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Preparing Your Soil for Winter

Here are some tips for preparing your soil for winter. For the entire article on Preparing Your Garden for Fall, please download the printable .pdf attached.


·       Pull up all dead and unproductive plants to be tilled under or placed in the compost heap. But, first ...


o      Remove diseased or insect-infested plant material to avoid them becoming active again in spring.  You can burn infested plant material and spread the ashes on the garden if burning laws allow it.  If not, then haul material to a landfill. .


·       After clean-up, add compost to the garden.


·       Some excellent sources of organic material include: leaves, sawdust, wood chips and manure. Don't apply leaves too thickly or they will not decompose properly. Run a lawn mower over them first to break them down.


o      Waiting until spring to add organic material may delay planting, as the material needs enough time to break down and add nutrients to the soil.


o      Hot or very fresh manure can burn young seedlings. Adding manure in the fall gives it time to decompose and blend into the soil before planting.


·       If the weather cooperates, you can plow or till in the fall, which allows for early planting in the spring and can improve soil structure.


·       If you have a rainy fall, or if your garden is steep and subject to erosion, you may decide to plant a cover crop.  


o      Winter cover crops can be planted as early as August 1 but should not be planted later than November 1.  


o      You can sow cover crop seed between rows of existing fall crops a month or less before expected harvest.  


o      Some cover crops suitable for winter use are:  crimson clover, red clover or white clover (should be planted 30 to 45 days prior to first frost), hairy vetch, grains such as rye, wheat or barley, and some legumes.


o      Prepare soil for cover crop seed by tilling under plant wastes from the summer. Ask at the seed store what the best type of cover crop for your area is and at what rate (pounds per 100 square feet) to plant it. Broadcast the seed, preferably before a rain, and rake it evenly into the soil.


o      Keep in mind that planting of the spring garden can be delayed by the practice of cover cropping, since time must be allowed for the green manure to break down. For crops that need to be planted early, leave a section of the garden bare.


·       When time or weather conditions prohibit tilling or cover cropping, you can let your garden lie under a mulch of compost, plant wastes or leaves to be tilled in the spring. For early spring planting, chop the mulch first so that it will break down more quickly over the winter. The addition of fertilizer high in nitrogen will also help break down organic matter quickly.


Excerpted from "Fall Vegetable Gardening" by Diane Relf, Virginia Cooperative Extension Specialist, Environmental Horticulture, Publication Number 426-334, August 1996, www.ext.vt.edu.