Five steps to improve raised beds now for a big pay-off in the spring
Updated: Jan 7
We won’t have healthy food without growing plants in healthy soil. Each growing season depletes the soil so restoring soil health must be a continuous work in process.
The nutrient density of America’s food is being compromised by both climate change and the loss of healthy soil from decades of industrial agriculture that has relied heavily on chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.
Planting seeds in weakened, mineral-deficient soil will equal poor results and is a waste of time and money, but most disappointing is a lost season of enjoying maximum yields of healthy organic vegetables from your raised bed gardens.
Fall is considered a great time to improve the soil for next year’s planting. For a strong start in Spring 2020, here’s some easy steps to do now:
Garden notes are critical. Start by reviewing your 2019 garden notes, and write a quick recap to refer to next spring when it’s time to order seeds and plan for crop rotation. For instance, tomatoes are big nitrogen-users and should be rotated. Next spring, we can’t rely on memory to recall what was planted and where, what worked well or failed.
Bypass the tilling. Resist the temptation to till the garden beds. There are millions of beneficial microorganisms that need to be undisturbed to do the job they’re meant to do—nurture soil health. Leave the roots of dead plants in the soil, just clipping the plant debris above the ground. It’s probably best to not leave dead plant leaves and stalks in the beds if they might harbor pests, eggs, or fungus. Cabbage worms have been a nuisance with my kale this year, so I know I need to clear any kale debris (along with any possible eggs) out of the beds.
Leaves are nature’s mulch. Nature knows best—mulch garden beds with layered chopped-up dead leaves and backyard compost. Even if the compost isn’t completely decomposed, it’s okay to use since it will have all winter to break down. If you don’t compost yet, this is an opportunity to begin by adding a layer of chopped vegetables and fruit debris from the kitchen along with layers of dead leaves. Try adding some crushed eggshells and coffee grounds to enhance calcium and nitrogen. Be sure to cover well to prevent attracting animals to the beds.
Pay attention to the nitrogen. Planting nitrogen-demanding vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers in the same bed for consecutive years will deplete the soil. If you suspect the soil is nitrogen-deficient (such as weak plant growth, yellowing leaves) focus on natural amendments that will increase nitrogen (coffee grounds, vegetable and fruit debris). Alfalfa meal can also be used to increase nitrogen. If you have time (depending on your climate zone) try experimenting with a fall cover crop as peas, beans, or legumes which are nature’s nitrogen-fixers that deposit nitrogen back into the soil when they decompose.
Try an all-purpose organic vegan fertilizer. If you’ve been studying soil improvement, are concerned about using animal-based fertilizer (like bonemeal) and have a headache trying to decide on the best approach to take, I’ve found an all-purpose OMRI-certified vegan fertilizer that I’m trying this Fall: Down to Earth Vegan Mix 3-2-2 from https://www.groworganic.com is all plant-and-mineral based containing a good ratio of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium with rock phosphate, kelp meal, and alfalfa meal. Five pounds of this easy-to-use powder covers 100 square feet.
I’m learning-by-doing in my organic backyard garden making some mistakes along the way, but having a lot of success too. What I know for certain is that it’s a huge mistake to ignore the soil. We cannot grow healthy, nutrient-dense food without healthy soil as the foundation.
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