Winter Soil Prep for Spring Gardens

by Ken Lain, The Mountain Gardener, Watters Garden Center

Our native soils are hard! Skimp on spring soil preparation to “soften” the ground, and a mountain garden’s production drops to almost zero. Gardeners know the better the soil, the larger the harvest, the brighter the flowers, the more natural the gardening. That’s why successful mountain gardening has always come down to soil quality.

January is the month to amend garden beds, turn the soil, and let the garden rest before a March 1 planting. Here are a few secrets to mountain soil prep that return bushels of produce and a season full of flowers.

The color of your soil is less important than the organic content. The more organic material any soil contains, the better the quality of that soil. Because plants use up organic resources throughout the year, new organics must be added regularly to keep the vitality of your soil alive.

A word of caution for those gardeners new to horse country. You are apt to see a sign in a front yard advertising “Free Manure.” Proceed with caution before you haul a this free organic additive. Horse manure is an excellent source of organic nitrogen, but not until it has aged. Never introduce fresh manure into your garden. The salt and nitrogen damage is unpredictably destructive.

For smaller garden plots, use deodorized “barnyard manure” that comes bagged; it doesn’t smell, and it isn’t slimy. My gardens receive 50% of this manure and 50% premium mulch.

The mulch and manure additives ensure proper drainage, root growth and water retention for successful garden growth. But, individual mountain plants require calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and some other minor elements, all of which should be added to a garden’s soil as well.

Before turning the compost additives into the planting bed, add a layer of gypsum, also known as calcium sulfate, and organic plant food I created called Fruit & Vegetable Food.

Soil pH creeps up during the growing season. This is a problem that results from poor water quality and one that must be corrected to keep plants in the ideal 6.5 – 7.5 pH range.

Freshly turned soil is light and airy, so tread carefully on your amended garden soil, so it retains this texture. Walk on predefined paths or use a wood plank to walk over the loam without compacting it unnecessarily.