Spring’s almost with us! If you haven’t got your soil in shape for the coming growing season, now’s your chance – but hurry, because time is ticking! Read on or watch our video to discover the steps I take to supercharge my soil for spring.
Supercharge Your Soil
It all starts with organic matter, which should ideally be added to your growing areas at least once a year. Nutrient-rich material such as garden-made compost is the lifeblood of a flourishing garden. Think of it as nourishing the soil rather than the plants; soil life loves being fed with organic matter, and the result is happy plants.
Without a thriving soil life, plants growing in the soil will struggle. In nature, soil isn’t left bare for long. There’s a constant cascade of organic matter landing on it as leaves fall and plants die back, which then all rots down into the soil to keep soil microbes, worms, and all manner of beneficial bugs healthy. These guys in turn unlock nutrients, making them available to searching plant roots.
Well-rotted compost is really rather rich stuff. On an established vegetable garden this means you only need to add about an inch (2-3cm) of compost to the soil every year. Spread it out over the surface with a rake then let the worms gradually drag it down into the soil for you – there’s no need to dig it in.
Compost vs Manure
Few gardens produce enough compost to keep all beds and growing areas covered. Typically, I find I have to buy in at least one bulk bag of compost every year, so other organic matter has to be sourced.
Manure is a great alternative. Fresh manure can actually be harmful to plants, but well-rotted manure that has been composted for at least several months is suitable for adding straight to the soil. Bulk bags of well-rotted manure can often be purchased relatively inexpensively, or if you can collect it yourself it’s worth looking around locally for free or cheap sources of manure. Many stables, for example, are only too happy to give the stuff away for free, but make sure there’s no risk of herbicide contamination from where the animals have been grazing. Unless it’s already well-rotted, you’ll then need to stack the manure when you get it back home and leave it for at least six months to continue decomposing before it’s safe to spread.
So should you go for manure or compost as your primary source of soil-supercharging goodness? I reckon garden-made compost is always going to win out. You’re recycling what you have to hand, and it’s generally the richest material. But if you run out of that, well-rotted manure comes a close second. I’ve tried different composts in my beds – spent mushroom compost, and compost made from garden waste collected from the kerbside – but garden-made compost and well-rotted manure give better results in my experience, probably because they’re absolutely loaded with all the beneficial life that plant roots crave!
The best time to spread organic matter is between late autumn and early winter, assuming the soil isn’t frozen or covered in snow. That way, your magical muck or crumbly compost has all winter to break down and soften up in the frosts so that soil life can get to work on it. It also gives more time for you to, quite literally, get your s**t together!
But few of us are perfectly organised, so just try to add organic matter to your beds before winter’s finished to give it at least a couple of months to meld with your soil before planting time.
Mulching Soil With Leaves and Straw
If you can’t get your hands on enough compost or manure then you do have other options. When you rake up leaves in the autumn, you can add them to your compost heap or leafmould bin, but you can also add them directly to your soil in sheltered spots where they won’t blow away. The leaves will take a long time to rot down, but they’ll get incorporated into the soil in time, and the roots will have their fill!
I’ve also added partially decomposed straw to my soil. I purchased a few straw bales for a snip, then got two summers’ harvests of really top-notch tomatoes out of them. I couldn’t manage another season – the bales were starting to disintegrate – so it made sense to break them apart onto the soil around my fruit bushes. Again, this will rot down slowly over the coming months.
It’s always worth working with whatever organic matter you have to hand – the cheapest, most accessible stuff. It’s all good!
Get Rid of Weeds Fast!
Earlier additions of organic matter give you the opportunity to try what I call my WESC Method: Weeds, Slice and Cover.
You can get ahead by creating weed-free seedbeds using this method. Deliberately germinate weed seedlings by covering the bed with a sheet of glass (such as an old window) or clear plastic. Once the weeds sprout, slice them off at ground level with a sharp hoe. With that done you can then cover the area to stop any other weed seeds from blowing in, so you’ve got a nice, clean, sterile bed for sowing or planting into come spring. I like to use plain brown cardboard to cover my beds because I usually have lots of it hanging about, and once you’re good to plant, it can just be peeled off and thrown onto the compost heap.
Of course, you don’t necessarily have to speed along weed seed germination by warming up the soil – you could just let them pop up naturally, in their own time. But it’s reassuring to get ahead and know that you have at least a few cleaned and prepped areas to sow or plant into the very moment it warms up.
Remember: WESC is best! Weeds, Slice, and Cover. Go WESC, young man – go WESC!