Putting the Garden to Bed

We had our first night of frost this past weekend, and I went to Belly Acre Farm this morning to check on things.

The late season beans I planted in late August show a few blackened, curled leaves that illustrate why it’s called frost burn. But they seem determined to keep going. I picked enough for a meal for the family, noting that the bushes are loaded with blossoms. If the bees can keep pollinating for a few more days, and the weather doesn’t turn cold again, we may get a few more late green beans for our fall table.

The butter beans I planted about the same time didn’t show any burn, but they were cowering in their rows, almost visibly shivering in the cool morning sunshine. The few pods I found were flat, with no beans of any size inside. I’m doubtful that we’ll have any more butter beans until next year.

The deer have nibbled off almost all the field peas—so much so that I found a small watermelon that had been hiding under the pea vines since mid-summer. It made a nice addition to my compost pile, but I couldn’t help wishing I had found it when it was still edible.

A few surviving tomatoes that had started turning pink also went home with me. If the frost holds off I’ll clean out the green ones later this week and put them aside to ripen indoors.

I set out the remaining collards I had been growing in a flat. With luck they’ll give us several good meals this winter. Tomorrow I plan to put out some onions I’m trying to overwinter, then I’ll declare my planting complete for 2011.

Planting this late in the season is something new for me. Few people around here plant beyond August. They also usually plant directly in the garden rather than using flats to start seedlings for transplanting. So this year’s big fall garden is definitely an experiment. If it works, we’ll have lots of greens, a few beets, and several salads worth of radishes that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. We’re already enjoying some fresh green beans far beyond the local norm. If it fails, oh, well. I’m just out a little bit of labor and a few seeds.

I’m also taking advantage of the change in season to convert my garden from one large open field to defined beds. After seeing how my deep-dug kitchen garden responded to better aeration of the soil, I realized the traditional gardening system used by most people around here has some distinct disadvantages.

First, we walk all over the garden, compacting the soil where we’ll plant crops later on. Traditionally people use tillers to “fluff” the soil, then walk on part of it and continue the cycle. They also have to cultivate and weed their pathways just as much as the crop spaces. With defined beds, I walk on the spaces between the beds. The soil in the beds remains uncompacted and holds more air for the plant roots. As the pathways become more compacted, fewer weeds will survive. I run them with the wheel hoe every now and then to keep the weeds under control, but that’s all the maintenance that part of the garden gets.

Second, when we add compost or other soil amendments to the entire field, we’re essentially wasting the portion we put in the walkways—or worse, feeding our weeds the same rich diet we wish for our crops. With defined pathways that stay constant season to season, we can reserve the good stuff for the things we want to grow.

After researching through a number of websites and gardening books, I decided to adapt the 5 by 20 foot bed recommended by John Jeavons as my standard. It happens to be precisely 100 square feet, so I can easily figure out how much of compost, soil amendments, or seeds to apply to a bed. It’s just a little wider than I can reach easily across, but I’m finding I can easily run around to the other side when I need to reach past the middle.

I’ve been mapping out and digging each bed when I clear the last of the seasons crops. Any crop residue or weeds go to the compost pile, then I spread four buckets of compost (five would be better, but I’m bringing this stuff from home in my car and I have only four buckets) over the bare soil. Then I use the broadfork to aerate the soil through the whole bed. (Broadforks are available through several online sources. I got mine from Oak Valley Tools, the same company where I got my wheel hoe.) Finally I use either a garden rake, spading fork, or wheel hoe cultivator to work through the top few inches of the soil. Up till frost I planted fall and winter crops. I may put down some red clover on the remaining beds as I create them, to add nitrogen and organic matter next spring.

The garden already looks significantly different. The beds aren’t “raised” or framed, but the beds still stand out from the already-packed walkways. Because the beds are aerated, they stand an inch or so higher than the paths.

So by spring, the open field will be replaced with a grid of 20 or so beds, ready for planting next year’s tomatoes, beans, corn, and all the other crops I’m already looking forward to.

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3 thoughts on “Putting the Garden to Bed

    • We’ve seen them at our house, but none so far at Belly Acre. If they spread as fast as predicted, the previously beleaguered bean crops may not survive. I’ve read that even commonly used pesticides don’t deter these little devils.

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