5 Ways to Build Soil in Winter

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A bed covered in compost and further protected from the elements by an old blanket

It is a generally accepted fact that once soil temperatures drop below 45°F (7°C), biological activity slows to a crawl, and the soil and all its life forms hibernate through winter. By this logic, soil cannot be expected to change for the better during the winter months, and yet it does when given a little help. Here are five ways to use the winter season to improve the soil in your organic garden.

1. Wait to cultivate.

One of the reasons why soil feels so loose and friable toward season’s end is that it is impregnated with the summer’s "crop" of fungal hyphae and mycelium – microscropic threads that will slowly rot through winter, along with roots left behind by veggies and weeds. As far as nature is concerned, the table is set, and you would most definitely crash the party if you dug and turned the bed. So, unless you have a good reason for doing so, for example you want to prepare space now for an early spring salad garden, in fall it is better to mulch over vacant beds without cultivating them first. However, you have my permission to disturb soil as needed to dig out nasty perennial weeds.

2. Use winter mulch.

Leaves are free for the raking, and they do a great job of protecting soil from the ravages of winter. But many other mulch materials work just fine, including wood chips – an increasingly popular mulch material in gardens with soil that has already been improved for several seasons.

Garlic mulched with leaves

3. Grow winter cover crops.

Fortunately, many cold-hardy plants that make great winter cover crops did not get the memo that they were not supposed to grow in winter. Winter grains in particular are specialists at protecting the soil from erosion through winter, all the while developing huge root systems that increase soil organic matter content. When cut back to the ground in spring, hardy legume winter cover crops like hairy vetch or winter peas leave behind nodules of nitrogen, ready for use by the next crop.

Wheat

4. Tolerate winter weeds.

Weeds that grow in summer tend to be large, aggressive plants that quickly take over any planting, but winter weeds are different. There is seldom a crop present for them to smother, and common weeds like henbit and chickweed often form green mats of foliage that protect the soil from erosion. In addition, dandelions, bittercress, and several other winter weeds drill deep into the soil with their long, slender taproots, which improves soil drainage. Winter weeds are used as natural winter cover crops in some Australian fruit orchards, and this method can work in vegetable gardens, too. To keep winter weeds from reseeding too heavily, simply hoe them down in early spring, rake up the greens, and compost them.

Bittercress

5. Compost under cover.

Garden beds that will sit vacant until spring can be heaped up with compost (without cultivating them first), and then covered with an old blanket or even a low row cover tunnel. In this way, the bed benefits from a deep layer of compost at the surface, which is further enhanced by a cloth cover. A cloth cover moderates how much moisture reaches the compost and soil below and cushions the bed, which reduces compaction caused by pounding rain.

Each year I find myself using this method more and more, because fall is the one time of year when I have enough compost on hand to be generous. In spring, I remove the cover, let the compost breathe for a day or two, and then dig it in. My soil loves it.

Barbara Pleasant

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Comments

 
"Unfortunately, I battled squash vine borers this year. Someone recommended turning over the soil to bring larvae to the top which may freeze/kill them. Is this a true statement? I have 5 raised beds, between 24"-36" tall. Thank you!"
Heather Tinsley on Monday 26 October 2015
"Heather, squash bugs overwinter in any debris. It is not the larvae that overwinters, it is the adult stage. They will overwinter in squash refuse as well as a wood pile. This is when "cleaning up the garden" has some merit. Second, I recommend rotating the area were you grow any Cucurbita family - any squash and includes melon. Start in a new area and use a summer weight row cover at the beginning of the season. Then being diligent goes a long way to controlling these bugs. Pick eggs off everyday."
dan overmitten on Monday 26 October 2015
"Please tell me the name of the weed under number 4. It looks suspiciously like a weed that appeared one year in my garden and is slowly making it's way up the hill one tiered bed at at time. It has thin, long almost hair-like roots that will grow another plant if broken off in the soil. If it's good for beds over the winter that's great! I've been doing me best to eradicate it by pulling but feel I'm losing the battle....."
Tamara on Monday 26 October 2015
"i've put cardboard down first then compost - will that work"
diverte on Wednesday 28 October 2015
"Tamara, that is often called peppergrass or wild cress, it's a wild mustard that shoots little seeds everywhere. However, it does not regrow from root buds, so your weed is probably different. You may have sheeps sorrel -- search pictures online for Rumex acetosella. It's edible!....Heather, it is true that you can encounter large squash vine borer pupae when cultivating soil, but spring is a better time to do deep digging. Besides, the adult form of squash vine borers are fast-flying moths that will find your plants despite the elimination of one or two pupae. Try using row covers until the plants start to bloom and need to be visited by pollinating insects. "
Barbara Pleasant on Friday 30 October 2015
"Barbara we keep chickens and have access to a lot of chicken poo mixed with wood chips. Can I safely dump this now on beds that won't be planted to March or April? "
Linda on Friday 6 November 2015
"Re: Compost Under Cover. I had a startling experience last season. I covered my composted leaf and garden debris pile (no household scraps) last fall, to use for spring planting. Much to my horror, I uncovered the pile in April and discovered I had created the perfect den for voles. Even worse, they had spent the winter devouring a large perennial bed a short distance away."
Bonnie on Friday 6 November 2015
"Linda, be aware that wood chips can rob your soil of nitrogen if, a) it's not broken down and b) is mixed into the soil. If you leave it on the surface as a mulch and don't till it in as a soil amendment, all should be good. Bonnie, yes that can happen. I had/have an issue with rats this past year. I'm reducing areas they can tunnel in."
dan overmitten on Saturday 7 November 2015
"Linda, you can use the wood chips/chicken litter to mulch beds now, but I wouldn't wait much longer. The general safety rule is to allow 6 months between manure addition to soil and growing food, especially leafy greens that grow close to the ground and are eaten raw. Residual bacteria from manure is much less of a concern with tall, late-bearing crops like tomatoes and corn. The wood chip portion will weather over winter and benefit your soil in spring....Bonnie, I have voles, too. Nasty things!...Dan, many people with rat issues have good luck with a well-maintained tumbling composter. "
Barbara Pleasant on Monday 9 November 2015
"hi all each fall i load my garden beds up ,first i use post hole diggers dig down about 15 inches or so, thenshovel of rabbit poop half shovel of coffee grounds, then about 3 hands full of shredded leafs , then about 2 hands full of kitchen scraps,cover that up,do this in 6 spots of my 4 by 10 bed,then put my black plastic down or clear, then stick my tomato cages through plastic in each hole dug to mark spot , THIS YEAR 2016 I HAVE JUST TONS OF TOMS ONE PLANT HAD 11 2LBS TOMS ONE 2 ONE HALF LB ,AND NOW IN LATE AUG THEY ARE FULL AGAIN, I HAVE 31 TOM PLANTS GIVE NEARLY EVERY ONE I MEET TOMS LOL LOL LOL I LOVE IT ,GOING TO SCHOOL TOMORROW TAKE TEACHERS SOME MORE, U SHOULD HAVE SAW THERE FACE WHEN I TOOK ALL THOSE 2 LB ONES OUT,LOL LOL HEY EVEN GOT MY PIC TOOK, FOLKS RABBIT MANURE LEAFS KEEP WORMS HAPPY THAT IS WHAT I SHOOT FOR THEY KEEP ME HAPPY LOL HAPPY GARDENING"
bobby bennett on Monday 22 August 2016
""i've put cardboard down first then compost - will that work""
diverte on Sunday 2 October 2016
"Yes, compost over cardboard will usually cause the cardboard to rot quickly since it stays constantly moist. The layers will attract earthworms and crickets, also a good thing. "
Barbara Pleasant on Wednesday 5 October 2016
"thanks barbaara"
divert on Thursday 6 October 2016
"Just build a raised bed, add tons of leaves and grass. Go to kelp4less and add super soil mix. Mix well every few days, let sit over winter covered in plastic. Come spring till top 10 inches. Let it sit for a week then plant."
Jason on Sunday 18 December 2016
"What about covering with plastic?"
Theresa on Friday 20 October 2017
"Theresa, plastic forms a vapor barrier that will keep the soil warmer, but it also degrades quickly when exposed to sun, freezing, thawing, etc. It also offers no organic matter in the long run like winter mulches do. "
Barbara Pleasant on Friday 20 October 2017
" In autumn 2015 I spread 25cm greengrocer's waste over an undug bed on my allotment (on a chalky south-facing slope), spread about 10 cm. half-made compost mixed with crumpled newspaper on top, covered all with black plastic and left 'till spring 2016. Soil underneath was dark, and crumbly. Was that due to worms moving up and down? Also, several baby avocado trees appeared, along with other survivors from the greengrocer's donations. Later I had superb beans, Mother Earth's bounty indeed."
Sarah on Saturday 18 November 2017
" In autumn 2015 I spread 25cm greengrocer's waste over an undug bed on my allotment (on a chalky south-facing slope), spread about 10 cm. half-made compost mixed with crumpled newspaper on top, covered all with black plastic and left 'till spring 2016. Soil underneath was dark, and crumbly. Was that due to worms moving up and down? Also, several baby avocado trees appeared, along with other survivors from the greengrocer's donations. Later I had superb beans, Mother Earth's bounty indeed."
Sarah on Saturday 18 November 2017
"Sarah, at least two good things happened. The black plastic helped accumulate and retain warmth over your lush sheet compost, evidenced by the sprouting avocados. The warmth and moisture also encouraged activity by earthworms and other small creatures as well as fungi and bacteria. Quiet miracles. "
Barbara Pleasant on Saturday 18 November 2017
"Had a huge problem with Spidermites the past two years. Organic sprays have helped but have to spray every week. Any suggestions? "
Pamela on Tuesday 21 November 2017

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