You’ve heard it said a thousand times, many of those times on these very pages: the key to a great garden is great soil. Working the dirt in autumn can be a relaxed, pleasant experience, not as intense or rushed as the heavy-turning, fine-tuning soil preparation of springtime. The things you do now, in the days of fall, go along way to ensuring a quick, healthy start come next growing season.
You’ve cleaned out this year’s garden (or are about to), disposed of any plant debris that may harbor disease or insect pests and composted the rest. Here’s what we like to do ahead of putting our plot down for the winter under a protective blanket of mulch.
We turn the entire plot. A small plot meant a turning spade and less than an hour’s good work. Big plots call for the roto-tiller. Whatever the size of your garden, it’s good to turn out the soil, bring up any plant roots that might have been missed, turn under any remaining plant material — and there’s always some — so that it has a chance to decompose.
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The big reason to turn over your soil now is to bring pupae left just under the surface up to the light of day where the neighborhood birds, those passing through this time of year and those who never leave, can claim them. And claim them they do.
You’ll see the fat, segmented brown or white or spotted creatures yourself as soon as you turn them over. I finally learned to resist the temptation to squash the future leaf muncher right where I found him. The birds were watching. Even in small patches, I’ve had daring grackles swoop down, strut around, and gobble up what they found, most of what was too small for me to see, even as I continued spading nearby.
These pests — corn earworms, cabbage loopers, and the like — wouldn’t otherwise be threatened by frozen ground later because we mulch. They’d be all nice and cozy until spring when they, as larvae, will seek out their greens of choice. Enlisting the birds to do the dirty work is mutually beneficial. They’re getting rid of your pests as you’re supplying them with the protein they’ll need along the flyways. Win-win.
Birds will be encouraged to visit if you have seed available as well. When cleaning up your garden, leave the seed heads of asters, black-eyed Susan, coneflowers and sunflowers until the birds have finished with them. Then compost them, hoping that the birds did a good job.
After you’ve turned your soil over is a good time to gather some for testing. You can send it off to your local agricultural extension — here’s the USDA’s site to help you locate the nearest state or university extension service — or you can do it yourself. Today’s soil tests kits are simple to use — some pH testers are now electronic and feature digital readout.
Sure, you can get your soil tested in the spring. But testing your soil in the fall, especially testing soil pH, gives you the time to make adjustments that will be effective by the time you’re putting plants in the ground. Anybody throwing down lime to sweeten their soil knows that it will be a good several months before that lime is taken fully into the soil. Get your soil tested and get the lime or the elemental sulfur that will give you the perfect acid-alkaline balance now.
In some farming areas, it’s good to get your soil in for testing ahead of the rush when farmers start flooding services with samples. And sometimes, getting ahead of the crowd saves you money.
When you’re done with all this? Lay down the mulch. Time for you and your garden to take a well-deserved rest.
Eric Vinje founded Planet Natural with his father Wayne in 1991, originally running it as a grasshopper bait mail-order business out of a garage.
Eric is now retired, but is still a renowned gardener known for his expertise in composting, organic gardening and pest control, utilizing pesticide-free options, such as beneficial insects.
Eric believes when you do something good for the environment, the effects will benefit generations to come.
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