How to Amend Garden Soil with Compost

Let your compost work for you over the winter using the no-till method!

Top dressing. Maybe you’re not clear on what that actually means? It’s surprising sometimes how an idea doesn’t really sink in until I see it in action – and then it’s just.SO.simple! Sometimes I throw terms around like “top-dress”, or “amend the soil” with the assumption that everyone knows what I’m talking about. The reality is, though, that NOT everyone knows what these things mean…at least, not YET. They are very simple concepts, but we all know that a demonstration can go miles, so I’m going to …write?… you through how I amend my garden soil through the winter without tilling. If actually watching the process is helpful, here’s a quick video:

How to Amend Soil with Compost and NO Tilling!

It’s actually really simple. I’ll demonstrate how I remove all the mulch off of one of my garden beds and put a bunch of compost right on top. And then I let it sit all winter long. As the moisture works its way through that compost, the “compost tea” naturally conditions the soil. It’s the easiest way to amend soil.

I’ve got compacted, dry, clay soil in my backyard and this works beautifully. Every fall one little area of my garden is the lucky spot to receive all the compost from my compost bin as I’m emptying it out in the fall to start a new pile. (The compost doesn’t even have to be completely finished (!), as you might notice in the video.)

Step 1: Rake back the mulch

I prefer shredded cedar mulch (a topic for another day), so the first thing to do is to use my bedding fork to just rake the mulch out onto a tarp.

Rake the mulch onto a tarp

One of my best and favorite garden tools, I use the bedding fork to scoop up the thick, top layer of mulch and then I use a regular garden fork to rake the lower layer. I think of shredded mulch as similar to a dog or cat’s coat. There’s the top coat and the under coat. Shredded cedar mulch mats down so tightly that even when you think you’ve got all the mulch off the top, usually there’s a good layer (the “undercoat!”) still left before you actually expose the soil.

Step 2: Dump and Spread

Once the mulch is moved away, I simply dump compost and spreading it around. This is known as “top-dressing.”

Dump compost thickly onto the garden bed

Here, I’ve spread maybe 4-5 loads of compost and there are certainly a few unfinished chunks. I’m not worried at all about those. If they’re still there in the spring, which I don’t expect, I would just bury those chunks as I’m planting. You can see this area is now much darker with all the compost on it. I also raked in a five gallon bucket of coffee grounds which are great for soil conditioning.

Rake the compost evenly….and forget about it the rest of the winter.

And, that’s it! It’s a really easy way to amend garden soil over the winter, using compost and no tilling. To recap: move the mulch so you can get to the soil, pile on the compost, let it sit.

In the spring this bed will be much easier to work. Any compost left on the surface will get worked in with spring planting.

I decided not to put the mulch back on that bed. Instead, I used it on the front hell-strip because the compost went on couple inches thick and leaving the mulch off for a season will make it eassier to spread more amendments in the spring. I’ll probably add a few more bags of (storebought) compost and then I’ll likely mulch through the summer with my favorite soil conditioner (Happy Frog).

So, with a little bit of raking and a bunch of compost, you can make serious improvements to your garden soil, and in the spring, your soil will be so much easier to work with.

Thanks for stopping by! Do you have challenging soil? What do you do to amend it? I’m curious to know, so tell me down in the comments!



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