Posts Tagged ‘straw’

Why Grass?

Step 1: Pull the weeds. Preferably barefoot.

Step 1: Pull the weeds. Preferably barefoot. You won’t get them all, but this will give the grass seed a fighting chance.

Iiiinnnhale. Duuude.

Wait- wrong one. Don’t know all the rules about that one, so it’s on hold. Too bad, too. Hemp happens to be a super useful material as anything from clothing to supplemental animal feed. Selling the buds would really just be a bonus income. However, lawn grass happens to also be good for more than just ornamental purposes.

But who would plant grass during drought conditions? Despite the flooding up in Boulder, most of the state is still under some sort of drought condition. In fact, the drought conditions are part of the reason the flooding was as bad as it was. Water slides right off the surface of baked-hard ground. The reason I am planting grass now is, in part, to do my part to reduce future droughts and flooding. A lot of people assume that xeriscaping and other water- and environmentally-responsible landscaping techniques require scraping off your grass and installing rocks or concrete slabs. At best you get some scrubby-looking native flowers. That’s not necessarily true.

Step 2: Dig the ground over. I did it one shovel-full deep, but the further down you loosen it, the easier it will be for the roots to grow.

Step 2: Dig the ground over. I did it one shovel-full deep, but the further down you loosen it, the easier it will be for the roots to grow.

When you want to fill a bowl with water, you pour water into it from above. If you put a plate over the bowl, you catch a little water in the plate, but the rest of it ends up on the counter, completely bypassing the bowl. If you cover the bowl with a sponge, though, some of the water lands on the counter, but some of it does make it into the bowl. More soaks through if the sponge was damp to start with.

Our bowl is the aquifer that provides the water in our wells. We’re close to the Ogallala Aquifer. By putting in rocks and concrete, we are creating a plate-like surface which shunts the water off into streams rather than giving it a chance to soak into the ground. Water that ends up in the ocean does us as much good as water that lands on the counter. The dirt that is either left totally bare or covered with rocks quickly becomes about as permeable as concrete, so not actually pouring the concrete on it doesn’t give you much advantage. Healthy plant life, on the other hand, has roots that break up the solid soil. They also tend to keep at least some water around their roots, given half a chance, so you don’t just get a sponge over the bowl, you should have a damp sponge. This is the best we can hope for, since we can’t pour rain directly into the aquifer.

Step 3: Add the grass seed. Note that the ground is uneven. That helps the water to stay  long enough to soak into the ground.

Step 3: Add the grass seed. Note that the ground is uneven. That helps the water to stay long enough to soak into the ground.

Note that I said “healthy plant life.” Putting in a lush, mono-culture of Kentucky Blue Grass will pull more water out of the ground to keep it growing than it could hope to help return. It also tends to demand more fertilizers, herbicides, and maybe pesticides. Those kill off the fauna in the soil that help keep the soil permeable to both water and roots. You don’t necessarily have to plant local flora, though I would suggest it, but you do need to think about what flora will actually do well locally. Colorado is a harsh state. The details of why it’s harsh depends on your location, but all locations have pretty serious problems when it comes to growing plants.

Step 4: Cover with several inches of straw or clean leaves. This will keep the seed moist until it can get roots established.

Step 4: Cover with several inches of straw or clean leaves. This will keep the seed moist until it can get roots established.

Planting a variety of local grasses in your yard might mean that it’s not as perfect as the Jones’ yard, but it gives you a few advantages over them. For starters, you can spend less time watering, weeding, and fretting about it and more time enjoying it. You won’t have to keep your pets and kids off of it after chemicals are applied. It will also be able to handle more abuse from said kids and pets. When you plant plants that want to be here, they will grow willingly. When you plant a variety, the particular type that does well there will thrive. This means that you might have different grasses in the sun, the shade, and that weird dry spot, but you should have grass in all of them. Healthy grasses also out-compete most weeds. They may need some help in the first year or two, but after that, the grasses should take care of their own weeding.

The stepping-stones are so I don't walk on the new grass. I'm only doing a section at a time since the ground is hand-turned. Also, I don't want to steal too much of the dog's yard at a time.

The stepping-stones are so I don’t walk on the new grass. I’m only doing a section at a time since the ground is hand-turned. Also, I don’t want to steal too much of the dog’s yard at a go.

Possibly the most important reason for planting healthy, non-chemically-grown grass in your yard is that you are creating top soil for future use. Once upon a time, people grew a large percentage of their food right in their own back yard. When Big Ag fails- and it will- we will need to start doing that again. If you start creating a healthy soil now, you’ll have less work to do later to put in a garden. In the meantime, you could also experiment with eating the leaves of any dandelions or lambs-quarters that happen to shoulder their way into your lawn.

Going back to the original question- Who plants grass in the middle of a drought? Maybe you should.

Plant between August and October so cool-weather grasses sprout in the fall. This gives them a head start on weeds in the spring. You can overseed with warm weather grasses in the spring to keep your lawn green all year.

Plant between August and October so cool-weather grasses sprout in the fall. This gives them a head start on weeds in the spring. You can overseed with warm weather grasses in the spring to keep your lawn green all year.

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Urban Homestead Tour: Day 2: Part 2

How pretty is this coop? Starting with something simple is good- but this is something to aspire to.

How pretty is this coop? Starting with something simple is good- but this is something to aspire to.

Sorry for the delay. Jury duty, you know. It’s a rather fascinating process, actually, but I think I’m glad I wasn’t picked for that particular case.

Stop three on day two was cob building with Niko and Brandi Woolf (ooh- another blog!). Sadly, I missed a fair amount of this lecture because their backyard is set up to maximize its use rather than to fit the maximum number of people. It was a very popular lecture. Quite possibly because it was how to build weather-tight buildings and ovens using cheap to free materials.

The word “cob” comes from the Old English word for lump. To make the material, you mix one part clay with one part manure (he uses horse for his buildings), and after it has sat for a week or so and the enzymes have worked, you pull cobs, or lumps out of the water. That is then mixed with one part sand. The finer the sand that you use, the finer the finish on the wall. Your insulation is generally perlite or straw.

That's one happy chicken. You know, if we would close the coop and leave her in peace.

That’s one happy chicken. You know, if we would close the coop and leave her in peace.

The first building we saw was the chicken coop. The thick walls keep it cooler in the summer. The large overhang helps with that, and it helps with protecting the walls from the rain. In the winter, it works the opposite way. He closes off some of the ventilation to stop drafts and the hens are perfectly comfortable without any extra heat. They did buy a couple of 2x4s for the basic structure, but other than that, it was all free and reclaimed materials.

Feed me!

Feed me!

The second was the oven. I think one of my favorite parts about cob building is that it fits an imagination much better than your standard building materials.

When you are building, you want to try and build daily. It takes a while, but you don’t want your cob to get too dry before you apply the next layer. You also don’t want it to dry too quickly, as that can result in cracks. A couple tips he provided were to keep the work in progress covered and to leave holes in the top of today’s work, so that tomorrow’s work can fit into it like a puzzle.

The eastern side of the greenhouse.

The eastern side of the greenhouse.

Speaking of taking a while, his greenhouse took about two years. It’s an earthship with the open end facing due south. That means that it takes full advantage of the winter sun, but as the sun moves higher for the summer, it’s somewhat protected. Unlike the coop and the stove, this one could potentially run into building code violations. As an unheated, nonresidential building, if it’s short enough and has a small enough floor-space, it shouldn’t need a permit- but check your codes! You don’t want to spend two years building something just to have an annoyed neighbor rat you out. (It seems like any trouble from homesteading tends to come from a cranky neighbor. Consider bribing them with veggies, eggs, milk, or honey. It will also help you meet your neighbors.)

You can even plaster with  colors.

You can even plaster with colors.

The very outer layer should start about 18″ off the ground, and should be protected under a sturdy roof. However, it is the sacrificial layer, so it should get replaced every one to three years depending on the wear. The upside to this is that you get to re-explore your artistic side each time.

The very last one was talking about building chicken coops with Lindsey and Herbert Aparicio- The Goat Cheese Lady and her husband. We also met their guard dog- an Anatolian cross. Apparently they are fantastic guards from predators. Unless the predators are humans. Then they just want to be petted.

I think he would have climbed in someone's lap given half a chance. Such a sweetie.

I think he would have climbed in someone’s lap given half a chance. Such a sweetie.

Speaking of dogs- of all the predators we have around here, dogs are the worst. We did hear on the tour one story of someone who had a chicken-eating dog that stopped when the older dog, the bad influence, passed away. However, in most cases, once a dog realizes chickens are mobile food, you probably can’t let them mingle. The other side of the coin is that if you can convince your dog that your chickens and other critters are, in fact, part of the family, they can be the biggest part of your protection for your farm animals. This is usually done by raising the dog from a puppy with the animals. However, whether your dog can mingle with the critters or needs to be on the outside of the fence, it can be very helpful. Cats are also a problem while the chickens are smaller than cat-sized. Again, they are useful for rodent control, but keep an eye on them.

Make it dual-purpose whenever possible- a way to deal with mud and a way to rebuff predators.

Make it dual-purpose whenever possible- a way to deal with mud and a way to rebuff predators.

As far as inanimate protection goes- remember that your fence is only as good as your gate. Don’t forget to close them. A rule of thumb for visiting big farms is to leave the gate as you found it, whether it’s open or closed. I expect the same applies to little urban farms. (Although if I run into an open gate, I do usually ask if it’s supposed to be that way, just to be on the safe side.) Lots of predators will try and dig under your fencing, but if they run into barriers right at the fence line, they generally won’t think to move out a few feet and dig a longer tunnel. To achieve that, you can place concrete slab or very large rocks on the surface at the base of the fence. You can also dig your chain-link into the ground. If you go straight down, you need to go down about two feet. If you flair it out, you don’t need to dig it in as deep.

Clearly reclaimed materials- and a very cool result.

Clearly reclaimed materials- and a very cool result.

When it comes to your runs and chicken housing, beauty needs to come second to function. We saw some gorgeous coops on the tour, but none of them sacrificed the necessary bits for the pretty bits. Whether you’re building a mobile coop or a stationary one, also bear in mind that heavier really is better. If you can pick it up easily, so can a curious dog, or child, or a gust of the wind we have around here. He prefers to build with 3/4″ plywood whenever possible for that extra weight and sturdiness. Think about your materials, too. Plastic and PVC can be chewed through. good, old-fashioned metal chicken wire and chain link is pretty impervious to that. You will also want to consider building your coop a couple of feet off the ground. This will give the chickens shelter from sun or unexpected rain without requiring them to go back in the coop itself.

I love the edging on the raised beds. They have pipes under them for hot air in the winter to be able to grow more crops out of season.

I love the edging on the raised beds. They have pipes under them for hot air in the winter to be able to grow more crops out of season.

Using chicken wire, 3/4″ plywood, and concrete slabs doesn’t mean you have to buy them new, though. He is also all for salvaging materials for building. He also did a fair amount of building using the rough outer edges of trees from a local sawmill. It gave everything a more artistically rustic look and I have no doubt it was cheap to free, since those pieces couldn’t be cut into “standard-sized” boards. They also use their neighbor’s leaves for bedding through the winter. It seems to be a popular use for something that really shouldn’t be going to the landfill.

Hello, Ma'am.

Hello, Ma’am.

For your chickens- you can’t go wrong with Rhode Island Reds. They’re sturdy and pretty steady producers. Another good one is the White Leghorn. Apparently Leghorns in general are smaller, so they eat less, but they’re steady producers. The White Leghorn might not be pretty, but it’s very sturdy. A couple of others that might be suited to Colorado are the Star chickens and the Wyandotte. When your hens get old, bear in mind that you need to be more careful when you stick them in the crock pot, but if you do it right, the meal you end up with is often much more flavorful than the youngsters raised specifically for the pot. If you feel like keeping the elderly hens, though, he had one that at the age of 12 would still pop out an egg every so often.

Transplanting 2

It needs some help.

It needs some help.

The same day I planted the RCG bed, I also stuck a few things in the ground in Showcase 2. The last post was getting a bit wordy, though, so they are being posted separately.

It doesn't look bad . . .

It doesn’t look bad . . .

The bed that was the potato bed last year had been pretty neglected. I planted the garlic in the fall, after digging out the potatoes. Not all of them came up, but it’s not a bad crop considering the level of neglect they suffered over the dry winter. At this point, I’m not gardening as my main food source, so anything I get is mostly a bonus. I’m still too early in the learning stages to depend on it totally, though that is the direction I want to go.

 . . . but this looks better.

. . . but this looks better.

When I uncovered the bed, it was still a little higher than the path, indicating that it still had quite a bit of space for air and water to wend around the roots. This was, in part, because it was pretty thoroughly dug over when I was digging out the potatoes right before I put the garden away for the winter. However, it is still a young garden, and the exercise is good for me, so I double-dug everything but where the garlic was growing. Just fyi, barefoot shoes are awesome for everything but double-digging. When I discovered a section the dog had clearly lain on when she broke in, I think I might have bruised a bone or two from jumping on the shovel. However, in the end, it did look and feel a lot nicer after I was done.

I'm still figuring out what I want to grow in the blank spaces.

I’m still figuring out what I want to grow in the blank spaces.

This garden bed got fewer plants. I wanted the parsley to be close to home because I love parsley, and it’s convenient to have it in the back yard. I also picked up one pumpkin and one butternut squash. They both like to sprawl, and Showcase 2 has more room for that than the RCG bed. They are also something that gets picked later in the fall, possibly after I am done with the RCG bed, since it is mostly hot weather plants. Will the marigolds get swamped by the squash vines? Yes. But until then, they’ll add a splash of color to the garden. If you’re picking a pumpkin, bear in mind that some varieties are more suited for cooking, and some are more suited to becoming jack o’lanterns. If you don’t know which is which, do what I did and ask someone that works at the greenhouse. If it’s a good one, they’ll be able to tell the difference. I was rather surprised that the “Cinderella” pumpkin was good for eating, but that’s why I asked instead of guessing.

The perennial garden. Maybe.

The perennial garden. Maybe.

The last bit I put in was some thyme and flowers. There is a wire buried below that line of rocks that I discovered last year. (Don’t forget to call 811 before you dig. I’m lucky I didn’t electrocute myself when I discovered it the hard way.) Rather than leave this section bare and boring, I’m planting thyme, which is a perennial, and marigolds and violas that may reseed themselves next year. This section was not dug over first, but if the plants decide they’re happy enough to grow this year and come back next year, the roots will help to loosen the soil that I can’t loosen with a fork. The benefit, aside from herbs and flowers, is that I am making that much more soil a little more inviting for decomposers.

The plants should make a bigger impression once they've grown some.

The plants should make a bigger impression once they’ve grown some.

Setting the plants in depressions and re-covering the bed with straw is even more important in Showcase 2 than in the RCG bed because it does not have an automatic waterer. Therefore, when I do water it, and if it ever decides to rain again, it is even more necessary to funnel the water to the plants and shade the soil to preserve the moisture. The potatoes, as you can see, are quite happy with the arrangement.

Happy 'tater plants.

Happy ‘tater plants.

Transplanting

Phelan Gardens was packed. Hello, Memorial Day weekend.

Phelan Gardens was packed. Hello, Memorial Day weekend.

As I’ve mentioned before, I got a slow start on prepping my beds and getting things in the ground this year. However, given how unpredictable the weather has been this spring (more so than usual for Colorado), I would rather get my plants in late than risk a late frost. Potatoes will do fine with one, but tomatoes, peppers, and squash will not. I got my Ranch Community Garden bed turned on Friday, and planted it yesterday- Wednesday. I purchased most of the plants on Saturday, but I waited to put them in because I wanted the blood meal to have half a chance to filter through the soil. Also, the straw and a couple of weeds that were turned in will start decomposing. This eats up the available nitrogen that my plants need. While a few days isn’t enough to really get things settled down, it was all the time I had.

These are ready to go in the ground.

These are ready to go in the ground.

I missed the plant sale at the Denver Botanic Gardens, so I went to Phelan Gardens to pick up most of my plants. By going there, instead of to, say, Lowes, or a grocery store, I was able to not only get some heirloom tomatoes, but I knew that many of the plants were grown right here in Colorado in their own greenhouse instead of shipped in from some lush nursery on the west coast. If it’s raised here, then there will be less shock when it deals with having to grow here. The other perk of waiting a couple of days to plant my plants after I bought them is that they were able to sit outside and “harden off” before they went through the shock of being transplanted. All of the frost-sensitive plants were sold from in the greenhouse, so sitting them on the back stoop for a couple of days let them get used to the harsh sun and wind that comes with not being under cover.

The Brandywine tomato (on the right) almost looks more like a potato plant at this stage.

The Brandywine tomato (on the right) almost looks more like a potato plant at this stage.

I’m most excited about my tomatoes. Nothing beats a garden tomato. Even the “vine-ripened” ones that you pay too much for at the grocery store can’t hold a candle to one you actually pick off the vine yourself. I got four plants, two of a size to slice, two of a size to eat whole. Three are heirlooms, and one of the heirlooms is yellow. It’s actually called a pear tomato, so I’m really excited to see what it looks and tastes like a little later this summer. One of the heirlooms even has differently-shaped leaves than the others. Genetic diversity is important. The more identical plants or animals are, the more likely it is that they can all be wiped out by the same disease or weather event. The tomatoes were planted with a pretty purple dwarf basil that contrasts nicely with the orange marigolds. The marigolds are to help attract pollinators, and to reduce the nematode population.

Don't forget to plant for aesthetics, too. Just because I'm planting food, doesn't mean it can't be pretty, too.

Don’t forget to plant for aesthetics, too. Just because I’m planting food, doesn’t mean it can’t be pretty.

For most plants, the general rule is to plant them as deep as they were in the pot you took them out of. However, there are a few exceptions. Tomatoes come in “determinate” and “indeterminate” varieties. The determinate varieties grow to a particular height and then bush out. They can also be called bush tomatoes. They tend to fruit all at once, which means that for a couple of weeks, you are swamped in tomatoes, but that’s it. Indeterminate varieties just keep growing taller, and they tend to fruit fairly constantly from the time they first flower until a frost kills them. All four of mine are indeterminate, so I got to take advantage of another cool thing about them. You can bury them pretty much up to the top. Any buried leaves will become roots. By doing this, you are automatically extending the root system. Strong roots make for strong plants. When you’re buying a plant, you want a short, bushy one. If you ended up with a tall, leggy one, you can also use this to take some height off the plant to help it hold itself up.

That big branch out to the left is at ground level.

That big branch out to the left is at ground level.

The other thing I planted in the RCG bed is peppers. I’m not so big on them, myself, but my roommate loves them, so that gave me an excuse to collect some. I might have gone slightly overboard with picking different varieties, but between freezing and drying the extras, we should be able to keep up with them. The cayenne already has a flower and two buds. She’s taking this reproducing thing seriously, getting a jump on the pollinators before the other peppers start making demands, too.

Hot to trot, baby!

Hot to trot, baby!

I think you can see fairly well that the plants all are each in their own little saucer of earth. The idea, particularly for new transplants, is  to catch all the available water and funnel it directly to the roots. Being transplanted is hard on a plant, so by making sure that they have easily accessible water, I am giving them their best chance at recovering and thriving. That’s also why I moved the drip lines to drip as close to the plants as possible.

That's a lot of peppers for a non-pepper person.

That’s a lot of peppers for a non-pepper person.

The wind may or may not let the straw stay in place, but I re-buried the garden in it to help retain moisture. As of the end of April, we are back to having only half of the expected moisture, year-to-date.  You will see that I planted the plants closer than the recommended distance. The peppers stated 18″ between plants, and I planted them 12″ apart. Once they mature, the plants themselves will do what the straw is doing now. Namely, shading out weeds and keeping the sun from stealing all the moisture from the soil. It also means that I got four peppers in a four-foot space instead of three.

Planting 016

Prepping Another Bed

No longer my bed. They're much more on top of these things.

No longer my bed. They’re much more on top of these things.

I finally got my butt in gear and went to visit my bed at the Ranch Community Garden yesterday. I had two last year, but there was a waiting list for new gardeners, so I gave one back. After all, I’m getting a mighty slow start, and there’s only one of me, so it’s not like I really need two beds. I can feel good, though, that the person that has my bed got one that was worked correctly last year (if a bit neglectfully) and put to bed for the winter in a way that would set them up for a successful year. They, also, are clearly more on top of things than I am.

My bed. Still snugly covered up from the winter.

My bed. Still snugly covered up from the winter.

Giving up a bed also means that I only had to double-dig one four-by-eight plot. I didn’t do it last year- the beds were brand new and the soil hadn’t settled, yet, so it wasn’t really necessary. “I get why you double-dug the potatoes,” you’re thinking. “They need lots of vertical growing space underground. But why are you double-digging the bed that’s getting tomatoes and peppers?” Good question. Several reasons. The first being- I didn’t do it last year. I didn’t know the soil two shovel-lengths deep. Now I know that it’s lovely and even, without any of the crazy sand or clay patches that you can expect to find in urban soil. The fact that it has been an empty lot some ways away from the building of the church that owns the land would explain it. It is essentially un-touched soil. Now I know that under the first layer, I don’t run into rock-hard, compacted soil. It was pretty easy to dig through.

Hello, there. Don't you look healthy.

Hello, there. Don’t you look healthy.

When I was digging through, I also met enough worms that I kidnapped three to keep Herman company in Showcase 2. I was very happy to see that the decomposer population, at least the big ones, is in good shape. I don’t think that you should populate your garden with lots of imported critters. Most won’t survive Colorado, and those that do might become an invasive species. However, moving worms three blocks away from their home works fine. If you are establishing a new garden, ask a gardener friend if they have any worms to spare so you can jump-start your own population.

Before.

Before.

The last benefit is adding loft to the soil. It started out about a quarter of an inch below the top of the 2×6 board edging. It ended being an average of two inches higher than the board. Since the only thing I added was a handful of blood meal to help the nitrogen levels, that lift came from all the space that air and water now has for wending its way around the roots of the plants. I also know that my plants will be able to get their roots well below the bottom of the board edging. Raised beds are pretty and, in a public garden, useful for making sure that you stick with just the plot you paid for. However, they dry out more easily than beds that are flush with the ground. In wet areas, this is good. In the South West, though, there are some Native Americans that actually garden in lowered garden beds due to the need to preserve every drop of water we have. The deeper the plant roots go, the more water-efficient they are. This is good for both gardeners that forget to water, and ones that are on water restrictions, as we will be this summer.

After.

After.

What about no-till techniques? I think there’s a lot to be said for them. Particularly when farming on a massive scale, since plowing exposes a lot of topsoil to potential erosion. However, unless you have lucked into perfect soil, I think that for at least the first year or two, really getting down and dirty in your garden is a good idea. Will I go with a more minimal turnover for my RCG bed next year? Quite possibly. I now have the information that it is good soil, and no one will be walking on it to compact it. Will I be going with a more minimal technique for Showcase 2 next year? No. I walk on it, sometimes, and so does the dog when she’s being a monster. Also, it does have those sand patches that still need to be mixed into the rest of the bed for a more even texture. That one probably needs to double-dug for at least two more years before it’s even enough to go for a more minimal digging-over. That might be enough time to train myself and the dog to stop walking on it. Maybe.

Re-covered with the old straw to preserve moisture until I put plants in. Since I'm mostly transplanting into this bed, the straw may well stay all summer, since seedlings won't need to grow through it.

Re-covered with the old straw to preserve moisture until I put plants in. Since I’m mostly transplanting into this bed, the straw may well stay all summer, since seedlings won’t need to grow through it.

Double-digging, again

Gathering the tools.

Gathering the tools.

It’s raining. The horizon-to-horizon grey is doing my vitamin D level no favors, but it is a lovely, soaking rain, rather than the kind that pounds down and just runs off the surface, so it is good for my freshly-planted potatoes. If we can’t have it all, we need to be happy with what we’ve got.

It's fluffing up nicely.

It’s fluffing up nicely.

We were slow to order the potatoes this year for Showcase 2, but with as miserable as the weather was for much of April, I wouldn’t have gotten them in the ground at the “right” time anyway. I would have preferred to turn the potato bed at least a few days before I planted, but I really needed to get the seed potatoes in the ground before I totally missed the planting window. Therefore, I dug the bed over and planted on the same day.

This spot may well have been where they dumped the sand needed for construction when the house was built.

This spot may well have been where they dumped the sand needed for construction when the house was built.

In an effort to rotate crops as much as possible in our two-bed garden, the potatoes are going in the bigger bed this year, and other things will be going in what was the potato bed last year. But, whether we are planting potatoes or anything else, we need to prep the bed. For me, that means double-digging. We did this last year, so why do we have to do it again? In part, it is because I was walking on the garden bed during the winter when I was taking things to the compost pile. However, there’s more to it. Double-digging last year started to improve the structure of the soil. We want soil clumps interspersed with spaces big enough for air and water to circulate to the roots. Double-digging this year will help fluff up the soil again, to encourage this structure. Digging by hand, as I mentioned last year, does less damage to any existing structure the soil has. If your garden is small enough, try to do it that way instead of using something like a rototiller. You can even skip the gym, that day, since you’ll be getting a workout.

These are not helpful in a root-vegetable plot.

These are not helpful in a root-vegetable plot.

There are other benefits as well. I dug out a few more rocks that I hadn’t gotten last year. Rocks, and most everything else, migrate through the soil. Long-time gardeners can tell you that you might think you’ve de-rocked a garden or field, but you never really do. I also ran across several serious sand patches. The more this garden gets dug over, the more the sand will be mixed in with the rest of the soil, leading to a more even texture throughout the garden. Untouched soil will change from place to place, but soil in urban areas may well have a sand pit smack beside a solid patch of clay. Modern building techniques don’t generally take into account saving topsoil and not disturbing the underlying layers more than necessary. It is an unfortunate fact of life that if you are in a house, you are probably going to be restoring soil rather than just improving on a good thing. The last perk is that I’m re-introducing myself to my soil and the things that live in it. Because I’m not trotting across the surface following a machine, I have the time to see that there aren’t many worms, still, but one of them is an absolute monster.

I'm naming him Herman.

I’m naming him Herman.

Once it was dug over, I laid out the seed potatoes in four quadrants to see which ones needed to be cut in pieces to fill up their quadrant. Last year I cut first and measured later, forgetting that seed potatoes aren’t as willing to be held for a second year as other seeds. They got buried about 6 or 8 inches deep in the nice, loose soil. I then re-covered the patch with straw to help preserve the moisture in the soil, and gave it a good watering. I am planning on using more straw this year than I did last year, in an effort to make the most of the water I do put in the garden.

Plotting one's plot is a good idea.

Plotting one’s plot is a good idea.

 

 

It's kinda surprising how easy it is to hide all that work.

It’s kinda surprising how easy it is to hide all that work.

Good Night, Sweet Plants!

That's all, folks.

That’s all, folks.

One of the coolest things about gardening is that you get to try again each year. However, it does mean putting your garden to bed after you’re done for the year. Just before I left for Maine, I put Showcase 2 and my Ranch Community Garden beds, well, to bed. This is something that every gardener should do, but it’s more important in places like Colorado where the temperature fluctuates quite a bit and the humidity goes from dry to very dry.

I like second chances. I really like second chances.

I like second chances. I really like second chances.

Step one- harvest anything you haven’t already taken out that isn’t supposed to winter over. That gave me the turnips from the RCG beds and more potatoes than I had expected from the potato bed in Showcase 2. Step two- plant anything that needs to go in, in the fall. For me, that was garlic. The tiny bulbs were cute, but I like bigger ones for cooking. I just planted what I had on hand, which meant about a dozen cloves from a bulb I had bought at the grocery store plus the tiny ones to see if I could turn them into real ones. Garlic is simple. Plant them about six inches apart with the pointy-side up. They only need to go in as deep as the clove is tall. After

Pretty 'taters. There were four varieties this year.

Pretty ‘taters. There were four varieties this year.

that, I may need to water them a couple of times if the winter is dry again, but that’s it. I had planned on buying fancier garlic, but I can always do that later. You can plant it pretty much any time during the winter that you can work the ground. In the meantime, at least I know I’ll have something coming up in the spring. Step three- mark anything that will need attention over the winter, like my garlic bed.

I planted them in the potato bed thinking only of crop rotation, not that the soil was already so conveniently turned. Really.

I planted them in the potato bed thinking only of crop rotation, not that the soil was already so conveniently turned. Really.

Step four- cover with straw or some other mulch. This serves three purposes. First, it holds the temperature of the soil more even than it might be otherwise. Best case, it keeps it frozen all winter. For things like rose bushes, they aren’t wrapped and mulched to keep them from freezing, they are wrapped to stop any freeze/thaw cycle you might get through the winter. In the case of my soil, keeping it frozen keeps the microbes dormant. Second, it keeps the soil far more moist than it might be otherwise. This is particularly important in places where our wet season, winter, is a dry season by most standards. Third, both sets of beds could use more organic material for building them up. A little while before planting next spring, I’ll dig the mulch into the soil for it to complete the breakdown into usable bits for my plants.

Keeping my straw in my bed and not in the path.

Keeping my straw in my bed and not in the path.

I would like to note that if you don’t know the difference between straw and hay, make very sure you ask for a straw bale. Straw is what is left over when you harvest wheat and oats. Since wheat and oats are seeds, they are going to make sure they take all of the seeds before they bale what’s left. It also has very few weeds to supply seeds. Hay, on the other hand, can be anything from prettily-groomed alfalfa (seed-heads attached) to whatever is growing in that meadow over there that didn’t fall out when I baled it. It’s also usually more expensive. If you’re not sure what you have, straw tends to be pretty golden in color, while hay should be more green. You can probably also see seed heads and different types of plants in a hay bale.

That looks so much better, now.

That looks so much better, now.

Going back to keeping my microbes dormant, there was a small difference between how the two sets of beds were handled. My RCG beds had very low nitrogen. This is, essentially, normal. Nitrogen washes out of the soil pretty easily, so if you’re not replacing it one way or another, you probably won’t have much. Showcase 2, however, really had way too much. If the microbes wake up during the winter, they just go about their usual tasks, which includes eating up nitrogen in the soil. Therefore, the RCG beds were put away a couple of weeks before Showcase 2 and they were given a sprinkle of bloodmeal under the mulch. Because nitrogen washes out, you don’t want to add much, if any, in the winter, but it will give me a jump start on what needs to be added for next growing season. It will also keep the microbes happy and breeding for me if they do wake up. I left Showcase 2 until the last minute, hoping that the microbes would use up some of the excess nitrogen for me, so that we could have more balanced growth next year.

Putting my beds to bed turned out to be more than just a chore that needed to happen before I could go on vacation. I actually feel better now. I know that summer is over, because the gardens are put away. We spend so much of our lives being places and doing things that don’t change with the seasons that I had started to not notice when one season became another. I didn’t need to, really. I think that’s a mistake, though. Anything that lives and dies has seasons, and ignoring that couldn’t possibly be for the best. As Pete Seeger tells us, to everything there is a season. There’s got to be a reason for that.