Fall is a good time to amend soils
SCOTTSBLUFF, Neb. – As the gardening season comes to an end with a killing freeze this fall, it’s a prime opportunity to start working on improving the garden for next spring. After the garden has been cleaned of all plant material, it’s a good time to amend the soil.
A soil test is a good place to start to determine what amendments or fertilizers are needed in the garden. A basic soil test will include pH, soil texture, organic matter and various major nutrients (N, P, and K). Remember that the soil test is only as good as the soil sample that is represents. Taking a little time in getting a sample that truly represents the area you want tested is a good investment. NebGuide G1740 Guidelines for Soil Sampling (http://www.ianrpubs.unl.edu/sendIt/g1740.pdf) has more information on taking soil samples.
Ideally the soil pH should be in a range between 6.5 and 7.3 for most garden plants. If the pH of the soil is too acid (below a pH of 6) limestone will help to raise the pH and adding elemental sulfur will help reduce the soil pH if the soil is too alkaline (above 7.5). Most plant nutrients are available in this range of pH. Changing the soil pH is a slow process, by starting in the fall you will get a head start for the next growing season.
Fall is a good time to incorporate organic materials into the garden. Organic matter will help improve the water holding capacity of the soil, improve the soil structure which can help improve the drainage of the soil, and also help improve the fertility of the soil by slowing releasing nutrients as the organic material decomposes. Start your own compost pile. Also, many communities have composted lawn clippings. Check local feedlots to see if they have composted manure for sale. Composted manure has several advantages over fresh manure; properly composted manure should be free of odors, weed seeds and disease-causing organisms. It’s easy to over apply organic matter, especially manures. It is possible to get so much manure on a garden site that even weeds have a problem growing in the soil. Start by knowing the nutrient value of the material and if any salts are present. Apply the organic matter based on nutrient content instead of volume. Till the material into the soil so that the microbes can start to break it down this fall.
Another common garden problem that gardeners want to fix is their soil texture. It’s difficult if your soil is too clayey or too sandy. You pretty much have to live with the soil texture of your garden. You can improve it with the addition of organic matter as discussed above but you really can’t change the texture.
A common misconception is that’s it’s possible to improve the drainage of a clayey soil by tilling in 4 or 5 inches of sand. Gardeners that have tried this find out they have only made the problem worse. Now the soil gets as hard as a brick. No wonder the ancient Egyptians made bricks that have lasted for thousands of years out of wheat straw, clay and sand. The other common misconception is to apply a finer texture soil over a sandy soil to improve the garden. This practice leads to a perched water zone, where the water has trouble moving into the sandy layer below.
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