My garden is not big, at least not by most standards. I’ve estimated it to be about 400 square feet this year and will be expanding it to nearly double of that next year. Even at that though, it’s still not a big area that I grow on. I take a lot of care and time to look into and try out many different methods of growing in that space from using cages, to trellising, to companion plantings and all have helped in one way or another.
Still, even with all the trickery and good use of space and planning, there’s really still only one thing that has the most impact on the small scale growers productivity in my opinion: soil. I need to make sure that I not only use my soil with care in not over using it with the same nutrient loving crops over and over again in one place, but also that I give them the right amount of off time to recoup, rest and regenerate before the next season. And one thing comes to mind when I think of regenerating my garden. Can you guess?
Ever walked through what is normally a lush and fertile summer forest in the fall? What do you see? Leaves. Barren trees, and lots and lots of leaves. They cover the ground, insulating it from the extremes of winter weather and snow and provide shelter and food through the winter for the worms. Worms that will, through the winter and spring, gradually bring all of that wonderful organic material back into the ground to compost and rot and become food for the plants to grown there the next year. That’s the basis of my plan for my autumn garden beds this year, to try and mimic (albeit very loosely) the way that a natural ecosystem would function. Although I took it a little further.
This year I have at my disposal something that I didn’t have last fall … chickens, or more to the point, chicken manure. As I cleaned and tucked the beds in for the winter, I not only added a lot of very carbon rich leaves to them, I added a few healthy scoops of nitrogen rich chicken manure. It takes a few months for fresh manure to age and compost to the point where it’s no longer so HOT that it will burn young plants, and tucking it in during the fall is a perfect time for that. Come early spring I’ll do a pH test of the soil to determine where I stand, and adjust as necessary.
Leaves are also being used as a final layer to a new bedding area that we just added this fall. It’s a lasagna garden – a garden bed built with different layers of organic materials designed to break down over the winter into a rich humus for planting in – and I gave it a final turn to break up the layers a little before the snow flies, and am covering the entire bed with leaves as a final step. The leaves will help insulate the bed from freezing too hard over the winter I hope, giving it a better chance at completely breaking down before I plant in it next year.
I don’t think there’s a better friend to the small scale farmer, or in my case large scale suburban gardener, than good healthy soil that is rich in nutrients and organic material. It nourishes the earth, helps retain moisture in the heat of the summer, and provides the building blocks for strong plants the next season. And of all the ingredients that I can think of to put to the most useful purposes in building that healthy soil, few can compare to leaves.
You can reach Paul Gardener by email, or check his personal blog at A posse ad esse.