a different harvest

When I was younger, back when I could remember things and bend my wrists without flinching, I believed that my favorite time of year was Fall.  All these years later it’s still my favorite season.  Except that now, so are Spring, Summer and Winter.

Fall smells better than any of them.  In your face, Spring.  Those dead leaves tended by the crisp air make the smell of Fall unbeatable…not even by Summer hay fields or Spring flowers.

But it’s two harvests that make me love Fall most; the leaves, and the wood.

I got a good start on my fall leaf collection today.  Fired up the mower and made piles of shredded leaves, mixed with some of those nice green grass clippings, for a little head start on the composting process.  I emptied out the chicken run’s shredded leaf floor (it only took a couple of weeks for the girls to really demolish them), and started filling next year’s Spring compost bins with that material.

Then it was time to refresh the girls’ run with un-shredded leaves and start filling my newly built leaf bin.

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The other harvest, free for the taking: trees that have died or blown down in the woods over the Spring and Summer.  It’s probably the most satisfying of all outdoor chores; materials are free, just add muscle.  There’s really nothing that can compare with just-finished rows of split wood stacked in the barn.  Hard to explain.  You can sense all the warmth that’s waiting to be released when it’s most needed.

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boom boom, out go the plants

As with most any aspect of life, knowing your strengths and weaknesses and using that knowledge can make things a whole lot happier for you.

Over the years, I’ve observed that generally I can grow better tomato and pepper seedlings of the varieties I want than I can buy at the local greenhouse. By the same token, there are a lot of seedlings offered at the grower’s that make my efforts look sad.

I try to play to my strengths. Cole crop seedlings bought from the local greenhouse always always seem to be much more robust than those that I grow. Same with some lettuces. I don’t know why, and don’t much care.

It’s perfectly fine by me. I’d rather buy healthy seedlings (even if maybe some artificial helps might be used in growing them…I don’t ask) than nurse along sub-par seedlings using my limited indoor light space. I’m not looking to be organically certified. I know what I put into my soil and onto my plants, and none of it is synthetic chemicals. But there’s no point starting out with sickly plants.

Enough philosophy.

Dirt. Now that’s real.

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I hadn’t planned on planting a large chunk of the garden yesterday. But a look at the 10-day forecast was all it took to get the juices flowing irretrievably. It was off to the greenhouse for some of those maybe (but probably not) organic seedlings.

In went the cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage and some lettuce plants. I basically covered the tilled ground with most of my stash of shredded leaves from last fall, then made planting holes through the leaves.

Uh. That’s frightening. No-till with twice the work, plus tilling. I may need to listen to my good friends who’ve been commenting that permanent mulch is a really great system.

A couple of concerns about permanent mulch systems; planting seeds in permanent mulch still seems a little clunky to me. We’ll see.

I’m not sure where green manures would fit into a permanent mulch system either. I don’t believe that a permanent mulch of mostly leaves would provide all the nutrients that certain plants might need, and green manures work so well. That’s a concern.

Mine’s a fairly large garden, and leaves are the only massive waste resource that’s available. Even with the huge cache of leaves I hoarded last fall, there’s not quite enough to cover the whole plot.

Oh, and the biggest drawback that I see to permanent mulch is that it’ll take forever for the soil to warm up in the spring.  Pulling it all back kinda defeats the ‘permanent’ part of the equation, no?

Still, something to think about and learn. That’s what I love. It never ends.

PS…the old tried and true works pretty well too.

spinach planted last fall and overwintered

spinach planted last fall and overwintered

mistakes

I hope you don’t figure that after you’ve gardened for 40 years you’ll have all your mistakes behind you. That’s absolutely silly. Go sit in a corner.

I’d rather post about some brilliant and perfect garden inspiration. But the reality is that I make stupid gardening mistakes all the time. Mistakes aren’t just for beginners. I think gardening is much like the rest of life; some people make more mistakes than others, but everyone makes them, and you can’t cure them.

This isn’t a huge goof; I’ll save those for myself to savor. But last fall I decided to try storing an extra supply of shredded leaves in my tomato cages, to accomplish two things: create new space for storing leaves that didn’t have a home, and provide a windbreak for my two small grow tunnels.

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It actually did both of those things very well. But mistakes make up their own ways to kick you in the rear. Yesterday as I was surveying the garden, I realized that the leaf-filled cages were sitting on top of the space where I plan to plant snow peas. Soon.

The leaves lost all their air pockets over the winter, and they got nice and wet. Since they’re shredded, they compacted even more. So these cages are really awkward to move without dumping a huge clump of compacted leaves in their wake. And they’re insulating the crap out of the soil beneath them, keeping it nice and frosty.

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If I would have thought just a little further ahead last fall, I could have put the cages in spots closer to where the leaves would be needed. But since I didn’t, they’ll have to be hauled around again, nice and wet and heavy.

Just enjoy the ride, learn as you go.

at least something’s thawing

The clock says springtime and the thermometer said 13° two nights ago. Someday I won’t have to go out at night and disconnect the hose to keep water flowing in the house. Right?

At least the compost piles aren’t bricks any more. The late fall pile of shredded leaves and coffee grounds has started to thaw out, and it’s so nice to turn the top layers.

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The chicken run got a final dose of framework, and tomorrow it’s on to a couple of doors. I’m afraid of doors. Doors and me stare each other down, and then the doors win.

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leave it

I came across a study that poinked my interest immediately. Who studies this?

A chemical analysis of 100 municipal leaf samples collected from across New Jersey shows that leaves are a valuable source of all crop nutrients. Although nutrient concentration values vary considerably, the application of 20 ton/acre of leaves would add on average 400 pounds of nitrogen, 40 pounds of phosphorus, and 152 pounds of potassium.

So I thought it would be fun to ballpark what that translated to in my 750 sq. ft. of planted space (which excludes paths).

An acre is 43560 sq. ft. Divide that by my 750 sq. ft. and you get 58.2. So the actual planted area of my garden is about 1/58th of an acre (yikes, so tiny!)

The amount of leaves I’d need to put onto my garden to replicate the 20 tons/acre cited in the example would be about 700 lbs.

I don’t weigh the leaves I collect. Absolute negligence.

But 700 lbs. doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility at all. Those tarp-loads are heavy, and I couldn’t even begin to guess how many loads I collected, let alone their weight.

I believe it was many more than 700 pounds, but let’s use 700 for convenience. That would translate to almost 7 lbs. of nitrogen, 2/3 lb. of phosphorus and 2 1/2 lbs. of potassium. Nice.

But (isn’t there always a but?) all that goodness isn’t like plopping down a bucketload of nitrogen or potassium:

The abundant carbon content of leaves leads to extensive development of fungi and bacteria in the soil which uses up the supply of available nitrogen for the production of microbial cell tissue. As decay proceeds, the carbon-nitrogen ratio decreases and some of the nitrogen becomes available to plants. Because of the high carbon content of raw leaves relative to their nitrogen content, there will likely be very little of the organic nitrogen in leaves available to crops for a period of time after application. Observations of crops (including legumes) planted on soil to which leaves have been applied indicate that plants suffer from a temporary N deficiency unless additional N fertilizer is added.

In human talk, you can’t just dump leaves and get a poof of nitrogen immediately useful for your plants.  It takes time.

What does this mean to me? Uhhhh…

Quantifying gardening is like stapling jello.  Mostly stupid, but fun.  I think it means that leaves on the garden are good.

Let’s go with that.

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a quick trip

With our nights in the 20s and days in the 30s, I was feeling like visiting a warm, relaxing place.  Maybe two.  So I headed out to the compost pile and experimental outdoor worm bed.

Ahhh.  First stop, the worms.  Sunny and warm with highs in the mid-seventies.  The sunken water bucket warmed with a 25w aquarium heater seems to be holding its own against the cold.  Hopefully the worms are too.

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Then off to Fabulous Compostapulco.  Those Starbucks grounds I picked up last week are having a party with my moist, shredded fall leaves, and things are heating up!

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What a vacation.  I’m pooped.  Now for a siesta.

fall leaves for the garden

For weeks, the trees shower down buckets and barrels and boatloads of nutrition for the garden.

My fall leaf strategy is this: to avoid picking up a rake at all costs.  It’s a miserable chore best left to wives and children. But when wives and children are involved with leaves there will be carnage and destruction.

Instead, I sit on the riding mower listening to Steely Dan, blowing those suckers into a windrow where they’re re-chopped with mower blades until I’m satisfied.  This serves two purposes; to reduce the volume of the leaves and to increase their surface area (which in turn discourages matting and promotes faster decay).  Then out comes the pull-behind grass catcher, and viola.

This season those wonderful concrete-reinforcing-wire tomato cages will work for me during the cold months. They make perfect storage containers for chopped leaves.  Why should they lounge in the barn taking up space when they can store shredded leaves that’ll make awesome mulch in the early spring, when grass clippings are just a gleam in God’s eye?  The leaf towers also serve as a windbreak for my cold frames.

Plus they’re an attractive garden feature for the neighbors.  Or maybe not.

fall leaves and garden cold frames