Tag Archives: soil health

How to Grow Your Own Mulch

I can’t say enough good things about mulch. We have several blog post that mention the importance of mulch but if you want to learn more about why it’s so great check out this post, Mulch Ado… The Best Mulch for Your Garden.

If you’re on board with the importance of mulch but trying save money or make your garden as efficient as possible this is the perfect post for you.

Having a well mulched garden doesn’t have to cost a lot or require a lot of outside inputs to your garden. Don’t let those perfect Pinterest gardens with tons of beautiful, golden straw evenly spread around each plant fool you! Growing some or all of your own mulch is totally feasible and chances you already have some growing without even realizing it.

Use weeds.

As long as you don’t let them go to seed, even weeds make excellent mulch. In what some people call the “chop and drop method” you just go through your garden cutting your weeds and dropping them around plants.

Plant your pathways in a clover.

If you’re using permanent beds you can plant your pathways in a perennial cover crop like clover. Clover will add nitrogen to the soil as it grows plus your pathways can be mowed and used to mulch your beds.

Use your lawn.

You don’t need a hayfield to grow a significant amount of your own mulch. If you mow any lawn area at all you should invest in a bagger for your lawn mower. Grass clippings can immediately be dumped in the garden around plants and are great for adding nitrogen to the soil.

Don’t remove dead material from around perennials.

I’ve said this before but “cleaning up” your garden is not only unnecessary but harmful for your garden. By removing dead plant material you’re removing nutrients and homes for beneficial insects. The only only exception is when you need to remove plant material that you know is home to a pest like if you had a lot of asparagus beetles you’ll want to remove the dead asparagus fronds in the fall.

Plant some cover crops.

Cover crops are not just for large farms or when you’re resting a garden bed. Cover crops like alfalfa and buckwheat are perfect for sneaking in any small available garden space to grow and cut for mulch.

Check out this post for more great ideas, Cover Crops for Great Green Manure, Mulch, and More.

Grow comfrey.

Comfrey is an excellent choice for mulch because of its deep tap root. It brings nutrients and minerals up from deep in the soil and using its leaves as mulch will make these accessible to other plants. It’s also a hardy perennial and will easily tolerate being trimmed back for mulch.

Use any extra plant material you have.

If you think about the plants you grow chances are you’re probably already growing some of your own mulch and are just composting or tilling it in instead. Try thinking of every non-edible plant material as potential mulch. When you pull pea plants off their trellises when they’re finished for the year use them to mulch around your next crop. Did you grow hardneck garlic? Lay down the stalks as mulch after you harvest the bulbs. Even peanut shells can be used for mulch.

Try growing some of your own grains.

Most grains offer mulch as a secondary product. Whether you’re interested in rye, wheat, or rice once you’ve threshed the cereal off the plant you’ll be left with a lot of straw. This straw is perfect mulch. Did you know older grain varieties are much taller than modern varieties partially because straw isn’t valued in modern commercial agriculture?

The importance of mulch in your garden cannot be understated. Whether you’re trying to conserve moisture, add nutrients to the soil, create habitat for beneficials, or just cut back on weeding mulch is an integral part of maintaining a healthy garden. Using these tips you can mulch your garden without spending tons of money or relying solely on outside inputs.

Pin it for later.

Fall Gardening Checklist

For many fall seems like the time when things begin to wind down. It’s time for hot meals, enjoying the harvest, and snuggling up by the fire. However seasoned gardeners know that spending more time in your garden in the fall can lead to an easier spring. There’s still plenty of projects!

Sow fall crops.

There’s actually many varieties that are great for fall planting. Plants like garlic and winter wheat do best with a start in the cool months of fall. There’s also many root vegetables like carrots, beets, radishes, and turnips that can provide a late harvest along with hardy greens like arugula, pak choi, spinach, and mustards. Depending on your zone you may need to use season extenders like low tunnels and cold frames to keep your garden alive in late fall and winter.

Make sure there’s no exposed soil!

This is super important to maintaining a healthy and productive garden. Leaving soil exposed kills off beneficial fungi, bacteria, and insects. It also makes soil vulnerable to erosion and allows weeds to get an early hold in the spring.

The best way to combat this is though the use of cover crops. You can find more about planting fall cover crops and Southern Exposure’s offerings from this article, Fall Cover Crops & Their Importance. You can even use some traditional food crops (like mustard greens) as cover crops! If you cannot plant a cover crop at least consider covering the garden in mulch such as old leaves, hay, straw, or shredded newspaper. These block weeds, provide habitat for beneficial insects, and hold moisture which is necessary for good bacteria and fungi to thrive.

Plant some perennials.

There’s also many perennials you can add to your garden in fall. Perennial onions and certain flower bulbs like crocuses and daffodils are great for fall planting. Many fruit and nut trees and bushes can be fall planted as well.

Mulch existing perennials.

Placing mulch around the base of existing perennials can help prevent frost from reaching killing the roots (especially important with newly established plants). It can also help prevent weeds in the spring while you’re busy with spring planting and as it breaks down it will add nutrients to the soil. When mulching try to avoid making a thick “volcano” mulch mound around the trunk or base of the plant. Piles of mulch like this provide places for rodents to hid and chew on your plants.

Take care of your tools and equipment.

Fall maintenance can help keep your garden tools in tip top shape. Make sure to brush at least most of the dirt off your tools and sharpen any that need it. Some people use a bucket full of sand and old vegetable oil to plunge bladed tools (like shovels) into to get them extra clean and sharp after the big chunks of dirt have been removed. You may also want to sand down and rub linseed oil on any wooden handled tools that need it. Any equipment that uses fuel like rototillers should be drained or run out of fuel for winter. This is because leaving fuel for that long without running the equipment can plug up carburetors.

If there’s tools or equipment that need replaced or equipment which needs professional maintenance it’s best to get it over with in the fall without the pressure of spring planting looming.

Start Planning for next year.

Garden Planner Example (2018 Mintlaw Allotment)

While not everyone may be enthused about having an extensive plan for their garden having a few basics mapped out can help you create an easier to manage and more productive garden. Planning should include looking at what seeds you still have or have saved considering what seeds you’d like to purchase and reconciling that with how much your garden will actually fit (not as many as anyone wants to believe). You should also consider a crop rotation including any areas that will be in cover crops. You can find the Southern Exposure garden planner to help with that here. You may also choose to consider your seed starting set up for next year. Some garden supply stores will have sales in the fall which you can take advantage of instead of paying full price next spring.

Test and amend your soil.

People typically test their soil and add amendments in the spring but there’s no reason not to get this checked off in the fall. It’s actually preferable to add things like manure in the fall so that it decomposes as much as possible before planting.

Leave some things alone.

The rest of this article may add a bunch of projects to your to do list but here’s one thing you can skip. Don’t cut down, rake, and remove all the dead plant material from your garden unless you’re combating a specific disease or insect that overwinters in the material. While you may think your garden looks tidier barren this plant material actually helps many beneficial insects survive the winter.

Get a step ahead in your garden while the weather is cool and pleasant. By doing some basic fall tasks you can be prepared for spring planting and get crops in the ground right on time. You may also end up with a healthier more productive garden without too much effort. Happy autumn!

Fall Cover Crops & Their Importance

Fall is actually one of the best times for backyard gardeners to work on improving their soil health. Without a lot of effort gardeners can improve the soils through the fall, winter, and early spring for a better gardening season next year through the use of cover crops. Cover crops are not just for large farms and have a variety of benefits.

Benefits

Reduce Erosion

First off, using a winter cover crop is extremely important in resducing erosion. When there’s nothing growing in the soil in fall, winter, and early spring any rain or melt water can erode valuable soil and nutrients and pollute the local water system. Too many nutrients in the lakes, streams, and river can cause algae blooms that can be dangerous to both people and aquatic life.

Add Organic Matter

As cover crops die or are tilled into the soil they add organic matter which is key to soil health! It gives the soil structure, retains moisture, provides habitat and food for beneficial insects and microbes, and adds nutrients to the soil as it slowly breaks down. If not tilled in the pant material also functions as a mulch to continue to suppress weeds, preserve moisture, and reduce ersosion.

Conserve Moisture

In the same way that open soil is vunerable to ersion it’s also vunerable to evaporation.  Cover crops prevent sun and wind from drying out the soil and hold rainwater.

Some Fix Nitrogen

Any cover crop variety that is a legume actually adds nitrogen to the soil as it grows in addition to the nutrients it provides when it dies or is tilled under. Some examples SESE carries will be given below.

Suppress Weeds

Cover crops also help to suppress weeds. Most cover crops are quick growing and vigorous allowing them to outcompete and knock back weeds.

Help Pollinators

Often your fall cover crops will be one of the first plants blooming in the spring, a critical time for pollinators. Planting in the fall gives you and them a jump start. They’re provided a reliable food source early helping you ensure reliable pollination throughout the growing season.

Fall Cover Crop Varieties

Southern Exposure offers a variety of cover crops suitable for fall planting.

Hairy Vetch

Hairy Vetch is both beautiful and useful. Bees and other pollinators love its purple flowers. It’s also a nitrogen fixing legume. Sow August 1st – November 1st.

Hairy Vetch Seed

Austrian Winter Peas

This awesome crop can be grown through the winter in zones 6 and up. It’s nitrogen fixing and edible! Sow August 15th – November 1st.

Austrian Winter Pea Seed

Buckwheat

Buckwheat isn’t really a winter cover crop becuase it’s what is called a “winter-kill crop” meaning that it dies back with the fall frosts. However it’s great for planting in the fall with a mix of clover because it provides clover shade and cool soil until it dies allowing th clover to take off. It can be planted in the spring up until 1 month before the last fall frost.

Buckwheat Seed

Crimson Clover

This nitrogen fixer does best where winter temperatures don’t dip below 10°F. It has longer blooms than traditional red clover. Sow from mid-July through mid-September.

Crimson Clover Seed

Red Clover

Red clover has a lot going for it. It’s well loved by pollinators, fixes nitrogen, is great for weed supression and makes a wonderful, medicinal tea. Sow in spring or fall.

Red Clover Seed

White Dutch Clover

Like the other clovers White Dutch is excellent for nitrogen and supressing weeds. Sow in late winter, spring, late summer, or fall.

White Dutch Clover Seed

Hulless Oats

Hulless Oats make an excellent cover crop for adding a lot of organic material. It should be noted that they will winter kill in areas where the temperature drop below 10°F. Oatstraw stems can be harvested for tea. Sow in later summer for a winter cover crop.

Hulless Oats Seed

Common Winter Rye

While Winter Rye is not nitrogen fixing it’s still an excellent cover crop. It can actually help stabilize excess nitrogen and releases phosphorus and potassium from the soil for plants to use. It’s extensive root system makes it excellent for improving soil structure. It’s also vigorous and great for weed supression, erosion reduction, moisture conservation, and adds tons of organic material to the soil. Sow August 1st – November 15th.

Common Winter Rye Seed

 

Just because the gardening season is coming to a close doesn’t mean there’s not still planting to be done. If you want a healthy productive garden next year it’s definitely worth the effort to plant a cover crop this fall!