Feeding the Kitchen Garden Beds: Cover Crops and Compost

I’ve just finished the last big kitchen garden task of the year, planting cover crops in the eight beds that have held summer and storage crops since late spring. It’s a multi-step process that starts with cutting back and hauling away for composting the spent foliage of corn, beans, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, squash, onions and potatoes. The next steps focus on replenishing the soil that supported all this food from spring to now.  They are the most important things I do for the kitchen garden.

Our soil is clay loam that I learned early on needs infusions of organic matter every year to sustain the next year’s crops. The sources of organic matter I’ve settled on are winter cover crops and compost. Without them, clay loam becomes more clay than loam. To avoid this scary fate, every fall I spread the beds with a sprinkling of complete organic fertilizer, lightly work in a 2-3 inch layer of compost and then scatter on seeds of a cover crop and rake them in.

Cover Crop seeding

Cover Crop raking in

In the past, I’ve covered the beds with Reemay to protect the seeds from birds until they germinate and begin growing, but this year I spread a thin layer of the mulch over the bed, recycling the mulch that had kept down weeds and kept in moisture in the beds all summer. I’m hoping this mulch will protect the germinating and growing seeds and will also break down over the winter and provide one more source of organic matter.

Cover Crop mulching

For the past few years the cover crop I’ve used is Merced rye from Osborne’s Seeds in Mt. Vernon. The rye replaces Austrian Field Pea which I used for years until I discovered that it was harboring a population of pea weevils that later feasted on my sugarsnap peas and fava beans. (For more on pea weevils see the entry for April 29, 2014 on Linda Gilkeson’s Gardening Tips ) I’m hoping the rye will break this cycle.

As the Osborne catalog description says: This vigorous winter cereal grain is a great choice for winter cover and soil stabilization. It grows rapidly in cool weather, forming a dense stand with an extensive root system that absorbs unused soil nitrogen and loosens heavy soils while suppressing weeds. It is important to incorporate quickly once mowed, or the stalks will become very woody. Rapid growth in the spring can be controlled by mowing. Sow 90-110 pounds per acre, increase as it gets later in the season or if your seed bed is rough. I follow their advice and mow the rye down with the mulching lawn mower several times from late February through mid-March. Then I’ll cover the beds with black plastic or a tarp and let the cover crop rot down for about a month. I experimented with this step several years ago and was really pleased to find that the rye grass as well as the roots broke down considerably under this cover, leaving friable soil nearly ready for planting.

Planting the cover crop is easy. The challenge is having enough compost to add to all the beds. Despite our efforts, we haven’t been able to make enough compost each year for all our beds. There’s usually enough to use in the fall or in the spring when I plant buckwheat in the beds that have held winter crops, but never enough for both seasons. Fortunately for us, though, there’s a great source of compost right here on Lopez Island. At Midnight’s Farm, David Bill and Faith Van De Putte have been making compost that is a perfect for our garden. Check out the Midnight’s Farm website and be sure to watch the 3-minute video that describes the compost making process.

A couple of weeks ago we stopped by Midnight’s Farm in our small pick-up truck for a yard of sweet-smelling compost that was enough to add to this fall’s eight beds.

Compost David filling truck

A bonus of driving to Midnight’s Farm is getting what David calls his “five-minute tour” of the compost operation, two minutes longer than the website video and just as inspiring.

Compost with David Bill

In fact, a few days later as my husband Scott was chipping up our corn stalks and other summer garden foliage and building our compost bins he imagined just taking all this garden waste to David next year and letting him and his machines do the work. It might be hard to give up making our own compost, but then again, it might not.

This week, the fall rains have begun in earnest, watering down through the layers of mulch, cover crop seeds and compost to the kitchen garden soil, starting the process of rebuilding the soil for next year. The next kitchen garden task won’t be for a few months when seed catalogs start arriving and I begin January by ordering seeds for the year ahead. But for now, the garden is resting and so am I.

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End-of-Summer Harvest

Garden end of summerWhile we have the pleasure of harvesting fresh vegetables year round from our four-season kitchen garden, there is also the pleasure of an extra big harvest of storage vegetables in the weeks leading up to the fall equinox. Toward the end of August, I pulled large globes of Copra and Redwing onions and smaller bulbs of Ambition shallots and dug hills of potatoes, round Yellow Finns, oblong Carolas, slender Banana and Rose Finn Apple fingerlings. All are stored away now in cool, dark places, potatoes in the garden shed closet and onions in the shop. I’ve blanched and frozen many pints of shell beans and corn, roasted, peeled and frozen pounds of peppers and filled jars with dried tomatoes. And in the days around the equinox I packed brown paper bags with dry bean pods to shell later and piled a wheelbarrow high with winter squash. Our exceptionally warm and long growing season this summer made all of this storage harvest especially gratifying.

As my bean-growing friend Carol said, “It was the perfect summer for letting all the dry beans dry in their pods on the vine.” I thought back on our lovely summer as I harvested dry pods of bush beans Cranberry, Drabo, and Midnight Black Turtle and pole beans Aunt Jean, White Runner, Pole Cannelini, Soissons Verte and Good Mother Stallard. The day was perfect, sunny and mild, and the steady work of pulling pods from stems and clearing dry leaves and empty plants from the rows left plenty of time to contemplate the differences between planting and harvesting.

Beans dry bush pole

Beans dry bush closeup

While spring planting brings release from winter and the promises of longer days and warmer temperatures, late summer harvest signals a restful slowing down as the days shorten and cool. I love the promise of spring but I love the fruition and completion of fall even more. The seeds I planted in the green of spring have germinated, grown and matured into plants whose foliage has changed from supple, early green to brittle brown and rust, yellow and gold. And here at the end of summer, the hope and anticipation in those small seeds of spring are more than matched by the great satisfaction of seeing bean pods hanging from stalks and great round squashes rising above their vines.

The final satisfaction of the end-of-summer harvest happens as I pull the spent foliage from the beds, wheel it to the compost bins and then rake away the remaining layer of mulch to reveal the soil I last saw in spring. This year the sunny harvest days were followed by the first days of fall rain so the soil was already taking on the friable richness I associate with spring. In the next few days, I’ll add a thin layer of compost, a sprinkling of complete organic fertilizer and a cover crop, organic rye this year, to protect and nourish the soil through the winter. Scattering the seeds and raking them are the last big kitchen garden tasks for these beds this year. I’ll return to the beds next spring, work in the cover crops and begin planting for the year ahead. But between now and then I look forward to winter and the slow, quiet harvest of winter roots and greens that along with the just harvested storage crops will nourish us through the next season’s meals.

Garden fall soil