University of Maryland Extension

January & February Soil, Fertilizer, Mulch & Compost Tips

planted cover crop
Soil in garden walkways is  protected over the winter with cover crops.

(More tips from HGIC)

  • Test your soil. Be prepared to raise soil pH with lime or lower soil pH with iron sulfate and elemental sulfur this spring according to the written recommendations you receive.   For more information on soil testing see:
  • Poor,compacted soils can be improved through the generous addition of organic matter. This spring, spade or till in a 6-8 inch layer of compost for new flower and vegetable garden beds.
  • If you want to grow vegetables, flowers or herbs next spring and your soil is especially poor, consider building a raised bed and fill it with a purchased mixture of topsoil and leaf compost.
  • Fruit trees are fertilized in the spring. Landscape trees are usually fertilized after they drop their leaves in the fall. Mature shade trees do not typically need to be fertilized at all.

  • Keep dry fertilizers sealed up in your shed or basement to keep critters out.
  • Do not attempt to melt ice this winter with granular garden fertilizers. It is stated in (PDF) Maryland's Lawn Fertilizer Law that fertilizer may not be used to deice sidewalks and driveways. They are very corrosive to concrete and metal, can burn plants and contribute to waterway pollution. Select alternative materials containing combinations of magnesium chloride or calcium magnesium acetate (PDF FS 707). Other formulas containing sodium chloride, potassium chloride, and calcium chloride are also suitable but can be corrosive and burn plants if not applied correctly. Avoid products containing urea. Keep all ice melting materials away from landscape plants. Sand or kitty litter are good for improving traction on slippery surfaces.
  • Shredded leaves make excellent mulch and are easy to come by. Mulches should be applied only 2-3 inches deep around ornamental plants and kept away from shrub and tree trunks. Mature trees do not benefit from being mulched, except to keep mowers away from the trunk.
  • Mulch perennial beds, trees and shrubs with fallen leaves. This will help to protect crowns and shallow root systems from severe cold weather.
  • Keep sticks, roots, and woody stems out of your compost pile. They take too long to breakdown and make it difficult to turn the ingredients. The composting process will slow down considerably when temperatures dip below 50 degrees F. Turning the pile every 2 weeks will hasten the breakdown process.
  • Compost piles should be at least one cubic yard in volume to heat up properly. An even mixture of green, high nitrogen and brown, high carbon materials is necessary for rapid composting. Grass clippings and spent plants from the flower and vegetable garden provide a good source of high nitrogen, green materials for the compost pile. Fallen leaves and old straw mulch are good sources of high carbon, brown materials. Shred your materials with a lawnmower, string trimmer or machete to speed-up the breakdown process. 
  • Finished compost is the very best starter material for a compost pile because it contains nitrogen and a huge number of microbes that help transform organic matter into compost. It is not necessary to buy a bioactivator to add to the compost pile.It is also not necessary to add soil or lime to a compost pile. Consider placing a tarp or lid over your pile to prevent waterlogging and nutrient leaching over the fall and winter. Kitchen scraps thrown on top of compost piles may attract pest animals. It is best to bury these scraps in the middle of your compost pile.
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