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Fall soil prep is like money in the bank

by JOE LAMP’L Scripps Howard News Service on November 24, 2013 1:39 AM

Investing time and resources into building your soil is like putting money in the bank.

The more you pay attention to what gets added to your soil, the better the returns.

With many seasons and successful gardens behind me, I know that the work I do each fall to prepare my beds has everything to do with the success I have in subsequent years.

Think of it this way: All through the year, your plants are growing and absorbing energy from the sun and drawing nutrients from the soil. Yet in a finite space, the nutrients will likely be exhausted by the end of the season. It’s essential that you replace those depleted reserves. Otherwise, the soil becomes unproductive and plant vigor, disease resistance and productivity suffer as well — which leads back to why I’m such a fan of doing much of this work in fall.

Although there’s never a bad time to amend the soil, in fall, during that transition time between warm- and cool-season plantings, my beds are temporarily vacant, if even for a just a day. Yet it’s that day that may be the most important of the entire year.

My amendments of choice are organic and well-balanced, and they’re free or inexpensive.

There are many choices but my favorites include the following:

COMPOST: My No. 1 go-to choice, always. Compost has the important nutrients plants need, great soil-building properties, microorganisms to improve and mediate undesirable soil inhabitants — and you make it for free.

SHREDDED LEAVES: Free, abundant and amazing for how they improve soil. Much of the nutrients taken up by trees can be found in the leaves, which can end up in your garden beds. Collect as many leaves as you can, grind them up first with a mower and transfer them to a big pile or compost bin to break down over winter. By next summer, they should be ready for your garden to mix into the soil or added as a top dressing of mulch.

WOOD CHIPS: The wood chips left behind when those big grinding machines turn whole trees and limbs into smithereens are another priceless amendment for your garden. Seek out tree-service companies and arborists about getting a load or two. I have a couple of loads delivered every year. In that time, the chips break down to much smaller pieces, which I then add straight to my garden beds.

WORM CASTINGS (aka worm manure): These are rich in nutrients and disease-fighting microorganisms. You can find worm castings in better independent garden centers by the bag or you can order online. They aren’t cheap, but they’re well worth it. Fortunately, a little goes a long way. Only about 2 percent by volume worked into just the top few inches of your soil will do wonders.

NITROGEN: This is a primary nutrient, essential for plants and for building great soil. Although everything I use to amend my soil contains some nitrogen, I like to supplement what’s there. The many sources for organic nitrogen include plant ingredients such as alfalfa, cottonseed and soybean meal, and animal byproducts such as blood meal, crab meal and fish emulsion. Even granulated biosolids such as Milorganite (manufactured and marketed by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District) is an option I use often.

As long as I’ve been gardening, I’m still amazed at the return on my investment of a little time in building great soil with the appropriate amendments, even to improve the worst soil. The rapid transformation is nothing short of amazing. The simple process, utilizing readily available ingredients, means there’s no reason great soil can’t be in your gardening future, too. And fall is a great time to get started.

Joe Lamp’l, host and executive producer of “Growing a Greener World” on PBS, is also an author. Visit Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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