Fall Soil Preparation in NJ

The gardener feeds the plant, the organic gardener feeds the soil. Feeding the plant is like applying battery power, which has a limited span of usefulness before it burns out. But feeding the soil with organic nutrients and minerals is like creating a hydroelectric plant that is driven perpetually by the forces of nature. Aldo Leopold wrote of this same link in 1949. “Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants and animals.”

As harvest time arrives, think of spring, when you will be deluged with chores from lawn care to bare root planting. In those muddy early days of the season soil preparation for large-scale planting can be a sticky mess. Tillers bog down in the mire. Earth is still cold, its populations of microorganisms sluggish from the winter cold.

To relieve yourself of a giant spring task and to make it easier by working drier earth, amend your garden soil in the fall. Kitchen gardens and large plots of seasonal color will fare better if you shift your spring soil prep to the fall. Tilling opens up the soil, allowing oxygen to reach the deeper layers after a long season of production. Adding your organic matter, humus and manures to the soil in the fall gives it an entire winter and spring to become biologically active. The remnants of this year’s crop will have plenty of time to break down.

Organic soil amendments are not immediately valuable to plants. When you add them to the soil in spring, there will be a delay until it all “marries” and begins to interact and render its benefits to plants. It can take many weeks, even months before the soil functions at peak levels.

But if you prepare your soil in the fall while the earth is still warm and workable, your spring work effort will be greatly simplified. You won’t have to touch the soil until just days before you’re ready to plant your first seed or seedling. Often just a single tilling or forking-over is all that’s required before you begin planting.

There are just a few simple steps to fall soil preparation, whether you’re working a huge vegetable field or a tiny plot for city tomatoes:

Now is the time to dig out the roots of problem weeds like wild morning glory, oxalis, nut sedge and Bermuda grass. Be sure to remove any others with seed still on the plant. If shed, this seed can easily winter over in the soil to infest the new year’s garden. It’s a common occurrence in spring prepped soils to find weed populations increasing with each new season.

In the fall, spread amendments evenly over the area before you till. You’ll need a lot of manure and/or compost to feed microorganisms and help the soil remain open and well-drained. Then boost fertility with materials such as bone meal for nitrogen and rock phosphate for phosphorous. An easy way to achieve this is to buy a complete organic fertilizer in pellet or granular form, which is easy to transport and apply.

Fall tilling is about opening up the soil to incorporate amendments, relieve compaction, increase oxygen and improve drainage. The deeper you get the better. Because you’re not planting right afterward, it’s best to rough till once in each direction. This leaves the surface irregular with large chunks of earth. The clods will gradually erode over the course of the winter, carrying amendments deeper down with the runoff. You can litter the entire surface with a mulch of shredded leaves, hay or straw to prevent erosion. The ground will flatten out considerably by spring when you’ll need only fine till to prepare for planting.

Come spring, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much easier it will be to put the garden in without all that hauling, spreading and tilling. And best of all, it will be in top biological form to feed your plants with soil-borne energy with all the power of the Hoover Dam.

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