Your garden works in cycles, like so many other parts of life. The cold winters eventually yield to the warmth of spring, when seeds begin to shoot out new life. The rush of summer is slowed in autumn, yielding another harvest and a slow decline into winter again. As poetic as this process is, your garden is likely getting depleted of nutrients as it plays out as existing nutrients move from the soil into the new growth of plants. Too many seasons of taking nutrients without replenishing can leave your soil so depleted that it becomes harder and harder to grow anything in it.
One of the best ways to add nutrients to your garden is by adding compost to the soil. Compost is made by combining plant matter with other items that break down into soil over time in a particular combination. To learn more about composting, check out our article on Back to Basics Composting! When you compost consistently, you end up with a varied and nutritionally rich substance to add back to the soil. These nutrients will permeate throughout the soil as rain and wind move them, and your plants will benefit from the many macronutrients that they need to grow strong and produce excellent flowers, fruits, and vegetables.
However, while everyone can grasp the hows and whys of composting, many people still don't know when the best times are to add more compost to their gardens. Here are some of the best times of year to add compost, though the honest and excellent secret is that a little more compost here and there at any time is probably a great idea.
A Few Weeks Before Planting
As soon as the soil begins to loosen up, it can be a good idea to add some compost into the soil. Not only does it tend to be a good time for breaking up the soil before any weeds are in the way, your compost has likely had a long time to break down over the winter. Mixing some compost into your beds as early as possible allows the parts of the soil to meld before planting begins.
Right Before Planting
While early is good, if you know you want to go ahead and get some seeds in the ground, this is still a good time to add compost! Mix in some compost with the soil, and consider the drainage needs of your plants as well, since you are already working to amend the soil. Once you plant, you'll want to let your tender new plants have undisturbed soil for a good while as they get established.
After Major Summer Storms
While you won't want to break up the soil and harm roots, adding a little bit of well-broken-down compost as a dressing around some well-established plants may be a good idea after some summer storms. For one thing, these same plants may have had some soil erosion, and the more water cycles through a bed, the more nutrients are washed away from the plants. Just make sure your layers of compost aren't so deep that they bury plants; one inch as a layer tends to be quite sufficient.
When Plants Flower, Prior to Fruit
Another "cue time" to look at the state of the soil is when you are seeing flowers and awaiting fruits and vegetables in your garden. Adding a layer of well-decomposed compost as mulch can be good for the soil while offering the plants the nutrients and water retention they need at this important and often hot time of year. The compost may help keep some of the morning watering in around the roots during the baking of the hot afternoons, and that helps keep those fruits well supplied with moisture!
While it may seem odd, remembering to add some compost right after harvest can be a nice time to add it somewhat haphazardly. If you aren't worried about maintaining the current plants or are even ripping out dying stems, it is easy to add a new inch of compost that can organically work into the soil over the weeks before frost happens.
Right Before Frost
Similarly, one last layer of compost before the frost season can keep your soil invigorated even as it goes into near dormancy for the winter. If you have a cold-hardy variety of plants that can live through the winters in your zone, compost at the time gets the soil ready for a winter crop of plants that can handle the cold weather, all while allowing it the nutrients it needs to have another season so soon.
Composting at these key points in the season is a great general habit, but an even better resource is to ask your local garden center staff about how to add compost to your specific plants. Some plants will respond better than others to particular times and kinds of soil amendments, so research and experiment for the best possible results.