Week 21: Putting our gardens to rest

Although it is almost the end of our 22-week long course, we are still keeping busy!  We are primarily focused on collecting the last harvest, spreading cover crop, mulching around perennials, and gathering our garden tools for our end-of-season inventory.  With so much to do and cold weather inviting us to be very efficient with the time we spend in the garden, we rely on garden checklists to keep us on track.

We are grateful for other gardener’s who have come before us and have written checklists to guide us with putting our gardens to rest.  In that spirit, we share with you this checklist from Waterfowl Farm (we don’t actually know them, but we are thankful they share resources online!):

Putting the Garden to Bed – A Fall Checklist 

 

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One CTG student decided to uproot and re-pot her beautiful marigolds to bring them inside.  You can do the same with perennial herbs such as rosemary and thyme that tend to be less frost-hardy than other herbs.
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Week 20: Tomatillos

Tomatillos need plentiful summer warmth to fill in the papery husk that surrounds each fruit.  So finally, after 3 months of growing and growing and growing, both CTG sites have been blessed with an abundance of green and purple-tinted tomatillos.  Our garden teacher, Carolina, shared her favorite recipe for preparing green salsa…

Roasted green tomatillo salsa
2 handfuls of tomatillos (husked and rinsed off to remove the stickiness)
1 medium white onion
3-5 garlic cloves
1-3 jalapeno or serrano peppers
1 handful cilantro
1 lime
salt and pepper to taste

At the CTG site, we used a griddle over a camp stove to “roast”  all the vegetables.  At home, try putting all vegetables under the oven broiler and every couple of minutes move them around to keep the cooking even.  You want the onion, garlic, and pepper skins to get all nice and toasty black.  As for the tomatillos, they will turn from bright green to a more muted green when they are done roasting, and you will notice that their juices start caramelizing.  This is when their natural sweetness comes out and pairs divinely with the strong flavors of the onion, garlic and spicy peppers.

Once all the vegetables are nicely charred, combine all ingredients in a blender.  Season with lime juice, salt and pepper as desired.

 

Week 19: Supporting the change you wish to see in your soil

Of course, evaluating the health of our soil is not only for the fun of observation, but also as a reference point for soil amendment. Each time we water, we are amending our soil. As we learned last week, water is crucial to the distribution of nutrients through the soil and the distribution of nutrients is crucial to soil health. That said, simply watering our soil is not always enough. Remember, with a too clay-y soil, the water can not penetrate the soil’s top layer and will simply run-off (along with your precious nutrients). In the case of sandy and silty soils, the grainy quality leaves nothing for the water to hold onto. Without a support structure, water disappears leaving a dry nutrient-deficient soil.

So the first thing is first – support a soil that allows water in and invites water to stay. For any soil, begin by adding organic material (compost). Curious to learn more about compost? Attend VCGN and compost expert, James McSweeney for a community composting forum this October 2016.

Though the forum is just around the corner, the time to add compost is early spring – as soon as the ground is workable. Until then, a few ideas for soil amendment:

Cover cropping

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Buckwheat is an excellent late summer cover crop that keeps moisture in and weeds out.
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The beautiful buckwheat flowers indicate that it’s time to turn the cover crop. This process, as simple as cutting the base of the plant stems and leaving the layer of organic plant material to rest, keeps the plants nutrients in your garden while also preventing the cover crop from going to seed and becoming ‘opportunistic’ (or invasive).

Buckwheat is not the only cover crop. In fact, there are several cover crop varieties that can over-winter, even here in Vermont. Winter rye is quite hearty and, with long, strong roots, can help to defend against winter weather – keeping soil in place through heavy rains, freezes, and thaws, and even ice sheets. Legumes provide another benefit — fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere and pulling it down into the soil.

Sheet mulching (‘Lasagna gardening’)

Sheet mulching is an excellent alternative to cover cropping – supporting weed suppression and helping to build the fertility of your soil. Act fast! Now is the time!

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As the season winds down and plants come out of the ground, check out this ‘Ultimate, Bomb-Proof Sheet Mulching’ How-To.

 

Week 18: Evaluating soil health with our five simple senses

A few brave students tasted a small amount of soil, another held a handful of soil to her ear, “I can hear the ocean!’ she exclaimed. She was joking. In reality, in a sensory evaluation of soil health, we tend to rely most heavily on our visual and tactile observations. Before we get into what’s good and what’s bad, let’s establish what is.

Soil, dirt’s preferred noun, is that composite beneath our feet. It’s a combination of organic matter (humus), oxygen, water, and minerals. Humus, the organic component of the soil, is a composite itself, made up of decayed plant and animal matter. Oxygen and water facilitate life, allowing for the movement of nutrients. Minerals like sand, silt, and clay define the character of the soil.

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How’s about this soil? Rich chocolate brownie with just the right amount of moist, fluffy, organic goodness. For growing veggies, the overall ratio that we are looking for is 5% humus, 25% oxygen, 25% water, and 45% mineral. The dark color of this soil speaks of its organic matter, the fluffiness of its water and oxygen.

As for texture, soils that are overly sandy will feel gritty, silty soils will feel like dry flour, and a too clay-y soil will feel smooth and slippery, especially once exposed to water.

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Here’s Carolina offering an explanation of the soil texture triangle (expanded below). The triangle places Loam in the center. Loam is a made-up name for the just-right ratio of sand, silt, and clay.
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If you are looking for a finer understanding of your soil’s mineral composition, the jar test is for you. Simply place a large handful of soil into a quart size jar and fill the jar with water (up until the neck begins to curve in). Then, wait for contents to settle. Sand will fall to the bottom of the jar within an hour. Silt will sit just above sand, settling out over night. Clay will sit above silt, taking a few days to separate itself from water that remains. Now, you have an easy illustration of the relative presence of our three main minerals.

Now, if you’ve smelt, felt, heard, seen, touched, jar tested your soil and you are still curious, UVM’s Soil Lab Test is a good next step. Tests are relatively inexpensive and can be tailored to your garden’s focus. Come back soon for more on soil amendments.