As the new growing season approaches we can look forward to yet another year that will in many ways (or at least some ways) be different than previous years.
Nature will present us with an entirely different set of variables to work with. When you work with nature, you’ll come to expect that.
Gardeners who are not flexible and want to stick to a rigid routine will be disappointed if they don’t get nature’s full cooperation.
Make Plans to Adapt to Weather Conditions
Seed starting charts and charts telling when crops are suppose to be planted into the garden are fine to use as a guide, but just remember that nature doesn’t use them.
- Pay attention to the weather.
- Even more importantly – hedge your bets. (Another way of saying always have backup.)
The way do that is to succession plant when you start your seed. That way if one planting turns out to have been too early or is damaged by some unexpected cold, you’ve got younger plants to fall back on.
Balance your Garden
Organic matter is what balances your garden and gives it the ability to be flexible and “ok” with almost anything nature decides to dish out.
It not only conditions your soil for better drainage, but at the same time holds necessary water for plants to use when rain doesn’t come. (Of course, I am assuming that you’re covering your soil to help prevent that water loss.)
It’s the perfect food for your soil and thereby, for your plants. Nutrients are released exactly when the plants need them.
Sometimes your plants might be a bit slower in growing (to start with), but you’ll avoid all kinds of problems. (For example, aphids that come as result of too much nitrogen.)
Get Away from that Chemical Mindset
Try to get away from that chemical mindset that seems to be programed into most of us by marketing. You know what I mean: add a little of this and little of that and it will make things grow bigger, better, faster.
Bottom line on that is: don’t add anything other than organic materials to your garden (including organic fertilizers) unless you are know 100% what you are doing and why.
Conventional agriculture thinks it can add chemical fertilizers that adds 3 elements to the soil (NPK) and all will be well. Of course, all is not well. The soil is eventually depleted. Pests arrive because they love the poorly nourished plants that grow on the poorly nourished soil.
Nature has all kinds of elements that are needed in soil in order to produce healthy plants and nutrient dense food. About all you have to do is add the organic materials (like leaves, kitchen scraps, etc.) that nature provides. Nature will turn that into the perfect fertilizer.
She has the detailed information required. And if we let her she’ll do all the complicated stuff for us and do it perfectly.
One More Example before Closing
One of the things you see recommended for growing onions is the addition of nitrogen. That’s promoted almost everywhere and one would think from reading that you absolutely could not grow onions successfully without the addition of nitrogen.
I’ve NEVER in 36 years added nitrogen to an onion bed. And I grow 1,500 to 2,000 onions a year. When I grew for market the number was 3,000 a year.
Dixondale Farms – probably the worlds largest onion grower – is a source that recommends fertilizing onions with nitrogen when planted. (They’re conventional growers.)
Oddly enough the following piece of information comes from Dixondale as a tip to help keep onions from sprouting in storage:
- Grow your onion plants with a low Nitrogen supply, which will postpone the harvest date. You will get smaller onions, but they will not be prone to sprouting.
I’ll have to take their word for the part about “smaller” onions. I guess it depends on what you consider small. I’ve never had a problem.
With seed starting, keep an eye on the forecast, but hedge your bets by having backup.
To get ready for whatever else may come, your best bet in the garden is soil that has lots of organic matter.
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Theresa – let’s go over this again: Thanks to the inspiration from your book, I committed to natural raised beds last year, with 6″ of straw mulch. They worked great. But as I try to break the tilling habit, do I just put down new mulch over the existing beds – do I reform them (they broke down a bit) – do I hoe in the cover crop, then add new mulch to the beds? I kind of feel like I need to just flatten everything out and start again, but am pretty sure that is defeating the point….
Kate, yes, you put down new mulch over the existing beds whenever they get low on mulch.
In our heat and high humidity summers (in Va. and NC) mulch breaks down rather quickly and if not replaced the bed can end up bare before we know it. You want to keep all soil covered at all times. How much mulch you have on at any one time depends on whats going on in the beds.
For example, soon you’ll plant your onions. You can “sprinkle” (see the book) the onions with straw a little every day and let that sift down between the onions to cover the soil. Obviously, you’re not going to be able to get 6 inches of mulch on a bed newly planted with onion transplants. But the more straw you can add as the onions develop, the more the onions can have that water they’ll need in dry times (because the mulch holds the reserves in) and the more weed free it will be.
To mulch a bed with onion transplants (young onion seedlings) is a job that takes a bit of patience and is not necessarily done in one day, but rather a few minutes each week as they grow.
Other beds that are planned for warm weather crops like tomatoes, cukes, etc. can be heavily mulched right now. When it’s time to plant, just pull back the straw where the plant will go in.
What you do with cover crops will depend on what you have planned for the bed.
For example, if you are planting tomatoes into the stubble of winter rye, all you need to do is make a hole in the stubble and plant the tomatoes. Cover the rest of the bed (stubble and all) with straw. That’ it.
If you have a bed that was planted with oats last fall, it will have been winterkilled by Jan, Feb, or March. It you are planting warm weather crops like tomatoes, cukes, squash, peppers, etc. you can – -like the example I gave with winter rye stubble — make a hole and plant. Then cover the bed (oats and all) with straw.
If you plan a cool weather crop for that bed — like lettuce, kale, turnips, etc – you can either pull the oats (it’s easy to do by spring) and lay the biomass around the edges of the bed to decay. Plant the cool weather crop. Cover lightly with straw. Also cover the oat biomass with more straw. And as the crop grows add more straw (or whatever mulch you use).
OR you could turn in the oat biomass into the soil about 3 or 4 weeks before you plant. Cover the bed with straw. Before you plant you can smooth out the bed with a hand tool or rake.
You can hoe in cover crops or turn them in with a shovel —IF that’s what you want to do. That’s usually more work than I can handle.
I love planting into stubble. No work involved except making the hole, planting, and covering the bed with straw. The stubble disappears by summers end.
If I have some type of cover like buckwheat in a bed that I want to plant with beans for example, I’d pull up the buckwheat (easy peasy), lay it aside for a few minutes, plant the beans, and scatter the pulled buckwheat evenly over the bed, and add a sprinkling of straw. As the beans grow through the mulch of buckwheat and straw I’ll add more mulch if they need it.
The worms will pull all the buckwheat biomass into the soil and it will disappear rather quickly.
There is no right or wrong way. Just think out the process in conjunction with what your purpose for the bed is.
With a bit of forethought you can probably avoid turning in anything.
All organic matter that you put on top of your beds will be “tilled” into the soil by the various creatures in the soil. They will do that work for you if you let them.
When you talk about “reforming” beds because “they broke down a bit” – I am assuming you mean the beds flattened some and soil may have shifted to the edges or the paths.. You can use a rake or your favorite tool to pull the soil from the edges and paths back onto the beds.
Sometimes I even take a few inches off the top of the rich soil in the paths with a shovel and throw it back onto the beds. Then I fill in the paths with more straw.
I hope I have answered your questions. Feel free to ask again if you need clarification.
Thank you Theresa for that thorough response to Kate’s question. I found it so helpful and I’m sure many others will too.
Angela in New Zealand.
Thanks for letting me know how helpful it was Angela. That shows me what readers might need regarding future posts.
This page today is just perfect for me. I think I get it now: about cover crops and the plants they will end up sharing the garden with as the growing season progresses. Also like the idea of scraping the paths every once in a while to replenish the bed tops. This is another reason for me to keep my paths well mulched.
So glad this was helpful to you Bill.
And yes, scraping the paths every once in a while to replenish the bed tops is one of my favorite things to add an extra boost to the soil in the beds.
Regarding reasons to mulch paths: they’re endless.
Might help to review this post: https://tendingmygarden.com/why-mulch-your-garden-paths/
Thanks for letting me know your thoughts.