Soil is important, whether you’re growing prize winning roses, landscape shrubs or your own fruit trees. All need to be in the right type of soil to get the nutrient they need. Even beginners can improve the quality of the soil in the garden. All you need to do is follow these simple steps:
1. Add Compost
Compost is not just for preparing the beds in the spring. Compost can be placed into your raised beds in the fall and improve their conditions over the winter. Because they will be sitting over the beds all winter, this doesn’t even have to be completely broken down compost either. A lot of the process will happen right there on the bed.
You can even use this method as a practical way of getting rid of all the waste you pick up from your garden in the fall. Just spread this over the bed and cover with mulch. The mulch protects the soil and the nutrients in the compost.
2. Use Soil Amendments
Different soil amendments can be added to your soil to make it more suitable to your purposes. Choosing which soil amendment to use with your sol will be a matter of matching the proper solution to the problem you are facing. For example, there are amendment for increasing the nutritional content of your soil and others for improving the soil’s texture also known as tilth. For example, if your notice that the water is draining away too fast, you can add an amendment that allows you to soak up the moisture and the reverse is also true.
You can adjust the conditions of the soil to your exact needs with the right soil amendment. This could be compost or other rich matter that absorbs moisture or an amendment like greensand that allows water to drain away more easily.
Here are some common soil amendments that you can consider using for your garden as needed:
- vermiculite (worm castings)
- greensand (or green sand)
- grass clippings
- alfalfa meal
- kelp meal
3. Plant a Cover Crop
When you are thinking about improving soil quality, don’t forget the power of cover crops. This is not just an idea for large scale agricultural weed suppression. They are also a major benefit for backyard gardeners as well.
Cover crops are especially good for treating the soil as they provide oxygenation and improved nutrient availability. Alfalfa with its very deep root system pulls nutrients upwards from the lower levels of soil and make these more available in planting season. Then a couple weeks before you begin planting, this cover crop will be tilled back into the soil, increasing its organic composition and nutrient content.
This can also be used to improve the levels of nitrogen in the soil when using legumes as a cover crop. Fava beans, crimson clover and alfalfa are all good examples of nitrogen high crop covers. If you will not be growing anything particular over the growing season, you may consider a cover crop that protect and aerate your beds. (Pro tip: cherry trees are a great choice for the beginner backyard orchardist and benefit greatly from good soil).
4. Try Lasagna Gardening
Also called sheet composting or “No-Till” gardening is another good way to improve your gardens soil quality and a perfect way to begin your raised beds and continue them. As you notice the quality levels of soil in your bed begin dropping down, you will keep adding new layers like lasagna which begins improving the quality of your soil from the top to the bottom. After the end of each growing season new layers are added.
For more information about your garden and the process of sheet composting, check out this article on the lasagna gardening method beginner’s guide. But there is one thing you will need to consider when using the lasagna method of composting. If you will be renovating your raised beds with the sheet composting method, you will need to wait a full 6-months before planting as you will need them to fully break down.
So this method will be best suited to those garden working with rotating beds or those gardeners who only plant one season. The following link included here will give some pointers on how this can be changed about and planting can be done sooner. Basically, if you would like to begin planting sooner, you will need to spread out a layer of compost and or healthy topsoil –– roughly 2 or 3 inches thick. You can then begin planting directly through this top layer.
5. Prepare Raised Beds for the Winter
Never forget the importance of using the end of the year garden season is your opportunity to improve the quality of your soil in a number of ways. This end of the year ritual is like “closing down the shop” till spring. But, if you live in a warmer area of the country this might not even be necessary.
Here are some things to do. First, cut the plants as opposed to pulling them from the soil. Cutting the plant will allow the roots to rot away and this will make your soil lighter and airy. Then you can spread some compost out on the soil and cover this with a layer of mulch, the compost will be feeding nutrients back to the soil while the mulch will protect the soil and keep the nutrients bound in.
You can also just plant a cover crop and call it a year. Be sure to check out our article on winter gardening for some more things to do in the cold months.