I’m not much for clothes trends. I like simple clothes in simple colors. But as an outdoorsman and an infrequent runner I have a slight addiction to Under Armor brand clothing. Well they have a catchphrase that is apparently popular in college football (see I’m not much of a sports guy either!) – “Who Will Protect This House?” Now presumably the house they are talking about is the stadium or the franchise or just who the heck knows? College sports fans can be pretty rabid!
In my head I commonly adapt this phrase to other things in life.
“Who will protect this dollar? My wallet”
“Who will protect this truck? My insurance company”
But of course things turn to the garden and with winter’s icy grip beginning to take hold (alright, Fall’s slightly chilly limp wrist!) I can’t help but wonder:
“Who will protect this soil?!?”
Now we might not think of soil as something that requires protection. It IS after all just dirt, right?
No and no.
The cold hard truth about winter is that it is cold and hard. Winters are generally wet, windy and cold (as if I had to tell you that). Most of us won’t be growing anything but that sure as hell doesn’t mean we won’t be gardening. You see gardening is not just the act of growing things but also the act of preparing, planning and perservering so things grow. You must plan and prepare to put your soil in a position to perservere.
Even in the depths of winter your garden should never be bare. Exposing our soil to the elements is tantamount to leaving a gaping wound uncovered, subject to infection, degradation and…death. In the forest or meadow do you see soil? NEVER! The soil is always covered by leaf litter or plant matter. Nature is not instructing as how it should be but rather telling you how it will be. Your garden must be covered!
Now there are several ways to do this. The first and foremost being mulch. Mulch is great because it is reliable and it works. The mulch keeps the top layer of soil hidden under a cozy blanket for its long winter nap. The worms and fungi are much more comfortable and as high as they can, working the soil. But most importantly the soil stays in place. Mulch will also slow down water quite a bit. This is one place where I think wood chip mulch is superior. It can soak up the water much faster than shredded leaves and is heavy enough to stay put.
The second method is a cover crop. This is why I feel cover crops are so important. With large areas that can’t be easily mulched you can cheaply spread some grass seed. When possible grow things that mine elements or drop nitrogen or feed you or livestock but when you can’t, any old seed will work. The soil retention possibilities of cover crops roots matters so much more than the other things they can do. But oh the other things they can do!
The other things you can do are to make sure your garden is not exposed to harsh winds and pounding rains and washes. If you can position your garden against a south facing wall all the better. The exposed light and blockage of cold northern winds will have dramatic effects. A well placed tree on the western edge will do wonders. Plant a low growing fir-type tree. Deciduous trees won’t block much wind. If your garden is flat you are lucky in regards to soil protection. If you have a slope you might consider cutting a shallow swale somewhere about midways down the slope. You could also cut a drainage ditch in. Most times you want the water to stay but in winter you just need to slow it down and divert it away. Make sure you can block off the drainage ditch in spring when you want the water to actually stick around.
The other threat to soil is compaction. Compaction occurs when you, your friends, your kids, your cow, your truck or some other heavy object moves over your garden. The soil, instead of being light, airy and slightly damp becomes hard, crusty, dry and impenetrable. So its best to pick a pathway and in some cases mark it well. This is one instance where those frilly decorative stepping stones actually come in handy and make sense. Avoid doing things like backing your vehicle into your garden to dump a load of compost. Speaking of which, you should be adding compost and mulch on as regular a basis as possible to keep your soil light and airy.
These are just a few ideas regarding soil protection.
So…”Who will protect your soil?”