THE READER
September 2005

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2005 Annual Membership Meeting Recap

Produce News: The Effects of Chemicals on Our Foods

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Eating Well, Being Well and Having Fun While You're At It!: The Food for Thought Festival

Book & Housewares News

Health & Wellness News: Teas

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Organics: In Our Beds, On Our Bodies and On Our Minds

Producer Profile: Rishi Tea

Putting Your Organic Garden to Bed

Member Services News: Our Annual Farm Tour

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PUTTING YOUR ORGANIC GARDEN TO BED

by Claire Strader, WSGC Staff

Putting your organic garden to bed is about more than pulling out those old tomato and pepper plants after the frost. It’s also about getting ready for spring. While right now you may be thinking more about recovering from all the zucchini you’ve been eating and looking forward to breaking the seal on those jars of tomatoes and jams you put up, if you think back, I bet you can remember how anxious you were to get back into the garden this past spring, probably long before the soil was actually ready to work. With a little forethought and effort right now, your winter pantry will not have to last you quite so long this year because you can be eating from your garden even earlier next spring!

Over-wintering crops
September is the perfect time for planting crops that will “over-winter” in the garden and be ready for the dinner table as early as April of the following year. In my garden, spinach is the most important crop on this list. Spinach will not only survive the bitter winter, it will also taste a lot sweeter for it. It is one of the vegetables that uses sugar as an anti-freeze. By raising the sugar concentration of its cells, the spinach lowers the freezing point of those cells, much like putting salt on the roads in the winter lowers the point at which snow and rain will freeze into ice. Over-wintered spinach is the very best spinach of the year because it has had many months to stockpile the sugar. Olympian is a good variety to try for over-wintering spinach. I also like Tyee. Prepare your soil as you normally would for planting and seed your spinach in early or mid-September.

It is best if you then cover the bed with some kind of row cover, agricultural fleece, or remay. These three names refer to the same product which is a light, white, polyester fabric (not plastic) that will keep the crop warm and protected while still allowing sun and rain to pass through. Look for remay in seed and garden supply catalogues like Johnny’s, Jordan or Fedco. You may have to pull the remay back after the seeds have germinated to do one quick fall weeding. Then just replace the remay (using soil, rocks or rebar to hold it down) and let the spinach go until spring. Barring the deer getting to it before you do, you should enjoy excellent spinach salads from this planting throughout April, May, and June.

Scallions and leeks are two more crops that make for excellent spring eating from fall plantings. Both are best started in flats in your house or backyard. I’ve never seen vegetable seedlings for sale in the fall, so it is up to you to get them started if you want to try them out! My favorite scallion variety is White Spear. The best varieties for winter leeks are the shorter, hardier kinds like American Flag or Laura. Plant the scallions in a 72-cell flat with six to eight seeds per cell. You can plant the leeks in the same kind of flat with three seeds per cell or in an open flat with the seed scattered or planted in rows. The seeds should germinate well in your yard, but make sure that they are out of the way of critters and that you keep them well watered. Plant the seeds into flats in July or early August for transplant to the garden in September. You don’t need to do anything special for these plants. They will grow in the fall, die back over the winter, and green up again in April. You can start harvesting them in late April and they will be good for eating until they start to flower in mid June.

Direct planting
But it’s September already and you didn’t start the seeds in July! It’s okay. You can still plant the seeds directly into the garden. Prepare the bed as you normally would for seeding. Plant the scallion seed in clumps of eight to ten seeds with about four to six inches between clumps. Plant the leek seed in lines with one or two inches between seeds and four to six inches between lines. These seeds will have a harder time germinating than they would in flats, but they should be okay. You could cover them with remay to get them up faster and stronger. You could also leave the remay on through the winter for extra protection and take it off in the spring.

If you want good garlic, you have to plant it in the fall, early enough so that it has enough time to send down roots, but not so early that it sends up greens before the snow flies. I always plant mine in mid-October. You can buy special seed garlic or you can just plant any organic garlic that you buy in the store. In my opinion, the hard neck garlic is best: best clove size (large!), easiest to peel, and best flavor. My favorite varieties are Music and German Red. Break the heads into cloves (leave the skin on), and plant the cloves with the blunt, root side down with six inches between cloves and six to eight inches between rows. Spread a little compost on the top and then cover the whole bed with about a foot of hay or straw mulch. Some say to take the mulch off in the spring so that the ground will warm up faster, but I have never taken this advice. The garlic sprouts perfectly right through the mulch, and I don’t have to worry about damaging new shoots while moving the mulch around. These individual cloves will grow into heads that are ready to harvest in late July.

If you want to be eating fresh garlic earlier than July, save the smallest heads of seed garlic you have for a patch of green garlic. Small heads that have four or five or more small cloves can be planted whole at the same spacing you used for your head garlic. In the spring all the cloves in these little heads will sprout into a clump of garlic that you can harvest in May and use like you would scallions, greens and all. Green garlic is the freshest, most tender garlic of the year!

One more crop to try seeding in the fall for an early spring start is peas. With this crop, you want to get the seed in the ground in the fall (October is good) and let it just sit there over the winter. It will sprout as soon as the weather permits in the spring, usually much earlier than you can work the soil. Honestly, I have never had much luck with this method, but I do know folks who love it.

My trick for early peas is to leave a patch of the garden without cover and roughly tilled so that it will dry more quickly in the spring and allow me to get in there with my seeds as early as possible. I remove all the debris from previous crops and work the soil roughly by hand or with a tiller that will leave clumps (I lift the back fin to keep the soil from being smoothed by the fin dragging over the surface. But watch your feet!). In the spring the variation in the soil surface allows it to drain and dry more quickly, thus allowing me to work the soil, and seed my peas (and beets, salad mix, and radishes) in late March or early April.

Planting a cover crop
If you have not taken up the whole garden with your over-wintering crops, and some roughly tilled spots for your early spring planting, you still need to put the rest of it to bed. In order to keep the soil in place over the winter and add some organic matter in the spring, the best thing to do is plant a cover crop. I usually use winter rye. The seed is cheap, easy to find, and easy to work with. Thickly scatter the seed over cleared ground in September and work it in with a rototiller (I know this sounds crazy, but the rye seed germinates much better after it has been tilled into the soil. Really!) Or if you don’t have a tiller, scatter the seed over worked ground and rake it in by hand. Either way, the goal is to cover the seeds with some soil to get them to germinate. The rye will sprout in the fall, die back over winter, and start growing again in the spring. When you are ready to work it back into the soil in April or May, it will help to mow it first. Then you can till it or work it in with a spade. Wait a week or two to allow the soil to digest the rye plants before you start seeding or transplanting into that ground.

Mulching technique
If you don’t get your rye planted by early October, it’s not worth it to seed it later. But don’t fret if that time passes, there is one last thing you can do to get your garden tucked in. After you remove all the old vines and stalks, lay down a thick layer of mulch over the whole thing. The mulch will hold the soil in place; and as it decomposes, it will also add organic matter and even nitrogen if you choose the right mulch. There are two great mulches to use for this purpose. The first is old hay. Hay is better than straw because it will add a lot more nitrogen to the soil. Just make sure you get hay that is fairly free of weed seeds. Jung’s sells weed-free marsh hay, which works nicely. Or you can use the last cutting you take on your lawn. After the leaves fall, put the bagger on your mower and use the mix of leaves and grass clippings you collect to mulch the garden. It’s free, easier than raking, and makes good use of the “waste.” If you go the mulch route, it will take some work to turn it into the soil in the spring, but you will see the rewards soon enough when your plants take up those nutrients and grow into healthy, hardy plants.

A yearly ritual
For me the best part about putting the garden to bed is taking a moment to look out over that neat, tidy space while plans and visions of the next year’s garden start to form in my head. Then I head in the house for a nice cup of tea and some time to page through the new seed catalogs.