As the last of the potatoes are pulled from the ground, and the tomato, zucchini, pepper, and bean harvests come to an end, gardening activities once again pick up for a couple of weeks. Nature is very unhappy with bare soil — nutrients quickly start leaching away without the active roots of plants to collect and hold them in place. Consider that one of the richest soils on earth in the Midwest was the richest because of the constant growth of the diverse prairie plants. Constant growth is only bad when monocultures deplete specific soil resources and invite in various harmful fungal, insect, and other predatory organisms.
The end of August through mid-September, then, is a time to seed replacements for the plants you’re taking out.
First, the edible approach. I just ordered some gourmet garlic from Peaceful Valley. These will ship later this month and I’ll plant them where the last of the potatoes are now being harvested. The two 4×4′ sections will be just the right area to plant one pound of garlic. Garlic gets started in the fall, then goes dormant before coming on strong early spring. By late spring/early summer the tops will be turning brown and will be ready to be pulled. That space can then be planted with various summer crops like swiss chard, beets, zucchini, winter squash, or even those spare couple of slips of sweet potatoes in 2015.
Where I’ve been pulling beans, squash, and kohlrabi around the brussels sprouts, I just planted cool-weather crops like lettuce, spinach, arugula, parsnips, kohlrabi, radishes, turnips, scallions, peas, and kale. Next weekend I’ll plant more of these intercropped with the alfalfa and ryegrass in the old tomato bed. The first planting will provide a decent harvest without any season extending covers, but the second planting will be right on the margin and will depend on the timing of the first frost of fall, 2014.
This year I just placed an order for some Tufflite greenhouse plastic and a quickhoops low tunnel bender from Johnny Selected Seeds. I’ve been using low tunnels made of PVC with Agribon-19 or shade cloth to extend harvests for several years now. Last year I experimented with store-bought plastic on the PVC but they just don’t hold up to the wind and snow in central Illinois. For $150 I hope to extend my harvest of these cool-weather crops into December this year. Plus, for many I’ll just cut leaves and not pull whole plants. Come late January these will start slowly growing back and by March or early April I’ll hopefully be harvesting greens once again.
In a previous post I wrote about cover crops, one strategy for those empty beds. When I pulled out my zucchini 10 days ago I planted field mustard, a powerful biofumigant. At the end of September I’ll cut down and water in the mustard, adding biomass to the bed and also suppressing various soil-borne pests and diseases. I’ll get some small regrowth this fall which will die back naturally at frost. I’ll pull and add to the compost bin the remainder in the spring.
Late in September most of my other beds will be seeded with a mix of hairy vetch and winter rye. The vetch will just get started then go dormant, ready to come back early spring. The winter rye will grow quite a bit more as it is very cold tolerant. Both will be harvested and fed to the livestock in spring, with a little being turned back into the beds spring 2015 to add biomass.
The result of all this work will be some small continued harvest during all but the shortest days of the year and some forage for the livestock. But probably most importantly we’ll have healthier, more diverse, and more numerous organisms within our soil, assuring that next growing season they’ll be ready to enter into symbiotic relationships with our 2015 crop of vegetables. The increased vigor of the plants will help them to withstand mildews, blights, and insect attacks without my having to apply harsh chemicals. Give it a try!