Now that we’ve had a few frosts, many think they can hang up their garden gloves. But think again. If you want a successful garden next year, start this fall. Your garden is still alive and the microbial livestock in your soil need to be fed.
First, stop! Shut off that tiller! I know you went for that to make your garden look clean and spiffy, but tilling your soil is bad for the bugs. Imagine a pile of bricks. It would be hard to walk through, right? Now build a house out of those bricks. It’s easy to go from room to room and move around your home. Soil structure, or aggregate, is the house for your soil livestock. Your tiller is a tornado that turns good soil aggregate to a pile of bricks, reducing water infiltration and microbial diversity.
Instead of tilling, try mulching. Use leaves, straw, old hay, grass clippings, or other organic material to cover and protect your soil from erosion, raindrop impact, and temperature extremes. Just like us, the microscopic bugs in your soil don’t like it too hot or too cold. Mulch helps stabilize soil temperatures and protect your soil life. Mulch also helps to prevent weeds and helps hold soil moisture.
Another option would be to plant cover crops. Cover crops are specific plants, or plant mixes, that are planted to protect the soil as a living mulch and keep living roots in the ground as much of the year as possible. They tend to not provide a crop, but a service. Plant roots secrete substances that serve a food for soil microbes, and without roots and their secreted exudates, these microscopic bugs have no food. Some of our favorite cover crops are oats, buckwheat, clover, field turnips, daikon radish, annual rye, and field peas, to name a few. Keep in mind how you’re going to terminate these next season, or plant annual crops that won’t come back.
Fall is a great time to amend your soil. We like to top dress with well-composted manure and organic matter. Just a thin layer, one-half inch or less, on top of your planting areas helps to stimulate the soil biology and increase soil fertility. A soil test can help you determine what nutrients your short on and how much you need to add. But good compost will generally take care of most deficiencies. Now is also a good time to start planning for next year. Rotating your crops and companion planting helps to break up pest cycles and better utilize nutrients. Unless you are heavily succession planting, not rotating or companion planting, or tilling a lot, compost and soil health principles help the soil balance itself.
As with any set of principles, it can be difficult to strictly adhere to all of them all the time. Getting ready for winter using the health principles is no exception. We do what we can when we can, and there are always trade-offs. The practices suggested here, don’t till, use mulch or cover crops, add compost, touch on 3 or 4 of the principles, (depending on if you use a cover crop that will survive the winter which would keep living roots in the ground).
Healthy soil is living soil. Nurture it and feed it, and it will feed you.