It’s been a busy week here but I thought I’d take a few minutes to share what’s going on for bed management this spring in the market garden. The first field crops will go in the ground in about a week and I’m just about ready for that step. The process is pretty simple and continues to be less expensive every year.
How Things Were Left in the Fall
Where crops were finished/removed by late August and early September, I seeded a cover crop. The mix I made last year was field pea, oat, and oilseed radish. Because I don’t till, it was very important for me to select cover crops that would be killed off by our winter conditions so I could plant into the decayed matter without concerns about it growing back and going to seed in the spring.
Where fall and winter crops remained in the ground beyond that point in the year (things like kale, celery, and sunflowers), I simply left those crops in place in their landscape fabric. Roots left in the ground reduce erosion as well as add soil nutrition from their decaying roots.
In either case, during October and November I also raked leaves from our sugar maple over the beds to keep them covered and insulated, which brings our worm friends up to the surface of the soil to work their magic. I also re-chipped the walking paths with some half-rotten natural hardwood chips, and as they decompose they’ll add even more organic matter to the beds.
Assessing the Beds
The chemical/nutritional needs of every garden will be different, but the physical needs are largely the same. We want it to hold moisture but drain well, to have a fine tilth that the plant roots can penetrate easily, and to be free of weeds that will compete with our crops. There are a few ways that I assess these characteristics at this time of the year.
1. The finger test. If my fingers can slip into the soil with ease, so can the roots. Our soil is super compacted and every time that I add more organic matter the tilth improves for the long term. This year I will probably only need about an inch of compost in the pictured section to get my entire hand into the soil, whereas there are other places where I still need 2-3 inches.
2. The pie server test. This tool is the perfect size for pulling back the soil to pop a 2-inch soil block into place. I want to be able to plant the soil blocks deeply, and I should be able to push the soil out of the way with minimal effort. This bed passes for me because it was easy to make a 3-inch-deep planting hole.
3. Weed management. This is a pretty simple one to do when you’re using landscape fabric. Whether it was pulled back in the fall or right now in early spring, much of the bed is completely stale. The weeds that have continued to grow and are popping up right now are largely the aggressive ones like dock and dandelion with big taproots. (Found above in one 15-foot section: staghorn sumac, dandelion, and dock.) These can’t be smothered by the landscape fabric nor by covering with compost or cardboard. I have to dig these up with a potato fork to remove the entire thing. A claw weeder is great for the small ones and requires little work. Fortunately, when the tilth is very fine, it's almost effortless to get them free.
Preparing for Planting
This is a really simple process for me at this point. All I need to do is (1) remove the big taproot weeds, (2) apply enough compost to pass the finger test, (3) add an OMRI-certified (organic approved) granular fertilizer, (4) lightly rake and shape the beds, (5) cover immediately with landscape fabric to prevent washaway, and (6) soil drench with diluted leaf mold tea and water-soluble calcium. If I were growing big storage carrots, potatoes, or sweet potatoes I’d also broadfork those particular beds before doing any of the above steps. I work alone so it will take me a little while to get all of this accomplished over the next week, but for a home gardener it is really a quick and easy way to get the job done.
Remember: you do not get paid to weed. You get paid for high-quality crops. High quality crops can’t grow in dead soil. Putting in all of this effort during the off-season will allow you to enjoy a beautiful, low-maintenance garden that will only get better each year.
A Quick Note on Building New Permanent Beds
Though we are done expanding in this section of the farm for the time being, the process for building beds in the market garden wasn’t very different than what I’ve outlined above - with a few additions. I first removed the sod with my Quail kick-type sod cutter (https://quailsodcutter.com/), which I can’t rave about enough. This handmade, emission-free tool would be an absurd expense for the home gardener on a tight budget, but for our context it was a worthwhile investment. There are machine sod cutters available for rental at many hardware stores. You could also till, though this brings a lot of weed seeds to the surface.
After removing the sod, I then unrolled a 30-inch-wide corrugated cardboard roll over the length of my bed, sprayed it down with the hose, and covered it in about four inches of compost. After that I continued with the same fertilizer application and landscape fabric procedures listed above. Sometimes these types of methods are called lasagna beds or deep-mulch beds if you’d like to read more about it.