Spring may seem and feel like it is a long way away, but we start our preparation for the gardens in the late fall. After the last crop is harvested we immediately start preparing our growing beds and rows for spring planting. We address two concerns with our preparation, augmenting the soil and protecting the soil.
We start by removing all plant waste from the beds and rows. Some gardeners like to leave plant material where it is in the garden over winter and have it rot into the soil. In our area it tends not to rot completely over the winter and it would be necessary to till the plant remains into the soil or remove it entirely. We prefer not to till excessively so remove the plant material to composting bins in the fall and clean up the growing areas. Removed plant material will one day return, but as rich compost.
The soil in New Brunswick tends to be acidic. Pelitized lime was added to selected areas based on middle and late summer soil analysis and crop observations over the summer. We use the lime sparingly so the pH can be gradually raised over the next few years. All other augmentation used our own compost and shredded leaves. All raised beds and raised rows got a generous one inch layer of our home-made compost plus a layer or two-year old leaf mold. Each fall we gather and shred leaves from the property and add around forty to fifty bags of leaves collected from nearby towns. A ride-on mower is used to clean up and shred the leaves on the property and a 5 HP shredder tackles the bags providing enough leaves to replenish the leaf mold bins and provide protective mulch for the soil.
All growing beds and rows are either planted with annual rye and or covered with a six-inch layer of shredded leaves to protect against winter erosion. The annual rye is cut and incorporated into the top layer of the soil in the spring. By planting time next spring, the leaves will have started to decompose and all we do is pull them back “scratch till” and plant. Wait for seedlings to develop or set out your hardened off plants then push the shredded leaves back as mulch for the start of the growing season. All non growing areas of the garden are protected with a generous layer of old hay or straw, whatever is available. By using old hay we have avoided problems with weed seed germination. This layer protects against erosion and builds a mulch layer to stifle early weed growth.
Our fall preparation for spring is done and the gardens put to bed awaiting the first blanket of snow. Seed catalogs are arriving and the gardening planning for next year begins.
We have moved in an organic direction with the vegetable gardens for the past five years. We decided that if we are going to grow vegetables it makes sense to make the effort to produce great tasting, nutritious vegetables free of artificial fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals. It was a moving back to the land kind of idealism of growing and processing our own food that made the concept attractive.
We heard all the excuses about lower production, insects will prevail, and it is too hard to go organic. Our wish to have healthy great tasting food, however put us to work researching garden methods that would be productive, low maintenance, and incorporate organic production.
We decided to start with raised beds. The “upper garden” now has eight raised beds and we have started using Square Foot Gardening. Two years ago the “lower garden” was started. It is a 30’ by 75’ area and is developing as a Raised Row Garden. A section of the lower garden is for experimenting with other techniques. An earlier post describes our summer 2015 experiments including Straw Bale Gardening.
Here are some things we feel are important if you are going organic.
1. Learn about your soil
2. Learn about natural organic fertilizers
3. Learn how to protect your garden and keep it healthy
Today’s posting, Part I of our Learning Curve addresses soil.
1. The structure of Soil is the foundation of organic gardening. It is necessary to know as much as you can about the soil’s texture, pH levels, and the eco-system.
Texture relates to the components that make up the soil. The three main components are sand, silt, and clay. The percentage of each in a soil sample will determine the texture of the soil. Soil structure can range from sandy and loose to clay and compacted. Soils high in sand content tend to drain quickly and not hold moisture needed for growth. Soils high in clay content do not drain well and hold too much moisture that can lead to root rot and kill your plants. A “feel” test can help determine your soil texture. Sandy soils will feel gritty and when moist will not clump together. Silt soils feel powdery when dry and will clump loosely when damp. Clay soils will clump tightly when squeezed and will mold together when damp.
Healthy soil also has organic matter supplied by decaying plant and animal waste. Healthy soil has that nice earthy aroma that gardeners thrive on. The organic matter is necessary for plant nutrition and feed for the living micro-organisms living in the soil. Everything from microscopic bacteria, fungi and beneficial insects make up the soils eco-system. The soil needs to be alive! Repeated use of commercial fertilizers over the years can “kill” the soil. The soils eco-system is the basis of organic gardening.
Time to recall your high school chemistry acids and bases. The pH scale goes from 0 to 14 with 7 as the mean. The pH of the soil is important as it will determine the plant’s ability to use nutrients in the soil. Most vegetables need a pH level around 6.5 in order to uptake the available nutrients in the soil. Home test kits are available at your garden center to test your soil pH. We test each bed and row every year and plant or adjust the pH accordingly. Adding lime to the soil will raise the pH level decreasing acidity. Adding sulphur to the soil will decrease the pH level decreasing the alkalinity. Be sure that the additive you use is approved safe for organic gardening. More on plants and the effects of pH on nutrient uptake and soil pH modification can be found here.
Soil structure is so important to the success of the organic garden that we constantly amend the soil. Successful organic gardening means making your own compost, lots of it and adding to the growing areas. It means planting cover crops as “green manure” and most importantly, testing and monitoring your growing beds. Always remember to keep records of your results.
The more you improve soil structure the healthier your garden will be. Healthy plants are disease free and less attractive to detrimental insects. The stronger your soil structure the lower the labour needed to enjoy your own nutritious, chemical free fruit and vegetables.
We are still learning and have a long way to go yet. Should you wish to dig deeper into soil structure, check out Phil Nauta at the The Smiling Gardener.
In the next post, we share our learning and experiences with natural fertilizers and tips to keeping a healthy garden.
Still waiting for the snow to go!
Tom and Di