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.
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.
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.
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.
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?