As fall arrives, the days get shorter, and the rhythms of school and work return. Now is the time to clear the garden and plant for the coming seasons. How can we do this in a sustainable way that honors the land’s need for restoration, as well as ours?
During this busy season, break down the daunting task of fall garden prep into smaller chunks. By doing so, you’ll reduce your environmental impact by recycling nutrients back into your soil while maintaining what you have. Additionally, you’ll have a garden that can revive itself during the slower winter months with minimum work on your part.
1. Jump-Start a Compost Pile
Compost piles are the Rumpelstiltskins of the garden, magically spinning dried straw, leaves and stems into gardener’s gold: compost rich in organic matter, moisture-retaining humus and nutrients that create healthy, strong plants and reduce the need for chemical fertilizers. Food scraps and yard waste make up 20 to 30 percent of what we throw into landfills, where they create toxic greenhouse gases. Instead of throwing away your dried leaves, collect them into a pile to turn into rich compost for your spring planting.
Treat your garden cleanup like a scavenger hunt. You can do this all at once or a little bit at a time. There are lists of what to add or avoid in a compost pile, but in general, you can take multiple five- to 10-minute breaks to look for:
- Browns: Dead leaves, branches, twigs or other dried organic plant material.
- Greens: Grass clippings, old vegetable leaves, vegetables or “wet” organic plant material.
- Old seed heads: Save seeds from expired vegetables and flowers for next year.
- Green waste: Weeds, mildewed or diseased plants and other unwanted garden waste are set aside for the curbside pickup or green recycling team. This will prevent unwelcome seeds or disease from spreading throughout your garden when you use your finished compost.
When we started composting, we didn’t have enough browns, which is a common problem. I would raid the huge piles of dried leaves in our neighborhood. If you do this, be sure to keep it nice and tidy for your neighbors who worked so hard to collect the leaves in the first place. Now that we have chickens, the wood shavings from our chicken coop go in the compost, since they have the added benefit of chicken manure, to start the compost process.
If you’re low on greens, local coffee shops are happy to give away their bags of used coffee grounds so that they won’t go to waste.
To create a quick compost pile that will break down during the winter, collect only the browns and greens, and stack them like a layer cake, lightly dampening each layer. A good size to start with is 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet (about 1 meter by 1 meter by 1 meter). There should be an equal amount (by weight) of browns and greens.
Once you’ve started a compost pile, like the two seen at this urban farm, it will break down over the next few months with little maintenance. You can turn it every once in a while to aerate, or give your compost oxygen. If your area freezes during the winter, your compost pile will still continue to break down, though more slowly. The edges of the pile will be the same temperature as the environment. When spring comes, the edges will thaw and restart the decomposition process.
Since our two piles are on dirt, the worms and bugs do the aerating for us as they dig through and break down the piles. When spring arrives, you should have a nice heap of rich compost for your spring planting.
2. Plant Cover Crops
Empty garden beds can leach out nutrients in the winter rains, and weeds can grow. To prevent this, plant cover crops that build up soil and feed pollinators. The best part? Planting a small bed of these crops can be done in five to 10 minutes, since they don’t require special soil amendments, rows, measurement or nurturing. Here are a few dual-purpose, easy-to-plant crops that will create a harvest and help restore your soil:
Garlic. This is an extremely easy crop to start in the fall, and when you plant garlic bulbs in autumn, they’re bigger and more flavorful when you harvest them the next summer. Garlic also is a natural pest repellent in the garden with few diseases once planted.
Getting the bulbs is easy. You can choose to go to a nursery; however, I pick up more interesting and flavorful whole garlic bulbs from farmers markets and grocery stores. Bulbs should be firm, organic and nonirradiated. Look for little roots at the bottom of the bulb.
Wait until just before planting to break bulbs into cloves. Tuck the cloves into the ground 4 inches deep and 6 to 8 inches apart, with their pointed ends up. Our garlic manages to sprout, despite my spotty watering and California drought weather. In areas that get a hard frost, plant garlic six to eight weeks before your frost date.
Fava beans are delicious, and they capture nitrogen in the environment and convert it to nitrogen as a nutrient for your garden. As a cover crop, they improve soil texture, suppress weeds and boost microbes in the earth. The best part? You get a beautiful crop of spinach-like leaves and nutty beans emerging from stalks of tiny orchid-shaped flowers.
Take a handful of fava beans and push them an inch into the ground. It’s that easy. They’ll sprout within a week or so, regardless of how they’re put in the soil. I’ve seen the many creative ways kids have decided to plant these little seeds, and they seem to grow no matter what. Now is the time to plant favas to enjoy a great harvest.
Note: Fava beans are potentially dangerous to those who have a rare disease called favism, so be careful when consuming.
According to the USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service, the seeds that work best are:
- White lupine
- Sweet clover
- Alsike clover
- Crimson clover
- White clover
- Purple vetch
- Fava beans
- Hairy vetch
3. Prep Garden Tools
Clean, sharp tools will make your garden chores much easier. Cleaning also extends the life of your tools and thus reduces waste. Tools should be cleaned,filed and oiled for the winter. If that’s overwhelming for your busy schedule, here are the shortcuts we’ll be taking to clean our tools year:
- Rinse off the dirt from garden tools. If needed, grab a cloth and wipe the dirt from hinges and blades.
- Mix a bucket of sand with oil (mineral oil, baby oil or any other nontoxic oil) until the sand is just moist. I’ve read that some people use motor oil to prevent rust, but putting toxic chemicals into my garden soil sounds like a bad idea.
- Push the blades of your shovels, pruners, hand tools and so forth into the soil to sharpen them and to oil the metal and keep it from rusting. You can plunge the tools into the soil up and down to further scrape and file the edges.
- Use this self-cleaning and sharpening garden tool bucket throughout the year. Just rinse your tools after gardening and stick them in the bucket to keep them clean and maintained every day.
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