It’s important to think ahead. Even during the growing season you can work on soil health for the following year. I like to pull out the ugly stuff. I am utterly ruthless. If my production begins to decline, or some plants are struggling with Mexican bean beetles or squash bugs at the end of the garden season, it’s not worth my time. I figure, why bother? We might as well be doing something else with the space. I could rotate chickens there. Chickens are great for weed and insect control, and improve the soil by scratching. I could plant fall crops there and plan to rest the soil in spring. I could do a short term cover crop like buckwheat, or get an overwinter mix of cover crop established.
In this transition between seasons you have a moment to consider your soil fertility for the following year. Where the soil is good or deep or particularly productive, EVERYTHING is better, pest and disease control is easier, your yields are higher. But that result takes continuous work.
Soil tests can tell you what is missing from your soil and what amendments might be needed to improve your soil. Particularly if you have a mineral deficiency or your pH is not ideal. These simple things can be easily rectified by adding organic amendments including lime, green sand or kelp meal for micronutrients. Soil testing services can be found through your local extension office. Remember that soil testing is an important part of managing a vegetable garden.
Applications of some materials that seem innocuous can cause imbalances in your soil over time. For example, animal manures often have high phosphorous content that can build up over time. If phosphorous is high in your soil, apply amendments with nitrogen that don’t have phosphorous like bloodmeal. Phosphorous runoff is highly detrimental to water quality and can cause algal blooms and eutrophication of surface waters like lakes and ponds.
Compost for Soil Health
Animal manures are an excellent addition to any organic garden when managed properly (don’t let the phosphorous thing scare you!). If uncomposted animal manure is available apply it in the fall so that it has the winter to decompose and pathogens will not be a problem. If applying animal manures in the spring be sure they are properly composted to a temperature of 140° prior to application. This eliminates pathogens like E.coli from being a health issue.
Compost is the gold ticket in any organic garden. In addition, worm castings are a fabulous amendment to soils. Both have microbial life that contributes to diversity in the soil flora and both have complex physical structure that builds soil tilth, improving drainage and water holding capacity. We all know that reducing plant stress in times of drought is good; when soil holds water well plants are more resilient during dry times.
Finally, establishing a cover crop on soils over winter provides protection from wind and water erosion as well as adding important biomass to soils. This biomass decomposes, once incorporated, slowly releasing necessary plant nutrients and providing similar benefits to the compost mentioned above. The cover crop rule of thumb is to plant 40 days before your last frost date to get plants properly established before winter. However, don’t underestimate the benefit of a rye crop planted a little late, I’ve planted rye late and it has survived winter only to grow immensely prior to planting in the spring, achieving everything I needed from the crop in the first place.
Dutch White Clover