Improve Your Soil for Next Year

Gardeners are always thinking ahead! This growing season isn't quite over yet, and here we are thinking about 2023. 

Improving your soil organically takes some time, and we have time before we're ready to plant next spring. So what can we do?

Adding purchased compost to a garden

Add Compost

I think this is the easiest and most important way to improve your soil. 

Simply apply a layer of compost and turn the soil to mix it in. Turning the soil is to dig into the soil and turn the shovel over to drop the soil back in the garden bed. 

Our garden is organic, so I can only use organic products, including compost.

It can be tricky to determine if compost is organic, because the word "organic" has several meanings. To guarantee the compost is organic, look for the OMRI logo on the packaging. 

OMRI stands for Organic Material Review Institute and it's a reliable way to know a product is organic.

The term "organic" also means the product is comprised only of materials derived from plants or animals. Think about it for a minute. If my compost is made from grass clippings from my lawn, on which I used non-organic chemicals (Scott's Lawn products for example)... is the compost organic? 

OMRI guarantees that the components themselves are also organic, at least in regards to compost. 

Anyway, look for the OMRI label for organic gardening products. 

Organic compost improves the soil by adding back nutrients that next year's garden will need. Your garden this year depleted some of those nutrients. 

Compost also helps break up clay soil. Over the winter, the snow and rain will compact the soil, and the mixed in compost will help to reduce compaction.

If you have sandy soil, the compost will help change the structure of the soil so it retains water better. 

Keep in mind, when starting with topsoil, it will take years to develop fluffy rich soil in your garden bed. Keep at it: a little bit each year really does make a difference. 

Put a Layer of Mulch on the Surface 

After you've removed the plants from your garden bed put down a layer of (organic) mulch. It will help prevent soil erosion over the winter.

You can use a living mulch. Other terms for this concept are "cover crops," "green mulch," or "green manure."  You grow a crop in the garden bed or plot that is primarily intended to improve the soil. Some of these green mulches can be harvested as well. 

You've probably heard of certain types of crops that "fix nitrogen" in the soil. Some of these crops make good living mulch. Additionally, roots growing down into the soil help prevent erosion and disrupt soil compaction. Come springtime, you turn the soil to kill the living mulch and add the plants back into the soil. 

Here are some common green mulches:

  • hairy vetch (funny name, right?), alfalfa
  • Peas, beans, and soybeans
  • red clover and other types of clover
  • oilseed radish - thicker roots particularly help reduce soil compaction

Crimson clover flowers

The Old Farmer's Almanac has an article about home garden mulching, including a table of suitable mulches by regions in the United States and in Canada. 

If You Garden in a Community Garden

First, check your garden rental agreement if you are permitted to do these soil improvements, and if there are any rules for products or cover crops you may use. 

You may only want to put in the effort to improve the soil if you are able to get the same plot next year. Being able to lease the same plot year after year is a huge benefit - it encourages you to take good care of the soil. You will reap the benefits of your investment in the soil, and when it's time to let your plot go, the next gardener will inherit a better plot. 

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