Over the course of late summer into autumn, plants begin disappearing one by one from the garden, leaving only a rectangle of bare earth. For the avid gardener, this rare occurrence -- a point where nothing is growing in the garden -- presents the perfect opportunity to care for the soil for the coming spring.
Healthy garden soil is a key to growing full and fruitful plants. Soil is more than just dirt: It contains the nutrients plants need, and its structure allows it to hold the water and oxygen absorbed by plant roots. However, few gardeners are lucky enough to have soil that meets all plant needs without some sort of gardener intervention, so soil amendment to improve nutrition, pH and structure is an expected garden chore, and one that's easily carried out when you clear your garden for the winter.
Begin preparing the soil for winter by removing all plant material from this year's garden. Dead roots, stems and foliage can harbor insects and diseases that emerge in the spring to infect next year's garden. The University of Missouri Extension implicates poor sanitary practices as a major contributor to many disease and pest problems that afflict garden plants.
According to the University of Vermont Extension, winter is the best time to plow the soil for the next year's garden, unless soil erosion poses a problem. While you're working the soil, they also suggest incorporating organic material, such as well-rotted manure or finished compost, into the soil. Skip Richter, writing on the National Gardening Association blog, also advises having your soil tested before the start of winter, giving you the opportunity to incorporate any amendments needed to correct nutritional or pH problems with adequate time for them to show effect before the spring.
Using a technique that compost expert Barbara Pleasant calls "comforter composting," you can make compost right in the garden, where it's on hand for incorporation into spring soil. She suggests spreading layers of soil and partially finished compost with grass clippings and other compostable materials. The materials will break down over the winter, providing for your spring garden's nutrition, as well as reducing winter soil erosion.
If your area receives a lot of winter rain, the bare garden invites soil erosion. To prevent erosion, Richter recommends covering the garden with a thick layer of leaves. The leaves will form a mat that you can pull up in the spring when you're ready to plant. If you want to reduce erosion while restoring soil fertility, cover crops -- legumes and grasses that cover bare land for the winter -- provide a solution. In the spring, you will till under the cover crops to enhance the nutrients and organic matter in your soil.
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