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Soil Amendments – Fall Preparation

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2019 December Issue Newsletter

By Laura Davis, NOFA/Mass Soil Technical Assistance Coordinator

A farm worker sprays a foliar application on a freshly hoed bed

No matter how early I think about adding fall amendments, this job always falls to the bottom of the to-do list below some bigger priorities. Harvesting crops remaining in the field prior to frost, bagging up all the row covers, and removing all the poles and trellises, for example, all take precedence over the spreading of fall amendments.

Fortunately, this year I sent my soil test into Logan Labs in October, so after receiving the results, all I had to do was calculate the amendments I needed to order, order them, pick them up, and broadcast them on the fields.  If you have a Logan Labs soil test result, NOFA/Mass will analyze it and give you soil recommendations. You can see the details of that program here or check out this article to calculate your own amendment needs.  You can order a variety of soil amendments through the annual NOFA Bulk Order.

Many soil amendments, like limestone and other slow release organic fertilizers, benefit from having the winter to digest and activate, so it is ideal to get them in before snow accumulates.  In contrast, I wait until spring to apply amendments like Potassium and Nitrogen since they will leach out and be lost over the winter.  At Long Life Farm we practice no-till farming, which includes leaving all roots and plants to breakdown in the field, unless they had disease or insect infestation. We had a bit of erosion last year, so leaving all plants intact will hopefully avoid that same problem this year. We also do not incorporate the amendments into the soil, but rather broadcast them over cover crops of peas and oats, which cover about 80% of our field.  After adding the amendments, any areas without cover crops receive a mulch of shredded leaves.  

This year’s soil test showed that our two-acre field needed 100 lbs. of Elemental Sulfur, and 70 lbs. of Manganese Sulfate. We use a hand push-spreader on wheels that holds about 100 lbs., but if the ground is at all soft, pushing 100 or more pounds through the walking paths is not easy, so generally we load up no more than about 50 lbs. at a time in the hopper. This also allows some room to mix the amendments in the hopper with a trowel. To ensure that we can broadcast the amounts evenly across the two-acre field, we divide the field up by 8 blocks (16 beds each) and refill the spreader 8 times.  We use humates—a good carbon source—as a filler to ensure that we have enough volume of material to spread out evenly.  Generally, I use about 3 lbs. of humates for each pound of trace elements (my total amendments weighed: 100 lbs. Sulfur + 70 lbs. Manganese + 210 lbs. humates = 380 lbs. / 8 loads = 47.5 lbs. per hopper).  A scale is used to weigh out the amount of each amendment that goes into each portion of 47.5 lbs.  It takes a bit of trial and error to set up the spreader at the right opening to broadcast just enough of the amendments as you walk. I find that a spacing of about a quarter inch worked well for the type of amendments we were spreading.

One of our goals at NOFA/Mass is to continue to enhance our technical knowledge regarding soil fertility in order to share this knowledge with our growers through the Soil Technical Assistance Program. I am currently working with a consultant at Advancing Eco-Agriculture (AEA) to enhance the fertility of the soil on my farm and to produce the best quality vegetables possible.  As these practices are put into place and success realized, I hope to share them with our growers. 

This summer, we sent plant leaves for sap analysis to AEA for feedback on what our cabbage and beets needed because we were seeing lack of vigor and growth.  These sap tests showed limitations in various minerals and trace elements for which we were able to apply a foliar spray on a weekly basis that included minerals that the plants were missing.  We are learning that while we build up certain minerals and traces in the soil, there is not always an immediate impact to the plant.  Using liquid minerals and trace elements in foliar sprays can deliver a more immediate impact. You can also find these products in the NOFA Bulk Order.

Volunteers sort potting soil and ammendments at one of the NOFA Tri-State Bulk Order drop sites
Volunteers sort potting soil and amendments at one of the
NOFA Tri-State Bulk Order drop sites

Another practice we are trying out for for the first time this fall is a “fall primer”. The fall primer is made up of an inoculant, bio-stimulant, and food source for the biology (I use Spectrum, SeaShield and Rejuvenate products which you can purchase through the NOFA bulk order).  The entire 2-acre field will be sprayed with ample water mixed with these products after the dry granular amendments are broadcasted. For areas receiving shredded leaf mulch, that will be the last step.  The goal is to continue to populate the biology, giving them ample food to sustain themselves over the winter.  The biological activity during the winter months will solubilize and release nutrients, making them available just in time for spring planting. Listen to this short AEA recording titled, ‘The Key to Stimulating Biology’.”

In summary, a lot happens in the earth over winter once the crops leave the ground, and fall preparation through amendments, cover crops, and even trying a “fall primer” can greatly enhance the soil. If you have not planted cover crops, don’t leave your soil bare, cover it with leaves or hay straw so that you can keep those little “farmers” in your soil happy all winter. If you have not removed plants from the field, remember that a living root in the ground, or even a dead one, provides food for overwintering microbes.

You can purchase all of the amendments mentioned in this article through the NOFA Bulk Order (while supporting NOFA/Mass at the same time!). We carry a range of amendments as well as organically-grown cover crop seeds, potting soil and other supplies from reputable suppliers, including:

  • Fedco
  • Progressive Grower
  • Earth Care Farm
  • Fertrell
  • Ideal Compost Company
  • North Country OrganicsTri State Bulk Order
  • Organic Growers Supply and Moose Tubers
  • Vermont Compost Company

Baystate Organic Certifiers reviews our bulk order each year to ensure that all items are allowed for certified organic farms or restricted (see product descriptions). Ordering period opens January 1st—place your order by February 1st  and pickup at your nearest distribution site is in the second week of March!

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