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Winterizing Your Garden Soil

Great gardens start with healthy soil. Healthy soil retains precious moisture, resists nutrient-depleting erosion and supports strong root growth.

Sidestep soil compaction. Wet soil is especially vulnerable to compaction because water acts as a lubricant. Plant growth is then limited as roots have a difficult time penetrating the soil. Soil that is repeatedly walked on may lose as much as 90 percent of the space between particles, displacing soil oxygen, interfering with drainage, and destroying soil life.

Prevent unnecessary compaction by creating and walking on paths and using boards and stepping stones as walking bridges through planting beds.

Conduct garden clean up. Remove diseased plants and leaves and put them into the slash pile or garbage.
 
Take care to pull leaves and other debris away from the crowns of perennials that may suffocate or rot during winter rains.

Create mulch. Fallen leaves are Mother Earth’s windfall. When left on the soil, these leaves form leaf mold, an organic mulch. This mulch deters weeds and provides a haven for garden beneficials including the insect delicacies essential to birds and amphibians. Insects are the foundation of the entire wildlife food web.

Earthworms and countless bacteria, nematodes, fungi and other denizens of rich soil life appreciate organic mulch. These organisms till and enrich the soil.

Some fungi, for example, help plants absorb up to 50 times more nutrients and lead to bigger, enhanced yields. These fungi attach themselves to plant roots, extend out into the ground, and scrounge for water and nutrients to take back to the plants. The plants in turn share some of the carbohydrates manufactured through their photosynthesis, creating a mutually beneficial relationship.

Thwart erosion. Topsoil erosion has reached an emergency level in much of the world’s cropland. Quality topsoil is washing and blowing away faster than it can be replaced. Make sure your topsoil stays put by preventing water runoff year round. Strategies include careful watering, permeable surfaces, swales, rain gardens and cover crops.

Winter greens such as Swiss chard, mustard, and kale make good cover crops in vegetable beds. If left to bloom, the flowers attract beneficial insects; the spent plants can go into the compost. Let healthy roots remain in place as they add additional organic matter to enrich the soil.

In orchards, gooseneck phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia), a blue-flowered native annual, attracts bees and other pollinators to assist in fruit pollination. Plant phacelia seeds in late winter just before the last frost.

Say no to harsh garden chemicals. Pesticides, including weed killers (herbicides) and concentrated synthetic fertilizers imperil your unseen garden “pets.” Instead apply organic mulch to reduce the need for herbicides and to build soil fertility.

We’ve been taught over the years that a clean, tidy garden is a desirable garden even though much garden messiness is actually a good thing. We now know that our soil and the wildlife that lives in and upon it thrive with considerable “untidiness.”

Master Gardener Vera Strader hopes that, just as garden untidiness is a good thing, her slapdash housekeeping will also become fashionable.


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