Garden Improvements: Fall Soil Enhancement

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Autumn leaves are falling, and perhaps you are disheartened with the last of a mediocre season of vegetables you harvested. Did your vegetables turn out to be less than attractive, small, even pathetic and scrawny compared to those in the dreamy photos in the spring seed catalogs?

The reason for those sub-standard vegetables may not be the fault of the gardener at all, but may be attributed to poor quality soil. Now’s the time to consider soil enhancement for better results next growing season. Yes, you can fix it with soil amendments.

With even minor soil additions of the right type, your garden can be no less than amazing, –or at least much improved with healthier plants producing bigger, more attractive vegetables. Surprisingly, plants will also be more resistant to plant diseases and insect damage. The fact is, better soil grows stronger, healthier plants which are less prone to attack or damage of any kind.

Now’s the time to improve that garden soil for your next growing season. Soil that was dry, unproductive, and hard as rock during the summer can be improved substantially. With thoughtful and timely amendments, you can have a much better garden next summer by taking steps now to improve that garden soil –before it snows.

Gardening season is finished, why not wait until spring?

Shredded Yard Waste Mulch

Shredded Yard Waste Mulch (Photo: D. Vorty)

It is always tempting to procrastinate and wait until the next growing season to try to improve the garden, but nutrient uptake and absorption of minerals into the soil takes time. Adding soil amendments just prior to planting in the spring may not offer adequate time to achieve the intended results. Why?

Soil is a complex mix of minerals, clay particles, sand, organic matter, and nutrients in both soluble and solid form. Successful remediation of soil is accomplished by a combination of unseen processes including the dissolution of minerals, chemical reactions and natural organic processes. The action of bacteria on decaying plant and other organic matter is essential in soil-building. Natural processes created by symbiotic relationships between fungus, soil enzymes, digestion and processing of materials by earthworms and other insects all contribute to the health of the soil in your garden.

Nutrients change structure and availability, soon becoming an integral part of the soil offered to the feeder roots of your plants. Soil amendment in the fall allows more time for that amazing transformation, the absorption and binding of nutrients into the organic soil matrix. Additionally, freeze/thaw cycles over winter, in some soils, can help to break down the soil, further allowing exposure and mixing with the added materials.

Physical Amendments

Let’s start with the basic soil. Is the usable soil in your garden really deep enough? Unless topsoil in your garden is 6″ or more in depth, growing certain varieties of garden produce can be very difficult. While shallow soil two or three inches in depth may be adequate for flowers and some vegetable types, with inadequate topsoil, root crops like carrots, turnips and potatoes can be difficult to grow successfully. Remedy this condition by digging the existing soil to a greater depth, or import sufficient high-quality garden soil if necessary. It may seem so, but ten inches of well-worked, top-quality soil is not too much. Add selected amendments and blend the soil uniformly for the best possible mix.

  • For heavy clay or basic mineral soils that pack close to brick-hard, adding sand can be helpful. Washed sand is unnecessary. Medium-coarse sand with a soil component (often called rotten sand) is perfect for soil remediation and will suffice. Avoid adding excessively fine, silty sand which will encourage the soil to pack harder instead of breaking up the clay.
  • If your soil has little or no organic content, soil will pack hard, dry quickly, and will not absorb or hold water. Add organic material. For better tilth and water retention, the spongy compressibility and mechanical quality characteristic of great garden soil that plants love, add organic materials like peat moss, old sawdust, chopped straw, leaves, garden clippings, and well-composted manures and household kitchen compost.
  • For soil that is all sand or for soil that has more than 20% sand, add copious amounts of organic material. Soil that is all sand will not hold moisture, dries out quickly, and sand offers few nutrients unless it is naturally enriched with a soil fraction.

Chemical Amendments

Problematic soils can be too acidic, (low in pH ) too basic (high pH) or can contain alkali or excessive salt content. Specific soil tests can be used to determine if soils are deficient in potassium, nitrogen or phosphorous, ‘the big three’ nutrients essential to plant growth. Inexpensive soil test kits are available at your local garden center.

  • To correct soil that is too acidic, add natural crushed limestone. Apply limestone uniformly at recommended rates.
  • To remedy soil that is too “basic” and increase the acidity, add sulphur or naturally acidic organic materials like forest duff containing conifer needles and highly acidic soil.
  • For low nutrient values, add rich compost for a natural, organic solution, or add a suitably balanced fertilizer such as 10-10-10 or suggested type as recommended to correct the mineral balance or deficiency.
  • For extreme alkali and salty soils, it may be ultimately necessary to consider building raised beds and importing appropriate garden soil instead.

Add all chosen recommended materials and soil amendments to the garden uniformly, and cultivate the earth deeply to an even consistency. To reduce the length of time biological activity is slowed down or dormant during winter when soil is frozen, it can be desirable to place a thick layer of mulch on the surface to reduce the extent of freezing. Doing so will encourage the decay of added organic content and encourage the rapid integration new materials into the natural soil-building processes.

With the fall addition of soil amendments, nature quickly improves your garden soil. With patience, you’ll see the fruit of your labour next season.

Soil Enhancement Cautions

Soil enhancement is great, but for health and other reasons, caution in selecting soil amendments is a good idea. Avoid adding these materials to your vegetable garden soil:

  • Lawn clippings from lawns treated with chemical pesticides
  • Soil conditioner made from shredded,highly inked papers and plastics
  • New sawdust from ash,cedar and pine trees
  • Solid pet waste collected from your yard which can introduce parasites to your garden
  • Human waste
  • Compost that contains meat of any kind which will attract rodents
  • Excessive amounts of chemical fertilizers
  • Manures not composted which may be full of weed seeds
  • Excessive amounts of raw chicken manure, which is extremely high in nitrogen content and can burn the roots of plants.
© Raymond Alexander Kukkee
 

Raymond is a freelance author and writer who practices traditional and experimental gardening using natural, sustainable methods in the challenging Zone 3 environs of Northwestern Ontario. Read more articles by Raymond.

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