Stop Making These Critical Fall Gardening Mistakes: Get Your Soil Ready For Spring Now

If you’re wondering how to improve your soil for gardening — start the year before after the summer growing season is gone.

Fall and winter are the best and most critical times to improve your soil. Spring is too late to reap the maximum benefits of these strategies.

Composting, mulching, planting cover crops, no-till, and cleaning the garden carefully can all contribute to your most successful growing the following spring.

How To Improve Garden Soil Over The Winter

Bunny in winter garden raised beds.
Photo Credit: Envato Elements.

To set the foundation for successful gardening in the coming seasons, improve garden soil over the fall and winter. Bare soil is hungry; as the microbes have nothing to eat, they starve and contribute to poor soil conditions that need more amendments added when the weather warms up again.

It’s a vicious cycle and a pointless one. And yet, most gardeners continue to garden in these inefficient ways.

The colder months provide an ideal opportunity to address issues with poor or depleted soils and maintain the quality of already healthy soil.

Add Compost

Three sheep in snow.
Photo Credit: Envato Elements.

Compost isn’t actually fertilizer, not technically.

Compost plays a vital role in retaining nutrients within the soil, keeping them in a stable and insoluble form to prevent leaching and ensuring their availability over an extended period.

This indirect fertility is facilitated through a biological process, where soil organisms consume and break down organic matter, contributing to the overall fertility of the soil through their excretions.

Compost acts like a fertilizer as it begins to break down, and the soil microbes do their thing, but compost itself feeds the soil in a prolonged and steady process — so why do we only add compost in the spring as we transplant our vegetables or sow our seeds?

It makes no sense. Add compost in the autumn before winter sets in, and apply it over your entire bed.

You can add more in the spring; some successful gardeners don’t or only add more in planting holes for heavier feeders like tomatoes.

If your soils are depleted or poor, add 1 inch — or even 2 inches if you can — of compost from mixed sources (see my article on the best compost for raised beds) to improve garden soil over the winter.

Check out my compost calculator to automatically calculate how much compost you need.

You can use the compost as mulch throughout the winter months, but I prefer to add more organic matter to further protect the compost and my garden beds.

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Add Mulch

Autumn leaves.
Photo Credit: Envato Elements.

Underutilized, but one of the best ways to improve soil — the benefits of mulch are considerable and should not be ignored.

In a back to Eden garden, for example, mulch is the crucial key to successful growth.

Mulch retains moisture by reducing evaporation, ensuring plants receive sufficient water.

The protective layer of mulch insulates the soil, promoting stable growing conditions.

It suppresses weed growth by blocking sunlight and prevents soil erosion.

As mulch decomposes, it enriches the soil with organic matter and nutrients.

To improve garden soil over the winter months, add a thick organic layer of mulch: leaf mold, grass clippings, hay, straw, and even wood chips.

You can move the mulch aside in the spring to plant or add more compost, and consider leaving your garden beds mulched throughout the year for all the benefits.

I also have a mulch calculator which can automatically calculate how much mulch you need.

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Leave The Roots

Little girl in apple orchard.
Photo Credit: Envato Elements.

Have you ever wondered why you’re pulling the entire plant out by the roots once it has finished being harvested?

Conventional garden wisdom (mythology) states that those roots are bad for next year’s crop or any succession planting.

But this is simply not true, and some of the most famous and successful organic gardeners have been telling us for years to cut the plants down at the roots instead, just at or below soil level, and to leave the roots alone.

Why? Because they will rot and feed the soil and as they decompose they will leave behind air channels that prevent soil compaction.

If you want to improve your garden soil over winter, just leave the roots alone in the ground.

Don’t Clean Up The Garden

Homestead in snow.
Photo Credit: Envato Elements.

Related to the previous point, have you considered not cleaning up the garden in the fall?

Waiting until late spring to clean up your garden may be one of the most beneficial ways to improve your soil, but it can also be crucial for native insects and pollinators who overwinter in hollow stems and debris, even laying their eggs amongst the dead plants and leaves.

When those insects emerge, they eat the decaying matter while also becoming food for songbirds and their young.

Those songbirds will also attack the pests and insects and help reduce their populations.

And all of those decaying plants left in the garden will further help your soil structure and protect it.

If you can’t wait until spring, consider cutting the plants down and leaving them whole in your compost pile.

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Stop Tilling

Cabbage garden.
Photo Credit: Envato Elements.

Have you heard of no-till gardening, also called no dig in the UK?

Stop and consider for a moment that the act of tilling and digging your garden, a relic from industrial agriculture, is not only wholly unnecessary — but it is actually terrible for your soil and the health of the plants that grow in it.

Yes, that includes tilling compost into soil — you don’t need to do that, just add it on top.

No-till gardening has numerous benefits for soil health in a garden. It preserves the natural soil structure, preventing compaction and maintaining soil integrity.

By avoiding tilling, beneficial soil organisms like earthworms and microorganisms can thrive and contribute to soil fertility.

No-till gardening helps retain moisture in the soil, reducing water loss through evaporation and maintaining consistent soil moisture levels. This is particularly advantageous in arid regions or during droughts.

The practice promotes the accumulation of organic matter in the soil, as plant residues and mulch decompose on the surface, enriching the soil with nutrients and enhancing overall fertility.

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Plant Cover Crops

Garden tools.
Photo Credit: Envato Elements.

Planting cover crops provides numerous benefits for improving soil health as cover crops can act as a living mulch, shielding the soil from erosion caused by wind, water, and other environmental factors.

Cover crops contribute to the enhancement of soil fertility. They absorb excess nutrients from the soil, effectively reducing nutrient leaching and runoff.

When cover crops decompose, these absorbed nutrients are released back into the soil, enriching it and making them available for future plant growth. And the cover crops themselves add valuable organic material to the soil.

Their root systems penetrate deep into the soil, creating channels that improve aeration and water infiltration.

The frosts kill the cover crops, so there is no need to dig or till them in.

Manual removal (like grazing, chop-and-drop, or just mowing) might be necessary if you live in a warmer climate.

One of the best cover crops, especially if you have poor soils that are depleted and compacted — the humble radish. And if you don’t have a lot of compost to add to your beds, I urge you to look into this cover crop.

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Tillage Radish: The Best Cover Crop For Soil Health

Plant Tillage Radish

Woman holding massive tillage radish.
Photo Credit: Envato Elements.

Tillage radish is a pretty remarkable, natural way to break up and nourish compact and poor-quality soils. The practice originated in Japan.

Tillage radish, also known as daikon radish or cover crop radish, is a type of cover crop that offers several benefits to the soil.

The large taproot of tillage radish penetrates deep into the soil, breaking up compacted layers and improving soil structure. As it grows, the radish root creates channels that enhance water infiltration and air circulation.

The daikon is left to rot in the soil and the first killing frost stops its growth. When the radish decomposes, it releases organic matter, enriching the soil with nutrients and improving its overall fertility.

The large above-ground leaves additionally suppress weed growth and reduce erosion.

Leave Winter Weeds Alone

Pruning in garden.
Photo Credit: Envato Elements.

Leaving winter weeds untouched can enhance and improve your garden soil over the winter.

Winter weeds act as a natural protective cover, preventing soil erosion and conserving moisture. They contribute to organic matter accumulation, enriching the soil with essential nutrients. As these weeds decompose, they release nutrients that support the growth of other plants. Their root systems improve soil structure, enhancing water infiltration and drainage.

Winter weeds also provide habitats and food for beneficial insects and microorganisms, promoting biodiversity in the garden ecosystem.

Allowing winter weeds to flourish can significantly improve soil health and overall garden productivity.

winter weeds are stunted by the cold, making them easier to deal with as the weather starts to warm up.

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Final Thoughts

Father with two sons in garden with wheelbarrow.
Photo Credit: Envato Elements.

Improving garden soil over the winter is a proactive and beneficial practice for any gardener. Implementing these strategies during the dormant months can enhance soil fertility, structure, and overall health.

The dormant fall and winter periods provide an ideal opportunity to replenish nutrients, protect against erosion, and promote the activity of beneficial soil organisms. Whether through cover cropping, composting, mulching, or other techniques, the actions you take during winter will set the stage for a thriving garden in the upcoming growing season.

With a focus on soil improvement, you can create an environment that supports healthy plant growth, maximizes yields, and ensures long-term sustainability for your garden.

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