Putting the Garden to Bed

By Brian Barth

With the fall harvest fading and the holiday season around the corner, it’s a good time to wrap up the year in the garden.  Take time to note the accomplishments of the season, what worked well in the garden this year and what didn’t.  Make some mental notes about what varieties of lettuce grew the best and should be re-planted or which bed to plant the nightshades in for next year to keep a step ahead of the ever-present tomato blight.  Store the memories and ideas for improvement away until next season and pull some of nature’s warm blanket over the beds for their winter rest.

Autumn’s fallen leaves are winter’s protective ground cover and the seeds of spring fertility.  Some people labor for days raking up the leaves in their yard; wise gardeners make the rounds and pick up all those leaf bags sitting out on the curve and bring home the bounty to cover their veggie beds.  A 6-inch layer of leaves over the soil shrinks down to an inch by spring, as the organic matter decomposes into the rich, crumbly, and proverbial, ‘black gold’ of fertile soil.  In the interim, the soil is held safe from torrential rains and you can look out from your window, feeling content that everything is in its proper place so you, too, can rest.

If you find you’re not quite ready to rest, there’s one more step that will make things easier in spring.  Before laying down leaves, go ahead and loosen up the soil.  Work it with a rototiller or ply it with a digging fork, if that’s your style, just as you would in spring to prepare for planting.  Incorporate manure or composted kitchen scraps to replace some of the nutrients removed in the season’s harvest.  Dried leaves are another ingredient to add to the medley, but they should be shredded first.  If you don’t already have one, a small electric shredder for this purpose should be on your Christmas list.  There are even devices that vacuum the leaves from the ground, shred and bag them simultaneously.

Once the beds are formed to perfection, their bellies bulging from the fall feast, add the cover of leaves and allow the garden to digest.  By spring, all those nutrients will have cooked down into a fertile brew, ripe for planting.  Pull back the remaining leaves and plunk your seedlings right into the soft soil.  The leaves can stay as mulch for the next growing season, though they may need to come off temporarily to let the soil warm at planting time.

Over the coming months, we’ll take time to reflect on the garden, it’s meaning in our lives and seek direction for the next growing cycle.  Winter is time to rest, to dream and to plan.  For many, it’s a time to tinker with new designs without the pressure of timelines.  Before long, the season will force us again from our reverie and give another opportunity to put our ideas and inspirations into practice.