planted later in the following season, and rarely where a fine seedbed is preferred. Areas destined for nightshades and cucurbits would be appropriate. Soil amendments can be added in the fall with great benefit, particularly lime or sulfur to adjust pH, and rock powders for minerals and micro-nutrients, and some soil conditioners, all of which work slowly, but gardeners should be wary of adding nitrogen and water-soluble amendments in great quantity – much of that benefit is lost over the winter. Cover crops are ideal in areas where harvested crops have been removed, but new crops aren’t scheduled to be rotated into the new space for several months. The gardener should consider what use the space will be put to before selecting a cover crop. Some covers will regrow in spring, serving to capture nitrogen and provide large amounts of organic matter – but only after they are killed and added to the soil, which makes that area unusable in the earliest part of the season. In areas designated for early spring planting, a winter-killed cover crop or a mulch would be a better choice. For perennial crops, a winter-killed cover or a low-growing legume that survives the winter might be a better choice. Mulch is often the best choice where very early planting will happen the following spring – in those cases, a summer cover crop might be a better choice.
Shannon Huffman says
Bill, I am in NC and have just cleaned out our half acre summer garden. What do you recommend for winter? We will plant an early spring garden next year of various greens and normally plant corn, squash , cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, green beans, watermelon, cantaloupe and zucchini . I have plenty of hay up in the barn that I could use as mulch as well as a chipper and downed trees that could be chipped for mulch. I also have lots of ashes from burning cedar trees that were down on our property. Thanks!