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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Grounds for your Garden…Giving Back to the Soil…

grounds for the ground

My garden provides. I try to give back…. Here in the Tualco Valley we are blessed with a wonderful, thick layer of topsoil, thanks, I suppose, to the fact our Valley is a flood plain. Bottom land, they call it, soil that’s been deposited over time by flood action and consequent silting…a tradeoff, I guess, for the thirty days of the year we Valley folk have to worry about similar silt deposits on our carpets and flood waters wicking up our drywalls.

Even though I’m no agronomist, after thirty-seven years of backyard vegetable gardening, I’m well aware of what lies beneath my feet when I walk around my garden. Under a layer of dark, heavy topsoil lies a substratum of light, sandy loam, a fact that’s reaffirmed every time I dig holes to set my bean poles. loam subsoilAt one time my garden was most certainly stream bed and over time, flood action laid down the layer of loam. What is curious about this topsoil/loam combination is that it varies from one part of the garden to another. The east portion measures nearly fourteen inches of topsoil covering the loam; however, some thirty paces west, the topsoil is thinner with only four to six inches of the dark, heavier soil overlaying the lighter colored loam. The annual vegetable garden makes demands on the soil’s nutrients, and whenever possible I do what I can to amend the garden plot. For thirty-seven years I’ve been trying to build the depth of that thinner topsoil layer in this stretch of garden. topsoil, loam layering

My Granddad Mike had a small vegetable garden in his backyard. I remember a few scrawny tomato vines from which dangled a half dozen or so anemic tomatoes. A row of beets, a few spindly fronds of carrot tops. Might have been a potato plant or two (Granddad, like most folks from the Old Country, was partial to root vegetables), but memory is a bit fuzzy on this. What I do recall, however, is Granddad’s garden always smelled like coffee. Yes, his little garden plot was also the repository for the daily coffee grounds—coffee grounds and eggshells—Granddad’s way of giving back to the soil, a guarantee of a few more pale tomatoes and golf ball-sized beets.

Thanks to the folks at our local Starbucks I, too, catch the whiff of coffee in the off season whenever I pass my pepper and tomato patches. Each time I happen by the mound of dormant rhubarb, I have the urge to order a Grande Americano (just a little room, please), as well. Two of our local Starbucks take the time from their daily grind to package the shop’s daily grounds and offer them free to local gardeners. I always look for the plump, silver bags in the “free” bins and snatch one up whenever I spy it. The sticker sealing each bag includes information helpful to the backyard gardener. The liberal rainfall in the Pacific Northwest tends to leach our soils, budging their PH toward the acidic gradient—good for the cultivation of the berries for which our Valley is renowned. With coffee grounds, as the Starbuck’s label states, most of the acid is removed during the brewing process, rendering the grounds you broadcast on the garden high in nitrogen with a PH of 6.9, nearly neutral, good for the vegetable crop, less so if you have a berry patch.grounds facts

For those who wish their gardens to be decaffeinated or don’t have access to Starbuck’s free offerings, there are other ways to give back to your garden. Here are a few suggestions:

Green manure: plant a fall cover crop that’s turned into the soil in the spring. There are several types of crops that serve the purpose: clovers and vetch are nitrogen-rich additives. Winter rye, which I plant in October, works well in our Valley.chickweed Planting rye  is also an excellent way to control weeds in the garden. If your garden is a carpet of chickweed come spring, winter rye will solve your problem. The sections of my garden I leave as winter forage for birds are at present one mass of chickweed; the plot of rye I planted is chickweed free. Fall rye cover cropGrass clippings: layering the soil between vegetable rows and plants with summer lawn clippings not only serves as weed control but also adds nutrients to the soil. Grass clippings heaped in piles do not compost well, but clipped grass layered two to three inches thick between rows (I especially like to use them around my tomato plants) not only helps retain soil moisture during dry spells but also inhibits weed growth while at the same time giving back to the soil. The thin layers of clippings readily compost over the winter and are easily tilled under in the spring. (Tip: those piles of old newspapers you chuck in the recycle bin? Recycle them back to the soil instead; use those want ads and legal notices as a “floor” for those grass clippings.)

Leaf mulch: when the big maple tree in our backyard sheds its fall glory, I rake up the leaves and heap them on top of the dahlia hills for frost protection.dahlia bed In the spring after danger of frost has passed, I rake the mulch from the dahlias, scatter it over the thin topsoil portions of the garden, and turn it under. The raised bed of asparagus I also layer with leaves for frost protection and winter weed control. The fact the leaf mulch leaches nutrients into the soil is evident by the vermiculture that flourishes beneath the leaves. Earthworms forage beneath the mulch, help to decompose it, supplementing and aerating the soil in the process.earthworms and leaf mulch

Composting: even patio or container gardeners can supplement their raised beds, pots, or barrel halves with composted vegetative material. We keep a compost bucket handy for degradable (non-woody) vegetable matter, and when it brims, the contents are dumped on our compost heap out back. Periodic turning of the pile accelerates the transformation of raw material into a rich compost one can spread over the garden or mound around berry canes and the trunks of fruit trees. This shifting about of compostable materials is an efficient form of recycling and precludes the use of chemical fertilizers thus keeping your garden as organic as possible.

I live in a Valley which hosts large herds of dairy cows and fortunately have access to their “by product.” Because others don’t have that opportunity, I haven’t mentioned this other valuable resource for the backyard gardener. An old pioneer friend of mine, an avid gardener, once told me she attributed her successful gardens to  her following the directives of the Farmers’ Almanac (“…root vegetables by the dark of the moon” and such). I believe, however, the fact that each spring she also tilled into her garden a truckload of “winter accretion” from a local cattle feedlot was in greater part responsible for her success as a gardener (she’d never admit to this, though).

Maybe you don’t have a dairy farm for a neighbor; perhaps there’s no feedlot just over the hill, but you can still amend your garden soil. For example, if you’ve leisurely sipped a cup of coffee while reading this post, be sure to save the grounds and broadcast them on your garden.

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