Friday, July 18, 2008

When Your Garden Sleeps, It Dreams

This winter it may seem nothing is happening in your garden. Biological activity slows down in the colder months, organisms go dormant or migrate deeper into the soil, cool season weeds like chickweed get their first footholds, and rains wash nutrients and important minerals away. You don’t have to be a helpless observer of this hibernation. Use the winter months to rebuild your soil.

Once your garden is done for the season, clear out the last of your annual plants saving them for compost. Reserve a small part of the garden for your fall and winter greens and for planting garlic cloves in November. Cover the rest of your soil with a nice layer of compost materials about 8-12 inches deep. Be sure to use both “greens” (grass clippings, coffee grounds, fresh chopped plants, composted manure) and “browns” (fall leaves, non-pressure treated sawdust, dry plant material) in the mix.

A variety of amendments help replenish the supply of important minerals. Agricultural lime is a good source of calcium, and dolomite lime also includes magnesium. Calcium helps plants build cell walls. Magnesium is the working ingredient in chlorophyll. Both types of lime help neutralize acidic soil, which is also a side effect of too much rain.

A compound called greensand includes a different mixture of beneficial minerals including potassium, iron, and phosphorus. It’s usually available at better garden centers.

You can even use granite dust to add a wide array of minerals to your soil. If you look closely at granite, you’ll notice it’s made up of thousands of different crystals fused together. Each crystal is essentially a different mineral, including many that plants require in tiny amounts: potassium, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese, and others. These minerals become more available when ground into gravel, or even into dust, and are broken down further by organisms and naturally occurring weak acids in the soil. Ready sources of granite dust include stone yards, or gravestone monument carvers.

Spread a few handfuls of lime, greensand, or granite dust over your compost mix and work it in a bit. Water the mulch well, and cover it with two layers of burlap. The burlap works as insulation, keeping the soil and sheet mulch slightly warmer than the air, and provides the dark, moist environment soil organisms prefer. Most coffee roasters will gladly give you discarded burlap bags their raw coffee beans are shipped in.

Once or twice during the winter, pull back the burlap and turn your compost mix, covering it again with the burlap when you’re done. In the spring, you should be able to remove the burlap and either plant directly into the finished compost, or work it into your soil a bit if it’s not completely done.

Copyright © 2006 Brian Ballard. All rights reserved.

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