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Two-step garden prep can improve soil

For annual plant gardeners including vegetable growers composting doesn’t have to mean a bin and carefully
gathered layers of varied organic materials.

Instead, it can become part of preparing garden soil in fall to get a head start the following spring. Chuck Marr, horticulturist with Kansas State University Research and Extension, calls this approach “direct composting.” He recommends gardeners take these steps: 


When fall’s harvest frees up an area, mow/shred the tops of the remaining plant material and let everything dry for a day or two. If you like, bring in shredded organic material from other parts of the yard and spread it out, too. Stop adding to the layer when it’s 4 to 6 inches deep. 


Till the soil deeply, incorporating the organic material and producing smallish, coarse clods of soil. If using a rototiller, go slowly. If using a shovel or spade, depend on your legs (not your back) for lift, pace yourself, and keep reminding yourself digging is good exercise. 

No animal manure

Do NOT incorporate concentrated animal manures unless they can help with a nutrient imbalance that you’ve identified through a soil test. An excess of the nutrients manures contain can cause plant problems the following year or longer. They also can lead to a soil salt buildup and allow nutrients to leach into ground and surface water supplies. 


Allow the incorporated garden debris to “cook” several weeks. Then, if you like, start gathering another 4- to 6-inch layer of organic material to incorporate. Or, shift to another part of the garden.The incorporated debris will compost in the ground. And, next year’s garden soil will be richer, easier to “work,” more efficient at water use, and better at handling weather extremes, Marr said.

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