So, harvest is done and you are ready to sit back and relax until it all starts again in Spring.  But hold on a minute.  Your soil has taken a battering over the season.  As temperatures start to drop and soil activity slows it will need a little attention before you put your feet up. 

Soil needs to be prepared for winter if you want to grow next year. 

Protecting your soil is key to getting your garden winter ready. And, there is only one way to protect your soil and that it is to cover it up. 

That would be a very short blog though!  So thankfully, there are different ways to do this depending on your soil type and what you have planned for your plot. So here they are...    

1. Find out your Soil Type

spade in soilIf you already know your soil type then you can jump to point two. But if not, its helpful to find this out first.  Different soils will have different problems. For example a dense clay soil drains slowly in winter so will become waterlogged and compacted. While Sandy Soil will crumble making it vulnerable to soil erosion.

So, your soil will be clay, silt, sandy, chalky or loam. And you can test it with an inexpensive kit from any Garden Centre. But before that, ask the person on the allotment or garden next to yours who should know what soil type you share.  Or check it out yourself.  Take a handful of soil and squeeze it together.

Sandy - it will falls to pieces,

Clay - it will clump together like plasticine

Loam - somewhere between the two above

2. Plant Green Manure

Green manure yellow mustard winter coverIn a perfect garden or allotment there will be no soil left bare in winter.  So if you have pulled your summer veg and have empty beds then green manure is a good idea.  Green Manures are usually grasses, grains, and legumes and are basically a cover crop so your bed is not open to the harsh winter weather.  These plants are quick-growing and will simply grow during winter to protect your soil from erosion. When you are ready to use the bed again you simply dig them in.  They help retain and recycle plant nutrients as well as adding organic matter to the soil.

There are two main sorts of green manure. 

Winter-kill crops - Sowed in late summer or autumn, then they are killed off by frost.  The plant matter then decays over the winter in time for planting your Spring veg. 

Cover crops  - these survive a winter and start growing in the spring, the crop then needs to be killed by hand.

Check out this blog for full info on planting Green Manure

 3. Mulch around your plants 

If you don't have completely empty beds but have bare soil between plants, then a garden mulch might be a better choice.  Mulch is a covering of biodegradable material. Its job is to protect the soil from erosion by harsh winds and water. It will also suppress weeds.

earthworm for soil improvementMulches include straw, manure, compost, leaves, wood chips, wood ash and sawdust. Spread them onto the soil surface around your plants, creating a 5-10cm (2"-4") layer. 

Organic mulches attract earthworms that feed on them. In return for you providing the buffet, the earthworms will incorporate this organic matter into your soil leaving their mineral rich casts behind them.  Their tunnels will also allow air and water to easily reach your plant roots. 

Remove whats left of the mulch off a couple of weeks before planting.  This will allow the sun to warm the soil, ready for planting. 

4. Let mother nature provide the cover!

Firstly, leaving the roots of this years' plants in place will benefit your soil.  Once you have harvested annual crops, provided the plant was healthy (take care as many diseases can survive in the soil) just cut the stem off and leave the root where it is for the winter. It will feed the microbes in the soil and help the structure.

Dandelion for ground cover in winterSecond, turn a blind eye to the weeds. Dandelions and other winter weeds can provide their own winter cover and keep your soil in place.

There advantages and disadvantages to this.  The advantage is that winter weeds break up your soil and weeds like teasels provide a great overwintering place for beneficial insects. 
The disadvantage is that weeds can pretty soon take over thought (and make you unpopular with the gardener next door!) So if you choose this method of cover you'll have to be vigilant.

5. Cover vacant beds

Heap any beds that will remain empty over winter with manure or compost and cover them with an old blanket or cloth.

The manure will have chance to rot down before any live plants are introduced in Spring, greatly improving your soil.  Covering your soil at this stage will reduce compaction caused by heavy rain and help your soil maintain its structure.

In the past gardeners have used carpet made from natural materials to cover the soil.  But as many are now treated with moth repellents and fire retardants we no longer recommended this.

If you have an Easy Tunnel then this is a perfect cover and once you have dug in the compost in Spring you can put it over the bed again to warm the soil enabling you to plant up to 6 weeks earlier than would have been possible without.  

Whatever you cover with, in Spring, remove the cover, leave it to rest for a day or two then dig the nutrient-rich compost in to improve your soil structure. 

The Reward for Caring for your Soil

This might seem like hard work and more than you signed up for. Especially if you are a beginner.  But when you get that glint in your eye early next year, and planting fever sets in, you will be happy that you laid your foundations now. And your garden will bloom as a result.

Let us know which method you use and how you get on getting your garden winter ready.

Sarah Talbot