I wrote last time about closing up the garden at the end of the season. Once the first frost comes, I rip everything out, throw it all into the compost, and let in the chickens to clean out the weeds and bugs. It’s not very efficient. It just gives me the closure I look for emotionally before throwing myself into planning for next year.
Instead of seeking a clean break between this season and the next, what I really should do is plant a fall crop. Lots of the plants we grow in the spring are pretty cold hardy. That’s why we plant things like onions, lettuce, and spinach as soon as the soil is thawed enough to work. It’s not like we won’t see another frost, but they can take it. The same applies in the fall. Get them into the ground in late August/early September and they’ll have time to put on a little growth before the snows fly. They won’t really grow anymore once the temperature is below freezing, but they won’t necessarily die off either. You can pick at that kale and arugula all winter long. They may even start growing again in the spring, once it warms up a little, giving you a little heads start.
When we think about trying to grow a garden that sustains us throughout the year, those fall plantings are crucial. They extend the season both into the fall and earlier into the spring. Pretty cool, really, but not going to happen this year. Fortunately, there’s still Market Basket.
Extending the season, i.e. growing our own food for more of the year, is sort of an abstract goal. The difference between what we can grow and what we eat can be made up at the supermarket. If we do better next year, that’s great, but it doesn’t really matter. In fact, it won’t really matter until the unlikely situation arises where we can’t get our food from the supermarket. What happens between now and then is two things, practice and development of our garden infrastructure.
You can’t walk out into the lawn one day and pick a peach. You had to plant that peach years earlier. You had to nurture it, prune it, water it, weed it, etc. Annuals in the garden come with a shorter time horizon, but they still depend on the good soil you build up over time. Farmers used to let a field lie fallow so that it could recuperate the nutrients sucked out of the soil by whatever they were growing. Farmers now use mostly man made fertilizers for this purpose. Gardeners seeking a more sustainable practice replenish the nutrients in the soil by adding compost, rotating what they plant, and planting crops that add important elements back into the soil.
Now, having done all the hard work, a good gardener (read – one whose young children actually sleep through the night) wouldn’t leave bare earth in the beds. The winter rains and snows flow down through the soil, leaching out the nutrients, and carrying them away. In respect to the good soil I’m trying to build, I should plant some sort of winter cover crop. Time’s gotten away from me this season though. I think I’ll have to make do with a bed of oak leaves. I’ll rake them off again in the spring. Not as good as a cover crop, but good enough. They also have the added advantage of my not having to weed them in the spring.
In a better year though, a mix of winter wheat, winter rye, oats, and hairy vetch would be a good place to start. The rye quickly sends spreading roots into the soil, which helps to control erosion. The oats and wheat aren’t as cold tolerant. They’ll whither relatively early, but their remains shelter the soil, rather like a covering of leaves. They will break down over the winter/spring, and give back their own nutrients. Hairy vetch is a cold hardy legume. Legumes are great because they put Nitrogen back into the soil. Most cultivated crops suck a lot of nitrogen out of the soil, so legumes are good. Remember this when you plant your spring garden. Beans and peas make for excellent companion planting.
There are a thousand tasks and tricks to successful gardening that the folks who’ve come before us have developed and passed down. I make a lot of mistakes, but each year is practice. I take solace in the fact that there’s always next year.