Good gardening practices begin with the soil.
Soil is the foundation of life for plants. I have found that many people take soil for granted. We should put its management higher in priority than the plants.
Fall is the best time to make improvements. Vegetable gardens and annual plantings can be prepared now so that come spring, they are ready for planting.
Turning the soil over in the fall is more about course tillage. Depending on the size of the garden, this can be done with a spade or tiller. The goal is to leave the bed with larger, chunkier clods that the freezing and thawing of winter will naturally break down.
Recent rains have provided excellent soil moisture levels for tilling. Often the spring ground is wet — and it’s the worst time to work the soil. Working our heavy clay soils when wet results in compaction and rock hard clods that make planting difficult.
The advantage of tilling now is that organic matter, such as compost, can be worked into the soil. It is the only way to improve locally heavy clay-based soils to make them easier to garden.
Additions of sand, gypsum and other spray-on products do not offer any long-term solutions. They waste your time and money with little results.
Work two to four inches of rich organic matter into the soil six to eight inches deep. Winter freezing and thawing does the rest of the work. Hit the area with a rake in the spring and planting is a breeze.
Just like tilling, adding these amendments in the spring often hurts more than it helps the garden.
Fall is also an excellent time to test your soil — a service provided by your local Cooperative Extension office. Find your local office by searching your county name plus “extension” in your browser (e.g., Johnson County Extension or Jackson County Extension).
Soil testing reveals the pH level, which often is high in the Kansas City area, as well as the phosphorus and potassium levels. The results will provide recommendations to correct imbalances. Test results will include the proper fertilizer analysis as well as when and how much to apply for a bumper crop.
Never guess when it comes to pH and fertility levels. Never add lime to local soils, and, again, skip all the gimmick products.
People often ask if I follow my own advice. You bet when it comes to healthy soil. I already checked this off my fall garden chores list. I can hardly wait for spring planting to arrive, knowing my soil is ready.
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.