Seeing that we are in December, now is a great time to start preparing for the spring garden next year! (Since I know all of you are just raring to plant a garden after reading our last post.) While you may think the cold weather means it’s time to hang up our hoes for the season, I think it’s actually the best time to invest in the most important part of our garden: The Soil. So in this post, I want to share some very cheap things we use to prepare our garden soil for the next growing season.

1. Kitchen Scraps

We actually do this all year long, but we try not to throw away any kitchen scraps so we can compost it for the garden! You can buy fancy contraptions that help you compost, but you also just make a big pile in the backyard. We have a pile in the back corner of our property, but most of our kitchen scraps go to our worms who live in a bin in the garage creating worm castings for our garden. (We’ll share more about this in a future post.)

2. Cardboard and Newspaper

Speaking of worms, we also shred up newspaper and cardboard to feed to them too. The kitchen scraps can get real soggy and the paper helps to dry things out, but apparently the worms require both the nitrogen sources from the kitchen plus the carbon sources from the paper for a balanced diet. Of course, cardboard and newspaper are compostable in a regular compost pile as well.

3. Grass Clippings

Living on one acre of land that’s mostly lawn, you can imagine that I cut a lot of grass in the summer. Often the grass gets too long and starts leaving huge clumps after the mower, so we rake it up to add to the compost pile. If you’ve ever stuck your hand in a pile of freshly mown grass, you’ll notice that it heats up very quickly. You won’t want to put green grass clippings directly in your garden or even right next to the stems of tender plants, or they’ll get scorched! Let the grass break down for a bit before adding it to the garden. If your garden is done in the fall until the next spring, you can spread it out and let it break down over the winter too.

4. Leaves

I’ve heard it been said that leaves are like flecks of nutrient-dense bio-gold that drop to our feet, calling for us to pick them up! A TED Talk I watched once explained that a 2-inch layer of leaf compost provides all the nutrition needed by plants for an entire growing season. With the loads of leaves coming off the trees on my property as well as my next-door neighbors’, it’s a gold rush!  We just run our mower over the leaves, cutting and bagging them in one go, then just dump it into our garden beds for the winter. Digging for gold has never been easier!  (And to think people pay MONEY for people to come haul their gold away!)

5. Woodchips

Ever noticed the big wood chipping trucks that clear branches for the power lines? Did you know that many times they are LOOKING for places to dump their loads of woodchips? Often they are DELIGHTED to give you all the woodchips you can hope for, delivered straight to your house for FREE! I happened to catch one such truck last year that gave me a heaping pile of woodchips that I’m still using today. Obviously, you would need a decent sized lot to be able to store a pile of woodchips, so this might not work for everyone.

Woodchips can contain big chunks and so don’t break down very quickly even in the standard compost pile—that also means they aren’t good for mixing in directly to the garden soil. So we use woodchips as a mulch on top of the soil in strategic locations such as around our fruit trees and berry bushes. They help with moisture retention, keeping the roots cool in summer and warm in winter, and also as weed control. Of course, over time the woodchips still break down nicely into compost to feed the soil. It’s like a slow-release nutrition supplement.

6. Manures

Do you have any friends who own livestock? Horses? Cows? Sheep? Rabbits? Alpacas? We live in a rural area and have friends who own lots of animals. Basically, what comes out of the back end of those animals can be great additions into the garden! The key to remember is that most manures are actually just grass clippings that’s been slightly more “processed”.  So that means horse, cow, sheep, chicken, etc. manures need to be composted first or else they will scorch your plants. The two exceptions that I’m aware of are rabbit and alpaca/llama manure. These amazing creatures somehow have specialized digestive properties that make their poo-poo less scorching and can be spread directly out in the garden. So we found a rabbit farm nearby that sells rabbit pellets for cheap and we also visit some friends’ farm to scoop up what they call “llama beans” generated by their llamas and alpacas.

Turning Trash into Treasure

Building up our garden soil doesn’t require purchasing big bags of expensive chemical fertilizers.  In fact, we probably SHOULDN’T do that!  You’ll notice that pretty much everything we listed are actually waste byproducts of some sort. What a wonderful system where the best inputs to build the soil are simply waste products from somewhere else!  Turning trash into treasure is a sure way to save the crumbs, and it’s never easier to do than in the garden.

Do you have a garden? What do you do to improve your soil?