Posted by Sue
How To Improve Your Soil This Winter

Winter Gardening Advice:
Five Top Tips on How to Improve Your Soil This Winter

As the temperature drops and the days get shorter my thoughts usually turn to hibernation. I look forward to having a few months where there is not too much to do in the garden. For me it’s a time to breathe and relax into the slower pace of the winter months. But before I slow down too much, I always give a thought to the soil in my garden and the ones I teach in.

Winter is the perfect time to reward your soil with some TLC and give it a boost for next year’s growing season.

When we grow crops in soil, we are working it hard by drawing up nutrients and water and disturbing the soil by sowing, planting, weeding and harvesting.

The soil is an eco-system in its own right containing thousands of species of nematodes, bacteria, protozoa, fungi and invertebrate insects as well as feeding birds and animals.

In fact, a healthy soil needs 1,000 different species per gramme of soil. To grow vegetables well we need to boost this ecosystem so that the soil is balanced and healthy; below are five tips on how to nourish your soil over the winter.

Here's my advice. Let's cover 5 of the most common questions on how to improve the condition of your soil during the Winter.

1. What should I add to my soil during Winter?

Before improving soil I always reflect on how my soil has coped with the growing season;

  • did it dry out in the summer?
  • was it waterlogged in spring?
  • did I see plenty of worms and insects when I turned over the soil?
  • did my vegetables thrive or flounder?

I can’t see bacteria and nematodes, but I can see how my vegetables have performed and this can give clues on what the soil needs. Where soil was dry, I will add organic matter, where is it cold and wet in spring or prone to invasive weeds I will cover it with inorganic mulch. Even though all my gardening is done across East Lancashire with similar soil and temperatures there is still a lot of variation in each growing site.

How do improve soil during winter
Should you dig your soil during the winter?

2. When should I start Winter digging?

To dig or not to dig?
Traditionally allotmenteers and market gardeners have dug their soil over the winter. It is still thought by some that breaking up the soil and digging deep will open up the soil and expose pests and diseases to the winter frosts.

However, systematic digging is now thought by most to disturb the soil’s ecosystem and damage the balance of beneficial microbes living in the soil. I follow the ‘No Dig’ approach and aim to improve my soil by adding organic matter on top of the soil rather than digging beneath it and disturbing its structure. But whatever you do, covering the soil is always helpful to limit soil erosion, compaction and reduce the spread of weeds.

3. Should I mulch my soil in the Winter?

Cover your soil with organic mulch
This is my favourite soil boosting job in the autumn and winter, adding manure and/or homemade compost to vegetable beds.

I shovel on a thick layer to cover the bed (at least 5cm deep) and then leave it to the soil organisms to incorporate the matter into the bed in time for spring planting.

A ‘mulch’ is anything that covers the soil, and an organic mulch consists of material that was once alive (plant matter, organisms, woody stems etc.). Manure is excellent for improving water retention in dry soils. Homemade compost is the best mulch for adding microbes and nutrients to poor or infertile soil. If I can’t get hold of either of these, I use thick cardboard to cover the soil and help control weeds by stopping seeds germinating and weakening existing weeds.

Top Tips For Winter Gardening
How To Keep Soil Warm During Winter

4. How do you keep my soil warm in the Winter?

Cover the soil with inorganic mulch
I use this technique when I can’t add an organic mulch but want to cut down on invasive weeds and/or warm the soil ready for the spring. I choose a black plastic (old compost bags are ideal) and lay it over the soil; weighting or pinning it down. It needs to exclude the light to be effective, so I avoid using thinner black bin bags. This type of mulch can control weeds by stopping seeds germinating and weakening any existing weeds. Black plastic will also protect the soil from icy winter winds and keep the soil warm for spring planting. However, unlike cardboard, it will not rot down into the ground and so I remove it before doing any planting.

5. How to stop soil getting waterlogged during the Winter?

Cover the soil with green manure
Another way to cover the soil, replenish nutrients and support microbes is to sow green manure seeds. These plants help improve the soil through preventing compaction and waterlogging over winter, fixing nitrogen in the soil and feeding soil microbes. In the spring I dig them back into the soil a month or so before I start my vegetable crops. In the autumn the best hardy, green manures to sow are Grazing Rye grass, Winter field bean and Winter tares.

Winter Green Manure Recommendations

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