Prepare Your Soil for Winter!
Preparing Soil for Winter
We once again turned to the experts at the Virgina Cooperative Extension for insight into how to best prepare our soil for winter. Here is a summary of what they suggest:
Now you are ready to prepare the soil for winter. Pull up all dead and unproductive plants and place this residue on top of the soil to be tilled under, or in the compost heap. Remove any diseased or insect-infested plant material that may shelter overwintering stages of disease and insect pests. Leaving this plant material in the garden provides an inoculum of diseases and insects which will become active in the spring and add to garden pest problems.
The best practice is to remove infested plant material from the garden or burn it. Burning will kill any diseases or insects present in the plant wastes. Spread the ashes on the garden to gain the benefit of their mineral nutrients. Check burning laws in your area before you burn anything. You may need a permit. If you live near a wooded area, burning may be too risky. In this case, haul the diseased material to a landfill.
After clean-up add compost to the garden. Compost contains highly nutritious, decomposed plant material and beneficial organisms, and is an excellent soil-builder. By spreading compost and other wastes on the soil and plowing them in, you are adding nutrients to the soil for next year's crops. The beneficial insects and microorganisms in the compost will help integrate the compost into the soil, and the humus will improve soil structure.
Don't overlook other excellent sources of organic material available during the fall. Leaves are abundant, and neighbors will usually be glad to give their leaves to you. Put some on the garden now and store some for next year's mulch. Leaves will mat if applied too thickly and will not decompose quickly. You can help spread the break-down of leaves by running a lawn mower back and forth over the pile. Put the shredded leaves directly onto the garden or compost them. Sawdust and wood chips are easy to obtain this season from sawmills. Many farms and stables want to get rid of manure piles before winter sets in.
If you wait until spring to add organic material to the garden, it may not have time to decompose and add its valuable nutrients to the soil by the time you are ready to plant and you may have to delay planting to a later date. Hot, or very fresh, manure can also burn young seedlings. By adding these materials in the fall, you give them plenty of time to decompose and blend into the soil before planting time. If you don't have enough organic material for the entire garden, try to cover those areas that you want especially rich for next summer's crop.
If the weather stays dry enough before the ground freezes, you can plow or rototill in the fall. Turning under vegetation in the fall allows early planting in the spring and is especially good for heavy soils, since they are exposed to the freezing and thawing that takes place during the winter which helps improve the soil structure. If you have a rainy fall, or if your garden is steep and subject to erosion, you may decide you'd rather plant a cover crop for winter garden protection. A cover crop decreases erosion of the soil during the winter, adds organic material when it is incorporated in the spring, improves soil tilth and porosity, and adds nutrients. Winter cover crops can be planted as early as August 1 but should not be planted any later than November 1. Cover crops should make some growth before hard frost kills them. Where you have fall crops growing, you can sow cover crop seed between rows a month or less before expected harvest. This way the cover crop gets a good start but will not interfere with vegetable plant growth. Some cover crops suitable for winter use are in the following table. Mixtures of legumes and non-legumes are also effective.
Prepare the soil for cover crop seed by tilling under plant wastes from the summer. Ask at the seed store what the best type of cover crop for your area is and at what rate (pounds per 100 square feet) to plant it. Broadcast the seed, preferably before a rain, and rake it evenly into the soil. Planting of the spring garden can be delayed by the practice of cover cropping, since time must be allowed for the green manure to break down. For crops that need to be planted early, leave a section of the garden bare.
When time or weather conditions prohibit either tilling or cover cropping, you may wish to let your garden lie under a mulch of compost, plant wastes, or leaves all winter to be plowed or tilled under in the spring. However, avoid this practice for early spring planting as a mulch of heavy materials such as leaves can keep the soil cold long enough to delay planting by several weeks. In this case, chop the mulch fine enough that it will break down over the winter. The addition of fertilizer high in nitrogen will also help break down organic matter quickly.
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