Covered soil is happy soil and happy soil means happy plants! Keeping the soil covered over the winter is very important for maintaining and even improving soil health. Soil that is covered over the winter will be less compacted and maintain more nutrients as it is less prone to experiencing soil runoff or erosion.
As you know, we LOVE cover cropping for winter soil protection and hope that you took advantage of this year’s winter kill mix (which should already be planted!). However, we know that several folks opted out of the winter kill cover crop so we want to offer some other options that can be implemented this month:
· Plant a root-based cover crop: turnip, groundhog radish or Hakurei Turnips will all cover the soil and send their large tap roots down into the soil helping break up those big clay chunks, naturally decreasing soil compaction over the winter. Plus these crops can either be harvested for food OR turned into the soil for added organic matter in the spring.
· Cover your soil with fallen leaves: a heavy layer of chopped-up leaves from your yard can add a good layer of organic matter to your soil. When tilled into your garden in the spring, these leaves will add organic matter that can mix with the clay for added “fluff” to your soil. Just be aware of the leaf type. Pine needles and Walnut leaves can add a lot of acid to your soil making it inhospitable for most vegetables.
· Cover your soil with wood chips, straw or mulch: These materials are great at providing cover for your soil to decrease compaction and erosion caused by wet winter weather. Plus they can either be used as a weed barrier (when applied 2-3″ thick) in the spring OR be tilled into the soil to add organic matter to your soil. Finally, all of these materials are great insulators so that the soil will stay warmer, meaning you can plant earlier in the spring.
· Cover your soil with manure: Animal manure (only from herbivores, like horses, cows, goats, rabbits) can be a great option for soil coverage over the winter. Just like the fallen leaves and mulches, manure adds a lot of great nutrients and organic matter into your garden BUT it comes with extra risks. Manure should be aged at least 6 months to protect both you and your plants from any pathogens. If you plan on adding manure ask how long it has been sitting before applying it to your garden and plan to do your first planting 6 months later. You can also purchase finished manure at many lawn and garden centers which will ensure that the manure is safe for use.
Covered soil is happy soil, so be sure to do your garden and favor and cover it up this winter.
Submitted by Bethany Pratt, Agent for Horticulture, Jefferson County Cooperative Extension Service