Winter is a nice time to just let your garden go unattended for a bit. Hopefully you tucked your garden in last fall, mulched and/or cover cropped, and planted fall Brassicas and garlic.
Now is the time to start to prepare your beds for your first spring planting. Most of those Brassicas have probably been harvested and eaten, and your garlic is hopefully growing tall and loving this mild winter. Leave that garlic alone…it needs to stay in the ground for another 4 or 5 months.
We generally receive our first spring plants sometime in Mid March. Once those plants arrive, they will need to get planted in a timely manner. Holding starts in small pots “until you’re ready” generally results in stressed plants, stunted growth and failure to thrive. You really want to plant your starts as soon as you receive them to take advantage of the best window for growth. Which means you need to be prepared when I call you and say “I’ve got plants!”
This year with the weather being so mild, there is really no excuse not to be prepared. I know we are all stressing out about the lack of rain, but you can spin that and try to view this time as a little gift from Mother Nature…perfect gardening weather!
Preparing for planting should not be terribly involved, and my recommendations will vary slightly depending on whether you are growing in boxes or in the ground, whether or not you have mulched, and if you’ve planted a cover crop.
If you planted a cover crop, either in boxes or in the ground, now is the time to chop it down. It may only be 6″ tall, but that is valuable organic matter that will build your soil as it decomposes. You want to give it a little time to decompose before you plant, which is why you should do this now. When you chop down your cover crop, you can do a couple of things. You can cut it with scissors or chop it with a spade and just leave it lying on the surface of the soil to decompose in place. Ideally you would cover it with a little straw to hasten that process. Or, you can turn it lightly under, which will also hasten the decomposition process. As I tend more and more toward a no-till practice in my own garden, I rely very heavily on mulch of all kinds. Mulch helps keep the soil moist and soft underneath, and creates great habitat for decomposers and other microorganisms. But still there are times when turning the soil is appropriate, and it will also hasten the decomposition process.
We will explore the To Till or Not to Till Question in another blog one of these days.
See the photos below. The first photo is a shot of Sierra Gardener Linda Toll’s cover crop. Next you see her simply cutting it down with scissors, then lightly forking it over. The last photo is what the bed looked like when she was all done. You can see that she had mulched with straw over the winter, and the cover crop grew right up through it as intended. That straw can just get mixed right in with the cover crop.
This bed will stay like this until it is time to plant. At that time, the bed can be lightly raked and re-shaped to be ready to plant.
Here is another cool thing about cover crops. We have talked about why one plants a cover crop…in a nutshell, addition of organic matter to the soil which increases microorganism activity, fertility and water holding capacity. The cover crop we plant is a mix of legumes and grasses. Legumes are known for “fixing” Nitrogen, which is the nutrient essential to plant vegetative growth. How do they do that? Check out the photo below. You will notice little nodules on the roots in the photo. These are nodules containing Nitrogen, which will slough off into your beds and become an available nutrient for your plants. Cool! Pull up one of your own legumes and see if the nodules are there.
If you are growing in boxes, you may notice that your soil is getting a bit compacted. This is one of the inevitable downsides of using boxes, but nothing an hour or two with a digging fork won’t solve! I would recommend thoroughly forking up the soil in your garden boxes and adding a little new compost if you are able. Use a digging fork, not a shovel. Shovels can actually create their own compaction as they smooth out the soil, and they are not nearly as effective in breaking up the soil clods. Be systematic. Fork from the edges inward, and try to go as deep as you can without snagging the gopher wire at the bottom. Turn the soil over in the box and use your fork to break up the clods. Rake it out smooth and voila! Don’t forget to move the drip tubing aside when you do your forking, and put it back whey you’re done.
I have posted a link below to digging forks at Peaceful Valley Farm Supply. There are less expensive models available at most gardening and hardware stores, and I have even seen them at the ReStore from time to time. Yard sales are another good place to pick these up!
I hope this information is helpful and inspires you to get out to your gardens! Remember, spring starts will be here before you know it!