This past summer was the first time I had a garden, and I have to confess that it wasn’t extremely successful. It was a good learning experience, though, and I enjoyed the feeling of being outdoors and doing something timeless and real. Gardening is something that takes knowledge and skill, and I had very little of that when I started out. And because I didn’t give any thought to having a garden until May, I was at a disadvantage for starting out late.
If crops don’t have to be planted until May or June, what possible disadvantage could there be? Soil quality. We built raised beds and purchased standard garden soil and hummus, but that wasn’t enough to create a rich growing soil for our plants. Sure, we got zucchini, tomatoes, green beans, peppers, onions, spices, etc – but the yield was very unimpressive.
Since this is the time of year when you can easily and cheaply get free materials to enrich your garden, now’s the time to think about it! What I’m referring to are the huge number of leaves that are being bagged in every neighborhood and waiting to be collected. Leaves are a fantastic compost ingredient – compost needs a mix of moist/green and dry/brown items, and leaves provide the dry/brown part of the mix. Your regular kitchen scraps (vegetable scraps, not meat or bones) provide the green.
Since we now have a compost tumbler, the kids filled it with lots of leaves from our yard (after building a huge pile in and spending days doing tumbling tricks head over heels into the pile – ‘Mommy, we’re drowning in leaves!’), and we’ll continue to add kitchen scraps to it. (Prior to this our compost consisted of mostly green, which meant that it had a smell and flies around it in the summer – though since it was outside in the yard, it wasn’t a problem for us. But if we had more brown matter in it, this wouldn’t have happened.) But if you don’t have a tumbler, or even a compost pile, you can still benefit from the leaves.
All you have to do is dump them on top of the area where you plan to garden next year. If you can chop them up (by running a mower over them) then it will break down much faster than entire leaves, but plain leaves are good, too. Someone told me last week that he was amazed at how rich his soil was this past year, and all he did was dump leaves on top of his garden spot and let them sit.
I’m hoping to expand our garden for the next season (and will do a lot more reading and learning in the winter/early spring so I’ll be more prepared this time!), so I had the kids spread cardboard in those areas (to kill weeds/grass), and then cover it with leaves. As the season goes on, the leaves will break down, and I can till them into the ground before planting if I want. Though being a person who doesn’t want to do work that seems extraneous, I’ll probably just leave them on top.
This is actually very similar to the idea of ‘lasagna gardening’. I heard about it this year as a cheap way to build your garden soil, but after learning more about it, realized that while it didn’t take much time, money, or effort – but did take advance thought and planning. The premise of lasagna gardening is that you build layers on top of the area where you plan to garden of things that will break down and enrich the soil. I think she suggested starting with newspaper, followed by grass clippings, leaves, compost – whatever you have will break down over time. The book is Lasagna Gardening; check your library for it if you’re interested.
If you’re in an area where lawns are still being mowed, grass clippings are an incredible fertilizer. A couple of months ago I was walking down my block when the lawn service was taking care of a neighbor’s yard. I saw he was almost finished bagging all of the clippings, so I asked if I could take both large black bags home for my garden. He was happy to give them to me – in fact, he was going to carry them all the way home for me. I dumped those on top of the garden and a bunch more on top of my compost pile (not to be confused with the tumbler – the pile came before the tumbler), but that was all I got for the season because I do actually have a pretty full life and not much time to actively scout for bags of grass clippings :). If you do this, only use clippings from grass that wasn’t chemically treated. I saw afterwards in a Mother Earth article that grass clippings are considered one of the very best soil fertilizers, but because they break down so quickly, they can’t be packaged and sold in retail stores, so most of us would never know how good they are!