Pimp My Garden: Fall Season Prep

‘Tis fall, the Season of the Soil!  With the shorter days, and frosts in Wisconsin Nature is dropping its leaves to blanket the soil and begin to build the humus necessary to protect the future of it’s ecosystems.  Mom Nature really knows her shit, and we should listen; if Mom is covering her soil, we prolly should too.   Several billion years of evolution are talkin ya know?  This will detail how I am prepping the beds in our annual gardens this year.  These are the beds I built in June and the majority of the soil was trucked in – it needs some healing.  And you know my answer for healing the soil: compost and organic matter.

First up is to strip the organic matter off the top, shred it, and compost it.

In future  years I may skip the composting, but we still had a bunch of weeds so off to the Hot Composting it goes.  Once the beds were clear it was time to add some medicine – comfrey!  I have about 6 dozen Russian comfrey plants on property cloned off 2 plants I bought 4 years ago.  Comfrey is a wonder plant, full on minerals and excellent food for soil microbes.  Here is a shot of my a bit of my comfrey “coppice”, a double row along a 80′ fence line.

The comfrey is hacked done with a sickle and laid out on the beds.  Comfrey is a wonder plant, but it can also resprout occasionally.  To prevent this do two things – compost when you cut it when its flowering (if you have viable seed like me), and also when using it as mulch, don’t cut the fronds too close to the ground to prevent any chance of re-rooting from any root chunks.  Still, you will likely get some volunteers over the years.  In the permie beds I encourage this.  In the veg garden, not so much.   That imposed order is not natural, but its there.  Smother any that come up with a mini sheet mulch.

A layer twice this thick could also be used, but much thicker than that and I would be concerned with  it going anaerobic under the mulch.  Next up I spread nearly finished compost.  Actually this is as finished as most of my compost gets unless I am making potting mix; I prefer to leave some un-decomposed organic matter for the microbes to breed on in place.  Look at the color difference!  In very general terms, the darker the soil the higher the organic matter content.  Humus is black.

This is what about .5" of compost (on average) looks like.

I had about 1/2 of a yard of compost left for the three beds I was prepping.  Dividing it out works to about .6 inches on average.  I would prefer more, but with the mulch breaking down all Fall/Winter/Spring I will add another .5″ over time.  Final step is to “tuck them in” as Nature intended.  In this case its a 4″ (once settled) of well rotted straw that served all summer as the walls of the Methane Midden.

Makin Ruth Stout proud.

Not quite done.  Need to fill the 1′ paths back in with new wood chips.  Why?  Because choosing to use wood chips on the path was brilliant.  It prevents compaction by spreading the load of walking, but it also holds moisture, and breeds soil fungus like crazy, lots of mycelium after only 4 months.  Outstanding!

Notice that none of the beds were turned, nor do I  plan to turn it in the spring either.  Yep – going no till baby!  And from a guy with a $4000 rototiller that is saying a lot!  A surface hoeing with a 7″ scuffle hoe was done to clear the debris.  Once the debris was clear I could see dozens of holes from the deep tilling earthworms.  The straw and compost layers mimic natural soil strata: topsoil-> humus -> duff-> mulch.

No till it is.

2011 is going to be awesome!


Be the Change.


17 Responses

  1. Hi Rob!
    Thanks for interesting blog!
    Would it work to use ordinary comfrey instead of Russian? Thanks!

    • You’re welcome Sisko! The Common Comfrey (Symphytum Officinalis) should work just as well as the Russian Comfrey (Symphytum x Uplandicum), though it looks like it doesn’t grow quite as fast.

  2. I’m using the ‘chicken till’ method, i.e. I pulled up plants and let the backyard chickens dig them into the soil. They probably added a little poop to compost into nitrogen boosts over the winter too.

    • That sounds fantastic Rachel! (nice blog btw) And given the nitrogen content of chicken poo I would make your probably into a definite. 🙂

      One of the “maybe’s” for us in 2011 is to mount a grassroots campaign to get chickens legalized in our community, but not sure if we have the energy.

  3. First of all, I LOVE the pumpkins in the background! is that two bigguns of of one vine?

    Also, will all this added mulch break down sufficiently to provide a proper seedbed? Any leftover undecomposed chunks shouldn’t affect transplants, but could they affect germination? Nature obviously survives using this method, but then again, an Oak tree drops thousands of seeds for just a few to survive…

    • Thanks Kevin! Looks like 3 50#+ on either one or 2 Big Max vines. The Howden hill gave us 8 15-25#’s. The short answer is “not without some help”. Their will still be 2-3″ of mulch, but it can easily be pulled aside to provide a small trench to plant seeds in, and the new humus teaming with life and fungus should be a great environment. As you say, just planting into the mulch would be a disaster for the same reason that it works as a weed suppressant.

  4. Congrats on tilth that surpasses tillage!

  5. Yeah, I just don’t seem to grok how the sustainable no till thing works in practice. Can you recommend any good books or articles? I understand winter cover crops to replenish Nitrogen and Carbon, but how do I replace Boron and other micronutrients without heavy additions of compost that’s ultimately moving it from other locations? I just can’t seem to close the cycle completely, but I feel like I’m missing something.

    • Edge-

      (Rob, correct me if I’m wrong…) Making compost from comfrey and other deep-rooted crops will help with micronutrients, because they draw them up from the subsoil. Yes, you’re moving it from another area, but that area is 2′ down. The job of plants like comfrey is to move those nutrients up where the more shallow-rooted plants can get to them, so you’re working with the natural cycles as opposed to trucking them in from another place’s “finished” surface soil.


    • The sustainable no-till thing definitely doesn’t rely on heavy additions of compost. I think carefully-chosen mineral additives are one way to go: calcium is an important item, and is available in sustainable forms like demolition waste and mollusc shells. Many use mineral sources that aren’t concentrated enough to be of interest to chemical ag (e.g., no rock phosphate), but offer a good-enough bang for the buck.

      In general, whether the minerals are native or imported, the strategy is to encourage the soil food web make all nutrients available as needed. I might recommend “Teaming with Microbes” for more information on how that works.

      Emilia Hazelip believed in biological transmutation, which is all so much woo in my opinion; I think she worked in soils that were not depleted in any micronutrients, and were (through her careful management) uncommonly deep.

      Ultimately, closing the loop would require returning human waste to the soil somehow, plus importing whatever micronutrients are leached or exported.

      I wouldn’t worry about replacing boron: laundry greywater or the ash from commercial charcoal briquettes can offer an over-abundance of this element (to the point of toxicity, if you aren’t careful).

  6. I had so much trouble with slugs this year that I’m actually uncovering several beds from their mulch layer. Wish I had chickens to go through and clean things up for me…

    • Yeah… Even more worried about voles given my love for spuds, beets, and sweet potatoes.

      However, we have a burgeoning toad population and may be putting in a pond to help them along.

      Its all about compromises – my fervent hope is that over time things will balance out and we get enough garter snakes and owls to keep everything in check. Will likely need to trap some of the voles since we are such an island and will have a hard time supporting apex predators.

      • We have a serious vole problem here on the Farmlet and I want to decrease their volume. Cats are doing their job, I see the evidence every morning, but it is not enough! What kind of traps do you plan to use? The ground around my home’s foundation and in my garden bed looks like Swiss cheese! Thanks or your help, Lynda

  7. Pixi – I use the tomcat brand in boxes modeled after the ones Elliot Coleman details in the Winter Farming Handbook. 2 traps/ box gets you 2 voles a night if you are dense. It can take a month or more to get control back, and you will never be vole free, not that you’d want to be.

  8. […] tomatoes that we need to can so we can try to store a whole winter’s worth. This idea came from Onestraw Rob’s “pimped out garden”, so thanks for that, mate. This way we can grow what we need, and then also grow what we want to […]

  9. been too long since i stopped by the blog, onestraw. yardacious. will be back, with brain engaged, or know the reason why.

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