The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Building Soil Fertility with Fall Gardening at the Equinox September 23, 2018

Leaves - nutrients AND enjoyment!

Leaves – nutrients AND enjoyment!

In the druid wheel of the year, we have three “harvest” festivals.  Lughnasadh, the first harvest.  So much of the garden produce starts to be ready at this time–and also at this time, the garden is still at its peak, but quickly waning. In the weeks after , our pumpkin patch died back with beautiful orange pumpkins and said “ok, I’m done for the year!” Then we have the Fall Equinox, where things are continuing to be harvesting, but many of the plants are in serious decline. By Samhain, everything is dead, the hard frosts have come and the land goes to sleep. It seems then, on the surface, that what we should be doing in the fall is primarily harvesting and sitting on our laurels and watching fall and winter come.

 

However, as a gardener and homesteader, my busiest time, by far, is the fall! Part of this is that bringing in the harvest takes some work, and takes many hours near the canner preparing food for the winter.  I find that as someone practicing regenerative gardening techniques, the bulk of my own gardening work takes place in the time between the Fall Equinox and when the ground freezes, usually December. This is because I want to work with nature and use nature’s proceses as much as possible in my gardening practice.  With this idea of soil fertility, working with nature’s systems, and land regeneration in mind,   I’m going to walk through some of my fall gardening tasks, and how they prepare me for the full year to come.

 

So in this post, in honor of the Fall Equinox, I will share a number of fall gardening techniques that will certainly help you improve soil fertilitiy in existing beds or start new garden beds.  These are all part of “no till” gardening and are rooted in permaculture design.

 

 

General Gardening Philosophy: Using Nature’s Systems and Regenerating Depleted Soil

As I’ve discussed before in relationship to lawns, most of the soil we are growing in is very depleted.  It is depleted from years and years of poor farming practices, from poor soil management strategies, and it is certainly depleted from the traditional lawn “care” techniques that regularly remove all nutrients (fall leaves, grass clippings, any other life that isn’t grass).Further, most new “developments’ (I can’t stand that word used that way!) actually strip the topsoil and sell it for commercial use.  So if you buy a house in a suburban development that was purcahsed in about the last 25 years, chances are, your topsoil was stripped and sold before you got there. Part of the reason I believe that raised beds are so popular is because people have difficulty dealing with the existing soil on their properties–it is usually compacted and depleted.  It is difficult to break into with simple hand tools, and difficult to start. One good solution then, is to avoid the problem: don’t use your existing soil at all. The soil building techniques I am sharing in this blog also work with raised beds–so build the soil wherever you can! 🙂

 

Fall forest at Samhain, nutrients stay in the soil

Fall forest at Samhain, nutrients stay in the soil

In order to build soil effectively, we can look to what happens in the forest in the fall.  The leaves fall down, the plants die back, and in the spring, new plants emerge from that every-regenerating bed. Humans don’t intervene in this process–and from year to year, fertility is maintained.  I try to create my garden beds in the image of nature, using nature’s processes and tools and creating layers with no tilling. The soil building techniques I will share, many of which are perfect for the fall months, help prepare the soil for spring planting by encouraging and feeding the soil web of life (rather than destroying it), by sinking carbon, and by building nutrients.  These amazing ways to regenerate soil and produce garden beds that, in the spring, are ready for planting!  And that don’t require you to create raised beds where you import too much topsoil.

 

Fall Soil Building Techniques: Clearing, Composting, Cover Cropping, and Sheet Mulching

Here are the techniques you can use to build soil in the fall:

Harvest and clearing beds: leave the roots!  Looking to nature as our guide, when you are harvesting the last of the produce and getting ready to clear plants from beds, rather than rip out the whole plant by the roots, instead, cutting the plants at the root and leaving the roots in the soil.  This does two things.  First, it helps hold the soil in place during the winter months (part of why we lose soil fertility has to do with runoff!)  But second, as those roots break down over the winter, new roots of next year’s crops already have places to grow–the roots have created spaces for them.  This mimics what happens in a natural environment–the plants fall, the soil is never tilled, and new plants grow from the same spot.

 

Bed with roots cleared and a new layer of finished compost. The straw is where we just planted fall crops; the bare area is where we will plant cover crops.

Bed with roots cleared and a new layer of finished compost. The straw is where we just planted fall crops; the bare area is where we will plant cover crops.

Composting.  Nothing in the garden in the fall should be wasted–I am always saddened every year when I drive around looking for bags of leaves and find half rotted vegetables and tomato plants and such in garden bags on the street corner!  They are literally throwing away fertility, which they will then purchase back again in the spring.  So, with that in mind, the plant matter itself above ground that you are clearing from your garden should go back into your compost pile or else be used in your new sheet mulch for a new bed.  I’ve written on a few kinds of composting you can do.  I use my chickens for all of my composting, so it goes into the chicken coop for them to work and break down, but you can also do this with regular piles.  Composting doesn’t have to be very complex–basically, if you pile it up, it will break down in time and create soil.  You can ammend it, you can turn it, you can make sure it heats up–and all those things will make it compost down faster, but in the end, it will break down regardless of whether or not you intervene.  So yes, everything from the garden that’s not harvest or root can be composted for next year. If any plants have bad disease (tomatoes, in particular, get a blight that can perpetuate from year to year) I will burn them when I have a fire outside and not have them in the compost (as I don’t want to spread the disease).  The ashes from the fire also go back in the sheet mulch (I have acidic soil, so this is a great ammendment; it would be less good for someone with alkali soil).

 

Sheet Mulching Strategy.  For new beds or to help existing beds, you can use a layered approach that mimics the forest called sheet mulching.  I’ve offered several posts on this subject over the years, and is an extremely effective way to deal with plant matter, weeds, new or existing garden beds, soil fertility, and fall leaves.  Read about it here and here.  You can create new beds in the fall (much better than creating them in the spring) or add to existing beds.  This is a simple strategy where you create layers of plant matter, compost, straw, etc, and it will break down over the winter, creating a great bed to plant in in the spring.

 

Late fall sheet mulch

Late fall sheet mulch, nearly complete.

Dealing with Weeds in your existing beds. In my clearing of beds for the winter, I do make sure I address weeds (unwanted plants). Depending on the volume of the weeds, what they are, and their roots, I either pull them or add them to the compost pile, or, if there are a lot of weeds, I will sheet mulch right on top of the weeds–this new sheet mulch will simply add fertility to the bed underneath as it breaks down over the winter.  For this, I will just use a thick layer of newspaper over the weeds, and then a layer of fall leaves.  I top this with compost and either straw or a cover crop.  I do not let weed roots stay in place–or they would just create more weeds.

 

Taking advantage of free biomass (fall leaves).  The biggest reason that fall is the best time to establish new beds (using sheet mulching / lasagna gardening techniques) is that fall leaves are available. These are the single best free resource that many gardeners have access to, and within 6 months to a year, they make incredibly wonderful soil.  How long they take to break down depends on the leaf type–maples and cherries take a lot less time than oaks!  Pine needles break down pretty fast and add a little bit of acidity (but not in noticable amounts a few times; over 50 years, they would do so!)  And because most people don’t want their fall leaves, meaning you can go around where people bag them and pick up as many as you want for free if you don’t have enough on your own property to suffice. In an earlier post, I shared information on nutrition and long-term sustainable practices with regards to fall leaves.  If you don’t want to sheet mulch with them, throw them in a pile to break down (this takes about a year) or let your chickens do that for you in 3 months.

 

What I like to do is this–I like to cut back plants in my garden (leaving the roots) as described above. I compost the plants that are above ground.  Then I will spread 2-3 inches of leaves on the garden bed, right on top. If you mulch the leaves first, they will break down faster, but I don’t want to expend the extra fossil fuel to do this, so I don’t do so.  I still see them in the garden in the spring of next year, but by the end of the summer, all those leaves are soil. I will top dress my bed with horse manure (fresh or composted, if I can get it), finished compost, chicken dung–whatever I have available, and hopefully from my own land). Then I will cover crop it and/or put a thick layer of straw on it for the winter.  And the bed is now “in bed” for the winter.

 

Winter rye bed

Winter rye bed

Cover cropping for soil health.  Another good soil building strategy is cover cropping.  I like cover cropping for a few reasons–one, cover crops help hold in soil fertility (locking a lot of fertility up in the plants themselves).  Second, cover crops also hold the soil in place (which matters a lot, particularly if you are on a hill like I am!). Third, in January, my winter rye is a wonderful cover crop that provides some of the only green forage available to my chickens.  They love it, eat it, and poop, building more soil!   There are several cover crop blends you can consider for the winter: my favorite is winter rye.  If you want to let a bed rest for a year, you might consider red clover (which then gets turned under the following year).  Or, you can do a mix of daikon, turnip, clover, and vetch, which is something fellow permaculture practicing friends taught me last year. This is a another good forage crop and also, the daikon and turnip help break up compacted soil really well–and you can eat them!  If anything survives the winter of this crop, it provides great nectar sources early in the season.  They also throw this mix anywhere they want to start building soil and also behind their chicken tractor as they move it around their yard.

 

Cover crop in the spring--this is the only green thing growing!

Chicken in the cover crop in the late winter–this is the only green thing growing!

Fall plantings (Garlic, perennials). There are also select annual crops and many perennials that prefer to be planted in the fall.  Garlic goes in where I live sometime in early October–and then comes up strong in the spring, for harvest in late July/early August.  If you wanted a winter wheat crop, it would also go in during this time.  Of course, any trees, shrubs, vines, etc, that you want to plant can be done in the fall–the fall lets them establish deep roots over the winter and come out of dormancy strong and vigorous.  So you might do some planting to take advantage of the winter.

 

Putting my garden beds to sleep. In the end, I feel like I’m “tucking in” my garden beds for the winter.  Then, in the spring, I can run the chickens through the garden to deal with the cover crops and/or turn the crops over by hand (which doesn’t take long) and then plant right in that incredibly rich soil.  My plants are stronger, my garden is healthier, and I’ve worked to conserve and retain nutrients.  As part of this, I sing to my beds, I sing to the life in the soil, and I wish them good slumber till spring.

 

Conclusion

I hope this has been a helpful introduction to some of the “fall bed” work we can do to help build soil fertility.  To me, soil fertility is an incredibly important part of the work we can do to regenerate the land.  With common practices like tilling and barecropping and stripping the soil physically off of sites of new homes, our soil is in poor condition.  Part of healing the land means healing our soil, and these techniques can help us do that.  Blessings of the fall equinox upon you!

 

11 Responses to “Building Soil Fertility with Fall Gardening at the Equinox”

  1. Eliza Ayres Says:

    Reblogged this on Blue Dragon Journal.

  2. Kieron Says:

    Inspiring! My only concern about leaf collection (which I have done for many years now) is that weed seeds or other unwanted items (like trash or dog doo) are raked up and bagged along with the desirable leaves. I am sure some of the volunteer weeds that have sprouted got imported into my yard this way. 😦 Recently our municipality mandated paper leaf bags, so I now gather them (including the leaves from the old oaks standing a bit west of here, for some of those tannic nutrients) and use the empty leaf bags for weed control on pathways. The leaves themselves go into the composter to break down over the next few seasons, hopefully to cut down on weed seeds through heat action although I don’t think my composter is big enough to generate the degree of heat needed,. It may be time for a new one (it’s around 15 years old).

    • Dana Says:

      This is true. Although I would say for as much problems as may be present in a bag of leaves, you can also find surprises that are delightful. I have a wonderful lemon scented geranium plant, I actually dug it out of a bag of leaves about eight years ago now, and its still with me. Before I put any bags of leaves in my car, I open them up carefully and check to make sure they don’t smell like dog poop or anything else. One idea for you is to use oyster mushrooms to break down the leaves, they would be possibly faster than waiting for a year or two. They are pretty incredible!

      • Kieron Says:

        Do you mean ordinary oyster mushrooms I can find in the store? Just add them to the mix? Or do you mean something else entirely?

        • Dana Says:

          You would have to buy the mushroom spawn (so the mycelium itself). I got mine from Tradd Cotter at Mushroom Mountain. There are different oyster varities; I am growing brown for indoors (cardboard/coffee grounds) and pearl for outdoors (straw/wood chips). I also have some King Stropharia for wood chips.

  3. carolynmcb Says:

    I don’t have a lot of fallen leaves where I am, but I do have a forest nearby! I just need to get myself out there with a contractor bag and a rake. I’m still looking into cover crops, but up here in Northern Ontario Canada, a lot of what other folks would put in over winter to get established for spring doesn’t do anything but freeze. So I’m still researching. I didn’t realize that once clover goes in, it has to sit for a year! Darn…
    Anyway, thanks for a great blog!

    • Dana Says:

      You might talk to a local seed supply store, or local organic farmers. They would give you a sense of what cover crops might work over the winter. One of the things you might do is plant earlier, I plan my winter rye in mid October, but if you planted it in mid-September, you’d probably get the same effect. 

  4. Jodie Zammit Says:

    I enjoyed reading your post. Here, in our sub tropical region on the east coast of Australia in the central part of Queensland the winters are mild, so we are fortunate to be able to harvest many things almost all year round; tomatoes are one example. Many native species flower all year round too. However, the climate here is at its harshest in the peak of summer. In contrast to your winter when the ground freezes, our soil bakes, killing off the most delicate of plants. The way I’ve learned to combat this is to keep the gardens thickly mulched to reduce water loss. It has the added benefit of encouraging all manner of creatures which make it their home. They break down the mulch adding much needed airation and nutrients. This encourages birds such as Ibis with their long hard beaks which dig into the soil in search of legless lizards who made the warm dark underside of the layer their home too. At this time of year the spread of weeds is an issue. They thrive in the baked earth, producing thousands of tiny seeds from a single flower which take advantage of the breezes to spread. Mulching lays down and kills off the young weed sprouts before they can flower, almost eliminating this problem. And so, like you, I take care of my surrounds by covering the earth, thereby protecting the plants, conserving water and, I enjoy the results of a more fertile soil as the somewhat cooler months approach when food can be grown again.

    • Dana Says:

      We use thick mulch in the summer as well–also to keep in the moisture. In the winter, the mulch helps prevent erosion. Do you have to use heat screens and other things to keep things cool? Thank you so much for sharing your perspective! So interesting how we use similar techniques for entirely different things!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.