Sigh… fall is here and It makes me sad as I say goodbye to my glorious garden. The lush green slowly fades away and turns brown as the cold weather sets in. I’m thrilled with my harvest and stores in my freezer/pantry but already dreaming of my spring garden.
Gardening out of raised beds successfully requires some important fall steps to have the most success in the spring. I have loved my raised beds for nearly 20 years. Over this time I have had huge learning curve, many trials and errors as well as belly flops. As I become more experienced with raised beds I have gained some insights that will help you have a successful raised bed garden year after year also. Here is what I would suggest to my customers and friends who have chosen the raised bed gardening approach for their yard.
Soil test- Testing your soil in the fall is a great way to see what areas your soil needs to improve to be ready for a timely planting in the spring. Testing your soil and amending it accordingly in the fall will allow time for the additives to break down to be best used by your plants in the spring and summer months. I test my soil in the spring as well as the fall to be sure that my fall additives were spot on and I’m ready to rock another gardening season. Basic soil testing will indicate the PH level of your soil and pinpoints nutrient deficiencies like nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium, or potassium.
Cover crop – This is a new thing I’m trying in some of my newer beds this fall. Basically the same idea as cover crops for larger, ground based gardens. With this method you plant a nitrogen rich, shallow rooted, easily decomposed “green cover” in your beds. By doing this you increase the nitrogen in your soil, protect it in the winter months.
Large scale farmers use cover crops to revitalize and improve the soil structure of their fields between plantings. I figure this should have the same effect in my raised bed gardens so why not give it a good ‘ol try?! I’ll have more experience based feedback after this winter but from my research I would think that winter rye, buckwheat, pease and oats or clover would all benefit raised bed soils. I spread some winter rye in our lawn this year also for my chickens to have some yummy greens to feast on in between snow storms here. We live near Denver and the beautiful thing about winters here is that it will snow but then melt away before the next storm… our back yard chickens have many days in the winter months where they can peck to their little hearts delight in the yard. Come spring I’ll turn this cover crop into the soil and it will act as a green mulch, helping to enrich the soil. Anyhow… I’ll write more about the success (or not) of this way to winterize your raised garden bed once I have more experience using them!
Wood ash- Using wood ash from your fire pit is an excellent source of lime and potassium for your garden. Not only that using ashes in the garden can add many trace elements that plants need to thrive. Lightly scatter in the fall or first compost it as wood ash in large quantities will produce lye and salts when it gets wet. In small amounts, the lye and salts will not cause problems but in larger amounts they can burn your plants.
Sprinkling ash in your garden in the fall on your beds can give the winter months to decompose and be ready for your plants in the spring, thus avoiding the chance of burning your plants. Wood ash from hardwoods like oak and maple will contain more nutrients and minerals for your garden. Pine or firs will contain fewer nutrients but still can be beneficial for your soil. Where we repurpose mostly pine and cedar we have the lesser quality wood ash but it still works wonders for our gardens and we end up repurposing every part of the materials we use. In my world that is a total win! Wood ash is helpful with pest control also. It can kill pests like snails and slugs and other soft bodied invertebrates. Wood ash will raise the PH in your soil and lower the acid. Be careful not to use this in your beds where you have acid loving plants like azaleas, gardenias or blueberries.
Leaf mulch- I’m that crazy neighbor who goes around begging for bags of leaves and I horde them in my yard for my garden and compost in the winter months. This is normal behavior, right?! Watch out! Here comes the crazy leaf bag lady….. On our 1/4 acre lot we don’t have any hardwood trees other than our fruit trees and they are still babies. Leaf much, in my opinion, is GLORIOUS for your garden. It adds organic hummus material for your “wormies” and other beneficial insects and microbes. It aids in moisture retention, they are high in nitrogen and as they gradually decompose they release nutrients and increase the fertility of the soil. When added to your compost they are a fantastic source of carbon to balance the nitrogen in your compost bins. We have chickens and very nitrogen rich compost so this is a great way to balance that! You can shred the leave with your lawn mower and then spread the mulched leaves over your beds. I generally just soak the leaves in a bag for a few days and then put them on my beds in their whole form as a part of my fall “planter lasagna” but I’ll explain more of that in the next paragraph.
Planter “winter lasagna”- Ok so this is my own approach to “putting my garden to rest” for the winter. Like I said before, I’m trying the cover crop idea but this lasagna approach is what I have been using for years and it has benefitted my garden so much! After testing my soil I create a “lasagna” with the additives my soil beds require based on the results of the test. I try to remain as natural and repurposed within our little homestead as possible without adding too much cost to the budget.
My lasagna consists of varying amounts (depending on the results of my soil test) of compost, wood ash, egg shell powder, leaves and mulch. Typically I spread a layer of nitrogen rich compost from our two AMAZING tumblers made from garden cuttings (that are not diseased) and rakings from our chicken coop and run. Then I sprinkle potassium rich wood ash from our fire pit and all those wood scraps we generate with our business, If we need magnesium I’ll spread epsom salt or lime. Then I sprinkle our very own calcium rich egg shell powder (I’ll write a blog and link it here with how I make that) or I sprinkle powdered milk if I haven’t made enough for the year. I cover that layer with the nitrogen rich leaves I have stolen from my neighbors and then finally top with a very light layer of mulch to keep it all together with winds etc in the winter.
To top off my winter lasagna I spread red worms over the surface as my little organic tillers to work their magic. We always get a great January thaw and at that time I go out to my garden with my spade and turn the lasagna into the fist few inches of soil to encourage the decomposing process and mix everything up. I repeat this later in March when it thaws again and April. By the time May rolls around my raised garden beds are revived and ready for the growing season ahead.