As you wind down your summer garden, consider planning ahead for next year’s garden. Fall is a good time to take notes about what did or didn’t work in your summer garden. It’s also the best time to start preparing your soil for next year’s summer garden and amending your garden soil.
Soil is arguably the most important factor in plant growth and health. It’s no surprise that healthy soil is key to a healthy garden. Get a leg up on next year’s garden by making sure your garden soil is up to the task.
Testing Your Soil
Your summer vegetable plants will remove nutrients from your soil. These
nutrients aren’t just replaced on their own. If you don’t replenish the nutrients with either fertilizer or amendments, future plants won’t have the nutrients that they need in order to grow. The majority of nutrients that are removed from the soil are macronutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. You can test the soil yourself at home fairly easily.
A soil test kit can be used to determine the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in your soil. It can also test for the soil’s pH. If the soil’s pH isn’t right then the plant won’t be able to take in nutrients even if they are present in the soil.
Most vegetable plants prefer to grow in soil that is slightly acidic- neutral. If you’re not sure about the pH preference that your plants have, you can find them easily online.
Soil tests can be performed in as little as 5-10 minutes and come with simple and straightforward instructions that will walk you through the process. You don’t need to have an advanced chemistry degree to determine the levels of nutrients in your soil.
If you’re not interested in performing DIY soil tests, you can either collect soil samples and have them tested or you can use a handheld soil tester. A professional soil test will cost more money than the kits that you can buy at home, but you’ll also get a highly detailed result list that will tell you about both the macronutrients and micronutrients like boron or iron.
Amending Your Soil
Once you know what your soil is like, you can start planning how to amend it. There are several aspects to soil that are important to plant health. Nutrient levels, water holding capacity and aeration are all important to healthy plant growth. Because there are different aspects to soil health, there are different ways that you can amend your soil.
The first aspect of the soil that you need to improve is any nutrient deficiencies. You’ll be able to tell which nutrients your soil is deficient in once you’ve tested your soil.
In most gardens, you’ll need to add a nitrogen rich fertilizer that also has phosphorus and potassium. Nitrogen is used in large amounts by all plants because it helps to fuel all types of growth in the plant.
The fall is the best time to add compost or manure to your garden soil. There are many forms of nitrogen that can exist in compost or manure. Not all forms of nitrogen are forms that plants can use. Some forms of nitrogen need to be broken down by bacteria or other plants into forms that are usable.
If you put manure or compost into the soil when you plant your summer garden, much of the nitrogen won’t be in a usable form. Adding the manure or compost to the soil in the fall will ensure that the nitrogen is broken down in time for the plants to use them. It also helps prevent the soil from becoming to fertilizer rich, or ‘hot’ and burning the roots of your plants.
Compost and manure will also help to improve some of the other aspects of your soil. Compost and manure are both examples of organic matter. Organic matter will help the soil to retain moisture without becoming soggy. It will also help to change the soil texture. Sandy soils will hold water and nutrients more effectively if you add organic materials.
Soils with a high concentration of clay can be broken and softened up by adding organic matter. If you’re adding compost or manure to the soil to help improve the texture, work the compost and manure in to the soil. This will help to break up the soil’s texture and integrate the organic material into the layers of soil.
Common Soil Amendments
Compost and manure are two of the most common soil amendments that you can add to your garden, but they are far from the only ones. You can usually find compost or manure from local farms either cheap or for free if you’re willing to pick it up.
Check with local beef and dairy farms, as well as horse farms to see if they have piles of composted manure that you can get. People that own backyard chickens also have manure that can be added to your garden.
If you can’t find compost or manure, but you still want to add some organic options to your garden, look for the following soil amendments:
- Bat guano
- Worm casting
- Leaf mold
Bat guano is bat manure. Guano is nutrient-dense and makes a rich soil amendment. Because it’s so nutrient dense, it can easily burn your plants if you add too much or add it right when you plant. A little bit or bat guano goes a long way. Add it in the fall for the best results.
Worm castings are another soil amendment that can make a big difference in next year’s summer vegetable garden. Worm castings are some of the richest soil amendments available.
They are effective at holding water and are high in minerals. Worm castings so ideal for plants that they can be used instead of potting soil. Worm castings are safe and can be added in copious amounts to your garden soil.
Greensand is a soil conditioner that works slowly over time. It’s high in both potassium and minerals that your plants need. It can help to soften clay soil. Adding it in the fall will ensure that your tough clay soil is broken and loosened and that the soil has ample potassium and minerals available.
The last soil amendment that you can add to your soil is leaf mold. You can make your own leaf mold at home by partially composting leaves. When you start raking your leaves in the fall, pile them up. The best leaves for creating leaf mold are ones that break down easily. Leaves from walnut trees, hickory, elms and maple trees break down rapidly to add valuable nutrients back to the soil. Avoid leaves that are robust, like oak leaves.
It can take up to two years for oak leaves to break down. If you can, use your lawnmower to chop up the leaves and help them to start breaking down. Let the leaves rest in piles, keeping them moist to help them decompose. Once the leaves start to turn dark, soft and start to have layers of mold in them, work them into your garden soil. This will add nutrients and beneficial bacteria into the soil.
There are many other soil amendments that you can add to the soil. You can add bloodmeal, bone meal, cottonseed meal or fish meal to the soil. Again, if you don’t mind using synthetic fertilizers, you can use them to add to your soil in the fall. Also, don’t forget the soil amendments that you likely have in your kitchen.
Don’t be scared to toss crushed egg shells, coffee grounds and banana peels into the garden. You don’t have to put them in a compost pile to get the nutrients out of them. If you toss them in the garden this fall, they will start to break down and will have nutrients available by the time your summer garden is planted.
You can also consider planting a cover crop. Cover crops will help to keep the soil in place and will prevent erosion. Some crops, like clover, alfalfa or beans can actually add nitrogen back into the soil by converting non-usable nitrogen into forms that other plants can use. Don’t worry if you don’t want to use these crops. You can always till them into the soil as a form of green manure in the spring.
Adding to your soil this fall will give you a head start on next year’s garden. Have you started amending your soil for next summer yet?
Today’s post about fall soil amending comes from Shelby DeVore, founder of Farminence.com [https://farminence.com/]. Shelby is a former agriculture teacher and a multi-generational home gardener. She currently lives on a small farm with her husband and three children where they raise way too many animals and grow a large vegetable garden each year.