Natural Ways to Protect Your Soil This Winter
I don’t like having bare soil over winter as this means its left exposed to the elements and can easily be damaged. Heavy rain can wash the soil away and wind can blow away the surface layer of top soil. Soil erosion is a global problem, particularly where intensive agriculture is practiced but even on a domestic scale we need to be mindful of protecting the ecosystem beneath our feet – the lifeblood of our gardens.
Plastic weed membrane is one way to cover the soil, but it doesn’t input nutrients back into the soil and over time it will break down leaving bits of plastic in the soil, which is not good. There are, however, natural ways to protect the soil.
You can, of course, cover the soil with compost or manure, but this isn’t always practical. It can be hard to get hold of sufficient compost and manure can sometimes be contaminated with chemicals. Transporting these in bulk to your garden isn’t always easy and if you have to buy from a supplier it’s likely the compost or manure will come in plastic bags. There are other options though.
Don’t be too tidy!
In my garden borders I leave most plants to die back naturally rather than stepping in and pruning everything back in autumn. This means that most plants provide a ‘carpet’ of groundcover with their decaying foliage and stems right through to early spring when new shoots start to appear.
If you have a shredder you can chop up branches and stems into small sections and spread these on the surface of your soil rather than putting them on the compost heap. If not, loppers and secateurs will do the job. Not everyone has a garden big enough to accommodate compost heaps so spreading plant material on the soil like this is a simple way to recycle plant material.
It’s my vegetable and cut flower beds where the soil tends to be more exposed over winter. In the years when I haven’t got round to covering these beds the soil can take quite a pummelling from the torrential rain we get here in the Pennines. I’m trying to be more mindful about how I garden though and this year I’ve made a concerted effort to cover the soil, experimenting with a mix of natural products.
Instead of putting the spent courgette plants and other plant material on the compost heap I layered this up on top of the soil along with some sheep wool insulation I had in the shed. This comes as part of the packaging when we have mail order food deliveries which need to be kept chilled. It’s simply sheep wool that has been made into chunky sheets. You can also buy this – look for sheep wool garden felt online. There are so many great things about sheep wool: it’s completely natural, it supresses weeds, it biodegrades and as it does so it feeds the soil with nutrients including nitrogen, and it also helps soil hold on to moisture so you’ll need to do less watering in summer.
If I just left the plant material and sheep wool on the surface of the soil it could just blow away so I covered it all with a sheet of hessian which I had lying around in the garage. Hessian is a fabric woven from jute, a natural material. It’s sturdy but like the sheep wool it, too, will biodegrade over time and feed the soil. I pinned the hessian in place with some thick pieces of wire cut and made into u-shapes. I pushed these in along the edges to hold it down.
Hessian is widely available online where it’s generally sold by the metre. Alternatively you could use large sections of thick cardboard. Hold this in place with stones or bricks around the edge.
Protected from the weather the worms will do their bit during mild spells, breaking down the plant material and the wool. I’m not sure what state the hessian will be in by spring, but by then I can either remove it, putting it on the compost heap, or I can cut sections into it and plant through it directly into the soil.
Om Louise Curley
Louise is a horticulturalist, garden writer and author of the award-winning book The Cut Flower Patch. She’s passionate about the power of plants to make us feel happy and is an advocate for organic gardening and encouraging wildlife into gardens.Get to know Louise Curley
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