One young Catholic family on a Journey towards Intentional and Communal Sustainability. One Artist, one full time Mama and two babies, we'll tell you about all our successes, and failures, as we try to make it in our overly Consumeristic society on just the bare necessities.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Its Snowing Outside: Perfect Time to Work on the Garden

As I write this post I am looking out my window onto my backyard which is covered in 6inches of snow and I'm thinking "perfect time of year to work on the garden."

Don't get me wrong, I'm not going to go trudging through the snow to plant seeds or anything but late Autumn and early Winter are crucial times to work on your garden; although, its not what most people think.

The first lesson when it comes to gardening is that making an effective garden is a year-round activity, at least if you want it to be healthy and fruitful. Sadly the majority of hobbyist/backyard gardeners only think of their garden when they walk by the potted plants at Lowes in early Spring. But if you haven't done anything with your garden by then, its too late.

You may recall from some of my dumpstering exploits that I procured a reasonable amount of lumber by which I was able to make two nice new garden beds. Because last year I spent way more money buying dirt and manure trying to fill the bed than I could have ever imagined (let alone the fact that nothing makes you feel more like a fool than buying dirt) I vowed to utilize only free sources to fill these new beds.

An added benefit to using this approach instead of buying commercial top soils and fertilizer is that you can have a healthy organic garden which can produce as well, if not better. To achieve this free, organic, biodiverse soil for your garden bed you first have to understand few things. Well... really only one thing actually: decomposition.

For decomposition of organic materials (the crucial ingredient in any good soil) you need: life (worms, insects, bacteria etc.), water (to encourage the life and to expand the cellular structure of the organic material) and time (often much less than you'd think if you have enough of the other two).

Soil is simply a combination of minerals, decomposing organic matter, water and filler material. If you look at your average commercial bag of topsoil and you'll often see manure, humus, peat moss and vermiculite. Translation of all of those things? Rotting stuff and filler. Just because it is simple though does not mean that it isn't vital in fact Colorado State University is currently engaged in a global campaign to revitalize soil. Plus, as President Roosevelt once said during the Dust Bowl crisis in America, "A nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself."

When starting a new garden bed there are several schools of thought in regard to preparing the site, many people will recommend things like tilling, either by hand or with a powered tiller. This is a good idea, as it loosens the soil and introduces air into the soil (something that many people neglect to realize plants need too). However, I'm a bit of a pragmatist when it comes to work, in as far as I don't care to do more of it than necessary. That being said, I prefer the "lazy man's" approach to preparing the site: laying down cardboard.

Charlotte helping flatten out the cardboard scraps.
Cardboard is easily sourced from.. just about everywhere, dumpsters, your own packaging refuse, or any grocery/department/liquor store will gladly give you more than you can take.

(photo credit)
The cardboard that I laid down in our new beds serves a few important functions. First of all, it creates a barrier for preexisting weeds so that they do not spring up from below when it comes time to plant your edibles. While this dense cardboard barrier is enough to keep weeds from popping up it is also permeable, organic matter. Once it has had sufficient water and time to decompose it will provide additional nutrients to the soil as well as be soft enough for the roots of your jack-o-lantern pumpkins to reach down through.

Charlotte's jack-o-lantern "Nice Guy" (ps. thats not a real knife she has)

However, the most important function which this wet layer of cardboard provides is an ideal habitat for worms. Worms are the hard workers that do the tilling and aeration for you, if you just give them the right environment, food and time to do the work. Not only is allowing worms to till your garden for you a less work intensive approach, but it is in fact more effective than hand tilling because it gives the added benefit of worm castings (aka. poo). I'm not enough of a scientist to know precisely how or why, but decomposed material which has been consumed, digested and expelled by worms has a significantly higher amount of certain important garden nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen than if the organic material were left to decompose by itself.

This is part of the reason this snowy, cold, wet, time of year is ideal to do these kinds of garden preparations, because enough moisture (by means of snow), time (by means of passing through the non-growing season) and encouraged decomposition (thanks to expansion and contraction of water logged celluar structures) takes place that by the time next spring rolls around you'll have a lovely dark, rich, worm ridden soil to plant your delicious lovies in.

Enjoying the fruits of last year's soil preparations.
The next step, after laying down your cardboard is to lay alternating layers of "greens" and "browns". Greens are things like: grass clippings, kitchen scraps, rotten jack-o-lanterns etc. Browns are things like: dead leaves, corn husks and mulch.

This time of year is often a great time to layer your kitchen scrap sourced "green" heavy compost because it has already had several months of hot weather, insects (flies, pill-bugs etc.) and moisture to allow for the scraps to compost nicely. Its a perfect time of year to empty out your compost bin into your aspiring garden beds.

Raking in a year's worth of kitchen compost
As for this time of year being a good time for "browns", I think you can look out at your leaf covered lawn and only guess. There are lots of good ways to get "browns" but frankly I can't think of a more universally beneficial strategy than to use the leaves from the trees around you, which so graciously have decided to fall down for easy pickings. You get to clean up your lawn, you get to add nutrients to your garden, you get to provide a insulation to the decomposing "greens" between each layer, and you don't contribute to our already over extended landfills. If you're nice I bet your neighbors will even let you have their leaves too!

(photo credit)
Once you have laid alternating 2inch layers of "greens" and "browns" until your garden bed is full, the last step is: wait. Simply let the worms do their job underneath, the organic materials throughout decompose and the snow, rain, and sun encourage the whole process.

Thanks to a little proactive work in the late Autumn and early Winter you can enjoy soil that retains water, but allows it to drain and is full of rich organic nutrients but resists the growth of unwanted weeds by next Spring when you're ready to plant.


  1. Cranky Catholic, the basic premise is "layer composting" but it is commonly known as "lasagna gardening." The following link has a little diagram that may prove useful.