5 Ways To Protect Soil In The Winter
Once soil temperatures drop below seven degrees, biological activity in the soil slows, so it needs a little help during winter months. Here are some handy tips to protect the soil in your garden this winter.
1. Test your soil
The first step is to understand what kind of soil you’ve got in your garden: clay, silt, sand or loam? Grab a handful of soil and squeeze it. If it falls to pieces, you have a sandy soil, if you can mould it like plasticine, you have a clay soil, while loam is intermediate. To dig deeper into the health of your soil this winter, you can also have it tested by using a soil kit, which you can easily buy in every gardener's shop or by sending a soil sample to a recognised soil lab. Understanding the physical and chemical properties of soil - its texture, composition, drainage and pH - is fundamental to ensure a healthy soil, which is important for plant nutrition and growth. A healthy soil has a mix of different soil particle sizes, and a correct balance of water and nutrients. If you live in England or Wales, be sure to also check out this soil map, created by the National Soil Resources Institute at Cranfield University, which tells you everything you need to know about the geographical area you live in. And if you want to explore the UK soil environment in more detail, you can use the UK Soil Observatory map viewer.
Although this should be done in autumn, you have still time for mulching. Give your soil a deep breath with mulches. They can reduce soil compaction and erosion, prevent spring weed infestations, keep the soil moist, regulate soil temperature and improve soil quality, fertility and texture. And if you want to see tiny creatures in your garden, like earthworms, mulch is what every soil needs. Leaves, wood chips, sawdust, straw and compost make excellent mulches and are easy to apply. Spread these organic materials on the soil surface around your plants, creating a 2 to 4-inch layer - but make sure you do not cover the plants! This natural blanket protects the soil from erosion and crusting, preventing winter weeds from taking over. Remember to take the leaves off a couple of weeks before planting, so the sun can warm up the soil, making it ready for plant growth.
3. Cover crops
Sowing cover crops or green manures are quick-growing plants that protect soil from erosion through winter, increasing its organic matter content and improving the soil fertility and structure. Plants like hairy vetch and cereal rye have the capacity to add nitrogen to the soil, suppress weeds, and attract wildlife.
4. Winter weeds
Dandelions, bittercress, chickweeds, and several other winter weeds are used as natural winter cover as they protect soil from erosion and improve its drainage. Although be wary that weeds can create some problem, as they can quickly take over any garden. Find out how to manage them.
5. Sheet composting
Also called sheet mulching, this ancient technique has been used for generations. The method involves placing layers of organic material on the soil surface. A good compost needs to be plan ahead, but it can be done as soon as a certain amount of material is available. By spring, the organic material will actively decompose and release nutrients into the soil.