Sunday, November 27, 2011

Winter is Coming - Gardening is Done?

When fall came and the edible plants started dying off from frost - my family's garden, and our neighbors' gardens, were pretty much just abandoned and left alone through the winter. Weeds, much hardier than tomato plants, continued to grow and set seeds.  These fell onto the soil and were next year's weed problem. What I have found is that a bit of laziness in the fall and winter causes you to do much more work the following spring and summer.  What can/should you do in the fall and winter?

1. Thoroughly weed your garden and remove all old plants (throw them on your compost pile). Any plant pests you had will "over winter" on the plants they infested during the growing cycle. You don't want them to survive the winter and begin their life cycle again in the spring. Throw your plants in the compost pile so any residual nutrients can be recycled back into your garden.

2. Before it freezes, screen and turn your compost pile. I have a four bin composting set-up at my house in Pennsylvania. Each bin is 4x4x4 feet, so it holds 64 cubic feet of material. One bin holds finished compost, one bin holds raw materials, one bin is actively composting, and right now the fourth bin is empty.

Once or twice a year I dig out the active compost bin and sift all the semi-composted material through a screen.  The screen is 1/4" hardware cloth over a 2x3 frame.  I shovel the partially composted material onto the screen, give it a few shakes, and the finer material falls through to my wagon.  The uncomposted, larger material gets tossed into an open bin. By the time I have screened the entire bin I usually have a full wagon of fine material (20 cubic feet) and another bin 1/3 full of material that has only begun to break down. This will now be the bottom layer of my next batch of compost. This will be the "worm layer" since worms will quickly move up into this layer of "worm food".

    Next I run the raw material through my mulcher/chipper with the screens removed (or it clogs up real easy) and throw this stuff in the partially filled bin. This will usually fill the new bin close to the top. I'll cover this bin with something water proof (I use old shower curtains and picnic table table cloths) and it is good to go for the winter. Since it was freshly aerated the pile will start to heat up from the biologic activity of the composting process.  But once it starts going down below freezing at night that will slow down and eventually almost stop.  That's ok, it is just dormant; once it warms up in the spring the composting process will start up again.
    The fine material that I screened out will go in the finished compost bin if there is room or it will go directly into the garden.

3. Till under your garden. Many plant pests in your garden will lay their eggs in the soil, on the plants, or the pest is in the larva or grub stage living just beneath the surface of the soil.  Tilling the soil, by machine or by hand, will disrupt the life cycle of these pests.  Some will be buried too deep to survive, some will be exposed to killing freezes, and some will be killed by the tilling process.  You won't get rid of all of them but you will greatly reduce their numbers.

Tilling-under leaves
Once I have removed all the old plant material, I spread a one inch layer of compost on the garden and all the leaves I can rake up. I have a DR Leaf and Lawn Vacuum system but there are lots of other brands out there that are just as good or better.  If you have a smaller yard (mine is 3.1 acres) you can just use a rake. The lawn vacuum I have runs the sucked up leaves and grass through a mulcher and blows that into a wagon behind my lawn tractor so it is even easier to work into the soil. 


Soil loaded up with Fall leaves
Soil biological activity will slow down during the winter but it doesn't stop. Loading up the soil with organic material in the fall will allow most of it to bio-degrade over the winter.  If you put all this into the soil in the spring it would tie up all the nitrogen in the soil and your plants would suffer. The micro-organisms that break down organic material into plant food use many of the same nutrients that plants need to grow. The high level of organic material also helps the soil to resist erosion either from the wind or rain. If you use raised beds, and I always recommend raised beds for home food production, this will refill the beds.  

Lastly, after all the previous is done, I like to put down a thick layer of top mulch (usually ground up leaves and grass) to cover the growing bed.  This helps to moderate temperature swings in the soil and usually keeps it from freezing down below 2-3 inches. That keeps the worms happy and if your soil has happy worms, you have good soil.

This process gives you the opportunity to clean up your yard, put that yard waste to good use, fertilize your garden soil for free (I rely 100% on compost, I never buy fertilizer), and makes the garden look nice for the winter.  Come spring, all you need to do is uncover the garden so it can warm up and then plant.  No tilling should be needed and therefore the worms and other soil organisms are not disturbed. One technique I have used successfully is to leave the top mulch on the garden but cover the garden with clear plastic sheeting to warm it up.  This way I have a pre-mulched garden.  I lay down planks or square paver stones to make my walkways between the beds. I have a mix of raised beds and open, traditional garden space.  But I use the traditional garden space as if it were raised beds by laying in the walkways.

Don't have a compost facility yet?  What are you waiting for?

Composting can be very easy, just easy, a bit of a chore, difficult, or a full-time job. I would have to rate my method as "a bit of a chore" because I am only home four weeks out of the year right now. Composting is a big subject area so I will devote my next posting to the art and science of Composting

The simpliest of composters is nothing more than this.

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