How often do you see bare soil in nature? Not very often! Nature doesn’t like exposed soil because they are easily eroded by the elements – wind, rain, snow – and when soil gets eroded or washed away, off go all of its valuable nutrients too.
In the garden, covering your soil makes it harder for weeds to compete, and by using organic materials like compost to cover the ground you’re also feeding the soil itself, or specifically the life within the soil, which in turn will feed the plants grown in it.
To build soil that nurtures your plants, you don’t need to buy in expensive soil treatments – you can get hold of many of the best ingredients for free or very cheaply. Read on or watch our video to discover three simple ways to nurture soil over winter and build soil health and fertility, laying the foundations for a fantastic growing season next spring...
1. Compost & Manure
Let’s start with the obvious favorites: compost and manure. Garden compost can be made for free of course, by simply composting everything you can: kitchen scraps, prunings, grass clippings, straw, cardboard, leaves, and so on. A thriving compost heap with a good range of ingredients added to it will produce a rich, crumbly compost that’s loaded with nutrients.
Manure is great too but do check that there’s no risk of it being contaminated with herbicides like aminopyralid, for example, which can pass through a horse or cow’s digestive system intact and then damage crops for years to come.
Spread your manure or compost onto your beds about an inch (3cm) thick in autumn. Throughout the winter it will keep weeds in check while giving the worms something to work on. As it gets taken down into the soil, microbes will get to work on it too, releasing nutrients ready for eager roots to take up next growing season.
2. Wood Chips & Leaves
Another option is to use organic materials that haven’t yet broken down. At this time of year leaves are an obvious option – collect all you can and simply pop them onto your beds. Weigh them down with canes or netting if your garden is windy.
Wood chips are another great option. Spread them out around fruit trees and bushes. Because of their chunky nature they’ll rot down slowly, keeping weeds suppressed for longer, while slowly releasing their nutrients to steadily feed your fruits.
You can spread wood chips out on vegetable beds too. I’d like to take this opportunity to dispel the myth that wood chips ‘rob the soil of nitrogen’. They might – a little – if you dug loads of them into your soil, but spread over the surface they’ll do nothing but gradually contribute their goodness, effectively mimicking that rich, life-filled environment of a woodland floor. And when you want to sow or plant, it’s no great shakes – just push them aside then return them once plants are a bit bigger.
3. Cover Crops & Green Manures
The third way to build soil health is to use cover crops or green manures. Cover crops are grown with the sole purpose of protecting and improving your soil by keeping it shielded from the elements, contributing to soil structure through their roots, and returning their goodness into the soil once they’re chopped down or turned in.
Winter’s around the corner now, but there’s still time to sow one super-hardy cover crop: field beans. These are the same as fava beans, but rather than letting them produce beans, I’ll be chopping them down as they come into flower. The beans fix nitrogen from the air at their roots, giving your soil a real boost. But if you let your plants produce pods all that nitrogen will have been pretty much used up by the plant itself, which is why we stop the cover crop before this point.
Sown now, field beans should germinate and poke through the soil before winter really takes hold. Expect to chop them down in mid to late spring. Leave roots and stumps to rot down into the soil, and add all the top growth to the compost heap – they’ll make their way back onto the beds one day as compost.
Lovely, beautiful, life-giving soil: it deserves to be treated after all it gives us! What’s your preferred way to build soil health and vitality? Join in the conversation below.