Many people see gardening as primarily a busy spring and summertime activity. But in truth it should be viewed as a part-time, year-round pursuit, and It shouldn’t run your life any time of the year. Autumn is actually a good time to begin your garden for next year. But before I explain what I mean, first some background. Our homestead is 1.7 acres, in zone 5, located in a sparsely populated community in Maine, and includes a small pond, an orchard with 15 fruit trees, a grape trellis, dozens of blueberry, elderberry and raspberry bushes, an asparagus bed, and a vegetable garden roughly a half an acre in size. Until recently, we also had a chicken shed and yard.
One of the best tasks that you could do in the fall is to add cover crops to your growing areas. Cover crops protect soil quality, add nutrients and keep microbial activity going…more on this later. Hopefully, you also might have set aside patches of carrots and beets, and have a good size planting of ‘survivalists’ parsnips in the ground. Carrots and beets and yes even cabbage and swiss chard can be mulched for the winter now. You’ll love these fresh veggies when warmer weather rolls around next spring.
Of course this time of the year we have our storage supply of potatoes, squash, onions and garlic. We’re fortunate to have a cool basement which works well for storing these vegetables, and fruit like apples, asian pears, and we usually have plenty of berries in the freezer. We also invested in a cider press sometime ago which we crank up in the fall, producing cider, grape and elderberry juice. Some of the cider we boil producing a wonderful sweetener. Two plantings of elderberries a few years ago have expanded to give us wonderful berries and flowers. These we press with the grapes to produce a very fine wine to sip alongside the wood stove in the winter.
Contrary to many gardening experts I no longer have the usual seasonal extenders like hoop houses and greenhouses. Takes too much time, caretaking and unless you’re trying to get a jump start selling crops at the farmers’ market, there is no real advantage to be gained for the homesteader or survivalist gardener. Key to our successful gardening experience is to devote a good deal of time in November to preparing ferments, like sauerkraut, pickle beets and cukes. These are so good that thinking of them now makes my mouth water!
I use the winter months to strategize my next year’s garden. Good time to write down what worked and what didn’t. Along with this I do a broad brush run through last season’s weather. See what parallels there might have been between the two. It’s also at this time of the year I start getting my seeds together. I save squash, potatoes, pole beans, peas, cuke and tomato seeds because it’s easy to do. I’m also at this time of the year cruising discount stores, like Home Depot, looking for big discounts on last years’ open pollinated seeds. Harris and Ferry Morse seeds are sold in these places and they have worked well for me.
In Soil Seed Sprouting
More recently I’ve added seed sprouting in soil, (not jars) as one of my favorite wintertime gardening activities. This is fun and easy to do. Plus, you get some of the most nutritious food you can imagine. The best source of info on this is anything written by Peter Burke. I’ve set aside two cubbies in my entry way, roughly 2’x3’ in size, installed LED grow lights, mats for bottom heating, and temp and light controls. My daily harvest is about 14 ounces of greens from five small 3-by-6-inch aluminum bread pans. Occasionally I use a larger container when I want a double batch of greens.
One cubby I keep in the dark but with bottom heat going. The second cubby is where the LED lights operate on a timer for 12 – 14 hours. It’s best to have this located on a heated wall. I’m lucky I suppose we have a south-facing entry way where my cubbies are located so the heat mats are not using juice all the time. Some of the seeds I use for cover cropping, like buckwheat, field peas, radish, sunflower and oats I can also use for soil sprouting. This all works well, and it’s sweet and simple! In a week or two I’ve got a delicious sprout salad for dinner, along with my apple cider vinegar, potatoes, squash and a bit of locally produced sausage – a real feast!
These cubbies also serve me well early spring when it’s time to start my seedlings. First to get planted are onions and celery seeds. I like celery, and home grown onions are indispensible, plus they can go in the ground early. I like a few flowers too, like marigolds, ageratum and zinnias and these get started early too. We definitely have more to do in the summer, but don’t mind because we’ve spread things out so it’s never overwhelming. Here’s a rough schedule for our spring-summer planting:
- April-May….Early seedlings like onions and celery, broccoli and cabbage; plant outside spinach, peas, kale, s. chard
- June….Additional seedlings – tomatoes, peppers, basil. transplant onions, Plant outside cabbage, broccoli, lettuce, and potatoes. Late June plant squash, cukes and corn. Pick/freeze strawberries
- July….Early July plant carrots, parsnips, beets, and pole beans outside. Plant/try a few price discounted herbs like dill, cilantro, oregano, arugala, chives
- August….Weed & much with grass clippings, start/transplant new strawberry plants for next year, Pick/freeze blueberries, raspberries. Get leaves for compost piles
- September….Plant garlic for next year, do cover crops. Pick apples, make cider, wine. Harvest and put away other crops into October.
We have a lot of clay in our soil, so even though we try to limit tiling the soil, it still needs to be loosened for planting in spring-summer. Rototilling is fun and looks good, but it really isn’t good for your soil microbes. To minimize this we do what’s known as ‘strip tilling’. This method introduces air to the soil but only when and where you’re going to plant. With a 3 prong hand cultivator-rake we will remove the cover crop residue/mulch and loosen up a 6″-to-8” wide row to plant in.
Preserving the structure of your soil is so important. Cover crops are great but so are trace minerals, that’ll feed your microbes, and you eventually. We’re fortunate to have a granite quarry nearby. We go there with bucket in hand and ask for some granite dust, a fine source for mineralizing your soil. You can also buy some Azomite, another excellent source for minerals. We’re spreading minerals on our soil, along with calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, gypsum, greensand etc. One of the best investment you can make is to get a University soil test; only $15. And you’ll get a wealth of information. This is not what you should be penny-pinching on. Getting your soil balanced, along with adding minerals is what produces nutrient dense food, and will keep you healthy. An important added bonus is that undertaking this will also do wonders in helping to keep pests and diseases away from your produce.
Always Have Something Growing
Whenever we harvest a crop we’ll add the soil amendments, as recommended by the soil survey, and if it’s late summer we plant buckwheat for a late summer cover crop mulch. It is very important to always have something growing. Never leave the soil bare! Our winter cover crop mixes are planted late summer, and the seeds chosen so that they grow in the fall, survive a few light frosts and are then winter killed, leaving a good much behind ready for the spring. My favorite seed mix for my climate is field peas, vetch and oats. Don’t use rye – it comes back in the spring and can be hard to do in without tilling.
Up until recently we had chickens, seeing them as essential for our garden operation. But after two decades keeping birds we no longer think it’s worth it. Oh sure the eggs are wonderful and chickens ate a lot of our household kitchen waste. And certainly they are fun to have around. They also chewed up a lot of grass and weeds but organic feed also seemed essential for them, and it is expensive. Chickens it seems need to have 60 -70% of their diet as grain. We liked the idea of a chicken tractor. Moving them around the garden in a small cage enclosure we envisioned that they would be like little mini-tillers, turning soil and chicken manure over for the benefits of all. In truth it often seemed that were slacking off on the job, digging potholes for dust baths, escaping from the enclosure and eating lettuce and strawberries.
It is so much simpler to have cover crops and a couple of compost piles. No daily treks in winter through the snow necessary. No feed and water to keep up with daily. As you get your soil quality really cooking you’ll find a lot less need for nitrogen and other soil amendments. You should visually check the health of your crops daily in the summertime. If they look a little peaked (i.e., wilting, yellow leaves), give them a little foliar feed with a seaweed/fish emulsion concoction. Just like you store food for emergencies, you really should store extra supplies of minerals and fish emulsion. If you live anywhere near the ocean take a vacation day and go pick up some seaweed along the shore. Excellent stuff! Phosphorus apparently may be the first essential soil amendment to become scarce. So it might be a good idea to stock up. We are fortunate to have a local organic gardening coop where we can purchase supplies jointly with others for a better price.
It’s a real pleasure to be outside early in the spring, in good weather, and feel the sun on winter weary bones. There’s nothing better than surveying the estate on those cool mornings, no bugs, plenty of birds and good ground to sink your hands into.
One of my best gardening references is Johnny’s Selected Seeds Catalogue, and it’s free too! (Johnnyseeds.com}
For Further Reading
Steve Solomon’s The Intelligent Gardener, New Society Publishers, 2012
Nancy Bubel’s The New Seed Starters Handbook, Rodale Press, 1988