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Garden wisdom from deer country!

Gardening in the Sierra Foothills with Carolyn Singer

The seasoned gardener

published in The Union in Grass Valley CA

Seeds will germinate in fertile soil when the sun shines

by Carolyn Singer
March 26, 2011

volunteer Nasturtiums Arugula has been growing for the past few weeks in one of the hanging baskets near my east-facing porch. Seed germinated in December from plants that had been thrown onto a compost pile last summer. When I spread some of this compost on the soil mix already in the basket at the beginning of winter, I unknowingly planted an April salad.

This would not have happened in the vegetable garden, which is a much colder microclimate. The basket is on the south end of the porch, sheltered from heavy snow by the roof overhang. The deer cannot reach the basket, so the salad is mine to enjoy. I guess I should have been planting a winter garden in that spot for the past three decades.

In the vegetable garden, volunteer Nasturtiums (photo left) add color and interesting flowers and leaves for salad. And they are quite vigorous, mingling with the tomatoes and beans. Volunteer greens also keep me well supplied through most of the spring and summer.

lettuce in small spaceWhile the volunteers in my vegetable garden are usually left where the seed germinates, most of the garden is planned in advance. This is essential for optimal space management and rotation of crops from year to year. Planning is also a good way to avoid over-planting. Just a few young greens will meet your needs each week, so plan succession sowing of seeds. With some shadecloth utilized for your summer planting, the harvest can continue for months.

bush beansI plant bush beans in early May for a harvest in late June. But I also plant pole and bush beans in mid-June to early July for a harvest during the milder temperatures of late summer and fall. Bean production often slows in the heat of midsummer.

For the summer garden, especially for larger plants such as tomatoes, cover crops are left growing until early May. It has been many years since my garden was rototilled. Composted poultry manure, colloidal phosphate, and oyster shell are added in fall to enrich the soil for the "soil builder" cover crop. For the past two years I have planted my tomato plants, growing in 2-gallon containers (with protection!) in mid to late May, directly into the cut cover crop. This no-till method has been very successful.

If the bed is to be used for small seedlings such as lettuce, chard, or other greens, the cover crop may be too competitive. Cut it down three to four weeks before seedlings go into the permanent bed, then cover the bed with a one to two-inch layer of compost. You can seed or transplant directly into this "sheet compost" with no additional preparation if the soil was amended last fall. A terrific advantage in a wet spring.

quinoaMy vegetable garden has been gardened organically for 34 years, with soil amendments maintaining fertility and building microbial activity. Earthworms are plentiful, doing most of the tilling necessary to maintain loose soil.

However, occasionally I break new ground somewhere else on the property. This year it has been a serious expansion of the asparagus bed near where a majestic English walnut ended its 110-years with extensive snow damage in the winter of 2008-2009. A friend with a backhoe did the initial preparation with composted poultry manure and rock powders. A cover crop followed to add beneficial roots, and a straw mulch protected the soil, also adding organic material. Within a couple of months, I was ready to plant bareroot, the clay soil easy to work with a cultivator. No digging or turning of soil.

With more time, cover crops may be used to build soil cost effectively. They do not need to be rototilled, especially in a small garden. The longer they grow, the more "green manure" they add to the soil with the root systems plus the above-ground part of the plant decomposing on the soil surface. Rototilling hastens decomposition and amendment of the soil in the early years of creating a vegetable garden, but machinery and even tools can add measurably to compaction.

It's time to decide how much of each vegetable I really need (allowing for harvest to share with those not fortunate to have an edible garden). Each year I like to try something new...perhaps this year it will be quinoa (photo above), a grain I often eat. When I finish planning the garden beds for this season, if it's still raining and snowing, I'll start working on an expanded plan for next winter's garden in hanging baskets near the porch.

©2009 by Carolyn Singer. All rights reserved.

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