Many parts of the country are starting to get covered in snow. In other parts, however, the soil is bare — after all, you’ve probably pulled up all of your annual plants and cleaned up your garden by this time of year. For that reason, now is a great time to enhance your soil in preparation for next spring.
Know What You’re Working With
Soil may not look like much, but it’s the building block of your entire garden. If you haven’t already done so, have your soil tested to find out what it's made of. While the test itself will provide insight into what your soil is abundant in and what it’s lacking, it may also contain tips to help you balance out the nutrients in it.
After you receive the results of your soil tests, you'll want to enhance your garden soil with amendments, compost, well-rotted manure (if you have access to it), or even chicken bedding. Over the winter months, the amendments will mix themselves deeper into the ground with each rain storm and create a prime planting space by the time April rolls around.
Soil doesn’t like to be bare. When it is bare, it begins to wash away. To prevent this from happening, plant a cover crop like vetch, winter peas, or clover over it. All of these varieties are considered green manures, meaning they add to and build up the soil as they grow. Of course, cover crops take and need time to grow before they die off or go dormant over the winter. Come springtime, you'll also have to till them into the soil.
If that sounds like a lot more work than you had bargained for, consider investing in or making mulch (in the form of leaves, grass clippings, etc.) to help your soil stay healthy, retain moisture and nutrients, and keep weeds from staking a claim on it.
Keep in mind that the weeds that are prolific during the winter are different from those that infest the garden in the summer. Whereas summer weeds establish deep and stubborn tap roots in order to establish their claim on your entire garden, winter weeds are likely to keep closer to the surface and expand over the soil. The good news is, this helps prevent erosion. So while you may not want to stop weeding altogether, you may not have to stay on top of it as much as you would during the growing season.
So You Want to Expand Your Garden
Soil is a bit easier to work with when it’s damp. If you plan to enlarge your garden or change the shape of your in-ground garden beds, it may be easiest to do when the soil is damp. Why? Simply because it’s easier to pull turf and weeds — roots and all — when the soil has had a good soaking. Although wet soil is much heavier than dry soil, it’s also easier to work with. If you plan on expanding your garden, save some cardboard (or even old carpets), and lay them down on the ground along your desired new border. Covering the turf prevents sunlight from reaching it and helps kill it off. After about a month or so, there won’t be much left underneath the cardboard aside from beneficial insects and a few tough weeds. The bare soil will be much easier to work with. If necessary, pull any remaining weeds and turn the soil a bit.
You can also leave the cardboard on the ground as sheet mulch. Just layer several inches of compost, leaf mulch, grass and tree clippings, and manure. Throughout the winter, all this organic matter will break down as long as the soil doesn’t freeze. Worms will have a field day feasting on it all. If you have kitchen scraps, throw them under the sheets of mulch, too.
Maintain Your Garden Beds
Give your established garden beds a rest during the winter months and continue to augment the soil. Continue to add compost, finished manure, and other green waste to them, and cover them with an old ratty rug, a blanket, or some low row covers. This cover will help maintain a steady level of moisture in the beds and reduce the chances of the soil becoming compacted over the winter months. Once you’re ready to plant your seeds or starts in the spring, all you'll have to do is pull aside the row cover tunnels, maybe pull a few errant weeds, and start digging.
The healthier your soil, the more likely your plants are to grow big and strong. Healthy soil means healthy plants, fewer diseases, and fewer issues with insect infestations. Although improving your soil sounds like a lot of work — after all, winter is supposed to be the "off-season" — it’ll reduce the amount of work you have to do in the spring and throughout the growing season.