Preparing Garden Soils for Spring

Friday, September 26th, 2014 by Jenny Watts
    • Plant snapdragons, pansies and violas for color this fall, winter and next spring.
    • Plant cover crops in areas of the garden that have finished producing for the summer. Crimson clover, vetch and fava beans will grow over the winter and enrich the soil for next year.
    • Set out rhubarb and artichoke plants now so you can enjoy their produce next spring.
    • Fall is for Planting! Trees, shrubs, lawns, ground covers and bulbs get a jump on spring if you plant them now.

Preparing Garden Soils for Spring

Fall should not be viewed as the end of the gardening season, but as the beginning of next year’s garden. Proper soil preparation now will go a long way to improve next year’s harvest and reduce the amount of spring garden work.

You don’t have to be in a rush to clean out crops if you can still harvest some green tomatoes or a sweet pepper or two. But when the season is over, cleaning out the dead plants prevents the overwintering of diseases and harmful insects. As you finish harvesting, pull up the plants, place them in the compost pile or, if diseased, throw them in the garbage or the green waste.   

If weeds have gotten away from you and gone to seed, try to carefully cut off the seed heads first and put them in a garbage bag so they won’t disperse around the garden as you pull up the plants. For perennial weeds, make sure to remove any roots, or they will regrow next year.  Tilling them in will only break up the roots into many more pieces, multiplying your problem next season. 

If you can get the garden cleaned up by early fall, you can plant a cover crop.  This is simply a crop such as crimson clover or fava beans that will protect the soil from erosion, and add organic matter to the soil. It serves as “green manure” when it is tilled back into the soil next spring. If you are preparing a new area to be a garden space next year, plant annual ryegrass there to break up the soil with its deep roots.

If frosts have begun, it is probably too late to establish a cover crop before winter. In that case, add 1 to 2 inches of compost or manure on top of your beds and mulch the bare areas of the garden. Organic matter loosens heavy clay soils, adds nutrients and by attracting all those soil microorganisms, makes the soil healthier. Several inches of amendments added in both spring and fall, as well as the use of cover crops, will substantially enhance the quality of your soil.

When the garden season is over and done with, and everything is cleared out and put to bed, then it’s time to plant garlic! Break the bulb into cloves then make a furrow about 3 inches deep and place the cloves in it, 4-6 inches apart. Be sure to plant the cloves pointed end up. Make your rows 6-12 inches apart. Rake the soil back over the cloves, so that they are covered by 2 inches of soil, and water the bed well. Each clove will develop into a full head of garlic by next summer.

You can still plant crops like kale, collards and spinach from starts. Onions can be planted from seedlings and they produce next year. These vegetables don’t mind the cold weather and will give you fresh greens as the weather cools.

Enjoy the warm fall days by spending some time in your garden.

Soil Preparation for the Vegetable Garden

Friday, May 2nd, 2014 by Jenny Watts
    • It is time to mulch your fruit trees and flower beds to retain moisture in the soil. Xerimulch will do an excellent job at a reasonable price.
    • When you plant your tomatoes, put a handful of bone meal in the bottom of the hole to help prevent blossom end rot on the fruit later on.
    • “Topsy Turvy”®Tomato and Pepper Planters are a fun and convenient way to enjoy these popular vegetables hanging right outside your kitchen door.
    • Hang up Codling moth traps now to reduce the number of wormy apples in your harvest this year. Replace pheromone lures in old traps.
    • Gladiolus make wonderful cut flowers throughout the summer. Plant some every two weeks for continuous blooms.

Soil Preparation for the Vegetable Garden

Soil is truly the foundation of the garden. Without good soil, plants become stunted and stressed and prone to insect attacks. But good soil, loose and humusy, with good fertility, allows the roots of plants to penetrate easily and take up the nutrients they need throughout the growing season.

First determine what type of soil you have. Soil texture is determined by particle size, which ranges from microscopic clay flakes to more rounded silt particles to sand grains. While undisturbed sandy soils are well aerated and well drained, they are nutrient poor, since sand and silt cannot hold nutrients. In contrast, clay soils hold nutrients very well but have poor drainage and aeration. Thus a soil with both sandy and clay characteristics should be optimal for plant root health.

However, unless a huge amount of sand is added to clay soil, it will not improve the soil texture. The pore spaces in a clay soil are very small and when sand is added, the large pore spaces of the sand are filled with the smaller clay particles. The result is a heavier, denser soil with less pore space than either the sand or the clay soil alone.

It is important not to turn clay soil when it is still wet. It will form large clumps that dry hard and solid and do not allow roots to penetrate. It may take a week of sunshine before wet soil is ready to turn. When it has dried out sufficiently to break apart when you turn a spade of soil, it is ready to be worked.

Using organic matter is the best way to improve soil. Compost, manures, leaf mold, sawdust, and organic amendments increase the water-holding capacity, aeration, and drainage of both sandy and clay soils. These materials are decomposed by soil organisms releasing nutrients that become available to the plants.

To add organic matter to a new bed, first turn the soil to a depth of 8 to 10 inches then spread a 2-inch layer of decomposed material over the soil and turn it in. If you use fresh manure or sawdust, it will take nitrogen from the soil for its own decomposition.

If you want to “double-dig” the bed, do that next. This method, taken from the “French intensive” gardening method, will yield the most produce in the least area. Then add organic nutrients in small amounts to enrich the top layer of soil. (see “How to Grow More Vegetables” by John Jeavons)

If your soil has been worked before and is pretty good, only add a one-inch layer of compost to replace the nutrients you took away in the form of vegetables the preceding year. Too much compost can encourage an increase in symphylans, microscopic creatures which eat plant roots, and result in considerable crop damage.

Soil in good tilth is well aerated, retains moisture and is rich in humus. Good soil is the beginning of great things in the garden.