Here comes the cold weather… farewell garden 2012!

In addition to my running and all of the other things I do,  I grow a HUGE vegetable garden every year.

Even if no one has yet been able to prove that food grown sustainably or organically is not healthier or more nutritious than food grown conventionally, that is not the reason why we grow some of our own food. Although it may be easier (and cheaper) to buy our food in the store like everyone else, I like how gardening keeps my in tune with the seasons.

There is nothing better than vegetables picked fresh from the garden only a few minutes ago.

An emerging trend is locally-grown food.  Well there is nothing more locally grown food than food  grown a hundred yards out your door!

Last weekend was our last warm weekend before the temperatures turned cold. I was busy harvesting the last vegetables and preparing the garden for the winter.

I worked a little bit on our hoop house, a project I began last year, which I haven’t completed yet. One of these years, I will get it finished; then we will be able to harvest cold weather crops and greens all winter long. The ends are up, all that I need to do now is put the covering into place.

I do enjoy those last few weeks of the garden season in the autumn.

In early spring, one dreams of the upcoming season; seeds are ordered and transplants begun. In early summer the first greens are enjoyed, but soon begins a flurry of activity as the garden is prepared and planted.

During the high season of summer, the warm weather crops are enjoyed but the weeding seems endless. In dry years, the need to irrigate is constant. I am grateful for automatic timers to ensure sufficient watering at the optimal time- late evening and in the middle of the night.

At  least once or twice a summer our garden is decimated by hail. My feelings are ambivalent with every summer thunderstorm: I hope for rain and dread the hail.

By the autumn, the days are warm and nights are cool. The need for weeding and irrigating have all but disappeared.

This is the season when cool weather crops are at their best: kale, cabbage, brussel sprouts, broccoli, beets, carrots, mustard, chicory, arugula, spinach, and Asian greens such as Bok Choi and Tat Tsoi.

All that is left now is to enjoy the end of the season, to bring in the last of the root vegetables, to remove old dead plants from the garden, and to put away hoses and other garden tools.

Sometimes, by the end of the season, it is easy to be ready to be done with the garden and leave it as it is.

But the autumn is an important time; what we do in the autumn will often affect how the garden does the following year. It is a time to prepare the garden to “go to sleep” for the winter so it will be ready to go (ready to grow?)  the following spring.

I have heard it said that gardening is not about growing plants- given the right conditions they will do that pretty much themselves- but rather about building and maintaining the soil. I agree.

I am careful to never allow there to be open or uncovered soil for long. In the growing season, either mulch is applied or new crop planted. Open soil is asking for a weed to sprout, or for the soil health to degrade.

If there is a spot where one crop is harvested but I’m not ready to plant a new one, I make frequent use of green manures. I like buckwheat in the summer because it grows quickly and has a weak root system- plus my honeybees love the flowers. In the late summer/early fall I prefer to plant oats and berseem clover because they winter kill and are good for the tilth of soil.

We make good use of compost. All weeds, kitchen leftovers that the chickens can’t eat and all old spent vegetable plants goes into the compost pile. I make layers alternating with chicken and horse manure.   In our arid climate, we need to add water to our compost pile- in the summer I have a sprinkler system that waters the pile for a few minutes a few times a day.

Our compost pile is full of red worms. Unlike the more common earth worm, red worms do better in manure or compost piles than in the garden soil. I have no idea where they came from but am very glad they are here.

After 6 months or a year, garden waste is converted to rich black gold. I apply it liberally to the garden every spring.

In the fall, I “single dig” parts of the garden. Unlike the more labor intensive and much deeper “double-digging” single digging involves turning over a spadeful of soil at a time and leaving it in place. I’ve tried both and didn’t think the extra effort of double digging is worth it.

We do have a rototiller, an original Troy-bilt. I use the rototiller primarily for mixing compost and manure into the soil, and preparing the seed bed in the spring. I inherited it from my Dad and remember as a child watching and listening to him work the soil with that rototiller every spring.

I love that machine. It is one of the few mechanical devices that I know how to work on and tune up- it makes me feel as if I have some mechanical skills- even though truly I do not. You could say I have worked out sort of a relationship with it.

Our native soil is rocky and calciferous- few things would grow well there.

However, very fortunately dark top soil was placed in our garden spot by the previous owners for which I am grateful. It is the best soil for growing, though a little bit “clayey.” Thus,  I make sure to add organic matter liberally every year to maintian a soft fluffy loam.

Sometimes, if I have extra horse manure, I will apply a few inches in the fall to avoid it being too “hot” or have too much nitrogen for the plants. By spring, the horse manure has decomposed in place enough for the soil to be perfect for planting.

Many cole crops such as kale and brussel sprouts can take a light frost, they even taste better after a frost compared to before.

The carrots can remain in the ground as long as they are protected with a mulch. As long as the ground is not frozen solid, they too can be dug all winter long. the taste of carrots also improves with the cold weather as starch is converted to sugars.

I also plant my garlic and shallots in the fall. They stay underground, covered with a light mulch of straw, developing roots, waiting for the first warm days of spring to sprout.

Garlic does well here, with some of our bulbs growing as large as the “elephant garlic” one occasionally sees in grocery stores- but our garlic has a rich earthy-spicy real garlic flavor that elephant garlic lacks. We grow an heirloom German hardneck garlic and plant cloves every fall from the previous years’ crop.

There are few things as good as roasted homegrown garlic eaten on homemade sourdough bread.

This year I tried something different. I planted my fava beans in the fall. Fava beans are very cold hardy, the plants can tolerate a frost of 10 – 15 degrees.

I thought, why stress about getting the seeds into the ground in the spring?  Why not just plant them in the fall and let them come up in the spring when the weather is right?

There are many other crops that could be potentially be suitable for this: peas, lettuce, radishes, mustard, spinach, some cole crops- basically anything in which the planting instructions say “plant in the spring as early as the ground can be worked.”

For years I have observed seeds come up as “volunteers.” These are seeds that were accidentally dropped or lost on the ground, later to sprout in the spring after spending all winter in the soil. It’s what weed seeds do.

Why not do the same with cold tolerant vegetables to save time and stress in the spring?

However, when I told others of my experiment, it’s amazing how many people told me, “You just can’t do that!”

Well, why the heck not?” I ask.

There is nothing worse than following conventional wisdom, or doing things the way we always do them, because that just the way that we do them.

This is true in gardening.. and also in science and in medicine.

At worst my experiment will be a failure, I’ll be out of the money it cost to buy a few seed packets.  Success or failure, I will learn a valuable lesson either way.

Soon it will be firewood cutting season. We heat our cabin mostly with wood, with propane for backup. Wood is best harvested the year before it will be needed and allowed to dry in the forest before it is brought up to the house to be burned.

There is a saying, “Firewood warms you twice: when you cut it and when you burn it…” more on this later. It’s time to get back outside and finish up the last of the fall garden chores.

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