Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Preping the Garden

Last year's garden did not do so well.  On reflection there are a number of reasons, some of which are in my control.  Others, not so much.  To do well all plants need sunlight, nutrients and water.  And in my location, protection from pests.  In my mind I was providing all those, but in practice I was coming up short.

Here's the garden half-way through: last year's growth raked out, garden mowed low,
3 beds weeded with scuffle-hoe and rake.  Note the log pile just beyond fence,
all that remains of the big box elder, Acer negundo.

I have been adding compost, shredded leaves and a little organic fertilizer in the past. Last spring I sent samples for a soil test and learned that levels of most nutrients were too high: phosphorus, potassium, calcium and magnesium.  On the positive side, there was an increase in the organic content and cation exchange capacity (a measure of fertility). So this year I will only add an organic nitrogen fertilizer to the soil.  Of the organic choices that had minimal phosphorus and potassium I considered soybean meal and feather meal, both with about 7% nitrogen.  I opted for the soybean meal because I could by it from the feed store for about 25 cents a pound.  One warning with the soybean meal that I read was that it could inhibit the germination of small seeds.  So I'm not using that in the beds where I am planting lettuce, collards, chard or arugula.  I'm hoping that the beans, peas, spinach and others will be OK.  I got all the fertilizer down now (mid-April) and that should give it some time to be digested by the soil biota and have food ready for the bulk or the planting in mid-May.

As far as sunlight goes, I thought that I had good exposure.  That may have been the case 5 years ago, but the trees have been growing taller and eventually cutting a couple of hours of direct sun from the garden area.  While I hate to remove trees, there was a big box elder just south of the garden that appeared to be causing most of the trouble.  Since box elders are pretty common here, it was only with a little difficulty to say good-bye to that tree.

We usually have good rain here and I have a soaker hose to put in place for supplemental water.  So for moisture, I should be in good shape.

The last problem is the critters.  Every time I think I have a solution, they seem to adapt, or another problem crops up.  The double fencing seems to keep the deer at bay and the buried chicken wire slows the ground hog down; however I think it can still climb over the chicken wire when it really wants to.  Last year many seedlings were getting eaten and I'm not sure who to blame.  This year I have a motion activated trail camera to use so I can get a clue as to what is getting into the garden.  I am also expecting that the thicker layers of wood chip mulch will make it more obvious where any burrowing is taking place.

Other garden preparations:
I cut back the long tips of the wild blackberries growing on the outer fence. 
This improves fruit quality and gives more space to move around.

I've allowed wild blackberries to grow along the outer fence of the garden.  This re-enforces that area against deer.  I've read that by pruning the side branches to 4-8 leaf buds the fruit quality is improved.  I've been doing that for a couple of years now and it seems to be true.  The 'managed' wild blackberries have larger, sweeter fruits than the unmanaged plants nearby.

Rather than cutting to the ground I left 1-2' of the hollow
Monarda stems as potential bee nesting habitat.

Another plant growing along the fence line is wild bergamot, Monarda fistulosa.  These grow up about 4' and are very attractive to bees in early to mid-summer.  The hollow stems can provide nesting sites for small bees, like mason and leaf-cutter bees.  Since these bees build their nests in summer and develop there through the fall and winter, these stems need to be left intact for over a year.  When I did the garden clean-up I cut most of these stems to leave 1-2' intact.  These old stems will disappear into the new growth by the end of spring.  I just need to remember to leave them alone for the next year. 

As a result of a lot of tree work done here this spring, I have a large supply of wood chips.  This year was therefore the year to replenish the garden paths with fresh chips.  Many folks don't like to use fresh chips in the garden because they take up nitrogen from the soil as they decompose.  Since I want to suppress growth on the paths and garden perimeter, these fresh chips are just the thing to use.  (This loss of nitrogen from the soil only occurs where the mulch touches the soil and does not significantly affect the root zone unless the wood mulch is dug into the soil.)

The gardens all ready for plants:  freshly weeded, fertilized and mulched. 
I ran out of mulch for the last two beds...we'll call this an experiment. 
The remaining greenery are mostly native perennials like
beebalm and coneflowers to attract pollinators.
One new thing I am trying this year is to put down a wheat straw mulch over the bare soil.  This should help with moisture retention and reduce the number of weeds, or at least those from new seeds being blown into the garden.  I am expecting that wheat straw is much lower in weed seeds than is regular hay.

Now it's (past) time to plant those peas!!!

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