Don’t Clean Up, Dig It In!

Use old vegetables to grow new ones!

Use old vegetables to grow new ones!  Tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, fennel, carrots, string beans, three kinds of basil, and probably other things I’ve forgotten about!

In January of this year I wrote about Lazy Composting.  Frost had killed off sweet potato and tomato vines,

Frosted vegetable stems are perfect.
Frosted vegetable stems are perfect.

and the soil in the raised garden beds were becoming very low.

Soil level is very low on the raised beds.
Soil level is very low on the raised beds.

Instead of hauling all the vines to the compost heap or bin, I thought I’d create soil in place.  The raised beds are lined with chicken wire to protect veggies from gophers.  Although I didn’t want to disturb the microbes and fungus in the soil, I dug out half the beds down to the wire.

I dug out half the bed down to the chicken wire.  Miss Amelia and Chickpea checking out the worm situation.  I had to kick them out...the worms stay!
I dug out half the bed down to the chicken wire. Miss Amelia and Chickpea checking out the worm situation. I had to kick them out…the worms stay!

Then I layed all those vines right on the soil and covered them up.

I piled on the old tomato vines, then covered them up with the soil I'd removed.
I piled on the old tomato vines, then covered them up with the soil I’d removed.

Then I did the other half…

Spent tomato vines, with some green 'maters still attached.
Spent tomato vines, with some green ‘maters still attached.

 

I dug half down to the chicken wire.
You can see bits of the vines sticking up out of the first half.  That’s okay!

 

… and then did the other bed.  Any thick stalks in other beds which didn’t need extra soil I simply cut close to the ground so that their roots can decay in place and feed the wormies.

Snip off vegetables at the surface and allow the roots to decay in the soil.  Use the tops for mulch, or dig them in, too.
Snip off vegetables at the surface and allow the roots to decay in the soil. Use the tops for mulch, or dig them in, too.

I sprinkled the whole thing with a little Epsom salts for the magnesium sulfate, and a little sugar to start the disturbed microbes feeding and reproducing heavily, which would cause them to decompose the vines more quickly.

In one bed I planted cold weather crops right away; peas, brassicas, garlic, onions and more.  I am a firm practicioner of polyculture, or integrated gardening , which means that I plant an assortment of seeds of plants which will help each other in small areas instead of planting all one thing to a bed.  I can still plant a row of peas so that I can string them up easily, but I’ll plant all kinds of other plants around them.  Usually I don’t plant in a line at all anymore, but rather stake the plants as they need them.  Often they’ll use taller plants as support.  This is why planting peas and sweet peas next to trees and bushes is a great idea (they fix nitrogen in the soil which helps the tree).

In the other bed I waited to plant until March when the weather warmed up, because I was planting early summer crops.  Here it is the beginning of September, and here are the beds, still producing.  Even the winter veg one.

Two of the beds, one still with winter brassicas in them in Sept.
Two of the beds, one still with winter brassicas in them in Sept.

In the bed to the right there is a yellow current tomato blocking the view, and growing into the tree. You can see a Japanese eggplant, and behind it the red is a pepper.  Under the tomato and along the bed are three kinds of basil, many string bean plants, some of the sweetest carrots we’ve grown, fennel (one of which we allowed to be the host plant for the Anise Swallowtail, which ate the tops.  The bottom of the fennel, which is the part we eat, will still be harvestable).  In the bed to the right is the January plants still alive and kicking.  Collards, kale, garlic, celery, onions, brussels sprouts, kohlrahbi and more.  We’ve harvested most of the garlic and onions. We’ve harvested kale, collards and celery by cutting leaves and allowing the plant to continue to grow.  The stalks are now so thick that it is hard to cut them.  Out of season, these plants have had attack by cabbage moths and other bugs, but because of the integration of plants and the health of the soil, they’ve bounced right back.  I’m harvesting the plants now to feed to the chickens so that I can use the bed for something else soon.

So what happened?  A teaspoon of great soil has a billion microbes in it, a million fungi, tens of thousands of amebas, bacteria and all kinds of things we don’t even know about yet.  This is a good thing.  This is the secret to continued life on this planet.  Healthy soil doesn’t wash away, doesn’t erode, feeds the underground waterways, grows excellent food for healthy wildlife and healthy humans.  If we feed the soil, we save the planet.  That simple.  That means no Roundup, no GMOs, no chemical (even organic) fertilizer.  Just compost.  Very cheap and easy.

Vegetables tend to like a soil that is heavier in bacteria than in fungus, although both should be present.  Woody plants such as bushes and trees tend to like a more fungal soil.  The vines that I buried had both dry (stems) and wet (green leaves and tomatoes) on them.  The stems made the fungus flourish in the soil, and the green bits made the bacteria active.  There wasn’t enough matter to become anaerobic, or to rob nitrogen from the soil.  The vines weren’t compacted so lots of soil surrounded all the parts, aiding in quick composting and keeping the soil aerated.  Water could be absorbed better as well.

If you are starting a garden and want to buy compost, be careful of what stores sell you.  In August I was asked to look at a few raised beds that hadn’t succeeded.  The soil was low in the beds, there were a few straggly pepper plants, a poorly tomato and some brassicas of some sort which were so stunted that they were just green balls of leaves.  When I pulled one up there was white stuff on the roots.  A couple of strawberry plants looked very healthy but unproductive.  I tried the soil and couldn’t get my finger into it because the roots from those poor peppers had made a thick mat just under the surface of the dirt well beyond their dripline.  Two major things were wrong.  One was the dirt in the beds.  Splinters of shredded wood made up the bulk of it.  The woman who had asked me to look at the beds said that she had described her project at Home Depot and they’d recommended two kinds of bagged stuff. I say stuff, because it isn’t soil.  What they recommended would be appropriate for hardwoods such as bushes and trees, or acid-loving plants.  That is why the strawberries were healthy, only they were in the full sun in a searing hot place and would have done much better under the shade of other plants.  I showed the white stuff on the brassicas to her; it was fungal net, which showed the high fungal activity in the soil.  Perfect for trees, not perfect for vegetables.  Also the brassicas are cold-weather plants and just won’t develop in our summer heat here in San Diego County.  They should be planted from October through the beginning of March.  The spongy soil… honestly, I’ve never before felt root mat so thick that I couldn’t wiggle my finger into the soil… was the result of desperate plants and poor watering.  A custodian would occasionally hose water the beds, which meant that he’d shoot some water on them for a few  minutes every day or so.  This topical water didn’t sink into the bark-heavy soil.  It was only enough to water the top, so the plant roots couldn’t go deep.  It was often enough that the plants didn’t die entirely, but survived stunted and striving for water and nutrition that the fungal soil wasn’t providing.  Vegetables (and roses!); indeed, most plants except grasses and seedlings, need deep watering less frequently.  This allows the roots to go where they want to go, deep into the ground where they can mine nutrients and stabilize the plant. My advice for her was to dig in the few plants that were there, use the compost in the compost bin next to the beds, even if it wasn’t decomposed and add some vegetable-friendly soil to the beds to bring up the heighth.  I recommended mixing seeds and scattering them, making sure she planted winter crops, not corn or tomatoes.  I also recommended a long watering twice a week; none when it starts raining.  If it ever does.

Recommending permaculture techniques to people makes me want to work in the garden!  That is because there is so much life, so much success, so many happy surprises and such great feelings that come out of naturally planted gardens.  Rows of veggies look so neat and peaceful, but beds chock full of veggies are more fun, better tasting and far more productive.

I just wanted to follow up on the old post about digging in the vines and show you how well the plants did.  I have never fertilized these beds after burying the vines and sprinkling on the Epsom salts and sugar.  All this growth is due to the happy microbes making nutrients available to the vegetable roots.  If you think about it, plants in the wild shed their seeds and then either completely die off or drop leaves.  The seeds naturally grow up through the debris of the last generation.  Makes sense, doesn’t it?

When these beds are done (if they ever are!  They keep producing!) I will practice no-dig gardening on them and simply cut all the plants at the soil surface and drop the tops.  I’ll plant seeds for winter crops right in among the debris of the summer crops.  They’ll use the nutrients, shade and support of the old crops to grow.  October is a good planting time for winter crops because the weather finally changes and the daylight hours are shorter which these plants need.  What to plant?  Potatoes, garlic, onions, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, peas, broccoli, cauliflower, rhubarb, kohlrabi, celery and much more.  Cover crops when it frosts and allow good drainage for the potatoes when it rains.  Be sure if you buy starter sets that they are guaranteed organic!  Best of all plant organic seeds… they do the best of all and are the best value.

Have a happy, easy Fall garden!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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