by Sandy Swegel
Intense heat waves this summer have inspired gardeners to think more about their soil and how to protect it now and in winter. Just looking at hot dry cracked soil. We can compensate by watering more but with the heat stress, the plants can’t take up water faster than they are losing it to the air. Two things often happen during a heat wave that tax the soil. In the plains or the west, the humidity drops way down and the soil gets so dry that irrigation has a hard time even soaking into the soil. It just rolls right off. The other thing that happens is that the soil heats up killing off soil microbes and earthworms. That top exposed layer of soil becomes hard and crusty from lack of life.
So what can we do in a heat wave besides water? We’ve got to get that soil covered. “Cover the Earth” is the mantra I repeat to myself. “Cover the Earth.”
What are some good ways to Cover the Earth?
1. Plant Intensively so that plant leaves overlap with one another and shade the soil underneath.
2. Mulch. You know how important mulch is, but during a heat wave, it’s good to double up on mulch. Your mulch is not only keeping water from evaporating and adding organic matter and food for microbes, and it is also insulation to reduce the soil temperature. A plant will be healthier if “their feet” are cooler during a heat wave. You can check this out by putting your finger in the soil somewhere there this thick mulch. If you are out of grass clippings or leaves, use cardboard or newspaper in a pinch. Just get that soil covered.
3. Plant Cover Crops now. You may think of cover crops as something to plant at the end of the season, but it can also be a good idea to start them now. Plant in areas of the garden that might be fallow such as where early season crops grew but you never got around to replanting. Or start cover crops in the spaces or rows between large plants like tomatoes or corn.
DO BOTH: Mulch and Use Cover Crops.
Anytime you see bare soil, use grass clippings or last year’s left-over leaves to loosely and thinly cover the soil. Then seed in your cover crop. The combination of browns from leaves and greens from the cover crop will compost in place eventually.
One thing is for sure….all these steps to Cover the Earth and protect your soil now in the heat and this winter in the cold will help make your spring soil awesomely healthy!