Don't yearn for spring, prepare your soil now

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Gardeners are nothing, if not optimistic. Who else would brave the cold to work the soil now in hopes of a bountiful harvest next summer and fall? As successful gardeners know, a healthy soil is the key to abundant crops. A loose soil, rich in organic matter, is garden gold.

Any organic matter tilled into the soil in the fall will be well on the way to decomposition by spring, making valuable nutrients available early in the planting season.

Right now, the soil is warmer, after absorbing summer's heat, than it will be in the spring, after months of exposure to winter's cold.

Adding organic matter is a necessity in Northern Nevada, where soils are generally deficient in this critical ingredient. Organic matter may be grass clippings, leaves, leaf mold, compost, wood chips, sawdust, straw or manures. It greatly improves both clay and sandy soils.

It opens up pore spaces that allow better air circulation and water infiltration. It holds water in sandy soils, but permits water to move through clay soils so that plants don't drown. It also feeds all the beneficial microorganisms that make a soil nutritious for plants.

In addition to incorporating organic matter into the soil, add a little nitrogen, such as ammonium sulfate. Mixing this into the soil according to the label instructions will aid the microorganisms in their decomposition process.

According to Virginia Cooperative Extension, other benefits of fall soil preparation include, "Insects, disease organisms, and perennial weeds may be reduced by killing or inactivating them through burial or exposure to harsh winter weather."

They also point out that, "Heavy clay soils may be improved by the alternate freezing and thawing, which breaks up tightly aggregated particles."

Rototilling organic matter into the existing soil is sufficient for most gardens. The organic matter will be worked into the upper layers of the soil.

Sometimes in clay soils, a compacted layer can form below the reach of the tiller's tines. You will notice this as you are tilling, or you can check for it with a shovel when you are finished tilling.

How far down can you easily dig? If you hit a compaction layer within the top 10 inches of soil, you may have to hand-dig through it. I prefer to dig my garden bed by hand. This is easy because the soil is sandy.

As I dig, I don't walk over any area I have already dug to avoid compacting it.

Do more than dream of spring. Get ready for it by preparing your soil!

For more information, e-mail or call me at 887-2252. You can "Ask a Master Gardener" by e-mailing or call your local University of Nevada Cooperative Extension office. Check out many useful horticulture publications at

• JoAnne Skelly is the Carson City/Storey County Extension educator for University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.


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