If you have never gardened before, you might not realize that soil is a living thing. How we steward the soil is how it will reward us, and its gift is a resource that sustains us. Tending the earth, however large or small in scale, is like reading a good book. Just like an interesting story, in the garden there is discovery, adversity, triumph and loss. In this unpredictable world, if you grow things you can expect to experience failure, but you can also experience success, and in a way that just might exceed your expectations. And like life, there is also a season to work and a season to rest.
This is the first year I’ve grown our own food, and it’s also the first time I’ve wintered the garden. I can’t claim I’ve found the best way to do this, because only the next few months will tell how beneficial the approach I used has been for our garden’s soil. But at least I can share what I’ve done. Anyway, it seems every gardener has their own approach to wintering, and there isn’t a universal consensus on which materials work best. Straw, compost, mulched grass clippings, leaves, or growing a ground cover crop like winter rye are all different things I’ve read about as options. It is generally agreed, though, that if you are going to give your garden a winter’s rest, the soil needs to be replenished in some way so it is healthy for the next planting season.
To prepare the garden for winter, over the last few weeks I’ve been removing the plants from our raised beds and transferring some of them to potted containers to keep alive for next spring. I saved two of the strawberry plants in hopes they’ll be mature enough to produce next year, and two of the bell pepper plants to see if they’ll produce larger fruit next year. I still hadn’t decided whether I’d be putting a layer of purchased compost or some type of mulch on the beds for winter, so I visited our local feed and hardware store for suggestions. The cheapest option was buying two bales of straw, one for each raised bed, and using them as mulch to cover the soil. Every time I water the indoor potted herbs, I’ve been saving the runoff from the soil which produces a rich compost tea. I decided I’d use this compost tea as a cheaper alternative to buying compost.
So with the straw and compost tea as my soil amendments, I began the process of putting the raised beds to rest for the winter. For each raised bed I removed the weeds and grass that had grown along the sides, and then I raked the soil to loosen and aerate it and catch any hidden weeds or roots. Then I evened out the soil, watered it down well, and poured the 1-1/2 gallons of compost tea evenly over each bed. I cut the wire binding on the rectangular straw bales, and broke off one 4-inch thick square of straw at a time. I laid each square on the soil in the raised beds, edge to edge, until the soil was completely covered. Then I watered the straw covering the beds to weigh it down a little more and moisten everything really well. I’ll probably check the moisture level of the soil every so often to make sure it’s not too wet or dry, keeping it similar to the balance in a compost pile. Over time the straw will decompose, adding organic material back to the soil.
It turns out yesterday was good timing to finish the job. A cold front blew in Wednesday night, and by the early hours of Friday morning the first freezing temperatures arrived. During early November in Texas, it’s still not a prolonged freeze, but the garden is ready for when it comes. I’m ready as well, and this winter I’ll be snuggling up with a few good garden books, devising a plan for next spring’s garden, and anticipating the next chapter in our garden’s story.