A productive garden depends on healthy soil

Winter is not a typical time to think about gardening. Usually the only thoughts involve ordering seeds for the upcoming season.  However, soil often can benefit from winter care.

Thus far this winter has been mild. Many people are already anxious to head for the garden. The questions remain. What chores can we do now and what harm could we cause?

Virtually any soil benefits from added organic matter. Organic material helps soils hold nutrients. Winter is also a great time provided the area isn’t saturated with water. Too often we tear up and/or compact soil and destroy its structure by disturbing ground that is too wet. People with raised beds or sandy well-drained soils have more winter options.

It might be dry enough to apply compost or other organic material, but around here incorporating it in winter might pose problems. Physically incorporating organic matter now isn’t even necessary. Natural and gradual influx of nutrients and microorganisms into the soil is best. A layer of organic material also encourages infiltration and discourages water and nutrient runoff. I don’t even have a problem with the winter weeds that might be enhanced. They help reduce nutrient runoff and many such as common chickweed and hairy bittercress make great table fare.

Contrary to numerous sources, incorporating organic material immediately isn’t necessary. Only at planting time do I even recommend it. Well decomposed organic materials are usually the best. We often refer to them as compost.

Composts vary greatly, depending upon their initial composition and how we process them. Organic materials such as leaves, food wastes, manure and straw break down into simpler components better if we keep them in an oxygen rich environment. In short, we want to create an environment to support the good microbes and suppress the bad ones.

Compost quality also varies depending on the degree of decomposition, pH, presence of weed seeds, concentration of toxic substances like pesticides, and the population of soil-dwelling organisms, such as earthworms, insects and microorganisms. Higher quality compost is not too wet, is completely broken down and has good water-holding capacity and nutrient availability.

Composting is something everyone can do. However, depending upon our garden size we can’t usually generate enough by ourselves. Local gardeners are fortunate to have a fine source of compost nearby.

Carolina Compost in Camden supplies a wide variety of materials in any quantity. This business arose from Silver Star Farms, who boards horses. The compost facility makes highly desirable organic fertilizer largely from horse manure and bedding. They also incorporate grass and other vegetation.

One of their products is compost tea. Compost tea is popular among organic growers and is prepared by steeping the product in water. Don’t try drinking this stuff. It’s used as a root drench or for foliar application to supply nutrients and suppress diseases. Usually air is bubbled into the tea to increase aeration and activity.

Good compost tea is mature, meaning that compost material is decomposed fully and the degree of free soluble salts is low. Beneficial microbes in the tea are supposed to compete with pathogenic ones. Considerable debate is ongoing as to how much benefit the gardener can expect, but there’s no doubt increasing organic matter increases soil productivity.


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.

About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I recently retired from teaching high school agriculture after 25 years teaching with my wife. Until recently I wrote a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com). I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that can be purchased on Amazon in Kindle format. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone (presently out of print), a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death (this one is not yet published). In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books. I also wrote a romance novel titled Virginia. It is available on Amazon and is a different type of romance from a man's perspective.
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