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    Soil Nutrition | Winter 2013 Out Here Magazine

    Use the winter months to enrich your garden spot

    Good compost can be applied to your garden spot at any time, but spreading it in late fall and early winter will give the soil a head start in spring.
    Out Here

    By Grace Gershuny

    Photography by iStock

    Your garden has been producing all summer, and your table and pantry are filled with its bounty. Now is the time to think about replenishing the source of all this abundance — your soil. What can you do, now that the harvest is in, to build your soil over the winter?

    First, decide if your soil needs some supplemental nutrition. Did you see any obvious signs of nutrient deficiencies, such as purple leaves, which may indicate phosphorus deficiency?

    If so, it’s a good idea to test your soil, and late fall is a good time to do it. Most cooperative extension offices offer soil tests at a low cost, and home test kits also are available. The most critical tests are for soil acidity or pH, mineral nutrients such as potassium and phosphorus, and soil organic content.

    If your test results show that soil is too acidic (low pH), too alkaline (high pH), or lacking in mineral nutrients, fall is a good time to amend it with natural rock powders. Adjust pH upward with lime or downward with gypsum, also called calcium sulfate.

    Amendments such as rock phosphate or green sand supply phosphorus or potassium, as well as important trace minerals. These nutrients are released slowly by soil microorganisms, so it is important to work them in with some biologically active organic matter — ideally in the form of compost.

    It is not a good idea to apply highly soluble fertilizers, especially nitrogen sources, which can be washed away by rain and snow.

    Good compost can be applied at any time, but spreading it in the fall will give your garden a head start in spring. If you don’t make your own, local compost producers can often supply it in bulk. Raw or partially composted manure can also be used.

    A great way to add organic matter and protect your soil at the same time is to plant a cover crop.

    Compost, rock powders, and manures should be worked gently into the soil surface. Avoid turning the soil over or rototilling, and never leave it bare over winter.

    A great way to add organic matter and protect your soil at the same time is to plant a cover crop. Different cover crops are suitable for any climate and soil conditions, and perform a range of soil-improvement services. Some, such as peas or clover, can draw nitrogen from the air, releasing it to plants as it decomposes during the growing season.

    Others grow quickly and smother weeds, or help interrupt pest and disease cycles. Sometimes just leaving garden wastes, topped with compost and any mineral supplements, and covered with a layer of weed-free hay or leaves, is all you need.

    Remove any diseased crop plants, and make sure that any weeds left in the garden are not allowed to set seed.

    If you are planning to start a new garden bed, try the “no dig” method. First, mow as closely as possible, and then put down a layer of cardboard or several thicknesses of newspaper. Then add some compost or manure, and top it off with a deep layer of weed-free mulch. You can even sow a cover crop on the second layer, and just add a thin layer of mulch to help it germinate.

    Now you can relax, knowing that you have helped enrich your soil for the seasons to come.

    Grace Gershuny writes, teaches, and gardens in northeastern Vermont, and is the author of The Soul of Soil.

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