By Sally McCabe, PHS Associate Director of Community Education
Far too many people think that gardening starts in the spring. But if you’d like to hit the ground running in the spring, now is the time to get all the hard work done. Dealing with garden and soil infrastructure now and over the winter mean that spring is for planting and not playing catch-up.
The best time to prepare your spring soil is, of course, in the fall. Face it -- spring rains and mud are a major impediment when your psyche is screaming to get out there and get some seeds in the ground. So, let’s invest some time now when the soil is still workable! Let's do our pre-winter cleanup, get a soil test, interpret the soil test, and add the recommendations as well as lots of organic matter like compost, turn the soil over lightly, and retire for the winter -- or at least until we can't stand not being a garden anymore and feel the need to go out and dig.
Before you do anything physical, a simple first step is to do an assessment on paper with a pencil and pad in hand. Post-frost is the best time to do this because the garden is pretty much laid bare in all its glory and all its flaws. As you make your assessment, consider what worked, what didn’t work, and any changes to the layout or infrastructure of your garden. Do beds need to be moved or repaired? Do chronically muddy spots need to be built up? Could perennial crops be moved to a better location? It’s much easier to shuffle things around on paper than to move the same rocks three times.
With your assessment complete, you can start with your cleanup. Getting rid of weeds that have gone to seed and plants that are ragged and diseased should be the first few steps. Let’s go through the garden with a trash bag and get rid of all that stuff that will cause us problems in the spring. This trash bag can go into the landfill or somewhere far from the garden where seeds and germs can't spread themselves onto crops.
Now comes the decision of no-till vs turn the soil. If you are already digging up potatoes or root crops, the decision is made for you. But if not, this step offers a chance to try your hand at a much more natural way of preparing your soil. Because all the action under the soil being done by worms and other tiny but mighty creatures can be disturbed by so much turning, using a gentler method of loosening up the soil and introducing organic matter offers much more overall benefit.
I personally find digging to be very meditative, especially once you work up a rhythm. But I’m willing to compromise. This year I will be using a spading fork, sticking it into the soil, leaning on the handle and gently popping up rough chunks of garden. Using that same technique, I work my way all around the edges of the bed, then I do a couple of jabs down the middle for good measure. I’m not breaking up the big chunks, merely lifting them a little so that air and compost can work their way under them in the next step.
While we’re doing all this digging, now is a good time to take a soil test. Doing a soil test during this time of year gives you plenty of time to get the results back and make the recommended additions of lime or other slow-release fertilizer so that winter precipitation and expansion and contraction caused by freeze-thaw action can work these additives down into the soil, along with any organic matter you may choose to add.
Once you have loosened up the soil without breaking it down into crumbs, it’s time to cover the whole surface with compost, leaf mold, or plain shredded leaves. If you have a compost bin, you can clean that out and dump it onto the soil as well. I usually put on two to three inches, because naked soil is a bad thing. Leaving soil uncovered exposes the ground to heavy winter rains that compact the surface, sunshine that causes new weeds to germinate despite it being winter, and drying winds that blow away the fine crumbs of fresh dug soil. Once you’ve added your compost layer, you can rake everything pretty and stand back to admire the view.
All these preparations mean that come spring, or even that warm week in the middle of February, all that remains is the fine tuning, and of course, planting seeds!