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Gardening Columns

It takes several years of adding abundant organic matter, but
eventually your soil will be dark, rich, and loose -- just how
most plants like it.

Plan Ahead for Next Year's Gardens

First published on on December 22, 2005, by Suzanne DeJohn

Unlike gardeners in snowbound northern regions, in our relatively mild climate we can take steps to get our beds ready for planting next spring. I find the cool, sunny winter days to be perfect for bundling up and getting out in the fresh air, especially after eating all those holiday treats!

Dealing with Sod
Planning a new garden? If you wait until spring, you'll need to deal with the sod in the new garden area in one of two ways. You can till the sod right in, but then you'll be faced with sprouting clumps of grass for at least a few seasons. You can dig up and remove the sod, but then you'll be removing lots of organic matter, not to mention the topsoil and beneficial organisms like worms that cling to the grass roots. As you can see, neither of these options is ideal. However, if you plan ahead, there is a third option.

Smother the Grass
Over the years, I've created many new garden beds by smothering the grass in the fall. I cover the entire area with overlapping pieces of corrugated cardboard or thick layers of newspapers. Then I cover this with a 3- to 4-inch layer of an organic mulch.

Free Mulch
If you're observant, you may find a source of free mulch. In autumn, there are those crazy people who bag and discard fallen leaves. Experienced gardeners know to scoop those up faster than a "must-have" toy at the mall! Look for other sources of organic matter, too. For example, there's a sawmill nearby that lets me have old, "rotten" sawdust. Not much good as animal bedding, but perfect for me.

Watch for Nutrient Deficiencies
In spring, I till in the mulch with a heavy-duty tiller; if the area is relatively damp, the newspaper and cardboard will have begun to disintegrate. (Alternatively, I could simply plant right through the mulch.) Note that when you till in carbon-rich organic matter like sawdust or uncomposted leaves, it can cause a temporary nitrogen deficiency for plants. The added carbon causes a flush of growth of the microorganisms responsible for breaking down the sawdust; these microbes use up all the available nitrogen, incorporating it into their bodies. The deficiency is temporary because once the carbon is used up, the microorganisms die, and the nitrogen that was tied up in their bodies is released.

If possible, it's a good idea to add some nitrogen-rich material (such as poultry manure or fresh grass clippings) before tilling in a carbon-rich mulch, to provide a better balance of nutrients for the microbes. In any case, it's best to wait at least a month, and preferably longer, after tilling in carbon-rich organic matter before planting, to allow the decomposition cycle to run its course. You can also compensate for soil nutrient deficiencies during the first growing season by fertilizing the plants with a nitrogen-rich fertilizer, such as fish emulsion. Foliar feeding is especially good in this situation. And keep an eye out for signs of nitrogen deficiency, such as pale foliage and stunted growth. The situation will rectify itself by the second growing season, by which time the mulch will have been completely broken down.

The seed catalogs are already beginning to arrive, and for many of us, the visions this time of year aren't of sugarplums, but rather of dreamy gardens to come. By taking steps now to prepare your new garden beds, you'll be one step closer to making those dreams a reality!


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