Winter soils are far from dead. Soil microbes are still buzzing around and we need to change our gardening practices to keep them alive until spring.
If you think nothing is living in your garden soil in the winter, you won’t be alone. We’ve been taught to believe that everything hibernates in winter. Unlike the sleepy old bear or the frozen frog in the mud who don’t need to eat to stay alive, the soil microbes need to continue feeding over winter, albeit more slowly than the summer.
So how does this little nugget of information affect our gardening practices? We need to make sure that the soil organisms get feed over the winter. Otherwise, we’ll be starting with a lot fewer soil organisms in the spring.
Feeding the soil organisms can be done several ways:
Leave the dead annuals in the ground; the decomposing roots will feed the soil microbes. Thorough fall clean-ups do not help the earth. We do tend to over-manicure our gardens. Leave well enough alone. Clean up the dead annuals in spring. Of course, remove DISEASED plants before winter! Leaving the debris behind (piles of leaves and stems) also provides winter homes for an amazing array of insects and arachnids, all of which help your garden stay disease-free and pollinated in the growing season.
Have living plant roots in the ground (the best option). The living roots feed the soil microbes with root exudates. Plant groundcovers amongst our shrubs, trees and perennials. In our bare vegetable gardens, sow a winter cover crop. Feeds the soil microbes and improves the soil.
If you have removed the annuals or have lots of bare ground, the next best thing is to add organic mulch. Add mulch to soil once the soil has frozen. Mulch has another great benefit. It stabilizes the soil temperatures. If you many freeze/thaw cycles during the winter, mulch cover minimizing frost heave i.e. shrubs and perennials roots won’t be tossed out of the ground, exposing roots to freezing damaging air.
It’s amazing how much healthier and bountiful our gardens can be by following these simple gardening practices!