Monday, September 15, 2014

Steps to Beneficial Fall Soil Preparation by Pete Biggam

Healthy Soil Surface - image courtesy of USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service
A traditional fall activity for many gardeners is preparing the soil for its upcoming winter slumber as well as getting a head start on improving the overall health of the soil in advance of the spring planting season.

There are a few simple steps to fall soil preparation, whether you're working a large garden plot or individual raised beds. 

1. Remove all weeds that are flowering or have gone to seed, along with any large or coarse plant materials from your garden.
Removing any existing weeds along this year's plant debris is a good, general sanitation practice. Weed seeds as well as those from various garden plants, if left on site, may be the first plants you see emerging in the spring, so you can get a head start to your spring gardening chores by removing as many as possible in the fall. Plant refuse makes a great place for insects and disease to overwinter if left within the garden plot.  If you had any issues with disease or pests on your tomatoes or peppers, you should remove these plants completely from the garden.  Other garden refuse is a good candidate for composting.
2. Work on improving your garden soils health by adding organic material and implementing wise cultivation practices.
An example of good soil aggregation after minimum cultivation - image courtesy of USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service
Keeping our garden soils healthy and productive is an important concept to consider every year.  Adding organic matter from the compost bin or other sources is a good practice to perform in the fall when the soil is still warm and workable, and the soil biological community is still actively performing it’s beneficial organic material decomposition process.

Incorporating these organic amendments into the soil is important, but be sure to not over cultivate the soil, as this can impact the overall existing health of the soil. Consider working your soil gently but deeply by using a garden fork, or even a broad fork to aerate the soil and allow for the organic material to be redistributed throughout the soil, and maintaining beneficial soil structure and aggregation.  This will also minimize the impact on your soil biological community and keep them content, situated at a depth they have been comfortable with, through the remainder of the growing season.

Below is a link to a video on use and application of a Broad fork for beneficial low impact soil cultivation. 

The USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service has recently updated information regarding Soil Health Awareness and has developed a series of videos and factsheets that are applicable to gardeners as well as farmers. 

3. Minimize soil erosion over the winter and early spring by adding mulch or even consider planting a cover crop.
Take care to make sure all of your hard work does not blow away with winter winds or early spring rains. You can mulch the plot with materials such as fallen leaves or even additional compost to protect the soil surface from wind and water erosion.
Another alternative is to plant a cover crop in the fall to both enrich the soil as well as prevent erosion, and keep and weeds at bay.
While our cold winters limit the variety of cover crops that we can successfully grow there are several plants that seem to do very well.  
A great reference on the use, application, and benefits of cover crops can be found in this can be found in CSU Garden Note # 244 on Cover Crops and Green Manure Crops
 4. Have your soil and compost analyzed

Fall is a great time to collect soil samples for testing in order to keep current on your garden's nutrient status. Testing in fall allows plenty of time to receive your results and act on recommendations.

If you have been composting and plan to add this to your garden, you can also have this analyzed so you have an idea of what you are applying to the soil.

The Soil, Water and Plant Testing Laboratory at Colorado State University can perform these analytical services for both your soil and soil amendments and is open year round.

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