Thursday, July 24, 2014

How to Prepare Your Square Foot Garden for Planting

Raised Bed Vegetable Gardens Need Care Too

square foot garden A New England Autumn is magical and nostalgic with the rusted reds and oranges of changing leaves, and the sparkle of early morning frost on the lawn. However, the cold weather brings a bit of melancholy as well - It means I will be unable to garden outside for the next five months. Once the first frost hits in October, my plants die back over night, and I need to clean up the unsightly mess before the a 12" blanket of snow makes the job impossible. As I am an ardent follower of the Square-Foot Gardening techniques, my clean up is simple, and ensures I will be ready to plant after the last frost has come and passed safely away.

Last Harvest

raised beds Once the frost has done it's job, my garden looks something from a horror movie - rotting fruit, wilted stalks, and fallen leaves abound. Brown and crackly squash plants crumble to the touch, and the tomato plants have regressed to a state of melting away. Some herbs have begun a valiant, though ill-timed bolt, and any beneficial flowering plants have browned as well. My first step is to harvest as much as possible. Butternut and acorn squash, chives, and green tomatoes come inside and bring a last breath of freshness to my kitchen. The squashes will last on a shelf all winter if I let them be, and the chives will be freeze dried for soups and sundries as the fireside nights become more common. I will group the tomatoes into two categories, those that have some ripening occurring, and those that do not. The ones I feel will ripen are placed in a brown bag to use later for canned tomatoes and sauces. The green tomatoes, and there will be quite a few, are destined for immediate use in salsa, and my favorite recipe, fried green tomatoes.

Simple Clean Up
Because I use Mel's Mix for my garden soil, the spent plants pop out easy enough from the friable soil, and my two girls are a great help in clearing these out. We have a wheelbarrow to collect the organic waste, and this in turn is emptied into our compost bin. As we don't use harmful chemicals in our garden, the material is clean and safe for inclusion. Once the large plants are pulled, the girls move from bed to bed, plucking out the weeds. We are diligent during the growing season, so there aren't that many. These are tossed into the hay field because we don't want to introduce weed seeds into the compost mix.

Putting The Raised Garden To Bed
Once the beds are cleared, we fill in the sporadic holes with reserved Mel's Mix. I prefer to do this now, because once Spring hits, the plan is to go straight to the fun - plantings! The beds are smoothed over with a rake, and the girls place mobile cold frames over any perennials we might have, such as our chives. They will then lay a black plastic sheet, cut to size and weighted with old paving bricks, over the beds. This step provides two services - first, it acts as a collector for any debris that might gather during winter. Second, the black plastic will warm the soil so we can begin planting at least a week before the Farmer's Almanac suggests we can. Warm soil, after all, is happy soil.

Start (Or Continue) A Garden Journal
lettuce in raised bed I keep a journal of the garden each year, making detailed, though sometimes intelligible, notes on what we did from day to day, and how certain plants were thriving (or not). At Thanksgiving, while most of the family is watching football, I'll be pouring through my notes looking for ways to improve my yields. Along with the statistics, growth charts, and daily temperatures, I also jot down words of wisdom from the more seasoned gardeners I come across. In one August entry, I wrote about meeting an old-timer at my local Agway who insisted on burying eggshells around tomato plants. "It prevents those damn black spots," he said. You can bet I'll be trying that next year.

Plan The Spring Plantings

I'm the first person to subscribe to a new seed catalog, but also the last to place an order, even if they offer incredible coupons. I prefer to purchase seeds at my local stores, seeds I know are proven winners and chosen for my neck of the woods. That goes double for buying young tomato and pepper plants. I could mail-order them, but why? I still enjoy flipping through the catalogs, as they tend to fuel my winter daydreams for a Spring just the other side of the next snowstorm. I'll pull out the journal and doodle garden maps for the next planting cycle. I make sure to place peas and beans where nitrogen-sapping vegetables were planted, and will decide where to put the new beds I'm planning for pumpkins and raspberries. And when in doubt concerning a plant's practicality for my part of the world, I'll contact my local farm extension. The folks over there are willing to talk an ear off if I let them about local growing and regional species, because as I've learned, I'm probably the first gardener they've spoken with since September.