How To Improve Garden Soil in Winter - Backyard Boss
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How To Improve Garden Soil in Winter

With the winter quickly approaching, many expert and amateur gardeners scramble to do everything they can to improve their garden soil. And while on paper, it may seem like a reasonably simple task, there are some intricacies that you should know before digging in.

The quality of your soil will determine the health of your plants. For this reason, tired and old soil with little nutrients will have difficulty sustaining plant life. When you improve your soil in winter, you save time so that when spring rolls by, you’re ready to plant your favorite crops. The question still remains, how should you improve your garden soil in the winter? Below you’ll learn about the seven best methods and how to implement them.

How To Improve Garden Soil in Winter

Many gardens that flourish in spring owe plenty to the gardener who spent the winter improving the garden soil. If you take the right steps in winter, you’ll have an easier time planting and harvesting your crops in spring.

Here are seven ways to improve garden soil in winter:

1. Test Your Soil

soil test kit
Image credits: ryochiji via Creative Commons

After the end of the growing season, you should test your soil to see how it’s progressing. This will help you see which nutrients are lacking so you can use the right amendments to improve structure and quality. So, what happens if you continue to grow your crops without testing your soil?

Basically, if you skip this step, you won’t know for sure what the problem is. If you don’t test your soil, you won’t understand why your plants don’t flower and fruit as much as they used to. You’d probably blame it on your watering schedule, a lack of fertilizers, or pest problems. Although any of these problems could be the case, a soil test narrows it down.

Fixing these issues will provide temporary benefits until the main issue of poor soil quality is corrected. There are a few ways to test your garden soil. You can use household items for DIY tests, invest in a good garden soil tester, use a soil test kit, or get professional help.

Remember, receiving your soil test results will take between one and two weeks if you use professional help. Once you receive your results, you’ll know the soil type you’re dealing with, the type of plants you can grow, and the amendments you can make to improve its quality and structure.

2. Grow Cover Crops for Winter

cover crops
Image credit: Lakeisha Ethans for Backyard Boss

There are many winter cover crops that you can grow in your garden to help protect your other plants, prevent erosion, and improve your soil’s quality and structure. Winter crops help the soil retain moisture, reduce weeds, and recycle nutrients for healthy plant growth.

The most common cover crops are sweet clovers, ryegrass, and winter wheat, which have a massive root system that protects the soil from erosion and providing it with much-needed organic matter.

However, before you start planting, you need to keep the following things in mind:

  1. Test your soil’s pH to know if it’s alkaline or acidic and then choose the right crop for your garden.
  2. Plant your desired crops during late fall after harvesting your fall vegetables.
  3. If your cover crops are self-fertile and start flowering, cut them out, so they don’t grow out of control.

In spring, when you remove these ground covers, make sure to till them into the soil. Cover crops are a great way to improve your garden soil’s health, structure, and fertility because they leave behind a fair amount of nitrogen, benefiting harvests. Now you have space for growing edible crops!

3. Leave the Weeds Alone

crabgrass weed on soil
Image credit: Lakeisha Ethans for Backyard Boss

At first glance, this may seem counterproductive and even counterintuitive, but if you can’t grow cover crops, don’t remove the weeds, as they’ll help prevent soil erosion by acting as temporary ground cover. In addition, some weeds, like thistle and dock, have long taproots that improve the soil’s drainage.

However, in early spring, you’ll need to pull out the entire root because if there’s even a little piece left behind, it’ll grow back quickly. One of the most common weeding mistakes gardeners make is not using the right tools for the job.

You can use a spade to loosen the soil before pulling them out or use DIY weed killers to get rid of them naturally. After clearing overgrown weeds, reuse them in your compost pile instead of tossing them out.

However, don’t add weeds like thistle to your compost pile. Instead, use weeds including dandelions, mugwort, purslane, clover, pennycress, chickweed, and lamb’s quarter for good compost additions. Then again, exercise caution because you don’t want to deal with a weed explosion in your backyard.

4. Winter Mulching

mulch on soil
Image credit: Lakeisha Ethans for Backyard Boss

Mulching is essential for the season but maybe even more so during the winter. Autumn provides you with a lot of winter mulching materials, such as fallen leaves, but you can also use organic mulch. Pine straw, wood chips, shredded disease-free grass clippings, and evergreen boughs are all good options.

Inorganic mulch, such as rubber and plastic, can increase your soil’s temperature. Even worse, they don’t provide any nutrients to your plants. However, they last longer and promote moisture retention. That said, it’s better to use less inorganic mulch and more organic ones to help improve your soil’s health and fertility; Make the choice that’s better for the environment. To summarize, mulching can:

  1. Protect the soil from the harmful effects that repeated freezing and thawing have on the soil’s moisture and nutrient content.
  2. Act as a shield for dormant plants.
  3. Improve soil health when you use organic mulch.

5. Add Organic Materials and Compost

hands holding compost above the composter with organic waste
Image credits: Jerome.Romme via Shutterstock

Adding organic materials like compost is one of the greatest ways to amend your soil and improve its health and structure. When you compost, you recycle most of your kitchen scraps and some garden debris back into the ground. This process improves and boosts soil quality, drainage, and nutrient content for healthy plant growth.

But, what if you don’t make compost at home? Are you doomed to see your garden beds shiver in the cold? No, of course not! If you don’t have the time to compost or haven’t started composting yet, store-bought compost, like Soil Blend’s Super Compost, will still provide you with the same benefits.

Add compost in the winter and top it off with mulch to keep the ground warm, healthy, and ready for planting when spring arrives.

6. Cover the Empty Garden Beds

Burlap for weed control
Image credits: knelson20 via Shutterstock

If you can’t grow winter-hardy cover crops, it’s best to cover your garden beds in the winter with an old carpet, a black tarp, burlap, or layers of cardboard to protect them from excessive moisture. During winter, especially if you experience snow, moisture will build up on the ground, causing compaction and eventually damaging your soil’s health and structure.

Covering your garden bed helps kill existing weeds and suppress new ones so that when spring returns, you can stay ahead of the game. In the spring, remove the cover and leave the garden bed exposed for a few days.

If you tested and amended your soil in the winter, you can just add compost to your garden bed before planting your crops. But, if not, you’ll need to test your soil and add necessary amendments before adding compost for healthy plant growth.

7. Add Inorganic Soil Amendments

Close up, hand holding Perlite, potting cactus and succulent material.
Image credits: RPA Studio via Shutterstock

Amendments are a wonderful addition to your tool box to fix soil structure, depending on the soil type and pH. For example, clay soils need gypsum, perlite, or pea gravel, whereas sandy soils need vermiculite. Silty soils erode easily, so gypsum, pea gravel, or finely cut rubber are required to provide structure.

To decrease the soil’s pH, add sulfur or aluminum ammonium sulfate, and to increase it, add lime or a baking soda mixture (1 tbsp of soda to 1 gallon of water). Amendments can also increase certain nutrients your soil lacks for healthy plant growth.

For example, you can use an alfalfa meal or a blood meal to increase the nitrogen content in your soil. Add rock phosphate or bone meal if you want a higher phosphorus level and for a higher potassium level, add kelp, gypsum, wood ashes, or greensand.

Zero In on Soil Health

For a plant to thrive, the soil must have good aeration, water retention, drainage, and enough nutrients. There’s no better time than winter to improve your soil’s structure and health so you can plant your favorite crops when spring rolls by.

Hopefully, this article helped you with ideas to improve your garden soil during the winter. Leave your experiences, thoughts, and questions in the comment section, and as always, please share!

Happy gardening!