Garden Log I: Simple Soil Preparation

Since we began our homesteading adventure, my girls and I have enjoyed a great harvest each summer and fall, but last year we made the jump to 100% organic gardening.  We prepared the soil well in advance of gardening season and tended the garden all summer with pretty good success. We did not get started last year, however, in time to start our own seeds and ended up purchasing many plants and our seeds from a local feed store.  All summer, I could not get those pink chemically-treated and fertilized seeds and plants and out of my mind.  It seemed that we were doing all the right things for a natural and organic bounty, which was, I felt, better than the veggies I would buy from the supermarket. But, I wanted EVEN MORE from my own efforts. I want to share some of our decisions and changes we are making this year in hopes this can be a help to others.  As the summer advances I will also chart the successes and struggles arising from these decisions in our “Garden Log 2014.”

Simple Soil Preparation

I remember in my childhood stepping off the school bus in early April each year to see the tractor turning over the our garden spot with the turning plough.  Just thinking about it, brings the smell of fresh dirt and anticipation to my mind.  In the coming days, my daddy would put pelleted fertilizer in the ground, and we would plant the garden.  Though the memories are precious and the veggies delicious, I want to take my inherited love of growing my own food to an even healthier level and produce the best garden veggies I can using no harmful chemicals.  After much research and some small failures, I learned that organic/ natural gardening begins with advance preparation and rich soil.  There are many MAGIC formulas out there (“8 Steps to the Perfect Garden” or “Six Secrets to the Best Veggies”.) But, in all honest, I need a SIMPLE SOIL PREPARATION, or quite honestly, I will just get frustrated and quit. I subscribe to the following: 

3-SEASON Soil Prep:     FALL FEEDING     /     WINTER REST     /     SPRING SUPERCHARGE

1. Fall – Since the ground will be resting all winter, it is always a good idea to pile on the manure and compost for the long winter’s nap the soil will be taking. It is best to remove any remaining plants from the seasons gardening.  If they were healthy plants,I add them to my current compost pile.  Next, I bring in wheel barrow loads of horse and manure from the barn and spread it out over the garden bed as evenly as possible.  Finally, I pile on a thick layer of compost that I  have been collecting all summer.  Both these are still active and will need the winter to decompose and will feed rich nutrients into the soil as they finish rotting.  The recommendation from the department of agriculture is to give manure 2 seasons to rot before planting your vegetables, so putting it on before for the winter is perfect for early spring planting. (more on Composting here)

Before I had a horse or sheep to provide the manure, I just volunteered to clean out a neighbor’s horse stalls.  Usually people are very willing to allow you to do their mucking for them and, and you get free fertilizer.  Feeding the soil in the fall is wonderful for raised beds or regular gardening, and will be well worth it come harvest time.  Being realistic, it takes a couple of years to really condition soil for optimum organic growing, but I didn’t wait till my soil was “perfect” to begin gardening.  I learned a great deal about the individual plants as well along the way.

2. Winter Rest- The soil is resting in the winter time, so there is not much to do but sit by the fire and draw up my garden plan while I thumb through seed catalogues and dream of warmer days to come.  There were a couple of things to consider, though, before I put away my garden tools. To Turn or Not To Turn –  Some people turn the compost and manure into the soil, some don’t.  I opted not to disturb the soil under the blanket of manure and compost.  I may experiment with something a bit different next year.

3.  Spring Super Charge – This is really an exciting time, and I always begin before spring officially arrives.  With the first peep of “Buttercups” from beneath the cold ground, I begin loosening the soil with a shovel and/or with pitchfork.  The soil needs to be sort of dry to begin working it so that I avoid compacting it into clumps.  Since I covered the garden with compost and manure the fall before, this is pretty easy.  If I had not, it might take a bit more muscle but would still need to be done. Lifting the soil lightly adds air to the soil and makes it workable.  This year, I have added three enhancements to the soil – Epsom salt, Blood Meal, and  Azomite.  After letting it rest a few days and begin to absorb the enhancements, I will be ready to plant the early veggies.  

Over the years I have done a great deal of research into how to maximize my garden harvest, and I have no doubt that I will learn from this year’s adventure.  If one change does not work this year, I will shift my thoughts next year.  I read garden blogs and articles all the time, and am so impressed (or maybe confused) with the people who have the perfect blanket solutions to growing a great garden.  I may have limited experience, but I have learned some important lessons: “Embrace what works and leave what doesn’t in the dust of last year’s garden.”  

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February Mucking Day/ Composting for a Huge Harvest

With the Buttercups, known also by the name of Daffodils, popping their heads from the ground in Mid-February, the farm springs to life with anticipation of the coming garden season.  One farm chore I excitedly dread is the cleaning out of the sheep shed.  Our tiny barn is home to our ewes Nesse, Phoebe, and Beatrice  and their big brother Moose ( a lovable goofy whether) where they are kept safe from predators at night year round.  It needs cleaning out twice each year to prevent foot rot and yuck from mounting up and eventually squeezing them out of the barn.  I realize it is now April, but I found some pictures I took this year, and thought I would share how we garden organically with our barn, yard, and leaf keepings.

barn muck3

The most exciting part of mucking day is the end when I can stand back and look at the mountain of organic fertilizer and hay mulch that we will now mix with the fall leaf collection.   We have experimented with several different ways to create compost.

Initially I used a 2 foot square compost bin I purchased, but that was way too small and did not facilitate the proper amount of moisture and was hard to turn.  Then, I built one from a huge plastic barrel with a crank handle, but that also was not large enough to provide enough fertilizer for the whole garden.  Finally, we arrived at a method that is both easy and time effective.  For easy composting we set aside about a three by eight foot rectangle of space at the end of the garden against the horse fence.  There we  began piling up the barn mucking and leaves in layers along with kitchen scraps and the occasional bucket of chicken manure.  Layering the dry matter with the manure as we piled keeps us from having to turn the pile.

Half the year we add to the pile on one end as we use from the pile on the other.  That way we are always building for the next garden season fall or spring.  It is never too late to begin composting.  Since spring gardening is already upon us this year, we are building our compost for the fall.  If you are just now getting started, think ahead to all those wonderful fall veggies you can grow and get started composting.  Composting is a very simple, economical way to make sure your garden harvest is the most healthy you can produce in addition to saving money on commercial fertilizer.

GREEN + BROWN + WATER = LOVELY COMPOST FOR YUMMY GARGENING

I am sure there are many clinically “accurate” ways to compost, but we like to keep it simple at the Kottage. Nitrogen and carbon are the two working ingredients in good compost.  Layer green /gooshey stuff (yard clippings, manure, garden and kitchen scraps) with brown / dry stuff (leaf rakings, straw, sawdust, shredded paper) and then wet it down.  When you are satisfied that your mound is a good mix and is wet down, then cover it with a black plastic tarp and wait.  You can add to it and move it around with a hay fork if it makes you feel productive.  Check it ever so often to make sure it it moist and add water as needed.  The following link explains in more detail the nitrogen and carbon that comes from different sources.

Composting (article from EarthEasy)

So as much as I dread the full day I must devote to cleaning out the sheep stall, I am equally excited to be putting it to such tasty use in my garden.  We always make it a family day and have fun with both leaf raking and mucking stalls.  It makes for great family fun as well as precious memories.