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Posts Tagged ‘fallen leaves’

I finally made it out into the garden yesterday after a long hiatus (from both garden and garden blog). David got a job in Olympia (woot!) and so I’ve been trying to make the most of his absence (pooh!) by working a shit-ton in lab (hoping to graduate by next summer!!!) and have consequently been ignoring the garden. Weekends have become very busy. So far David has come back to Seattle each weekend, and we race around town running errands and trying to get stuff done while also trying to spend 24/7 with each other. (I don’t know if that’s the correct usage of 24/7…) But this weekend had a good chunk of gardening together time, and was awesome.

The fallen leaves that we put in the chicken run have been turned into a rich, composty, soil-like material and we raked out 3 wheel-barrows full and spread them over the garden beds. This required raking up the fallen leaves that had been covering the beds, which we then dumped into the chicken run to make more compost. (We’re so clever!!) The leaves had lots of nice worms in them that were gobbled up in a frenzy. I offered one giant worm (fatter than a pencil, 6 inches long) to Cornelia and she hesitated at first, lunging her body forward and back like someone working up the courage to leap over a stream. Then it was BAM! BAM! and the worm was gone.

I then transplanted a bunch of things that sorely needed transplanting- 6 big lettuce plants, 2 rows of arugula (i’m trying to be more adventurous with salads this year), little tiny leeks in the bottom of a trench inside a mini greenhouse, an assortment of 6 broccoli plants, one cabbage, and 16 swiss chard plants. I sheltered all the transplants with plastic covers so that a) they’d stay warm enough, b) the rain wouldn’t leach out all the nitrogen from the chicken poopy compost we just added (organic gardening can cause eutrophication too, don’tcha know), and c) the surface of the dirt would stay dry to keep the slugs away… maybe… we’ll see if that works.

I also broadcast buckwheat cover crop seeds over the beds that will grow tomatoes and squash/cukes/melon later this summer. Buckwheat is supposed to pull up potassium from the subsoil which will help the plants set fruit… if our subsoil is accessible by buckwheat root and actually has any potassium in it.

Of note: covering the garden beds with fallen leaves over the winter has turned out to be rad. The dirt underneath is nice and soft and full of worm castings. And the leaves are easy to clean up when it comes time to plant in the spring. I like the idea of crimson clover cover crop, but it’s harder to deal with in the spring if i want to practice no dig gardening. Normally one would mow the clover and turn it into the soil 3 weeks before planting to let it rot and provide organic matter and nitrogen to the next crop. But that requires a lot of digging, when i am attempting to do no digging this season. I could chop the clover down, give it to the chickens, and then let the roots rot in place for a few weeks before planting… but that requires waiting, and the ground is bare for a few weeks. I could pull the plants out and compost them, but then the soil structure is disturbed- perhaps not as much as by digging, but still. Then again, the chickens do love to eat clover… shrug.

Have not yet attempted any grafting. My 15 (ungrafted) tomato plants are getting big, so I may just try to graft my curcurbits this year and try the tomatoes next year. Or i may try some tomatoes and give them to neighbors who have space… as long as they keep a good record of the plants’ performance compared to non-grafted controls of the same variety. I like science.

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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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