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!

 

Medicine Making and Sacred Herbalism at Lughnassadh August 1, 2014

I love celebrating the druid wheel of the year.  Its just an amazing experience to dedicate eight days to magic, ritual, being outdoors, studying, reading, meditation, gardening, and other sacred activity. I had the most wonderful day today making so many medicines from fresh ingredients. Just like at the summer solstice, Lughnassadh is a fantastic time for gathering bright, beautiful herbs, so today I spent most of the day gathering and preparing plants for medicinal use. I thought I’d share so that you have a sense of what herbs are in season right now and what they can be used for.  Since I’m trying to replace any over-the-counter medicine with locally gathered or my own home grown herbs, I’m trying to lay in a really good stock of herbs before winter (then I can continue to make things in the wintertime).  Once I have a better sense of all of the herbs I want to have for common ailments, I’ll post a list here–but for now, this post serves as a sneak peek to my “family herbal medicine chest.”

 

In the morning, the skies were clear and blue, the weather warm, and the sun shining.  There was very little wind, which allowed the monarchs (who have finally made their way to Michigan) come out and enjoy the milkweed blooms.  I went out to my favorite secret harvest spot (an 80 acre parcel of land about a mile away) to see what was ready.  The land isn’t far from my home, so I’m pretty sure I also spotted some of my (or other local) honeybees on the spotted knapweed. I was so excited to see that the goldenrod had just came into flower and tons of mullein stalks jutting up around the goldenrod as far as I could see.  I gathered up goldenrod, beautiful and bold, for a tincture.  I’ve been eagerly awaiting the blooming of the goldenrod all summer, and I’m so glad to finally be able to make this tincture!

Goldenrod!

Goldenrod!

I also carefully went around each of the mullein stalks, gathered a few leaves, and spent a good hour gathering up a bunch of mullein flower for an ear oil.  I visited at least 30 plants to gather up enough of their delicate flowers. If you look around the plant, in its leaves, etc, and you can find flowers that have already dropped but are still moist.

Mullein Flower Stalk

Mullein Flower Stalk

In addition, I gathered some branches from a fallen oak tree (for an oak bark tincture), bright red clusters of staghorn sumac berry and stinging nettle, all for tinctures. I brought my panflute with me, and in exchange for the harvest, played music for the land for a time, and just sat and enjoyed being out in the fields and among the pines.

 

Around lunch, I arrived home, ate some yummy food from the garden (it is the first harvest, after all) and setup my medicine-making supplies out on my back porch where I could keep an eye on my free ranging chickens.  From nearby herb beds, I gathered colts foot, lady’s mantle, and chamomile.  I also gathered up valerian flower for a tincture (I am hoping the flower will be more mild than valerian root, the root I will harvest later in the year).

Staghorn Sumac

Staghorn Sumac

The tincture making process is a lot of fun.  Inspect your herbs to make sure you only have the right ones, check for bugs, and so on.  Then, chop up fresh herbs, add alcohol (in a 1:2 ratio for fresh, so 1 part herbs (weight) to two parts alcohol (volume)), and seal in a mason jar.  I learned in my herb class that if you are using the standard fresh herb ratio, and the herb is really bulky (like mullein leaf), you can get the herbs below the level of the alcohol by weighing down your herbs with clean stones. That way they don’t turn a funky color and the alcohol can properly extract all of the plant material.

 

Staghorn sumac, above, is a fantastic (and quite potent) astringent.  Its good for leaky, puffy, or lax tissues.  There are other astringents less potent than this (like strawberry leaf), but this was one on my “must make” list this year.  My hands were still a bit cut up from replacing my chicken coop last weekend (chicken wire hurts!) and so the sumac was quite stinging on the hands as I was carefully pulling off the berries.

Goldenrod Tincture

Goldenrod Tincture

Goldenrod (especially when combined with ragweed leaf and stem–NOT ragweed pollen/flower) is great for those snotty, leaky, allergies.  Its kinda funny that ragweed leaf and stem can help cure ragweed’s pollen allergies that many people get.  As far as I know, nobody is allergic to goldenrod, it gets a bad rap because other allergen producing plants, like ragweed, happen to bloom at the same time and in the same location.  I wanted to have a good tincture of goldenrod so that when I encounter people’s pesky dogs that jump up on me, I have something to counter the allergic reaction.

 

Another tincture I made today was oak bark.  Its really good for gums, especially gums that bleed a lot after flossing or brushing teeth or gums that are receding or otherwise lax–its another astringent, so it will help tighten up the tissue.

Oak Bark Tincture

Oak Bark Tincture

I had made a St. Johns Wort oil a few weeks ago (the St. Johns wort flowers are about done for the year, but two weeks ago they were in the height of their blossom). I spent today letting it drip off, to get off all the plant matter (if plant matter remains in an infused oil, it will go rancid).  This oil is fantastic for any kind of wound (external use). I will probably make a new healing salve blend with some of this along with plantain oil, maybe calendula or a few other things.

St. Johns Wort

St. Johns Wort

Fresh garlic from the garden and the painstakingly gathered mullein flowers went into my awesome enamel and copper double boiler (yard sale find, $15).  This oil, which I will infuse over the next three days, is used for ear infections, which I get pretty often in the winter.

Garlic and Mullein Flower

Garlic and Mullein Flower

Double Boiler with Ear Oil

Double Boiler with Ear Oil

I also added some herbs to the dehydrator–its been going straight for weeks now, it seems! I have found such a quality difference between what I can buy vs. what I grow and harvest myself, plus, there are many herbs that one can’t buy easily or cheaply.  But these herbs are free and abundant on the land if one grows them or knows where to look.

Dehydrator filled up

Dehydrator filled up with herbs – Lady’s Mantle, Colt’s Foot, and Calendula

Here is a photograph of all the herbs I prepared or jarred up today–nine tinctures in all plus four jars of dried herbs from the dehydrator. The tinctures are now macerating and many of the herbs I wanted to preserve have been crossed off my list.

Good Medicine!

Good Medicine!

After all that work, I went down to the stone circle for some ritual and meditation, and saw the butterfly of transformation!

Butterfly on Spotted Knapweed (yes, knapweed too has medicinal qualities!)

Butterfly on Spotted Knapweed (yes, knapweed too has medicinal qualities!)

To finish out the day, I had a wonderful feast from the garden and the land – wild chicken of the woods mushrooms, green beans, zuchinni, and kale. I hope that everyone has a blessed Lughnassadh!

 

Planting Garlic: How to Guide October 15, 2013

Tis the season to plant garlic (at least here in South East Michigan)!  This post will talk about some tips and techniques for planting garlic in your organic garden.  I planted garlic for the first time a year ago, and it was a very easy crop–no hassle, no pests, and tasted amazing. I learned quite a bit more about planting garlic this year from my good friend and Oakland University Student Organic Farm manager, Jared….so thank you, Jared for teaching me about garlic this season!

Garlic is a crop planted in the fall, and typically harvested in July (for bulbs, the scapes come about a month earlier).  In my region, the best time to plant garlic is now–in mid October.

 

1.  Read up on garlic. One of the things you want to spend time doing when you are preparing to plant any crop is to read and learn about the plant.  One place to learn this is from High Mowing Seeds, where they describe things like plant depth, row spacing, days to harvest, etc.  From their site, we learn a lot about row spacing and mulching, which are important for our work now.

 

2. Prepare your bed. You should try to prepare your bed a week in advance; this allows your soil to settle in preparation for planting.  For my bed, I weeded it and pulled out all the old material (I had amaranth and malabar spinach growing in the bed previously), then I added compost and aerated the soil a bit with a garden fork.  I let the bed rest for one week.

 

3. Obtain some garlic. Like potatoes, when you plant a garlic clove, you will actually be cloning the plant.  I have a few varieties of garlic that I plant each year–all of it was obtained either from friends or from the farmer’s market.

 

4.  Split your garlic into cloves. Your cloves should have as much of the skin as possible; this protects them.  There is a garlic “root crown”, or the thing that attaches the garlic to the base, should be preserved.

Garlic cloves ready for planting!

Garlic cloves ready for planting!

5.  Prepare your trenches.  I planted my garlic every 6″ in rows 12″ apart.  You can use your rake to make nice long trenches.  Since I have 4′ garden beds, I created three rows of garlic (I am planting a 4′ x 10′ area).

Creating trenches

Creating trenches

Trenches finished

Trenches finished

6. Plant your garlic. I used the back of a rake to get down 2″, then sunk the garlic into the bottom of the trench (root crown down).  You can use “finger spacing” to plant your garlic easily–you’ll see me measuring with my fingers (since I know their length is 7″ across, so slightly less than their full length) to plant each garlic bulb.

Finger measuring

Finger measuring

Planting the garlic

Planting the garlic

7. Cover up your garlic.   You can use the back of your rake to fill in the trenches and smooth out your bed.  When you smooth out the bed, you make sure there aren’t pockets where water will lay or run off.

Smoothing out the bed

Smoothing out the bed

7. Mulch your garlic. I straw mulched my garlic with about 4″ of straw—this gives it a wonderful barrier for the snow to come and also helps hold moisture in and prevents erosion from blowing, etc.

Garlic mulched!

Garlic mulched!

8.  Wait and watch. Your garlic is planted, and other than a bit of compost early in the spring, doesn’t really need much attention throughout the season.  In approximately 150-200 days, or sometime around July, your garlic will be ready!

Garlic is certainly a lesson in patience and planning ahead…but its a wonderful way to start your garden for next season.  I love the fact that I am already planting my garden for next season!