Good gardening starts with the soil. Most gardeners focus their efforts on above-ground growth at the expense of healthy soil and root development. Now is the time to focus on proper soil management in preparation for the next growing season.
Start with the removal of old debris from vegetable and annual flower gardens. This refuse serves no purpose, harboring over-wintering insects and disease. Weeds loaded with seeds are also in the mix waiting to germinate.
The soil can be turned with a spade or a tiller. The goal is not to till to the point of being ready for planting but to leave the soil a little cloddy. Repeated freezing and thawing in winter naturally breaks down these clods, leaving a nice planting bed come spring. Then all you’ll need to do is simply rake or lightly rototill before planting.
Fall is also the time to add compost or shredded leaves. Tilling distributes the organic matter throughout the upper 6 to 8 inches of soil, which does wonders for our clay soil as it will then hold more moisture during dry periods. It also provides more oxygen for roots during wet periods.
Incorporate 3 to 4 inches of organic matter into the soil when tilling each fall. It takes a lot of compost to make significant changes in heavy clay soils. Organic matter continues to break down over time, which is why it is necessary to add it each year.
The other benefit: This material feeds the microorganisms, creating a healthy soil profile and resulting in better growth.
Soil health starts with a soil test, a low-fee service provided by any of the area extension offices. The test will reveal the pH level, which regulates the availability of nutrients to the plants. If it is off-balance, plant growth will be slowed. Don’t guess at your pH, as it can vary greatly. Never add lime to local soils unless a test indicates it is needed.
A soil test will also recommend what nutrients are needed and an analysis of what fertilizer to apply, whether synthetic or organic. Johnson County soil test results, in addition to providing baseline pH and nutrient levels, provide information on the ratio of fertilizer along with the rate and timing of the application.
Learn the correct way to take a soil test by searching the keywords “soil testing” and your local county extension office. Johnson County residents are eligible for one free soil test. Visit johnson.k-state.edu and click on the “free soil testing” link for details.
Spending time preparing the soil now means you will be ready come spring for the first seeds or plants to go into the ground.
Dennis Patton is a horticulture agent with Kansas State University Research and Extension. Got a question for him or other university extension experts? Email them to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit KCGardens.KansasCity.com.