JoAnne Skelly: For better soil in spring, start working now

“Feed your soil, not your plants” is wise advice for a gardener. All successful gardens start with a soil that is rich in organic matter and plant nutrients and also allows air to move in the soil and water to drain easily. Building healthy soil takes time, so work to improve your soil now to be ready for planting next spring.

Your yard is abundant with plant debris you can use to improve your soil: leaves, pine needles, grass clippings and garden remnants of cornstalks, bean plants and even tomato vines as long as they are disease-free. If you chop up the big stalks and pieces and dig it 6 to 12 inches into the soil this fall, by next spring it will have decomposed and your soil will be enriched. You can also bury your kitchen vegetable and fruit wastes including coffee grounds, coffee filters and eggshells throughout the fall and winter to build up your soil. You might add a little blood meal, fishmeal or alfalfa meal to the soil as you dig in the other organic matter. This will feed the microorganisms that break organic matter down into nutrient-rich humus.

Weed-free manures (horse, steer, rabbit, chicken – no dog, cat or pig) can be beneficial soil additives too. Chicken or rabbit coop litter incorporated into a soil improves drainage in a clay soil and water-holding capacity in a sandy soil while adding nitrogen.

Although wood ash is a good source of potassium, it is also very alkaline. Our soils are naturally potassium-rich and already highly alkaline, so avoid adding wood ash to your soil.

Planting a green manure cover crop is another method to increase soil fertility. Sow annual or winter rye after harvesting the garden. Come spring, turn it over into the soil or dig it out and compost it. Oats, buckwheat, vetch and other hardy legumes are also good cover crops.

Of course there are retail suppliers of compost and other organic materials, but if you have leaves and kitchen scraps, you have to get rid of them somewhere. Why not use them in your soil rather than throwing them out? Instead of focusing on feeding the plants in your garden or landscape, focus on building the soil. For more information, read University of Nevada Cooperative Extension “Nevada’s Soils – Worth the Toil” Fact Sheet-09-14 at, under “publications.”

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


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