Fall is here and it is time to get out the rototiller. Or is it?
Traditionally autumn is the time we think about adding soil amendments and preparing our garden for next season. This course of action usually involves tilling items into our garden to break down over winter. Some gardeners add lime, compost, leaves, wood ash or manure to their soil. Others just till in leftover plant debris.
The benefits of tilling the soil include exposing weed seeds and pathogens to the elements of winter. In some cases, tilling can improve water retention and friability (texture of soil). But tilling under the wrong conditions can cause erosion and loss of vital microorganisms. So when is tilling the right thing to do?
Soil deficiency, texture, drainage and slope play an important part in whether to till your garden plot or not.
First, start with a soil test to determine what is your soil deficiency level. This test will also tell you the acid versus alkaline level known as the pH level. The correct pH level is vital for plant growth. Some plants like blueberries require a more acidic soil than most vegetables do to uptake nutrients. So a soil test specifying exactly what you are trying to grow is so important to plant health.
A low cost soil test kit can be obtained by contacting your County Cooperative Extension office. Following the recommendations will help you best replace lost nutrients from last growing season.
Once you know which nutrients to add, take a hard look at your soil. Pick up a dry handful of soil and feel the texture. Is it firm and mostly clay? Does it crumble easily? If it is hard to work, you should add organic matter now for best results come springtime. How well does your soil drain? Do this simple test to find out. Dig a small hole six to eight inches deep and fill it with water. The water should drain out in about an hour. Again, if your soil poorly drains you may need to add organic matter.
Take a visual survey of the slope of your garden. Is it flat, steeply sloped or somewhere in between? If your garden is on a hillside, tiling might cause a loss of quality soil due to erosion.
Now that you know your soil you can decide if tilling is right for your garden.
First, determine why you want to till your garden. Are you turning in organic matter or lime? Are you trying to control weeds? Maybe you just want to get a jump on spring planting. Tilling in organic matter or recommended soil amendments is a good practice in fall, but remember to only till the top 6 to 8-inches of soil. This is considered the root zone. Deeper tilling will work nutrients out of reach of most plants, wasting both time and money.
While tilling will expose perennial weed seeds to the elements, it also exposes vital microorganisms. An alternative to tilling for weed control is utilizing black plastic. The plastic will keep out sunlight and cut down early germination next spring.
Turning the soil in fall will allow the ground to warm up faster for earlier planting. Freezing and thawing can help break up soil, but too much action can cause compaction or a crust layer.
Many farmers are switching to a “no till” method of gardening to avoid these problems.
If you decide fall tilling is right for you, remember, never till wet soil. Tilling wet soil causes compaction. Do a squeeze test to determine the moisture level. If the soil compacts and doesn’t easily crumble, wait for a drier day to till.Now that you know the pros and cons of fall tilling, you can help your garden get the best start ever with the most important element of your garden. The soil.