My focus on permaculture usually revolves around perennial food crops. Trees, shrubs and perennial flowering plants make up the majority of things that I plant in any given year, but those annual crops that usually like full sun and do best in enriched soil have a part to play as well. There is something about annuals that assure them a place in the yearly cycle of planting, care, harvest and prepping the beds for the following season. I still feel that there is a place for these more tender plants, whose life cycle would not be complete without our intervention. Because the season of long nights is upon us, I wanted to share here what I have done to assure a rich harvest next summer.
First, about a month ago, I moved all the compost piles. The tops of each went into a large central pile. I often plant the locations of compost piles according to where I might like to plant in the future. The liquid that makes it’s way through into the soil is rich with nutrients and often the heat of the pile kills off any grasses or weeds, so it makes a great place to plant something after the pile has been removed. Usually, the bottom half to 1/3 of the piles is ready to be spread on the beds. This Spring started out very dry but from Solstice onward it was very very wet, so the compost did better than usual. I usually start new compost with whatever sticks and stems, vines and stalks are left in the garden beds. I try to keep the bins that I compost in easy to get to, but not too close to the house. One year I put one about twenty feet from the kitchen door and the smell occasionally made it into the house. Normally when compost is doing well, there is no smell but from time to time there can be some. Trust me, it’s not the sort of smell that makes you want to cook. Once the compost that is unfinished makes it’s way onto the new pile, layered with brown items (like dry leaves or stalks), green items (like lawn clippings), food scraps and a few handfuls of rich soil for inoculation with microbes, there should be little problem letting the pile rest. One word of wisdom, compost needs moisture. A good pile is just moist, like a wrung our sponge. A word of caution, most city water has chlorine in it, which works against the microbes that do the work, so if you can water it with rain barrel water that’s all the better!
The beds, cleared in this manner will need a good weeding as well. Any rouge plants trying to get a foothold can be pulled and thrown in the compost as well. The rich, finished compost can go right on the beds. I used to turn it into the soil, but now I leave it right on top, covering the entire bed with a protective layer of straw or whatever organic mulch I can get my hands on. Beware of leaves off the curb, because they can be contaminated with plastic, weed seeds or lawn chemicals if they are collected with a mower that mixes lawn clippings into them.
If you know that the homeowner uses organic lawn care methods, the leaves and grass clippings can be a great combination because they are like the green and brown layers in the compost pile. Sometimes they are in just the right proportion, about 50:50 by weight. Don’t skimp on this Winter Blanket. The soil you are building underneath will eventually freeze, but the action of the microbes breaking down the last bits of compost will remain active for at least another month or two under a thick pile of mulch.
I have had instances where I had enough clean straw to put over a foot of mulch on for the winter and the difference it made was noticeable, but usually I can only put on six inches of mulch for the winter. If you are in a very open area, adding a bit of chicken wire around the beds might help keep the mulch from blowing away. Wetting down the mulch can help keep it in place, but the insulation value drops quickly as the mulch gets wet. If you decide to wet it down, do it early rather than waiting until freeze up is imminent.
A quick note on plants that can be left in the ground. Sunchokes (Jerusalem Artichokes), carrots, leeks, potatoes and a few other root crops can be left in the soil, especially if it is not too heavy (clay). The best way that I have found to do this is to mulch heavily, sometimes with one to two feet of mulch. It is important to mound it up well so that snow sheds off to the sides of your rows. Some folks even use a tarp over the whole mulch pile to make snow removal easier in the winter months. Under this protective cover, the root crops will remain quite happy until you shovel off the snow, scrape away the mulch, and turn them out with a potato fork. Some believe that carrots and leeks kept this way are sweeter and even more delicious. I think that it is the effect of finding life, and food under the snow that makes these delicacies even more nourishing.
Remember, there is an infinitely varied ecology within the soil. When we learn to protect it from freeze thaw cycles, wind, dessication and the harsh removal and transport by flying ice crystals, it will enhance production, soil health and the rate at which we can build soil. Contrary to popular belief amongst farmers, tilling in the fall may get you into the fields earlier in Spring, but the cost in lost soil, damage to soil ecology and loss of tilth are not worth the extra few days. Protecting the beds will pay huge dividends. I have several flower beds that are still in turmoil because of a single winter when I neglected them in the fall. Don’t make the same mistake I did. The earth will thank you with unimaginable bounty!