With a little time and care, you can tweak your gardening soil now for big rewards in the spring.
Written by JACKYE MEINECKE
It often seems as if a gardener’s work is never done. No sooner do we harvest the last of summer’s flowers and vegetables, than it is time to prepare for spring planting. If we do not plant a winter vegetable garden, we can use these cold months to improve the soil. Whether we are planting now or later, gardeners should amend soil for the next season.
Most of our gardens have rock, sand, or clay soil. Many gardeners have some of both. At worst, the garden may be some type of builder fill. Based on soil test results or garden observation, we can improve our soil—if we apply amendments with a light touch.
The first thing to understand is that we are not soil scientists. We can do damage to our gardens if we are excessive in our efforts to create perfect soil, so always follow the recommendations for application printed on the bag or box. This is one case where more is not necessarily better, and can be downright harmful. A garden soil test might reveal shortages or excesses of some nutrients. Since it often takes weeks to receive the results of a soil test, during the winter months is a good time to send off soil for testing. Once the results have arrived, you can amend the soil according to the test results.
If soil testing is too expensive or too much of a nuisance, I recommend adding inches of compost to the vegetable garden at each season. Other organic materials also prove beneficial to the soil without risk of harming the soil.
To improve our alkaline soils over the long term add peat moss, leaf mold, or aged sawdust or shavings. For a quick fix, add agricultural sulfur. All of these are best added in the fall.
Green sand loosens clay soils, binds sandy soils, increases water retention, and stimulates biological activity, which is good for all soils. Humic acid (in compost and some fertilizers) makes essential minerals more available and stimulates seed germination and plant growth. Compost, especially homemade, adds a balance of nutrients, micronutrients, and microbes to all soils. We also can add living organisms to our soils with beneficial nematodes, earthworms, and biological microbes.
Manures may be dug into the soil at this time of year, particularly if we are not planting an area until spring. Manure must be totally dry and partially composted to add to the garden while plants are growing. However, at this time of year, manures do not have to be dry or composted to add to the garden beds. In our area, gardeners can usually find cattle, horse, and chicken manure easily. The city also provides biosolids for free. Gardeners also can add worm castings to benefit the soil.
Many of these soil amendments break down slowly, so adding them to the garden during fall and winter will make them available to plants in the spring. Improved soil retains water more efficiently and feeds plants naturally, cutting down on chemical fertilizers. Also, healthy plants have fewer pest problems. Best of all, we have more success with vegetable and flower production as a reward for our efforts.
- NITROGEN/N Blood meal, fish emulsion, manure PHOSPHORUS/P Bone meal, rock phosphate, superphosphate
- POTASSIUM/K Green sand, muriate or sulfate of potash, seaweed CALCIUM/CA Gypsum, limestone, oyster shells
- MAGNESIUM/MG Magnesium sulfate (Epsom salts)
- Sulfur/S Sulfur, super phosphate
- IRON/FE Chelated iron, iron sulfate
WINTER PREP CHECKLIST!
1. Disconnect and drain hoses, timers and other irrigation equipment that would be damaged in a freeze. However, do keep hoses and drip systems available for use during the winter months.
2. Cut back on watering. During cold months, the garden should be watered thoroughly every four to six weeks to maintain the roots of the plants. Adjust watering schedule according to rainfall—if there is any.
3. Protect or bring indoors any tropical or tender plants before the first hard freeze.
4. Remove weeds. This will prevent the weeds from seeding decreasing weed problems in spring. Also, many insects winter over in patches of weeds, so removing the weeds means fewer pest problems.
5. Sow wildflower seeds now. They will come up with spring rains or during the garden watering cycle. Wildflowers to sow in November include California and other poppies, larkspur, cornflower, California bluebells, calendula, and hollyhock.
6. Cut down grasses to about six inches tall. Deadhead spent blooms from perennials. Prune dead branches from shrubs and trees—but do not prune living branches until mid-January to February.
7. Clean off all mud and rust on tools. Sharpen the blades. Oil the tools to prevent rust during the winter months.
8. Thoroughly clean bird feeders with a mild bleach solution for their use throughout the winter. Hummingbird feeders can be sterilized and stored until spring — unless there is a hummingbird wintering in your garden.
9. Add compost or an organic fertilizer around shrubs and trees. Also spread one to two inches of compost over flowerbeds and lawns.
10. Relax and peruse spring catalogs for inspiration and new additions for the garden.