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Archive for December, 2011

Interview with Carol Deppe, author of The Resilient Gardener, which I just got for Christmas. It’s great. I’m going to have to start slacking off even more so that I have time to save seed and breed my own veggie varieties, grind corn into cornmeal and flour, and procure some ducks. Ducks are apparently waaay better than chickens at eating slugs and leaving the garden alone.  And since my kale is getting annihilated by slugs, i need some help.

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We moved into our current house and yard at the beginning of August a couple years ago, and having a long list of veggies that needed to be planted by July 15th, set about tearing out 4×8 chunks of the lawn to make garden beds.  The grass came out, the 4×8 frames of 2×8 boards went around each bed, and new dirt- a pickup truck load of quality soil from a real store, not Craig’s list- went in.  Seemed logical and like this would grow us some fine vegetables… but we’ve been struggling to improve the soil every season.

So this post is about what i would do differently, and what i will do differently when we move to a new place sometime in the future.

First- the soil in residential areas is most often craptastic.  It has no nutrients, no organic matter, no structure, and very few earthworms or soil bacteria/fungi/nematodes, etc (hereafter referred to as “soil critters”).  This is because during construction, the top soil on the lot is scraped away to lay the foundation, heavy machines drive around building the house and compacting the soil, then a layer of “top soil” is replaced that is geared toward accepting sod for a new lawn- sandy for drainage, but with little organic matter.  The soil in the sod itself is clayey to hold the sod together- bad for drainage and air circulation.  (David knows- he used to lay sod as a summer job.)  Soil in the yards of rental houses is often the worst, because none of the short-term renters ever invest any effort in improving it.  When we first moved in, you could pour water on the soil and it would just run off and pool at the lowest point.

Where am i going with this…?  If you add anything to your soil when you start your garden, it should be compost.  Crap loads and shit tons of compost.  Don’t buy dirt- you’ll just have to add compost later.  Compost is organic matter.  Organic matter 1) increases the ability of the soil to hold water, 2) slowly releases nutrients for your veggies, and 3) attracts and makes a home for soil critters.  Add compost, and when you water your garden, the water will stay where you put it and you’ll have to water less frequently.  Your veggies will grow bigger and healthier with compost.  Soil critters will come to feast on your added organic matter, and more soil critters = better air circulation, soil structure, and nutrient cycling = better veggie growth = awesome root systems = even better soil structure, more organic matter content, and even more soil critters!

If it is late fall or winter (like now) and you want to start your garden in the spring, there are a few things you can do to get an earlier start.  It’s a good idea to wait until the soil dries out in the spring before you start digging around in it. When disturbed, wet soil loses its structure very easily and then dries into chunks of rock hard dirt- i know, because i didn’t think digging in wet soil was a big deal, and now i have beets that have taken almost a full year to grow to the size of a golf ball.  If you know where your garden will be, you can build plastic hoop houses or some sort of tarp structure to shelter it from the rain so that it dries out more quickly.  If the soil in your future garden is bare, cover it with fallen leaves or grass clippings or other organic material that can break down over time, providing compost for your beds while sheltering the soil from the rain and preventing it from becoming too compacted.  If there’s grass in your future garden spot, you can start killing it by laying cardboard down over it- it will be easier to pull up in the spring if it’s mostly dead.  And you do want to tear out the grass- if you turn it into the soil it will revive and overgrow your garden beds very quickly.

If you are lucky enough to move to your new yard/plan your new garden before winter, ie, september-october, you should plant a cover crop in preparation for the spring.  A cover crop will do similar things to a layer of fallen leaves- improve soil structure with its root system, increase organic matter when you cut it and turn it in in the spring, and protect the soil from compacting rain.  Cover crops also add nutrients to the soil: nitrogen-fixing cover crops like crimson clover return nitrogen to the soil when turned in, and others like alfalfa and buckwheat have root systems that bring up nutrients like phosphorous from the subsoil.

In the spring, you should turn in any cover crop or remaining leaf compost 2-3 weeks before you want to sow seeds so it can decompose fully.  If you don’t have time, put them in the compost pile- fresh decomposing plants can inhibit the growth of new seedlings.  In beds where you’ll plant cool-weather spring crops like broccoli and peas and radishes- that’s all you have to do.  In beds that will grow summer crops like tomatoes, beans, peppers, melons, etc, you can sow a spring cover crop (or let your current cover crop keep growing, as long as you cut off flower heads so it doesn’t go to seed), and turn it in for even more organic matter and nutrients before you plant those heat loving crops. Again, give the cover crop a few weeks to decompose before you plant new seeds.

This coming spring i’m going to try to sow buckwheat as a cover crop in beds where i’ll plant tomatoes, peppers, melons, and squash because buckwheat adds phosphorous to the soil and those “veggies” all need phosphorous and potassium to produce their fruits.  Buckwheat is a summer-sown cover crop, but grows very quickly- so i’m hoping i can get at least one round in before i plant the tomato seedlings.  Also- with the chicken manure compost we’re producing, we don’t really need any more nitrogen for the garden- that’s hot shit!  Heh.. heh… heh… get it?  So i’m thinking about switching over entirely from crimson clover to buckwheat (and a winter crop like wheat) for all my cover crop needs.

In any case, focus on the soil- it’s not just a container for plant roots and fertilizer- healthy soil will a magnificent garden make. (And a lower water bill, less fertilizer run-off, less fertilizer or none at all, more worms for the chickens, more pest-resistant veggies, happier renters that move in after you….)

 

 

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Last winter i vowed to keep the garden going strong over this winter with cold frames and plastic hoop houses and over-wintering crops like purple sprouting broccoli.  With my exam and post-exam scramble to catch up on research, i have not made good on the cold frames and hoop houses (yet), but the broccoli, chard, rutabaga, and beets are going strong! I think dumping some not-quite-finished chicken poop compost on the broccoli bed (quick source of nitrogen) really helped the fall and winter broccoli get going- i don’t think anything has grown so big and green so quickly in our garden!

I had big plans for a winter kale garden too… but the kale seems to have entered sit-tight-and-wait-out-the-winter mode.  Half of the kale is planted near a black walnut tree, which, turns out, releases a chemical called juglone that inhibits the growth of other plants.  Solanums (tomato family) and brassicas (cabbage/broccoli/kale family) are particularly sensitive to this chemical, so that may be why these plants grew a foot tall and then… just… stopped.  The other half of the kale is planted in much better dirt, but i sowed them too late to allow them to grow big before the cold weather came in.  If i had taken the time to put up a plastic cover over them, they’d probably be pretty big by now, and we could pick leaves throughout the winter and the plants would come back to life in the spring.  Sigh… school keeps getting in the way of my garden!  I now have little plastic cloches over the small kale plants (liter soda pop bottles (from Smalls) and square baby salad green tubs (from Kate and Dave)), but i think it may be too cold for these to provide good protection.  Hopefully i can get my butt in gear and put a real hoop house over them before we leave for the holidays.

One thing that we have totally rocked at this fall/winter is collecting fallen leaves to cover the bare soil in the garden beds.  We raked up our leaves, the neighbors’ leaves, raided the park up the street after dark (mind you, it was only 8pm, but since it gets dark at 4:30, we felt real sneaky), and traded some eggs for several bins of leaves from our neighbor Jill who had already raked hers up.  I’d feel bad, but she has an electric leaf blower.  Now all of the bare garden beds that aren’t growing cover crop are buried under 4-6 inches of leaves, and the chard, beets, and kale have leaves stuffed all around them to protect the ground from freezing.  The leaves decompose slowly and provide food for earthworms and soil bacteria, etc, leaving the beds in much better shape than if they had been left bare under the rain all winter.  The difference is amazing- almost fluffy dirt vs. a packed down gravel bed with some soil underneath- i think that’s why the beets i planted in the spring (in an bed that had been left bare) are still waiting to grow big in November/December.

Also, the chickens looooove fallen leaves.  In total, i think we put 4 or 5 garbage bins full of leaves in their run.  They go nuts digging through them at first, then as the leaves settle down they provide a source of entertainment now that the chickens are not allowed on the lawn very often (it’s too wet nowadays and they destroy it faster than ever.)  I hear that worms and other bugs will make themselves at home in the leaves of the chicken run (until they get eaten), and the scratched up and pooped on leaves make great compost at the end of the winter.

Pictures and actual building of cold frames and hoop houses coming soon!

 

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