Best Mulch and Soils for your vegetable garden

How to Build Soil in the Winter

It’s difficult to have a conversation about the requirements of a thriving garden without beginning with the soil.

A garden with low-quality soil may produce flowers and fruit and vegetables, but the flowers won’t grow to look as healthy, and fruit/vegetables won’t contain all the nutrients, nor will they taste as good as when grown in good soil. Not to mention, plants grown in good, healthy soil will have fewer issues with disease and pests.

Autumn is the Ideal Time to Start Building Healthy Soil.

While there is no wrong time to start building healthy soil, autumn is ideal for several reasons.

  • Leaves are falling from the trees in abundance, which are useful to mix with wood mulch for a winter mulch layer
  • Your garden plants at the end of their season provide a great source of organic matter
  • The weather is cooler (which is preferable for physical labor)
  • The coming winter months will provide time for decomposition.

The outdoor gardening season is ending. You’ve harvested the fruits of your labor (pun intended), but if you want to maintain or even improve your garden next year, don’t become complacent by thinking your job is done. What you could do now to help the soil building process will do wonders for your garden next spring.

No Digging!

Gardeners traditionally tilled their gardens in the fall. The idea was to bury plants, mix in soil amendments, and expose overwintering insects. There is now an almost unanimous opinion that it may be better for your soil to be left untouched. No digging, no tilling. Breaking up the dirt in any way exposes organic matter already in the soil to the air which speeds up breakdown and decomposition. It also disrupts the natural water channels leaving it at the mercy of erosion. Tilling will kill the earthworms your garden loves so much. Dig by hand, only as needed to remove weeds, debris, and old plants.

Sheet Composting

Sheet Composting (also called lasagna gardening) has been around for a long time and works well to build your soil organically. It works by forming layers of organic matter on top of the dirt which will start to decompose over the winter as well as protecting the soil from erosion and weeds. Sheet composting takes work but is much easier than tilling and requires only simple yearly maintenance. It’s also handy if you want to expand your garden next spring since you can build it right on top of the grass which will itself, decompose and add nutrients to your garden.

Sheet composting can be done a few different ways, but here is the basic idea:

  • Remove the old plants from your garden by cutting the stems down to the ground instead of pulling them from the earth. The roots are then left to break down adding to the organic matter in your garden.
  • The plants you removed can then be added to your compost pile for next year.
  • Lay down a layer of cardboard, brown paper bags or newspaper to choke out weeds and grass.
  • For the next layer, use about an inch of finished compost and/or It’s ok if the manure is fresh since it will have time to decompose over the winter.
  • The last layer is wood mulch with or without shredded leaves mixed in with it. Mulch has much to offer since it assures the soil will be protected from erosion from rain or. It also decomposes, adding valuable nutrients to the ground. A layer of about two inches of wood chips will work. If mixing in leaves, be sure they are chopped or shredding to avoid matting and to jumpstart decomposition.

While you can mix up the above ingredients a bit based on availability, try to keep the main ideas in mind. You want both green and brown materials. Green materials include grass clippings, vegetable compost, and manure which provide the nitrogen your plants crave. Brown materials are hay, straw, and leaves provide necessary carbon. Hay is also high in potassium which plants also love.

A Special Note About Wood Mulch

You may have heard that wood mulch robs your soil of nitrogen. While it has been found that there is a nitrogen deficiency right at the point where wood and soil meet, the mulch isn’t absorbing nitrogen like a sponge. Plants take root below this thin layer of nitrogen deficiency and suffer no ill effects from it. It is essential, however, not to till or dig wood mulch into the dirt for this reason. If you are sheet composting, the wood mulch will likely not lay on the soil in any case. Wood mulch is the best option for erosion protection, maintaining the temperature of the ground beneath, adding nutrients as it breaks down, and aesthetics.

A Note About Leaves

Leaves mixed with wood mulch is ideal for building a healthy soil. When leaves are added to soil, they help improve its structure making heavier soils more manageable to work with and create the best conditions for beneficial insects and organisms. Composted leaves also help the soil hold water during those dry summer months reducing stress.

Ultimately, you are preparing your garden to rely on nature to do what it does best. The layers of compost and mulch encourage the growth of microorganisms and worms while adding nutrients to your soil. This method even works if your soil is hard clay (it just takes more time), but be sure to add manure to the compost should this be the case as it will encourage more worms that do the work for you.

That’s it!

Come springtime, your garden will be ready to plant without the need for any other preparation. Any mulch that has not decomposed can be pushed aside just enough for planting seeds or seedlings. Once the plants have grown sufficiently, the mulch should be pushed back to prevent weeds.

If this is your first time using the sheet composting method, be sure to test your soil in the spring with a simple pH test kit obtained from your local garden center. If you checked it in the fall, you might be pleasantly surprised by the results.