Although it can be tempting to think of gardening as a warm-weather pastime, there are many things we can be doing through the colder months to help our garden along.
Winter is the perfect time to think about improving our garden soil. Whether you’re a fan of a beautiful flower bed or want your kitchen garden to be as productive as possible, any steps you take now will pay dividends in the summer.
Let’s find out the best ways to improve garden soil over the winter!
How Can I Improve Old Garden Soil Over the Winter?
Winter is my absolute favorite time of year to work on improving my old garden soil.
Everything slows down in the winter, and most of us will have just a few cold-hardy shrubs and vegetables in the ground. This is a great time of year to take stock and see what replenishment our soil needs.
If I have it, my favorite way to improve garden soil over the winter is to simply add a top dressing of compost.
Like most homesteaders, I don’t like spending money unnecessarily, so making as much of my own compost as possible is always a top priority.
In our garden, we use organic no-till methods, which hugely reduce the work involved in adding compost to the soil. No backbreaking digging here – we just spread a layer of compost on the soil, and let nature do the rest!
But it can take several years to get to peak compost production levels, so what else can you do to improve your garden soil over winter? Luckily, we have many more tricks up our sleeves!
How Can I Improve My Garden Soil Cheaply Over the Winter?
If you’re on a tight budget, there are some clever hacks you can use to improve your garden soil over winter. And while the most obvious of these is to make our own compost, there is a far quicker way to improve your garden soil – green manures!
Green manures, also known as cover crops, are seeds that are sown on bare, dormant ground. These germinate and grow quickly, protecting the soil from erosion and adding essential organic matter and nutrients to the soil
And when you are ready to plant in the spring, the cover crop will either have died naturally, or can be cut down, pulled up, or dug into the soil.
Cheap, easy, and very effective – what more could you want!
What to Add to Your Soil to Make It Drain Better Over the Winter
If you live in an area of high rainfall or have heavy clay ground, you will know the difficulties caused by poor drainage. Cold, waterlogged soil leads to unhappy plants with poor growth and low yields.
I know that you’re going to think this is my answer to everything, but the key to helping soil drain is organic matter – yes, more compost!
If the soil is very compacted then this may need to be dug in, and it can take several years to see a big difference.
Are Coffee Grounds Good for Improving Garden Soil?
Coffee grounds contain high levels of nitrogen, as well as potassium, phosphorous and essential micronutrients. This makes them a handy tool for improving garden soil, but certain precautions should be taken.
Firstly, the residual caffeine in coffee grounds can inhibit plant growth. This means they should not be applied directly around young plants and seedlings, and should not be used in seed compost.
Secondly, coffee grounds can become quite compacted, mimicking the effect of solid, clay soil. To get the best from your used coffee grounds, they should be mixed with other organic matter.
I’d suggest that you add coffee grounds to your compost bin, rather than using them as a top dressing for soil. This will give you the best results from this useful waste product.
Improving Winter Soil – Frequently Asked Questions
We know the pain of trying to grow in soil that is less than perfect!
That’s why we want to share our solutions with you in our garden soil improvement FAQs – especially for those of you who are striving to get the most out of your productive kitchen garden.
What Can I Add to My Garden Soil to Make It Better?
You may see many different chemicals and fertilizers on sale at your garden store, but all your soil really needs is organic matter!
The best and most productive soil is that which mimics the natural cycle of plant growth.
Imagine what happens in nature – plants grow, then either die or drop their leaves and fruits during the colder months. These decompose on the surface of the soil, putting the nutrients right back where they came from.
When we harvest our fruits and vegetables and take away dead plant growth, we are interrupting this essential cycle. So, all you need to do is recreate the circle of life, by adding composted organic material back to the soil!
How Do You Enrich Poor Garden Soil?
The best way to enrich poor garden soil is by adding large quantities of composted organic matter. This could be the contents of your compost bin, or well-rotted animal manure and bedding.
Can You Amend Soil In the Winter?
Winter is a great time to amend soil!
It might look like nothing much is happening out there, but under the surface, billions of insects and microorganisms are working away to improve your soil. All we need to do is give them the right material to work with!
As we don’t tend to have as many vegetables in the ground in the winter, I will normally use this time to add a top dressing of compost to all of my empty vegetable beds.
The worms and bugs will happily incorporate this into your soil over the colder months, giving you the perfect soil for planting in the spring!
How Do I Add Nutrients to My Soil In the Winter?
How you add nutrients to your soil in winter depends on your climate and the sorts of challenges you face. For example, I would love to use mulches such as grass cuttings, but in our wet winter climate, the result would be slug Armageddon!
If you don’t have access to large amounts of compost, then a quick and easy way to add nutrients to your soil in the winter is to use worm castings. Think of these as super-potent little compost bombs, packed full of all the nutrients that your garden needs!
Should You Cover Soil During Winter?
Many people panic when they see bare soil and feel the urge to cover it! But is this necessary?
Although it isn’t essential to cover your soil in the winter, it’s generally best not to have any “bare” soil. Covering your soil with mulch, cover crops, or other material protects it from erosion, sunburn, frost – the microorganisms in your soil with thank you!
Covering your soil can also help to prevent weed growth – it beats pulling weeds by hand!
Another reason some people like to cover soil over winter is to protect the soil and preserve nutrients. If you are likely to experience heavy rainfall or high winds, covering the soil will prevent erosion of your precious topsoil.
Should I Cover My Garden Beds in Winter?
Covering your soil in winter is also a good idea if you have added a top dressing of mulch to your garden beds. This will leave the bugs and worms in peace to work away on your soil, without those pesky birds scattering your lovely compost everywhere!
A cover over a garden bed will also keep the soil warmer, and protect it from frost. Your tiny microorganisms will be working away happily under cover all winter, ready to give you beautiful weed-free soil in the spring!
Do you have any winter gardening tips? What do you like to add to your soil? Let us know in the comments below!
5 Simple Ways to Improve Your Soil Naturally
Feed the soil so it can feed your plants. The roots of all plants and trees (except those grown hydroponically) have their roots in the soil and they uptake moisture and nutrition through their roots. By improving your soil, you are improving the quality and production of the plants growing in the soil.
It won’t cost a lot of money and won’t take up a lot of time, but it’s a necessary garden chore if you want to get the most from your plants. Follow these 5 simple ways to improve your soil naturally so you can grow happy, healthy, productive plants.
Improve Your Soil Naturally
1. Test the Soil
Soil consists of a variety of elements, too much or too little of any elements will impact the way plants grow.
Conducting a soil test will let you know if the soil is acidic or alkaline. The type of soil you have will also be revealed with a soil test and what amendments should be added to correct the soil and make it productive.
A soil test kit can be purchased at any garden supply center and they are simple to use.
2. Organic Matter
Organic matter, like compost, well-rotted animal manure, leaf mold, etc., adds nutrients to the soil and much more. Organic matter loosens the soil to promote air circulation, root growth, good drainage, prevents compaction, and promotes the development of a bio-diverse subculture.
A bio-diverse subculture includes organisms that feed on organic matter and transform it into nutrient-rich humus and earthworms. The earthworms also eat the organic matter and leave behind nutrient-rich castings that feed the plants. The underground tunnels created by the organisms and worms also improve the soil naturally.
Organic mulch helps soil retain moisture, prevents weed growth, and slowly decomposes to improve soil structure and fertility.
Straw, tree bark, nut hulls, compost, newspaper, cardboard, and a host of other natural materials can be used on top of garden soil as plant mulch.
4. Crop Rotation
A simple thing like planting squash where tomatoes grew last year will improve garden soil naturally. Crop rotation will also decrease plant diseases and pest problems. Crop rotation prevents the depletion of nutrients and interrupts disease and pest cycles so the soil stays healthy.
Follow the 3-year rule for all garden crops. Rotate crops each year so that the same family of vegetables is not grown in the same place for 3-years. This will allow enough time for soil pathogens to die and for the soil to be healthy enough to sustain the crop planted.
Planting a winter cover crop will protect garden soil from erosion caused by rain, melting snow, and heavy winds. It will also improve soil naturally by increasing the nitrogen level and supporting the bio-diverse subculture underground.
Any type of legumes will fix nitrogen into the soil. Underground-growing vegetables, like beets, turnips, or carrots, will help loosen hard soil. Mustard, collards, and kale cover the soil with board leaves to help suppress weed seeds and prevent erosion.
True Leaf Market has the best variety of cover crops I’ve seen. The image above is just a glimpse of the variety they offer. Click on the image above to see the full range and learn more about the benefits of each cover crop, or follow this link: True Leaf Market cover crops.
Till any remaining cover crops into the soil in early spring so it will act as green manure and improve soil fertility.
Soil Testing and Management of Nutrients In Your Garden
Proper management of nutrients in your garden will help your plants, blossoms, and fruits attain better health and greater beauty. Here is what you need to know about keeping your plants and garden looking their absolute best.
To begin with, only apply the nutrition that the plants in your garden actually need.
There are 20 different nutrients that are commonly needed by plants in the average garden. Phosphorus, nitrogen, and potassium are the most important of these and are needed in large amounts.
- Nitrogen is important for plants that will produce lush vegetation.
- Potassium builds robust plants and helps to protect plants from diseases.
- Phosphorus creates impressive blossoms and fruit.
Then there are other nutrients like calcium, magnesium, and sulfur which should also be applied, in comparatively smaller amounts. These are called the 6 macronutrients.
Then, there are the micronutrients which are also required but in much smaller amounts. For example, copper, zinc, boron, and iron.
Macro- and micronutrients are both needed for healthy plants, but applying too much of any specific nutrient can have the exact opposite effect and could impair the growth of plants.
Furthermore, the over-application of nutrients could contaminate groundwater supplies and pollute the subterranean water table.
A good way to begin your plan for healthy plant nutrition is with soil testing.
Soil testing will allow you to know the pH level of your soil as well as the nutrients present. If you will be planting a garden, having the soil tested would be the best way to begin.
You will find that the cost of a soil test is small in comparison to the pain and frustration of blindly applying nutrients that could be doing considerable damage.
Once you know exactly what your soil contains, you can build off a plan of properly measuring nutrients and ongoing testing to ensure that you are not disrupting the chemical composition of your garden.
Many people are in the habit of liming their garden, but if this is done excessively, it can alter the pH level of the ground to an unsafe degree.
You can find a variety of soil testing kits available on Amazon, at your local supplies store, or gardening centers, but the most reliable results will be found from the Cooperative Extension Service in various land grant universities.
University and other commercial testing services will provide detailed information and allow you to choose even more specialized tests needed when you begin to suspect a problem.
In addition to a simple readout of all the nutrients and chemicals present in your garden, these superior tests can provide you with recommendations for adjusting these levels of nutrients and balancing pH levels perfectly.
PH testing your soil is a very simple thing — pH levels will tell the acidic or alkaline levels of your soil.
If your soil’s pH level is above 7 it is alkaline, below 7 is acidic soil and a pH level of 7 is neutral.
Because the pH level of the soil will greatly influence the nutrient intake of your garden, learning how to adjust this level is essential to providing proper nutrition to your garden.
Iron deficiency is one of the problems that can occur even in soil of a neutral pH level and can be especially detrimental to rhododendrons and blueberries.
If pH levels are lower than this, other problems may ensue including excessive micronutrients that result in plant toxicity. Regular testing can inform you of the correct nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus levels.
There are various ways to test nitrogen in the soil, but not all are the same.
Nitrogen is present in the soil and can take on a wide variety of different forms. For this reason, obtaining a precise analysis of this important nutrient can be more difficult to obtain.
For the most part, most universities don’t routinely test for nitrogen in the soil. On the other hand, it is possible to get an idea of the nitrogen content in the soil by using a home testing kit.
But once again, because of the nature of nitrogen in the soil, it can be difficult to get a precise reading.
Organic Matter Testing
Organic matter is another important part of proper testing.
Organic matter has an important role to play in the quality and structure of the soil and provides a wealth of advantages including aeration as well as the movement of and retention of soil moisture levels.
When the soil is high in organic matter, microbial activity is increased and root growth is encouraged, this allows for a healthier plant.
The organic content of the soil will also allow for better availability of the soil nutrients and improves the way soil reacts to pesticides.
Organic content of the soil also means that the nutrient levels of the soil are far greater than those with lower levels of organic matter.
There are also tests that will provide you with a readout of the valuable micronutrients in the soil. But these tests are only necessary if there is reason to believe that the soil is deficient in some way or if other problems exist in the soils.
There are also certain plants that have a higher demand for specific micronutrients and when they begin to show signs of malnutrition, a test may reveal the source of the problem.
Blueberries, for example, will suffer from low levels of iron, unless they are planted in soil with lower pH levels. This will be evident in their newly sprouted leaves, which will appear yellow between their veins while the veins themselves will remain green.
If all the other plants growing from the same soil appear healthy, then simply adjusting the pH levels of the soil will often correct the issue.
Taking Soil Samples for a Laboratory Testing
If you want to get a soil test done by a local land grant university, begin by contacting the Cooperation Extension Service for more information and the sample bags they use to perform these tests.
If you will be looking for a private laboratory that will do these tests, then contact them and ask about the details they require for submitting a sample.
You will be provided with very specific directions for collecting a proper soil sample.
Here is the process that is typically described for this task:
- Soil samples should be taken when the soil is damp, but not thoroughly wet.
- For each acre of land being tested, you will need to collect between 10 and 15 samples.
- These different samples should be collected from areas that appear different. For example, one sample should be taken from a garden, another from an area that used to be a lawn and another from the current lawn, for example.
- Use a pail or some other form of clean container.
- Clear away a section of land from grass and any other litter where you will collect the sample.
- Use a spade or a soil auger to collect a small amount of soil from a depth of about 6-inches.
- Place the collected soil in the pail
- Repeat these steps until all the required samples have been collected.
- Mix the samples together thoroughly. (Unless you want to know specific results for each area, in which case you should discuss this with the testing facility – you may need to label your samples and keep them separated.)
- From the pail of well-mixed samples, take the sample that will be sent for an analysis.
- The sample must be sent for testing immediately, do not allow it time to dry.
Testing With a Home Soil Testing Kit
If you will be using a home testing kit, the aforementioned steps should also be followed for collecting the soil samples. Then, carefully read the instructions provided on the testing kit itself.
These are Luster Leaf’s instructions for our soil test kit:
Applying Fertilizers and Soil Amendments
Let’s take a quick look at how to go about applying fertilizers, and how to amend your soil if it needs it.
Adjusting pH Levels
Once you have received the information from your soil testing, it will be time to begin your plan for adding nutrients, fertilizers, or amendments as needed.
If you need to raise the pH levels of your soil, begin with lime. This is most effective when mixed well into the soil, so it is a good idea to do this before you begin planting.
For very large expanses of land, rototilling is the best way to properly combine the lime into the soil.
Depending on the type of lime you use and the conditions of the soil, the adjustment of pH levels could be gradual or very slow. It could take as long as a few months for the pH levels of your soil to be adjusted.
Soils that have a high content of clay will often require larger doses of lime to make a difference than sandy soils.
Then there will be the need to reduce pH levels in some cases. This can be done with aluminum sulfate.
Be sure to follow the instructions provided by the manufacturer when applying this to the soil. Once again it is important to thoroughly and carefully mix the aluminum sulfate into the soil.
Improving the Nutritional Profile
There are numerous ways to improve the nutrient levels of the soil with potassium, phosphorus, and nitrogen. If your soil already contains a balanced nutritional profile, compost is often the best thing for improving the nutritional level of your soil.
Compost doesn’t have the same nutritional profile as commercial fertilizers used for improving the quality of the soil, it has a wide variety of other benefits.
For example, compost keeps the soil loose and aerated allowing improved root growth that also improves the nutritional intake of your plants.
Compost also supports other forms of life in the soil and eliminates the presence of pathogens.
Best of all, you can apply as much compost as you want to the soil with only more benefits, unlike other synthetic fertilizers that can “burn” your plants.
Manure is another great way to improve the quality of the soil with organic matter.
For the best result, manure should be composted before it is applied to the soils. This is because fresh manure can be too strong for the soil and harm the plants.
But manure should also be composted with care especially in large amounts as, if it is exposed to rain, the runoff can be harmful and leach into waterways.
Therefore, you will want to make sure that your composted manure is located away from waterways and hopefully somewhere that the runoff will not be leached into groundwater.
For example, if runoff is sent into a highly vegetated area, it can be safely collected through phytoremediation.
For best results, your composted manure should be carefully worked into the ground. If you will be applying manure before planting, it should be mixed thoroughly to a depth of 8 – 12 inches.
If plants already exist the same should be done, but care must be taken to not disturb the roots of the plants.
Then there are green manures that can provide an organic form of plant nutrients. Green manures are worked into the soil as well and as they decompose, they release nutrients for the plants and tie the ground together preventing soil erosion.
Some examples of green manures include oats and rye which are planted in late fall and then tilled into the ground in the spring before planting.
Finally, there are commercial fertilizers that provide nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium at different levels according to the needs of the location.
You will typically see these labeled with a set of numbers like “10-20-10″. The first number indicates the amount of nitrogen (N) in the fertilizer, the second shows the amount of phosphorus (P) and the last is the amount of potassium (K).
The fertilizer you select should be chosen based on the needs of the soil as indicated by soil testing results.
These exist in granular or liquid form and should be added to the soil according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
I highly recommend you have a proper soil test done, at least once. You’ll get an amazing amount of super-specific information about your soil, which means you’re no longer “flying blind” – you have a roadmap to economically improving your soil.
You can’t really go wrong with the organic amendments like manure, compost, green manure, cover crops, etc. – the rule here is pretty much “as much as possible”.
However, once you start working on micronutrients, in particular, it’s easy to “stuff” things up and waste money in the process.
A soil test tells you exactly what’s lacking, and how to fix it.
If a commercial soil test is too expensive or not available, at least give Luster Leaf’s test kit a go – we got some great, eye-opening results!