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As the days get shorter and the temperatures drop, it’s time to start thinking about prepping your garden for winter. Conventional wisdom has it that tilling the soil—digging it up to loosen the structure and break up weeds, either by hand or with a power tiller—should be your first step. But does it actually help?

It’s complicated. On one hand, tilling is a great way to aerate the soil and integrate compost, both of which are beneficial. (It’s also much easier to do in fall, when the soil tends to be warmer and more workable than it is in early spring.) On the other, tilling pretty much destroys the ecosystems that earthworms, insects, bacteria, and fungi spent all spring and summer building, which makes soil less friendly to plants and contributes to erosion. Another drawback: As a blog post from Oldworldgardens.com points out, tilling shoves surface-level weeds and seeds deep down into the soil, giving them the whole winter to take root and settle in.

What I’m saying is, there are pluses and minuses to a fall till, and unsurprisingly, your decision will depend on your garden. If you have a few small plots or beds, you can probably skip it—there’s just not that much soil involved, so you should avoid anything that encourages erosion. Instead, the Old Farmer’s Almanac recommends digging out weeds, rocks, and other undesirables by hand, then covering the soil with mulch and/or tarps to keep it warm through the winter months. For larger gardens, you may decide that the benefits of tilling outweigh the risks, especially if you plan to add compost and/or fertilizer back into the soil as you till. Depending on the weather patterns in your area, it may also make more sense to take care of it before the ground freezes solid.

These aren’t hard and fast rules; it’s your garden, and you can till it if you want to. Either way, before you go all in, it’s a good idea to check with your state university’s extension office. They’ll have tried-and-true tips for winterizing your garden so you can hit the ground running come spring.

 



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