Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Lower South
November, 2007
Regional Report

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A rototiller is a great tool for working leaves into the garden soil to decompose over the winter.

Winter Soil Care

Great soil is the key to a great garden. The late fall and winter season is a good time to take steps to build your soil. Our gardens tend to be rather sparse this time of year so we can get in there and do some renovation.

Have Your Soil Tested
A soil test is a good place to start. Your County Extension Office can assist you by providing the soil-testing form and information on how to have your soil tested at the state lab. When the soil test results arrive, add the necessary amendments and rototill them into the top 6 inches. Some amendments take time to react with the soil and have their full effect. This is especially true if you are lowering soil pH with sulfur or raising it with an application of lime.

Our southern soils are typically very low in organic matter content. We have to add organic matter annually if we want to maintain a high level of this beneficial component. Compost releases nutrients to the soil while at the same time improving the physical characteristics of the soil.

Try Sheet Composting
Sheet composting is the technique of spreading a layer of leaves on the soil surface and rototilling them into the soil to decompose. By the time spring gardening rolls around, the leaves will be actively decomposing and releasing nutrients to the growing crops.

You can work a considerable amount of leaves into the soil in this way. If you try and rototill a thick layer of leaves at one time, the tiller tends to ride up on the leaves rather then mix them in well. Spread a thin layer, rototill the area, then repeat the procedure.

Grinding up the leaves with a shredder or even a mower really helps make rototilling easier and greatly speeds the decomposition process. I use a mower to shred and blow the leaves into a long windrow and then rake them onto a tarp for easy transport to the garden.

Cover Soil with a Mulch Blanket
Soil left bare over winter usually sprouts cool-season weeds. In areas with plentiful rainfall, soil may erode away. I put some bare areas to bed with a thick blanket of leaves on the surface all winter long. This is similar to sheet composting except rather than being rototilled, the leaves are left on the soil surface. The thick leaf blanket protects the soil from erosion and crusting and prevents winter weeds from taking over.

In spring I pull the leaves back a week or so before planting to expose the soil to the sun and allow it to warm up. Otherwise the mulch will keep the soil cool, delaying plant growth, especially on early plantings.

Cover Crops
You can build your soil over winter by growing a cover crop. Sometimes called green manure crops, they are planted to add their organic matter to the soil when they are tilled under. Legume-type cover crops for the cool season include clovers, vetch, and cool-season peas. Non-legume cool-season cover crops include ryegrass, mustard, and cereal (grain type) rye. In addition to adding organic matter to the soil, cereal rye provides the added benefit of trapping nematodes that enter its roots.

So don't let this winter season go by without taking the opportunity to build your soil and lay the foundation for the best garden ever.

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