|By Skip Richter
love my soil. Really, I do! You should, too. The more you learn about soil, the more you realize just how big a role it plays in a successful garden, and the more you appreciate the importance of putting soil building at the top of the list of making your garden the most beautiful and productive ever.
With the summer season upon us many of our spring plantings will be declining soon. Not many crops can take our scorching southern summers and this leaves some open space in the vegetable garden. Rather than leave these open areas to become a weed jungle or face repeated hoeing or roto-tilling the area, consider these four ways to use the summer season to improve your soil in preparation for fall planting.
Apply A Mulch Blanket
The simplest way to protect the soil over summer is to cover the area with a thick mulch. Leaves, pine needles, grass clippings, composted manure and old spent hay are among the many options for a mulch cover.
Spread a thick (4-6 inch) layer of mulch over the entire area. The mulch cover will protect the soil from crusting and eroding over the summer while deterring weed seeds from sprouting and becoming established.
When you are ready for fall planting, pull the leaves into the walkways to expose the soil surface for planting. You can then move them back in around the plants as mulch to keep the soil cooler and to hold in moisture.
Mix In Organic Matter
One easy soil building technique is to mix organic materials into the soil. Compost works great and will help improve the soil’s physical characteristics while adding nutrients for future crops.
I like to mix in leaves and grass clippings. If you run over the leaves first with a mower, it will make rototilling them in a little easier. I mix in a couple of inches of leaves and then lay down another couple of inches and repeat. Then I water the area well and cover the soil with a mulch blanket. In the warm moist condition of summer the leaves, clippings or most any such organic materials will decompose rapidly.
By fall the soil will be ready to plant. Some gardeners sprinkle a little high-nitrogen fertilizer on the soil before mixing and watering to help speed decomposition, but I have found that the leaves break down just fine without it.
Grow A Cover Crop
Most gardeners are familiar with various winter cover crops such as rye, clover and vetch. However there are a number of crops that work well in summer. Two options for home vegetable gardens are sorghumsudangrass and southern peas (such as blackeyed peas). These crops are grown for the season and then mowed down, chopped up and mixed into the soil to add organic matter and, in the case of peas or other legumes, to really boost nitrogen levels.
Solarize The Soil
A fourth option for summer soil care is solarizing. This technique takes advantage of the sun’s rays to heat the soil enough to kill weed seeds as well as many insects and disease organisms in the surface 4” or so of soil.
Rototill and water an area of the garden. Then cover the soil with clear (not black) plastic, sealing the edges down with soil, bricks or boards. Let it “cook” for about 6 weeks in hot, sunny weather. If it rains during the solarizing period, sweep puddles off the plastic when the rain is over. After solarizing, do not rototill prior to planting or you’ll bring weed seeds to the surface.
So take advantage of this summer dormant season to improve you soil in some fallow areas of the garden. Put summer to work for you and your fall garden could be the best ever!