At last we’re having some frost and the leaves are turning in brilliant array, after a very late autumn.
I’m very happy for this because it has allowed much work to be done in the garden which needed doing. When it gets cold early a lot of preparation of soil has to wait till spring. But by doing lots of mulching now, it builds soil all winter, and protects the roots of the perennials in the food forest (a multi-level orchard with trees as the center piece, and herbs, flowers, and vegetables under them in beds).
We now have a full compliment of interns. I only accept 5 at any given time, and we now have Toni, Kiana, Marissa, Amber, and Susan.
(Toni not pictured above) Plus our good neighbor and friend Rhys. They have been very helpful in all the preparation and the projects below have all been learning activities. We have been having a lot of fun too. Nothing like getting hands in the soil, growing up baby plants, and harvesting summer’s bounty.
We have had bumper crops of herbs (drying), greens, tomatoes, okra, and beans late in the season.
The deer have been particularly stressed this year with the seemingly unending drought. It has forced them to go to extreme measures to eat particularly succulent organic vegetables and greens (in my garden, no I’m not running a deer food pantry, but they think so). We had to rework the fence around the annual bed where we’re growing winter vegetables, because the herd moved in and ate the tops off lettuce, Swiss chard, and other greens. They found a weakness in the deer netting. Luckily I think it was only a morning foray because it wasn’t a total destruction, which has happened at other times.
For a deer fence, we used tall bamboo and PVC pipes as uprights and cross pieces to hold deer netting (which we get in long rolls from Home Depot), with gates along the sides.
And along the base of the netting we have placed, and held in place with cable zip ties, panels of used screens (they were nosing under the netting before that). This goes all around the major all-season beds. It has worked well except it isn’t a really strong system. We’re looking into a more permanent solution. But for now, we used what was on-hand with the exception of the netting itself. I like to re-use, recycle, and re-purpose.
We found a location nearby where a bunch of pine trees were being cut to make room for some commercial projects, leaving piles of mixed mulch of fine wood chips and saw dust, with pine needles mixed in. This is perfect top mulch for perennial plants in the food forest. It breaks down slowly, inhibiting weeds, but holding in moisture and insulating roots over the winter. By late spring most of it will have broken down into top soil. It also helps the worm populations with organic matter food.
I purchased a bunch of pansies which laugh at cold weather, and chrysanthemums which don’t mind it much either, and which are perennial.I also got a bunch of ornamental kale and several lavender plants to fill in blank areas in the food forest at the final sale at our local growers outlet. These keep things looking nice and colorful in an otherwise dull and colorless winter garden, and in the spring will provide loads of flowers for the bees coming out of the winter cold.
I spent quite a bit of time starting cool and cold weather plants from seeds in late August thru Sept. I use a wonderful technique I learned from the wonderful horticulturist from Bakers Creek Heirloom Seed Company, to start seeds. It’s especially great to germinate older seeds of uncertain germination rate, thus otherwise wasting good garden space with non-production. He told me he takes unbleached coffee filters, wets them, and sprinkles seeds on the wet surface, then folds it over to encircle the seeds. This is then placed in a sandwich sized Ziplock baggie and labeled. In about a week he checks them for germination. Those that have come alive, he places in seed starting mix in ‘mass plantings’ like a larger pot. Then when they get big enough with two sets of real leaves to transplant, he either places individual plants into little seed cells or little pots, or into the soil directly depending on the plant and the current temperatures.
I modified this system and use half pieces of narrow paper towels, and label the top end of it with a sharpie pen, but only wet the bottom half with a tablespoon of water – just enough to moisten the space for the seeds but keeping the ‘label’ dry. This goes into the baggie. I save quart paper cartons saved from half and half, cut off one long side, and punch holes in the opposite side for drainage. Into this I put my seed mix – 1/3 top soil, 1/3 vermiculite, and 1/3 peat moss. Then once the seeds are germinated, I take the end of a pencil and make little indentations for the germinated seeds in the light soil. If the seed has already grown a little root and stem, I carefully plant each one about an inch apart. They get and are kept watered for moisture but not drenched.
Once the mass planting seedlings are big enough to handle, they get transplanted. I save little Greek yogurt cups, put holes in the bottom with a skewer, half fill with the seedling mix, label, then sprinkle more mix so any roots are covered. This saves so much time and resource. I also use used Styrofoam meat trays from the super market as saucers for these transplanted babies.
This year we started broccoli, many kinds of lettuce, Swiss chard, several other kinds of brassicus (cabbage family) plants, spinach, two kinds of beets, flowers, and herbs. Most of them are now planted into the prepared beds.
In order to add fertility and organic matter to the soil, which is in non-stop production, we figured out a way to make use of several bags of egg shells (crushed), coffee grounds, top soil saved from other projects, crushed granite sand (Quicrete brand from Home Depot all-purpose sand for the worms which need grit for their guts), some hardwood ash from last year’s fireplace, and compost.
We have a tumbler composter which hasn’t worked well to compost due to the dry weather. So, we used it like a cement mixer to mix the various components.
I don’t till, but I do use a cultivator which reaches about 4” into the soil, gently loosening any compacted soil in each bed. Into this loosened soil I make a little hole for each plant, add a handful of the mixed soil as fertilizer, plant and mulch.
To make best use of the bed space, I don’t plant in rows. I use a grid pattern like a zig zag – up and down – think trellis holes. And I mix plants integratively, taking advantage of every inch, but leaving room for the eventual size of the mature plant. Cabbage takes up more space than carrots, so carrots can be planted in the spaces left in the middle of 4 cabbage plants in grid planting as an example. I don’t believe in mono-cropping – all one kind of plant in a bed. Different plants need different nutrients in a bed, so they don’t have to compete so much for the same things.
This year I was lucky to have on hand the gleanings of chicken manure and shaved wood bedding from a large coop from a friend’s flock. This should never be mixed into the soil as the poop is too ‘hot’ with ammonia for delicate roots, and the shavings absorb nitrogen from the soil defeating the purpose. But it makes a nice top dressing which as it gets watered slowly releases plant nutrients. We carefully sprinkled a thin layer of this ‘chickipoo’ around the newly planted babies. Over this we put chipped garden waste run thru our big chipper – quite fine and lightweight.
As the babies have grown larger, we went back and filled in more of the lightweight chipped mulch to give the bed a nice layer of insulating mulch for the winter and the worms.
Around the base of the perennial plants and ornamentals in the food forest, we have added 2 to 3” of the sawdust/pine needle mulch.
I didn’t have enough chickipoo for all the plants but with a goodly layer of organic matter on the soil, by the end of winter, this will have decomposed sufficiently to enhance the top soil. Where possible, we have given the perennial plants some homemade liquid fertilizer from compost tea or manure tea.
We have an array of containers in the garden which are deeper soil than the beds. These make great growing spaces for carrots and beets which send roots down deep. Little by little, we have planted these containers with newly germinated root seeds.
They will need to be covered once the really cold weather sets in, but for now they are able to establish with sunshine and the Indian summer weather we’re having.
I came across some research on how to grow potatoes in the fall/winter/spring. This will be a new experience for the garden. I only usually plant my annual beds on the east side of the garden because it isn’t as steep footing, and easier to maintain. But since potatoes will go in and not show until spring, it will be our west terraced area planting. There are several beds which have dying summer plants. Once the supports and plants are removed, we will put in potatoes in that space.
The technique is new to me but exciting. The beds are given some organic matter, gently cultivated in, then a trench of about 18” deep and a foot or more wide gets dug down the middle with the soil piled up on either side. Into this trench goes 4 to 8” of fall leaves or pine needles. The whole seed potatoes are laid on about a foot apart, and covered with another 4 to 8” of leaves, moist sawdust, or pine needles. Then the excavated soil from the trench is mounded up over the trench, and top mulched. The potatoes have good insulation, and have the whole winter to establish a root structure. In the spring the plants emerge with a ‘leg up’ and produce a much earlier crop of new potatoes.
(Potatoes now in the ground and well mulched)
I plan on planting onions or garlic along the edges of these beds, which the deer won’t eat, making good use of that space, for a second harvest. Because the deer will eat anything else above ground and I don’t want to cover everything with deer netting, this keeps the space productive. Plus onions are protective of the potatoes which are of the nightshade family (as are tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and tobacco).
We tore down the tomato cages and vines which got killed with the recent low frost (froze for an hour at dawn). The tomato cages were stacked, and the beds now open will be planted soon with baby starts.
We had a terrific rainstorm finally about 4 days ago, so we haven’t had to water, but it knocked out most of the colorful leaves around the area, and we’re looking like winter finally. This week we’re expecting a couple of nights in the 20’s F.
We’re almost done with wrapping up the garden for winter. That will be our next post. We actually grow more food in winter here than summer, and we’re already enjoying huge salads from the garden. This is the gathering of greens for our Thanksgiving with friends.