Why You Shouldn't Put Your Garden to Bed!
Hello! I have been so excited to share this post with you for a couple of weeks now as I have been learning and growing in my own gardening journey, our homesteading journey, as I learn to become a Master Gardener. It's really been so fun, and I am so excited to get working on my volunteer hours in the upcoming growing season and get that certification under my belt. As a person who believes in gardening organically, trying my best to leave the sprays and applications behind, it's been a journey figuring out the best way to "put the garden to bed." What I didn't realize was that most people have this entire process wrong! What do you mean?! All year, we have been talking about how we were going to clean up our garden in the fall, what the best idea for that might be, and our big plan was to just mow everything down, throw it in the compost pile, and be done with it. I wasn't even sure that I was going to have compost to use and figured it would be ready by next spring. I was so wrong! Our compost started looking gorgeous near September, and I was so happy that we were able to use it this past weekend as we did our minimal clean up and cover. The thing is, we really didn't clean up much at all.
Here's why you shouldn't clean up your garden in the fall: you are destroying homes for beneficial insects. That's kind of harsh, but there's truth to it. The more I learn, the more I am beginning to realize that all insects are beneficial. Yes, some of them eat our plants, but as a home gardener who does not have hundreds of acres and thousands to feed, I can be a little bit more lenient when it comes to the insects that I would consider pests. There are different options I can take than reaching for the spray, and one of those is by providing a home for other beneficial insects that are overwintering in your garden, the kind that will eat the pests. Have you ever wondered where insects go when the weather becomes cold, when it starts to snow? I suppose until now I had not really cared to think about it; I was just grateful they were no longer buzzing about my face and nibbling at my skin. They overwinter, which means they find a suitable winter home and lay dormant there until the warm weather returns. Most insects, specifically butterflies and their larvae, caterpillars, wrap themselves in dead leaves. Yeah! All of those leaves that you rake up in the fall are homes for butterflies during the cold months. All of these insects that are beneficial like lady beetles or lacewings or even bees are hoping to possibly find a place in your garden to hunker down.
After I learned that I was kind of shocked and little baffled. Though I loved saving the insects, and I thought that it sounded worth it just leave the leaves behind for them, I knew not everyone in the family would love that idea. As a family, we do like things neat and tidy, and I know that other people enjoy that as well. I wanted to find a great solution that would benefit the insects as well as benefit our soil for the upcoming season. Putting your garden to bed should not be about cleaning up, per say, but about giving it a nice warm blanket for the winter ahead. I decided to try a form of lasagna gardening this year! This is where you layer different forms of organic matter and insulation over your garden soil to help keep everything warm and amend the damage that you may have done in the previous garden season.
Your soil is a sponge. This is such a common analogy that I think we kind of hear it and just let it go out the other ear. But I believe it! I am really into soil composition as we move ahead and am realizing that the more we garden organically, the more importance is weighed upon the health of our soil rather than the health of our plants. You see, it works for a plant the same way it works for our bodies. What you put into it, like healthy foods, gives you a better overall outcome. You have energy, vigor, and can last for a longer part of the day than if you were to feed your body junk. Does that make sense? Plants are the same way. If you feed the soil in the autumn, whether that's with compost and manure (organic matter) or correcting your soil with minerals (Nitrogen, Potassium, Sulfur, etc) then you are going to have a really healthy and rich soil in the springtime. It's more work, but you are going to have tremendously better results than trying to feed your plants fertilizers all growing season long; those are plant junk food!
Last weekend we set off to work! I mentioned lasagna gardening earlier, which is basically exactly how it sounds, stacking layers of organic matter to create a bedding for your garden. It is an easy method that requires zero digging or tilling and results in a really beautiful, fluffy soil for the next season. It's completely organic, and you'll find that for your upcoming growing season, you'll have fewer weeds because they were suppressed beneath the organic matter, better water retention from the mulch, and soil that is easy to work with and not compacted.
If you read my post last week on managing your compost pile, you'll remember that I said compost is a soil amendment, not a fertilizer. From early this spring to now, we managed to create two compost piles, one filled with kitchen scraps and other types of organic matter, and one that was solely chicken manure and chicken bedding. The first pile was a perfect black humus; the chicken manure pile had a little ways to go, but was starting to turn into a brown humus with some bedding left in. We loaded up both piles into the wheelbarrow, and they managed to cover our entire garden space! I was so happy.
Lasagna gardening is simple:
- Clean up your annuals. Any plants that you will not want producing into the winter, like peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, greens, etc. should be cut back and composted. These are perfect green (Nitrogen) additions to your pile! They also make great snacks for your chickens to have a garden buffet. Simply cut back and leaves the roots in place. They will break down over winter. Also a great way to not lose a ton of topsoil from pulling roots out!
- Don't cut your perennials. There are some perennials that require a late summer or autumn pruning. Aside from those, leave most perennials behind like your flowers. Just leave them alone! So many new gardeners will cut down their perennials in the autumn leaving nothing for birds to munch on or insects to hide in. I was listening to a podcast the other day and heard a really great tip about leaving coneflowers behind for birds to land on and eat the seeds. Give them something to eat! And clean them up, prune them, in the spring. This is more beneficial to the plant anyway.
- Don't till! Just leave the soil how it is. If you want, you can let your chickens run loose in the empty beds and find any bugs, weeds, seeds, or leftover plants to eat. They will just naturally starting tilling the topsoil and leave it freshly aerated for you. If you don't have chickens, you really don't need to do this at all.
- Spread a layer of compost and/or manure. We did both! The thing with the manure not yet finishing its compost cycle is that it is totally okay. Half finished composted manure will break down over the winter; in fact, most of the Amish gardeners around here spread fresh horse or cow manure in their garden in the spring. It's not as acidic as chicken manure, so be careful. If you were to use fresh chicken manure, I would spread it in the fall or compost it like we did. It's the most acidic livestock manure you can use, which could potentially put an imbalance on your soil's pH. But contrary to popular belief, I was recently taught that composted manure does not have to be cured. Just use it!
- Create green and brown layers until the cold weather comes. All of those leaves that are housing the butterflies? Put them in your garden! How easy is that? Instead of piling all of those yard leaves into bags and having them sent off, spread them out in your garden and create a beautiful organic layer that will turn into soil. You can also layer in grass clippings, shredded newspaper, peat moss, and coffee grounds. Just make sure, as always, that you have more brown (Carbon) materials than green.
- Finish with a layer of mulch. Mulch is amazing, and it acts as a great insulator and helps the soil retain water. If you live in a similar zone to where we live, you can have a really cold and bitter winter! I am hoping that by adding a nice layer of straw and chipped mulch we will have some really beautiful soil to plant in next spring.
And that's it! Isn't that so easy? If you don't have a compost pile, you can purchase organic compost at most garden centers or find a local farm that might be selling some. If this is your first year gardening, or you are hoping to start next year, now is the time to cut out your garden, amend the soil, and even to get the soil tested! Already, I have been getting a lot of questions about how to correct soil by adding in minerals. The truth is, you have to get it tested. It's not expensive and is so worth it. I will be sending mine in within the next week (after we sod cut the second half of the garden) to see if I need to add anything special to ours. It's just a smart decision to make and autumn is the best time to get it done so that you may add any amendments now before the growing season starts up in the spring. Adding things like lime need to be done at least 3 months in advance before planting. If you are in Iowa, click here to get your soil tested.
If you are wondering why we left some plants behind, some are actually green manures and other will survive a bit longer even with a frost. I have a few young carrots, radishes, and beets leftover that are now insulated and should last a little longer until the ground freezes. I actually just planted our summer garlic, which I am excited to share next week! As for the green manures, these are crops like beans, legumes, and grains. They add nutrients back into the soil rather than take them out. You can find lists of these across the internet, and I will try and share some soon! Right now, I have shelling peas and green beans growing as green manures, or cover crops. Basically, I'll just let them keep growing until a heavy frost kills them, and then leave them be until spring. It's a really great way to feed those nutrients to your soil!
This upcoming weekend we will be cutting out the second half of the garden, ordering our mulch, and getting ready to plan for our upcoming season ahead. It's going to be a really busy one, I can feel it, and I think preparing the soil like this is going to make our lives so much easier. I can't wait to turn up the dirt in my hands next year and see the beautiful humus that we made! I hope you learned something new today. What fun things are you hoping to plant next year? Let me know in the comments!