If you haven’t tried fallowing your garden, using raised garden beds or planting a fall garden, I’m here to make an introduction and to sing their praises. After 15 years of gardening, it was a great joy to employ these methods which yielded numerous benefits. Mind you, these are not new techniques, they’re just new to me. If you’ve been contemplating these approaches, I’m here to cheer you on to go for it! They really work!
Life had other plans for me that prevented me from putting in my annual veggie garden the last two growing seasons, so I used that time to solarize my garden plot and let it fallow. Such old-fashioned methods of leaving the soil mulched, growing a cover crop for green manure or even covering it with plastic are believed to be more natural ways of improving the soil without the use of chemicals. Nutrients can be replenished and soil balance restored when production crops aren’t grown and harvested. Solarizing fallow ground also kills insect eggs and larvae, breaking pest life cycles. Though we introduced raised beds this year, we also reserved sections of the garden for direct-sowing in-ground. Yields were plentiful while bugs were minimal. Glory be!
Poor soil has been an inherent part of gardening here in the clay of Mid-Missouri. Building the soil has taken time, strategy, ongoing effort and patience. After years of discussion and contemplation, my boyfriend constructed twelve 3-by-5-by-18-foot raised beds, laying them out in three rows of four boxes separated by 3-foot paths in between. It was refreshing to have control over the soil composition in the beds. We dug out the 8 to 10 inches of “good soil” we’ve built that was about to be covered by pathways and shoveled it into the beds, thus creating sunken walkways around the boxes which were then filled with fast draining creek gravel bringing the top of the paths back to their original level.
No longer would the flash floods of spring and summer drown our plants; raised beds alleviate root rot as they provide improved drainage. The individual boxes make managing specific soil amendments easier, too. You can acidify, deep mulch, or fertilize each bed individually. We topped each box with a partial bag of commercial garden soil whereas next year we’ll incorporate the compost/chicken manure blend we started this year. Not only does my back thank me for not having to stoop as far to tend all the various aspects of the garden but I even found that elevated boxes seem to deter some crawling insects.
Unfortunately, soil quality has only been one of my challenges. Another formidable foe is weeds. I’ll disclaim here that I’m not known for doing things the easy way. My garden method has long been direct seed planting or seedling transplanting into bare ground. This is followed by mulching little by little with grass mulch as I intersperse mowing the lawn with mulching and sowing more seeds or starts.
This process takes time in my 32-by-75-foot garden often resulting in the bare ground sprouting with weeds before I can get to hoeing the rows, planting and mulching. Weeding thus becomes my first task in spring and the race continues all season long with the weeds inevitably outpacing me. Our permanent raised beds created a new infrastructure (and paradigm) with drainage walkways in between which we covered with professional landscape cloth and topped with ½ inch, river-tumbled pea-gravel to reduce all of that area that has historically been a perpetual battleground with weeds.
My garden now looks and feels like a nursery! Weeding in the beds themselves was virtually non-existent. Now, I can actually focus on the plants I’ve chosen to grow rather than on all of the weed volunteers that have gobbled up disproportionate amounts of my time in the garden.
Though I’ve long wanted to try a fall garden, planting a garden in the height of summer was not my intention this year. Let’s just say that it took some time to construct our new raised beds. My seed starts (and I) were patient. Finally, on July 1, I transplanted my starts into the new beds and watched them grow and flourish. It was amazing that I had cucumbers about the same time as fellow gardeners who had planted months earlier.
The primary challenge I found to the raised garden achieving its growth potential in the heat of summer was the obvious: water. Blessedly, we had generous seasonal rains to keep the plants growing steadily. Next year we’ll use a drip system to keep water flowing as needed. Another risk facing a fall garden (and gardener) is an early frost; you have to hope for a long growing season in order for plants to reach their full harvest potential. It could have been my imagination, but I found my late-summer harvest yield seemingly had a stronger, certainly more robust flavor to the fruit and vegetables. Whereas you can always taste the soil and the sunshine in fresh produce, this yield also had an infusion of dense flavor unique to the end of the season. Harvest is easier on your back with raised beds though I’ll admit a little more frenzied as the threat of frost loomed.
We did end up harvesting tomatoes green and hanging them to ripen, a method I found to work quite well as long as you have ample room to store these clusters while they take their time to ripen. At the rate they are going, I’ll have ripe fruit into mid-November. What a treat! Canning season has been extended with the fall garden but I’m thankful to take full advantage of the bumper crop. Plans for next year are already germinating in my mind.
Since so much of gardening seems to be learned the hard way, it is nice to share success when you manage to achieve it. Eureka! is the theme for my garden this year with positive discoveries made from fallowing, expanding into raised beds, and mixing it up with a bountiful fall garden. I wish you well on your own journey of discovery in the garden.
Sarah Joplin is a mid-Missouri farmer at Redbud Farm. Though she enjoys travel, speaks French and is involved in an art business in California, Sarah is equally happy homemaking and getting her hands in the dirt. Read all of her The Yellow Barn blog on GRIT.
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