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!

 

Other Sites: The Hotel Belmar Garden (Organic, Biointensive, Incredible) April 11, 2015

Once in a while, you encounter something that is truly extraordinary. Something created by a unity of human effort and ingenuity and natural processes that is a sacred and inspirational place. I want to share one of those places with you today–both because its a wonderful opportunity to learn, but also to see so many sustainable living activities in action.  I’ve written about sacred gardens before–and this is truly such a place.

 

While I was in Costa Rica, my friend and I literally stumbled across this amazing organic vegetable garden behind the Hotel Belmar in Monteverde, Costa Rica.  Roberto Mairena is the sole farmer of this land, and he works with joy in his heart and s smile always on his face. Although he spoke little English and we spoke little Spanish, we learned a great deal from him, seeing so many of the principles that we were working to learn and enact in the USA at play in his garden–all in one place. Truthfully, this was the most inspirational and incredible garden I have ever visited (and I have certainly visited my fair share!)  What was so inspirational is that Roberto was literally doing everything himself and doing everything right and was, with the exception of imported chicken manure and a few bioferment ingredients, a closed loop system (that is, the garden largely sustains itself rather than taking nutrients and materials from other places).

Sacred and nutrient rich soil

Sacred and nutrient rich soil

You read about this kind of garden in books, and a lot of people are “working toward” this kind of thing–but here it is, all in one place, with so many things going on and so many little features that add up to an incredible whole. My friend Linda, a 30+ year experienced organic farmer and agricultural educator herself, was blown away with this place.  She and I spent over an hour exploring and photographing and documenting everything (so that we could learn), and then we spent almost an hour talking with Roberto and communicating in the language of plants with lots of excited pointing.

 

Robertos garden was also fully integrated into the hotel, which also is important to recognize (I have never seen a hotel in the US that had such a practice–much of the food served at the hotel came from the garden, less than 100 feet away). I am going to give you a virtual tour of his garden, and talk about some of the exciting features and what we can learn from his approach. I will say that this blog post is going to be a bit long and full of photos–but if you want to learn how to garden in a really sustainable, sacred way, its worth following along!

 

Size and Shape of the plot

We estimated that Roberto was farming about 5000-6000 square feet, and had over a 1/4 acre plot in cultivation in total–and he was able to grow amazing amounts of food and cultivate an amazing amount of diversity in that small space. Our Spanish wasn’t good enough to ask Roberto how many hours he worked in the garden each week, but from the love and care and attention to detail, we think that its likely a full time position (or close to it). We know this approach could be replicated on a smaller scale with effect.

The whole garden from the entrance!

The whole garden from the entrance!

One of the key features of this garden is how it uses the landscape, and the slope of the landscape, to effect. You can see the paths winding upwards, the slope catching the southern sun. The garden also has this wonderful, whimsical quality that is hard to put into words. There is a lot of joy growing here!

 

All Organic and Biointensive

Roberto was growing using only organic methods. This means no chemicals, no synthetic fertilizers, nothing that would harm the ecosystem or ourselves. He’s also employing nearly all of the methods used for biointensive farming, so we would classify his approach as organic and biointensive.

Another shot of the garden

Another shot of the garden

Double Dug Beds

There’s always discussion among permies, gardeners, and farmers about how to best prep your beds for planting annual veggies (perennials are another matter). Do you double dig it (using a biointensive method) or sheet mulch it?  Roberto favors the double dig method, and let’s just say his soil is the most beautiful, spongy, amazing thing, so that’s winning some points in my book!

Double dug beds

Double dug beds

Using Local Materials for Garden Construction

The garden was refreshing, in part, because so much of it was using local materials in its construction and maintenance. You may have noticed the old tree posts used to hold up the frame in the above pictures. All of the terraces were also made using locally milled boards (this is done when any tree is cut or falls down; we also saw this at work on the farm we stayed at) and using sticks to hold them in place.  Here’s an example:

Natural, Locally source materials for terracing

Natural, Locally source materials for terracing

Trellises were also made largely from repurposed materials.  Here’s one such example:

Trellis for ground cherry from scrap lumber

Trellis for ground cherry from scrap lumber

An old washing machine hides a trash bin.

Trash bin

Trash bin

Increasing Soil Fertility with Manure, Compost, Biofermentation, and more

Because Roberto isn’t using any chemical fertilizers, he instead uses a balanced series of soil amendments, most of which he makes on site:

1) Chicken manure from a local farm (one of few imports into the garden)

Composted chicken manure, produced locally

Composted chicken manure, produced locally

2) Additions of Eggshells and Ash. The soil of Costa Rica is quite acidic (as evidenced from the stunning blue hydrangeas growing all over the countryside). To counter this, Roberto uses substantial amounts of wood ash (which adds potash and trace nutrients and is highly alkali). Crushed eggshells add long-term calcium back into the soil.

Eggshells and ash in soil

Eggshells and ash in soil

3) Worm castings (red wiggler worms eating compost from the hotel; break down mangoes and some limited veggies). Roberto used some repurposed plastic trays and had stacks and stacks of the worms in the trays.  They made short work of the mangoes; the pits went back into the regular compost.

Red Wigglers

Red Wigglers eating mangoes

4) Rich compost from the hotel (more about this below)

5) Bioferments of various kinds (again, more below).

Compost

Roberto has a few tricks up his sleeve to make really amazing compost.  First, he uses four different bins, plus worm composting, to break down material as fast as he can.  After the worms have eaten the flesh of some fruits and veggies, he throws the harder bits right into the main compost bin.  Then, as it fills, he uses a series of repurposed PVC tubes with many holes drilled in them to provide aeration without having to turn it (this is just brilliant!).  Finally, he makes compost removal easy with a series of removable flat boards, so once the compost is ready, he can simply remove the boards and rake it into the middle of his work area (you can see this in the photo below).  Frankly, learning about these methods alone were enough to make the entire trip to Costa Rica worthwhile!

Compost Bins in various stages

Compost Bins in various stages

Roberto's aeration tube

Roberto’s aeration tube

Beautiful pile of finished compost!

Beautiful pile of finished compost!

Bin setup with removable boards

Bin setup with removable boards

 

Biofermentation

I’ve made bioferments with just comfrey, but Roberto was taking this to an entirely new level.  He’s using bioferments to add substantial trace minerals and microbial activity to his already beautiful, living soil.

Bioferment Barrels

Bioferment Barrels

Another ferment, this one using chicken manure

Another ferment, this one using chicken manure.  We didn’t figure out how he made it.

We asked Roberto for his Bioferment recipe, which he was happy to give us, and we translated the last bits with help from blog readers!  I plan on making some of this quite soon.

Biofermento (for 50 gallon barrel)

  • Water – 200 liters
  • Molasses – 5 liters
  • Whey – 20 liters
  • Ash – 4 kilos
  • Cow Manure 50 kilos
  • Mineral salt – 1/2 kilo
  • Calcium Carbonate – 1 kilo
  • Rock Phosphate – 1 kilo
  • Mountain Microorganisms (inoculum fermented for compost and other organic fertilizers; prevents odors and prevents disease) – 5 liters
  • Yeast – 500 grams
  • Yogurt – 500 grams

Ferment for one month.

 

Trap Cropping and Pollinator Support

Roberto also uses his edges and margins wisely (a principle from Permaculture Design).  On each edge of the garden bed, he has herbs to encourage certain kinds of beneficial insects and keep away pests and problematic insects.  He also uses trap cropping throughout the garden (where one plant will be grown as essentially the sacrifice for the pests so that the other crops are left alone).

Some trap crops along a stone fence

Some trap crops along a stone fence

Border herbs

Border herbs and more trap crops – lavender, parsley, chives.  Hardware cloth keeps out small critters but doesn’t take away from the look of the garden.

Pond for Pollenator Water Needs

Pond for Pollenator Water Needs

Companion Planting & Making Use of All Space

Roberto favored smaller, shorter rows with lots of companion planting.  Strawberries were planted in many rows (also in white bags, you can see this in the photo above, to reflect the heat and keep them from spreading).

Companion Planting

Companion Planting

Effective use of edges

Effective use of edge

Rainwater catchment

He also used the metal roof of his shed to catch rainwater and send it into a cistern for watering.  Drip irrigation lines and a simple pump moved the water where it needed to go up or down the hillside and into the beds.

Rainwater harvesting and seedling trays ready to go into the soil!

Rainwater harvesting and seedling trays ready to go into the soil!

Crop Rotations, Planning, and Succession Planting

Part of the biointensive method is cultivating less area but always having something growing in that area.  Roberto is doing this quite effectively–when we arrived, he was clearing out beds of old and dying tomato plants, prepping the soil, and immediately putting in lettuce and spinach seedlings.  This continual crop rotation (much easier in a climate like his, but still do-able anywhere!) means that there is always something growing (often more than one something using companion planting methods) and the harvest is staggered over the season.

New seedlings

New seedlings

Integrating Perennials and Annuals

Another key aspect of Roberto’s approach was to integrate annuals and perennials, especially on the edges of the bed.  Although many of the plants we grow as “annual” are perennial in Costa Rica, he also integrated treecrops and agroforestry along the edges of the garden for even more growing power.

Banana tree seedlings

Banana tree seedlings

Growing so many herbs

Growing so many different herbs–here is lemongrass!

Whole Systems Thinking

To conclude, every part of this garden, from its use of the natural features of the landscape to the use of the energy flows and “waste streams”, is carefully thought out and beautifully executed. I know there is a lot more going on here than I can share, but as you can see, its really a sacred space. I can only hope that one day, my gardens will be half as sustainable as Roberto’s were!  It was truly a delight to stumble upon this gem in the heart of Monteverde–I am inspired and amazed!

Parsley worth eating!

Parsley worth eating!