This year, our faculty vegetable garden did not produce nearly what it did in its first year. In fact, the plants were small and gardening was a challenge. My plot at the Breckenridge Community Garden was amazing, also in its first year. What's the secret and is there anything we can do now to make a garden more productive in year two?
- Ronda, Breckenridge CMC
When it comes to vegetable gardens, especially in a raised bed, plants need extra attention to continue to produce that annual bounty we've come to appreciate and love. There are several key things you should do for your garden in the fall to make the next year just as successful.
Raised beds are essentially container gardening. The soil is contained in a large box and plants use the nutrients from the soil to produce vegetables, fruits or leafy greens. Plants will eventually deplete the soil's nutrients within the first or second year of growing. You must return the nutrients back to the soil or your plants will suffer. If you've seen stunted growth or plants that don't look as good as they did the year before, you need to improve the soil.
Keep in mind, compost and topsoil are not the same thing! When you purchase topsoil, there is no guarantee that it will contain organic matter. In addition, soil levels can drop between 3 and 4 inches in a raised bed after vegetable crops have been harvested. This goes to show you how much our food crops consume in organic matter on an annual basis.
Here are some tips for getting your garden ready this fall for a fabulous growing season in 2013:
> Add compost! The best thing you can do for your garden is to add compost. Compost is a nutrient-rich amendment that can fix a lot of problems in the garden. If you've noticed issues with water retention and drying out - add compost. Compost will also help gardens overcome the trials of mountain gardening (cold nights, drought, wind ...) by fostering stronger and healthier plants.
You can grow your own compost in a backyard bin or worm bin or you can purchase locally made compost. Conveniently, there is a fall compost special at the High Country Compost facility right now. You can buy finished compost by the bag or truck load (cubic yard). There are two types of finished compost - compost made from biosolids and compost made from food waste from zero-waste events and the schools. To purchase compost, contact the Summit County Resource Allocation Park at (970) 468-9263 x 0.
> Chop and drop! Another way to add nutrients back into your soil is to let nature do it. Simply cut the remaining plants in your vegetable garden at the surface, shred and use as a mulch. You can leave the roots of the plant in the soil to later decompose and aerate.
> Grow a cover crop! Cover crops are green manures that can either fix nitrogen levels in your soil and/or return depleted nutrients. In our mountain environment, they aren't easy to grow. For greenhouses, hoophouses or cold frames that can keep snow off plants and provide shelter from winter elements, cover crops can be effective. You need to seed cover crops now to allow them to establish before the frost. As they grow, the crops continue to enrich the soil. In the spring, you harvest the crop before it reaches maturity and then chop it down and gently till it back into the soil. Cover crops help aerate the soil, break up compaction and replenish organic matter.
Some example crops that may do well in the High Country because of their endurance to temperatures between -15 and -30 degrees are hairy vetch (considered the hardiest of the legumes), annual ryegrass and winter rye (best grass for cold winter climates). Even if your cover crop doesn't survive all winter, it will still add a valuable supplement to the soil when it thaws out in the spring.
> Try lasagna gardening! Lasagna beds, also known as sheet composting or mulching, is one of my favorite ways to build soil and new gardens. If you've considered building a raised vegetable garden, now is as good of time as any. After constructing your bed, layer it like a compost bin with a couple of inches of nitrogen materials (green plant debris and some food waste) followed by a couple of inches of carbon materials (brown ingredients like seed-free straw, leaves or newspaper). Leave at least 4-6 inches of space from the top of the bed. Come spring, add a mix of topsoil and compost for new plants. Beneath the new soil, your lasagna bed layers will slowly breakdown to form compost over the next two years.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.