I get asked “how does your garden produce so much stuff?” and the answer is always the same, it’s really not me. I spend very little time with gadgets, fertilizers, or fidgeting with the plants, I let nature do what it is well equipped to do, grow.
However, this is not to suggest that I let things run wild. There are specific maintenance tasks that need to be tended to, like pruning tomato plants. I also pay significant attention to soil health, believing that soil more than any other factor except sunshine will determine your garden health. Good soil is a process and I start thinking about my spring garden in October.
It may sound excessive to plan for spring when the leaves are still on the fall trees, but now is exactly the time. Regular maintenance and incremental cleanup start the process. The summer harvest does not start and finish all at one time, the gradual start is paired with a gradual dying off as the days get shorter and the nights cooler. Starting in mid-September I begin thinning out the growth and pulling plants that are at the tail end of their cycle. This incremental approach to cleanup makes the entire process easier on me. It is always surprising to me how much green material a garden can produce, cleaning up in one act can be back breaking.
Now is a good time to talk about compost. Good compost has a combination of green and brown material. Both are essential for good compost and if you are out of balance the resulting compost will be a wet stinky mess or a pile of brown stuff that shows no sign of breaking down. Compost is not just anything that rots, it is a process of combining carbon and nitrogen in a ratio that supports bacteria that breaks down the organic material into nutrients that can be absorbed by plants.
Green waste is wet and slippery while brown waste is dry. Green waste is low in carbon and rich in nitrogen, while brown waste is high in carbon and low in nitrogen; it is the combination of the two along that feeds the bacteria that makes compost beneficial. Strive for a ratio of 2 parts green to 1 part brown and you should be fine. If you have an abundance of brown leaves that you cleanup in the fall, compost them but use this shortcut to overcome the deficit of nitrogen that will result from overloading the compost bin with brown leaves. Ammonium sulfate is pure nitrogen and is readily available at nurseries and big box home improvement stores, throw a couple of handfuls of ammonium sulfate in your compost bin. If you don’t bring the compost into a carbon and nitrogen balance with this method, you risk leeching nitrogen from the soil as the brown materials decompose, depriving your plants of this essential element.
Compost takes time and in order to have compost available to you when you need it, prepare it year round. Pile it up, turn it over, let nature do it’s thing. Mix it in with your soil throughout the year and you will maintain a healthy soil ecosystem that benefits your garden plants when they most need it. I have two compost bins, 1 is always cooking while the other is where the raw materials get deposited, until it is time to rotate.
I compost almost everything that comes out of the garden but there are a few plants that I don’t bother with. At the top of that list is tomato vines, which are tough and stringy, and not worth the hassle. What is excellent in the compost pile is the straw and chicken poop that gets cleaned out of the coop each week. Rich in nitrogen, this stuff supercharges compost.
I’ll plant a cover crop in late November therefore the bulk of October up until that point is spent cleaning up and preparing for spring. Pulling plants that are dying off, repairing irrigation and adjusting coverage, and inspecting the soil for pests are all good activities to do in this down period. Look for grubs in the top 3 inches of the soil, which can be controlled with beneficial nematodes. Soil will deplete over time as plants consume the organic material, and while topping up with compost and mulch is a good way to replenish lost soil material, don’t overlook adding top soil to your beds.
In addition to topping up your soil with compost, diatomaceous earth is a naturally occurring absorbent that is used in commercial soils, like Miracle Grow. You can buy it in nurseries, or you can do what I do, which is go to my local Napa Auto Parts and buy a 25lb bag for $10, a fraction of the price that garden supply stores sell it for. It’s diatomaceous earth and it doesn’t matter that the Napa product is designed for cleaning up oil spills. It works, I mix in one 25 lb bag per raised bed with great results. Diatomaceous earth is also a pest control method but only in powdered form, this product is a granule and is designed as an absorbent. You can get food grade DE at feed-and-supply stores for a reasonable price and it is an effective natural pest control method for everything from ants to slugs to earwigs.
With garden beds cleaned up and turned over, fresh compost added and a cover layer in place I am ready to plant a cover crop that will take me through April, at which time I clear the beds again and move my indoor seedlings out to begin the transition into the ground. This cycle of life is the reward as much as the task for me, I see something growing at every stage of the year.