Features and Occasionals

Putting the Garden to Bed

By Katherine Pioli

There are still signs in my garden that tell of the once prolific abundance of food that grew there this summer. The long stalk of my black beauty zucchini, a four-foot long green boa constrictor with leafy appendages some reaching two feet across, displays dozens of stump scars where I severed the pulpy fruits from the plant’s hearty rope of vine. I still harvest from it, a small anemic club here and there, but it’s glory days are over. Like the tomatoes, the peppers, the green beans, the potatoes, everything is slowing down and pulling back towards the earth.

Farmers and gardeners, however, still have work to do. Planning and preparing for the next season begins now. Attention turns towards soils and composts and late season, hardy vegetables. This autumn, CATALYST has gathered from some local urban farmers tips and advice for the home gardener on how to get your beds ready for the coming winter and distant spring.

Tyler Montague, Keep It Real Vegetables, 6th season urban farmer, garlic wizard

In our growing zone, the time to plant garlic lasts from the beginning of October until the ground freezes solid sometime in January. You could go out and chisel out a garlic bed in the middle of winter but generally I would avoid doing that.

In my experience, garlic likes lots of compost. It does best in well-aerated rich, dark, chocolaty soil. Definitely make sure your soil is loose before you plant. Till it or turn it with a broad fork. And always pull out all the weeds.

Start with good seed stock, ideally from another local grower so it is already well adapted to our area. Choose from the healthiest plants with the biggest cloves. The rule of thumb is that bigger cloves equal bigger bulbs. Take the cloves pointy end up and push them into the soil about 2-3 inches deep. Cover them over and give it a loving pat. They don’t need to be watered or anything. No mulch. Just walk away. Mulch can actually harm the garlic. It can make it difficult for the new shoots to push through the soil and it can hold in too much moisture and rot the bulbs.

The garlic magic starts the following spring, generally by the beginning of April or the end of March when the green tips start poking through the soil. In the past few years, mine has started growing in mid February.

Carly Gillespie, new co-owner of BUG Farms, local food advocate/organizer

At BUG Farms we have a heavy crop set up. Without enough space to leave a plot fallow for a year, our intensive planting doesn’t give our soil much time to rest and rebuild. So to rebuild soil we use cover crops and green manure. This is an especially good technique for people who only have small backyard garden where the never soil never gets to rest. Growing a cover crop builds up soil and rejuvenates it by adding organic matter. It adds nutrients to garden beds and protects and mulches the soil over winter.

Since all of our property is under production during growing season, our cover crops go in later than is optimal and we have to choose hardier plants like winter wheat, rye, crimson clover or winter vetch, usually it’s a mix of these. The crops will only have a little time to grow in fall before snow, but they come back in the spring.

If you’re growing a cover crop, don’t let it grow to maturity (when it starts seeding). Let it grow to about 8-10 inches and then pull it and toss it in your compost. If you’re growing green manure, it needs even less growing time and instead of pulling it, you will till it into the garden bed and let it decompose there. Legumes and cereals make the best green manure. Always till a green manure in the spring. You want to till it in about 6-8 weeks before you begin planting to give it time to break down, although it can be tricky because sometimes the soil isn’t dry enough before March.

Kevin Nash, Earth First Eco-Farm, 6th season urban farmer, small footprint guru

I don’t add much to my compost in the winter, but in the fall I spend a lot of time building good compost for the following season. When building compost, you want a carbon to nitrogen ratio of about 7:3. (Think of carbon as the brown things you add to your pile: straw, leaves, ashes, cornstalks, dead plants from your end-of-season garden. Think of nitrogen as the green things you add: food waste, grass clippings, clover, young green plants and weeds.)

I gather as many tree leaves as I can and mix that with the field waste that’s left over at the end of the growing season. Then I find a nitrogen source like clover to balance all that carbon. Then, you put everything together in layers. Make sure that each layer gets a fair amount of water—not sopping, just a nice spray. If you build your compost properly and get it ready early enough, through about mid-October, it can generate enough heat to stay hot through winter. Usually I build mine late in season. It freezes over winter and doesn’t get hot until it thaws in the spring and the bacteria activate again.

Mele Tua’one, Mololo Gardens, 3rd season farmer, long-time seed whisperer

There are certain garden vegetables that are actually enhanced by frost and cold weather. If you are growing carrots, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, or cauliflower, leave them in when you pull everything else out for the winter. All of these cold-hardy plants improve in flavor when stressed by winter cold. After the first frost, the plant thinks it’s dying. So it releases all its sugars to stay alive and the plant takes on a sweetness it didn’t have before.

You can leave these vegetables in the ground and harvest them well past the frost. Protect them with a little straw mulch and tuck them in under a garden row cover. They can last through the winter and even into the spring for a sweeter, early season harvest.

For some of our other plants, we have hoop houses to extend the season. You can make simple floating row covers with a small frame made of PVC pipe and some plastic greenhouse film. Some plants need special care to make it through to the next year. Artichoke are biennials that are very tender and won’t survive without help. They need dual coverage, mulching with straw and a nice cover with a tarp.

This article was originally published on September 27, 2014.