Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Marshmallows, Lasagna, and Cover Crops

We cooked marshmallows over the tomato vines last night. After fighting, and losing, our battle with the tomato blight, I was tired of walking past the withered, sick brown vines each day on my way to the barn. We’ve never had the tomato blight like we did this year. Every time I looked at those vines I worried that we’d never grow a healthy tomato again. I don’t know if burning them will help kill all the spores they left behind, but it felt right. Plus my kids love any excuse for a bonfire (that includes the biggest kid who lives here and still loves to play with fire). Have a marshmallow - it’s time to start next year’s garden.

Nobody’s garden looks good this time of year. Everything is brown, withered, and dotted with weeds. A few things are still growing. I was careful to keep the fire away from the lettuce, spinach, and peppers that are still doing their best in our garden. The peppers we are getting this time of year are small and funny-shaped. The hot peppers have all turned bright red – even the jalapeƱos. I know that any morning now I will walk outside and find them all shriveled from the cold and liquid inside. Before the fire yesterday, I picked every pepper I could find. I washed them, cut them in half, and seeded them. Then I filled Ziploc bags with them and put them in the freezer. According to the book, Stocking Up, the classic preservation guide by Carol Hupping, it isn’t even necessary to blanche peppers before you freeze them. The book does say you can blanche them if you feel compelled. I’m all for easy, so I’m taking my chances and freezing them without the blanching. I’ve also roasted peppers before freezing and they’ve worked out fine. I’ll let you know how the naked peppers turn out.

Besides burning the garden, there are other things to be done to prepare for next year. It’s very tempting to leave the skeleton of the garden lying until spring. After all, nothing’s going to grow there, right? Wrong. With a small effort this fall, you can have luscious, rich soil in your garden next year. Here are two options.

Lasagna gardening. Ever since learning about lasagna gardening about eight years ago, we’ve been using it each fall to enrich our current beds and to add new ones. It’s a great way to re-purpose all kinds of yard waste and works like a charm. Lasagna gardening is simple. You select a new spot for a garden (or cover the current garden space. This is how I secretly enlarge my garden a foot or two each year. Slowly I’m taking over the entire yard and no one notices!). Cover the space with a thick layer of newspaper. Don’t use the glossy circulars, stick with plain newspaper. It’s best to do this on a calm day. Wind makes this task pretty difficult (although it does make it an amusing spectacle for your neighbors and terrifying one for the cats).

After the paper is down, wet it thoroughly with a hose. Next, layer on whatever you want – compost, pine needles (unless your soil is already pretty acidic), leaves, grass clippings, wood ash, horse manure, more paper, peat moss, etc.) Basically, you want to layer “brown” (dry dead stuff or paper) and “green” (compost, fertilizer like stuff – you can even use liquid fertilizer). We keep adding layers right up until Christmas and then leave it alone until spring. The winter cooks the lasagna garden and creates rich wonderful soil by spring.

The best part about starting new gardens with lasagna gardening is you don’t have to dig up the grass to begin a garden. Just put down the paper and start layering. I’ll never “dig” a new garden bed again. Lasagna gardening is great on an existing beds because it kills off any weeds and continues to keep them down in to the summer. You just dig right down through any layers still visible to plant. But the best thing about lasagna gardening is it’s free – you (or your neighbors) already have everything you need to make a rich, organic garden bed by spring.

The other option for the winter is to plant a cover crop. We’ve never done this, but after reading about it, I think that’s been a mistake. In my quest to figure out how to rid our ground of the blight and how to make our soil healthy, I learned all about cover crops. Leaving your garden bare is a huge loss. By planting complimentary winter crops in your garden you can improve your soil, adding nutrients lost from summer crops. It also keeps out the weeds, and, maybe best of all, it looks good all winter. It’s inspiring to drive by a field of winter wheat – all emerald green against the barren landscape around it. That will be my garden this winter. After we till up the burned ground, I’m going to plant cereal rye grass.

You can solve a whole host of soil problems by planting the right thing in winter. Plants that have long root systems help to aerate your soil and loosen it up for the plants to come, creating tunnels for the next crop to follow. In the spring when you till or harvest your winter crop, the root system will die off and create soft porous soil for the plants that follow. I’m hoping that will help my carrots to grow straight – they are normally forked or bent, we even get perfect right angled carrots due to the rocks and hard ground down below the surface. It’s a great freak show, but they’re difficult to peel. Check with the extension service in your area or a good seed/feed store to find out which cover crops work well for your zone.

When it’s time to take down a cover crop it’s easiest to till it under, but you can also hoe it or pull it up for your compost pile. If planting a cover crop makes you nervous, try a small one first. You can and should plant cover crops on your empty areas in the summer too for all the same reasons. I hadn’t thought of it as a cover crop, but I always try to plant something in every bare spot, even if it’s just gourds. Barren garden left alone is a haven for weeds and that doesn’t do you or your garden any good. Marigolds and sunflowers are also excellent quick growing cover crops. I stick marigolds in any empty spots for their color and bug repelling properties, but they also get big and crowd out any weeds that try to infiltrate.

I know you thought you were finished with your garden, but do this one last thing and then you can be done. (Unless you want to plant garlic –more about that later) Plant a cover crop to enrich your soil or lasagna garden it. Do one or the other and the pay off will be rich. As always, get your kids involved in this process. They can learn a lot if you explain why you’re planting something for the winter and they’ll love the idea of planting a lasagna garden!

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