Saturday, December 22, 2012

Your Garden in Winter

Due to my Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move and the whole hassle of setting up a new house and starting a new job I took a long break from this blog. I'm ready to get back to it now.

We are well into December (and survived the supposed end of the world) but most of the US has not frozen over yet so I'm going to get back to the subject of gardening. I do a lot of work on my gardening program in the fall and winter.

As some of you know I was living in The Netherlands for the past three years. Before I moved there I put my garden space into caretaker mode. In the late summer of 2009 I cleaned up my garden and roto-tilled everything under. Once that was done I hauled in two F250 pickup truck loads of wood chips. I got these for free at the county conservation center. These wood chips were mostly pine, which tends to attract ants. But while that might be a problem for an active flower bed it was no problem for my use. The idea was to bury my garden under six inches of wood chip mulch to prevent, or at least decrease, the weeds taking over the garden.

This photo shows my garden in late September 2012.  After three years the wood chips rotted down to just a thin surface layer and weeds were starting to get a foot hold.  The planting boxes contain two year old saplings of willow and poplar. I started them from hard wood cuttings when I trimmed a willow and poplar tree on my property. I now have six of each tree and I will plant them in early spring 2013 as part of a wind break on the west side of my property.

This garden is twelve feet wide and forty feet long, which includes the two raised-bed planting boxes and the blueberry bed at the far end. There is also a very productive Raspberry bed on the north side of the garden and an empty strawberry bed on the far side. I hope to plant strawberries this spring, which will give me berries in 2014.  Over the past ten years or so I have incorporated several tons of compost, leaves, grass, and wood chips into the soil. It is very fertile although after three years of dealing with high carbon wood chips I know the nitrogen level is now very low.

In past years I have provided nearly all the fresh vegetables needed by three families during the growing season. This coming season will be the first time I have been able to work in the garden every week instead of only one or two weekends a month. It should be good.

So, getting back to the garden. Here is a close-up of the bed. As you can see there is not much left of the mulch cover and weeds are poking up here and there. After this picture was taken I ran the roto-tiller over the garden three times at 90 degree angles to fully incorporate the composted wood chips, the occasional weed, some wood ash, and the thin layer of undecomposed wood chips. The soil was absolutely full of worms, which is always a good sign.

I don't have a picture, but will get one soon, of how the garden looks now. After I tilled the soil under I used my DR Leaf and Lawn Vac to collect freshly cut grass and fallen leaves. If you have a large yard, the money to buy one, and the covered space to store one, I highly recommend these towed-behind vac systems. I happen to have a DR model (an older model which they have since discontinued) but there are several other optins out there. I have had some issues with my DR such as the tube clogging constantly and I needed to have the carb rebuilt this past year. But otherwise it has been a great tool to clean up the yard and provide literally tons of free mulch and feed-stock for my composting center. It looks like the new DR models have fixed some of the things I least like about the one I own. But they are expensive and I don't think I will replace it until it is completely unusable.

The reasons I buried my garden again are:
    1. I never like to have raw soil exposed to the elements. Wind and rain will remove soil and nutrients very quickly.
    2. I need to get nitrogen into the soil because the microbial action of breaking down the wood chips used up most of this vital nutrient. Grass is very high in nitrogen. The leaves bring lots of trace elements and minerals to the soil.
    3. The six-eight inch layer of grass and leaves will insulate the soil, keeping it above freezing, long into the winter. This will allow the worms and microbes to continue breaking down organic matter and continue to build my soil.
    4. Weeds grow even in the winter.

While it might be winter with cold, blustery days, my garden is still hard at work.

I do not endorse any commercial products. I do occasionally present my observations. Below is a small list of companies that provide lawn vac systems. Read and research before making a purchase.

DR Power tools

Cyclone Rake System

Billy Goat equipment

Agri-Fab equipment

Swisher system

Trac-Vac equipment (Probably the biggest selection of options at one company)

I have also used a motorized Leaf blower/vacuum in the past and it did a real good job sucking up and grinding DRY dead leaves. They were chopped up into tiny bits and were great mulch and soil amendments. I emphasized DRY here, they machine I have has a plastic fan/chopper blade and can only handle dry, dead leaves. Some of the newer, more powerful models might do more. Check out this advertisement for an example. Mine is a Sears model from at least 15 years ago and it still works great.