Spring might seem like a long way off, but preparation is everything when it comes to gardens — especially soil preparation.
In addition to giving the soil an opportunity to settle in through the freeze-and-thaw process, prepping a garden space now will eliminate the worries of working around spring rains.
If you only have time to do one thing to a garden space this fall, work in compost or other organic matter. Gardeners call compost black gold for a reason — it loosens heavy clay soils, improves air and water movement through both clay soils and sandy soils, and is a source of plant-essential nutrients. Compost is good for vegetable gardens, flower/landscape beds and lawns alike.
Compost should be applied at about 50 pounds to 100 pounds per 100 square feet of garden space, according to Kansas State University. This may sound like a lot of compost, but a bushel or large bag of composted material can easily weigh 50 pounds. It will also look like less when it is spread over a 10-foot by 10-foot area.
Work the compost in with a tiller, a shovel or whatever tool you prefer — just make sure to mix it in for best benefits. Tilling has pros and cons and no-till gardens are gaining in popularity, but tilling is still the easiest and most efficient way to mix compost into a large area.
In garden areas with perennial plantings (asparagus, rhubarb, shrubs, etc.), compost must be worked in with a shovel or other tool to avoid tearing up plant roots as much as possible. I like to use a tool called a potato fork (made for digging potatoes) that has four wide prongs. The fork allows me to loosen and lift the soil enough to work compost in with minimal disruption to the roots. A tool called a broad fork is even better and made for this purpose but is a greater investment.
Any kind of compost will do the trick, whether it is from your backyard, a municipal supply, or some sort of commercially bagged compost.
Organic matter like leaves, pine needles, grass clippings, etc. will also benefit garden soil and should be worked in now if you plan to use them.
If you are ambitious enough to do more than add compost or organic matter, test your soil’s pH and nutrient levels. Most plants prefer a slightly acidic to neutral soil pH — a range of six to seven. If the pH is above or below that, you can apply sulfur to lower the pH or lime to raise the pH.
Some plants or crops prefer a pH range below and some can tolerate a broader range, so it is important to know what you want to grow. You might also want to be open-minded about what you can grow — if your soil has a high pH, blueberries and hydrangeas may be out of the question.
Changing soil pH may take months or even years. Plants growing in soil with a pH higher or lower than they prefer will produce less flowers and fruit and may be smaller than plants growing in a more desirable location. They may also have difficulty taking up certain nutrients and be more susceptible to disease.
In Douglas County, residents may test up to 10 soil samples per year for free, thanks to a grant from the Douglas County Conservation District.
To test your soil, use a trowel or knife to obtain slices of soil six to eight inches deep. Take several samples and mix them together in a container, then bring two cups of the soil to the K-State Research and Extension—Douglas County office at 2110 Harper St. The basic test will determine pH, phosphorus and potassium levels, and I can then provide you with recommendations on pH adjustment and whether your garden needs additional nutrients.
Even if you end up waiting until spring to follow the recommendations from the soil test, at least you will know you need it before you are ready to plant.
If you get compost worked in, get your soil tested and amended, and are still looking for something to do in the garden, come see me. We have a great Master Gardener volunteer program you might be interested in joining.