23 January 2009

The Garden Stoop December 2008

Here is my quarterly "column" for the Parkridge Press. Enjoy!

Fall is a great time of year to garden. The unbearable heat filled summer days dissipate as the sun sits lower in the sky bringing lovely golden rays, which soften the days with Fall color. In the vegetable garden, summer plants slow production. The last of the remaining crops continue to ripen while first frost lurks. First frost can hit anytime two weeks before or after October 20th. These fleeting few weeks send some vegetable gardeners into frenzy. They try to pluck final harvests before the big frost to can or freeze for winter supplies. Some gardeners, finished with the harvest, have already pulled tomato, pepper, okra, basil, eggplant and bean plants and sent 'em all to the compost pile to generate soil for next year's garden.

Fall can be a busy time in the garden either way. Old plants need to be pulled or cut at the base (roots will decompose) because old plants can harbor disease or pests, both of which can contaminate soil. After plants have been pulled, the gardener should make improvements to the soil. Amending the soil is an important garden task. Plants take nutrients from the soil as they grow. To ensure the soil will be ready for early spring crops, nutrients need to be put back into the garden in the fall.

One way to accomplish this is to practice sheet-mulch gardening or lasagna gardening. These are both trademark names given to the same principle of adding substance to the garden. Using methods like this will help build soil in the garden and eliminate the need to till. Tilling actually destroys soil structure and leads to more deterioration in the garden.

So, how does one build up the soil? There are several different layering strategies, but this is the easiest. There is no need to weed because weeds will smother, decompose and add nutrient rich materials too. Start with a 6" layer of horse or cow manure that's aged at least 3 months (but not necessary especially if you plan to let the garden sit all winter). Cover with a layer of cardboard, newspaper layered ten sheets thick (no shiny or color pages) or shredded white-only paper. Soak each layer to help facilitate decomposition. Add layer of chopped leaves (as they fall from the trees), grass trimmings, compost and/or food scraps (no meat products) another 6" deep then follow with more paper product like you are making lasagna. Make it a good foot or two high (total) because it will compost down in the winter. Finish with 6" of straw, sawdust or wood chips not burying this final layer with paper product.

If you plan on a winter garden and starting it by seed consider adding a final layer, 2 inches or so, of top soil or compost so seeds don't fall into the deep, dark, mulch abyss never to germinate. If you are using transplants, make soil pockets for immediate planting. Otherwise, let the layers sit for the winter, and you will be ready for spring. Water regularly if weather is dry.

The freezing temps of winter won't keep the determined from gardening. Winter is a fantastic time to grow lettuces, greens, spinach, chard, bok choy, tatsoi, etc. in what is called a cold-frame. A cold-frame is a structure that keeps crops warm and protected from frosts/snow in the winter like a mini greenhouse. It is not a heated mechanism. It uses passive solar to keep the ground warm and plants protected.

There are different types of cold-frames from technical and expensive to simplistic and cheap. We are all about simplicity in the Hellwinckel household, so I'm going to lay out a few easy techniques which have worked for us.
One technique involves using straw bales and old windows. We have used this method a few years running with great success. Determine where to grow your winter garden. Remember that the winter sun sits lower in the sky and doesn't hit your garden the same way that the summer sun did. Observe your garden to detect the sunniest area. Outline the area with bales of straw. Sow the seed or plant transplants. Cover with old windows or a large piece of glass resting on top of the bales. While temps are still warm, there is no need to cover plants, but watch the weather! When temps start to dip into the 30's, get ready to cover. An unprotected young crop can be taken out with one frost. Remove windows when the days warm into the 40's so the environment doesn't get too hot. Use the straw bales in the spring and summer to mulch gardens.

If straw bales aren't an option, try experimenting with cinder blocks, bricks or wood. If you have a tough time finding old windows, try clear thick plastic, which still allows the sun's rays through. Last year, we successfully used hoops stuck in the ground and an old blue tarp. Some of the outer edges of the crops got nipped, but overall, we still had plenty of fresh greens the entire winter. Since the sun's rays can't penetrate a colored tarp, be sure to uncover crops when temperatures permit.

As temperatures cool, there is no need to give up on gardening and fresh homegrown produce. Winter gardening takes some planning, but it's not impossible and is well worth the effort especially for the nutritional benefits. With flu season just around the corner, the added vitamins and minerals provided from fresh winter greens can be a great addition to the diet. So, what are you waiting for?

If needed, blocks or bags of soil can be purchased at Knox Seed of Rutledge Pike. Straw bales can be purchased at the Farmer's Coop on Asheville Highway for about $5

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