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Prepping for the Winter with Lasagna Gardening

November 10, 2012

Despite harvesting most of my veggies several weeks ago, I only got around to actually pulling the plants out this week. Fortunately, digging up my garden helped me better understand what was going on under the soil. While these processes are usually invisible to me, it helped me decide how to prepare my garden for next year’s work.

 Garden before winter prep

The before picture.

The first thing I noticed was our soil’s structure. You never realize how strong your plants are until you try to remove them. The eggplants had a thick trunk that reached down into soil and required some serious strength to pull out. As for the cherry tomatoes, I didn’t even bother. It took long enough for me to cut the plants’ twisted branches from the fence without trying to track down their roots. In contrast, other plants were easy to remove. The large tomatoes and peppers were practically falling over, their roots nearly exposed. This difference illustrated a fundamental contrast – that despite the quality of our soil, it’s very shallow. On one hand, black, crumbly dirt full of worms and other macro-organisms fell through my fingers.

High quality soil in our garden

This is the good stuff. If only all of it was like this.

While the quality produced somewhat healthy plants, their roots didn’t go down that far. The soil below what I’ve worked to build over the last two years is largely clay, difficult for roots to break through and lacking in nutrients. That fundamental weakness led to the tomato plants continuously being vulnerable to bugs and mold.

Shallow pepper roots

My poor peppers. They produced well, but never rooted solidly.

Sadly, there’s not much I can do about the shallowness except repeat what I’ve done in the past. On the larger scale, the U.S. is losing 1% of its topsoil every year to erosion from conventional agriculture. This is 10 times faster than it’s being built. What’s particularly frustrating to know is that this topsoil isn’t just the quality stuff – it also includes the clay crud and in other places, sand. So in some ways, I’m fighting a losing battle. Fortunately, I have tools to reverse this decline. This year, I’ll be lasagna gardening again, piling up feet of organic matter that will break down over the course of next spring and summer. While I can only build an inch or so per year, that’s a lot better than the alternative.

Secondly, I noticed that this year started a losing battle with weeds. Last year, I spent hardly any time weeding. This year, the weeds started a real offensive attack. While we were on vacation, they moved in from the lawn, invading the pathway down the middle and the edges. By the end of the season, they had crept up again, with ground ivy sending its rhizomes. To minimize my issues next year, I’m laying down cardboard as part of my lasagna gardening regime. I had laid it down the first year because it acts as a barrier between the old soil, including weed seeds, and the new organic material. I didn’t bother last year because we had so few problems with weeds and I was afraid it was blocking some of the roots. Considering that we had the same root problem this year, I don’t think it was the cardboard so much as what was below it.

I’m also going to be more strategic with the cardboard than I was in the past. The first year, I didn’t bother lasagna gardening down the footpath because we weren’t going to grow plants there. However, I realized that this poor, compacted soil without a barrier was perfectly suited for weeds, which are adapted to grow in unfriendly places. After they establish their base on the path, they spread into less vulnerable parts of the garden. By spending a little time to improve the soil in the path, I should be able to head weeds off at the pass.

Third, I noticed that many of my plants were restarting the growing process. When I pulled the garlic and potatoes in the summer, I replanted a few that were too small. While the deer dug up some of the potatoes, others were sprouting! In addition, some of the onion seeds I planted in the beginning of the year somehow migrated and started growing as well. Instead of pulling them out, I cut off the tops and will let them go dormant until the spring. To prevent smothering, I’m going to lasagna garden around them. I’ll also be planting more garlic this fall to complement what’s already there. Garlic is supposed to overwinter because it produces very little unless it’s exposed to below-freezing temperatures. Forgetting to do this last fall was one reason I had a very small garlic harvest this past spring.

Sprouting garlic

Our out-of-season garlic

So far, I’ve just gotten part of the first layer of my lasagna mix down. I plan on following this “recipe”:

  • One layer of cardboard
  • One thin layer of leaves
  • One bag of LeafGro from my county’s composting services
  • Two or three layers of newspaper
  • One thick layer of leaves
  • Two bags of LeafGro
  • The compost from my worm composter and regular composter
  • About a foot to a foot and a half of leaves

This year, I’ll cover the entire thing with a tarp. Besides making it look a bit neater to the relief of my neighbors, it will also prevent the leaves from blowing around. The soil near the tomato plants may have been a bit shallower than elsewhere because a lot of the leaves blew away from that particular area last winter.

So that’s my plan for winter preparation. Although everyone thinks of spring as the time for gardening, I do most of my hard work now and watch it pay off later.

If you garden, do you have a winter preparation plan?

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. November 11, 2012 5:27 pm

    In addition to garlic, what else do you plan to plant for next year?

    • November 12, 2012 10:51 am

      I’m not sure yet – I usually don’t decide that until the spring. I still have the blueberries, strawberries, mint, and thyme, which are perennials. I’ll probably plant peppers and tomatoes again, as I eat them a lot.

  2. November 13, 2012 12:16 pm

    I’m wondering if you’ve tried planting a green manure over your lasagna stuff in the winter? That is, topping it off with a layer of finished compost, then planting clover or a soil builder mix as a cover crop to be mowed down in the spring. I’m trying that next year, but the logistics are still a puzzle (among other things, our leaves fall later this year than is recommended for planting cover crops), so I’m hoping to find somebody else with some insight, via the power of magic google.

    • November 15, 2012 11:13 pm

      I actually haven’t done it, although I’m intrigued now! I’ve used green manure in a community garden where I used to volunteer with mixed results. We planted vetch and it seemed to grow, but not improve the soil much. I’ve had clover come up without me trying in my garden and the areas with it don’t seem much better than the areas without. I think it just doesn’t compete with the amount of organic matter you’re laying down through lasagna gardening. The one issue I could see with doing both is that usually you’re supposed to shovel the green manure under in the spring, while I leave my lasagna layers intact when I plant. I just use potting soil or Leafgro and make a little hole in the leaves. I’d be afraid that if you left the green manure in place that it would be too much competition for new seedlings.

Trackbacks

  1. The Slacktiverse
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  3. Good Gardens Make Good Neighbors « Will Bike for Change (or Pie!)

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