Last week’s cold and snow put an end to the vegetable season. Now our attention turns to season-ending chores like cleaning up the debris and planning for next season. Preparing the soil this fall is the last chore to ensure the spring garden is a success.
Spring conditions are frequently wet. Never work wet garden soil as it destroys the structure needed for proper growth. Fall weather is drier, allowing for tilling or spading. The goal of fall tillage is to leave the garden rough so there is no need to prepare a planting bed.
In the fall, turn the soil over, leaving it chunky or with clods. The winter freeze-thaw cycle will result in a natural breakdown of the soil particles. Once spring arrives, hit the garden with a rake or shallow till and the soil will be ready to plant. This will allow you to get into a wet soil earlier for timely planting.
Add Organic Matter
Fall is the ideal time to incorporate additional organic matter into the soil. Adding compost, peat moss, composted manures or shredded leaves is the only way to combat the heavy clay soils in our area. Organic matter has this magical ability to break apart the clay particles, improve drainage, provide aeration and increase the soil’s ability to retain moisture.
No other product on the market can compete with organic matter’s ability to improve soil. Never add sand to a clay-based soil. Spray-on products claim to improve soil structure, but are not effective. The only way to combat clay soils is to incorporate 2 to 4 inches of organic matter up to 6 inches deep. Make this application in the fall when tilling allows for the incorporation of organic matter to occur with ease.
Take a soil test
Now is an excellent time to get a soil test from your local county Extension office. A soil test is an inexpensive investment that leads to success. The basic test results provide pH, phosphorus and potassium levels in your soil and the basis for the fertility program.
The pH level regulates the available nutrients to your plants. Too low or too high bonds much needed nutrients for growth. Soil test results from Johnson County often show that the pH is too high for proper growth. The recommendation is an application of sulfur to lower the pH. Never apply lime as it raises the pH level. Only a reliable soil test will show the need and make recommendations for how much sulfur to apply.
Knowing the phosphorus and potassium levels provides the basis for fertilization. This information tells us what analysis of fertilizer is required. Recommendations are then made for what type of fertilizer to apply, the rate of application and timing for best vegetable growth.
Local Extension offices charge a nominal fee for this service. About two cups of soil are required for the test. Contact the office in your county for additional information.
Soil is the foundation of plant growth. Preparing the soil now will give you jump start on your spring planting.
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.