It’s nearing the end of the season, and all that luscious growth in your garden will die back as the cold winter months come. Why not turn it into a big boost for your garden next spring?
As a general rule, compost-ables fall into two categories – Greens and Browns. Many gardeners clamor for the greens, but both have a lot to give to your garden.
The greens includes anything that is still alive or wet – green leaves, over-ripe produce, kitchen scraps, fresh grass clippings, etc. The greens contain more nutrients, including nitrogen, which is the number one nutrient people fertilize their garden with. Greens tend to compost more quickly.
The browns are dry, dead material – fallen leaves, bean pods, straw, dried grass clippings, etc. The browns do contain nutrients, but not as much as the greens. What they do have in abundance is carbon which, when composted, has a large nutrient-holding capacity (to hold all the nutrients from your composted greens) and the perfect light, airy, crumbly structure your plants love to sink their roots into. Browns compost more slowly.
Whatever you choose to compost, make sure it hasn’t been sprayed with chemicals. Perhaps your neighbor down the road thinks he’s doing you a favor by giving you all his grass clippings for your garden. But if he has sprayed his lawn with a broad-leaf herbicide (such as 2-4D) or preen (a pre-emergent herbicide that prevents seeds from sprouting), you really don’t want that on your garden.
Composting Through the Winter
Composting isn’t as difficult as you might think. It’s going to happen whether you tend your compost heap or not. There’s lots of information out there on how to create the perfect compost pile – specific carbon/nitrogen ratio (browns to greens), amount of moisture, how often to turn the heap, etc. But all this is only necessary if you want to speed up the process. If you want compost the easy way, just put it in a heap and leave it alone. Nature will do what nature does, whether or not you’re involved.
Whether you tend to your compost pile through the winter or not, you’re going to get something from it in the spring.
In the picture below is a compost pile full of browns. In the springtime, when this picture was taken, the top layers of leaves, sticks, and grass clippings had not fully decomposed, but underneath you can see the rich, composted material. Perfect for giving your garden a boost in the spring, either as a mulch (on top of the soil) or worked into the soil.
What to do with the rest of those leaves? Just leave them be. They’ll compost over time – perhaps they’ll be ready in time to add a boost to your summer or fall garden.
Consider a Cover Crop
One of the most important things to put on your fall garden checklist is to cover and protect your soil. If you can see your soil, you need to get a cover on it. This cover can take the form of a cover crop or a good mulch.
A cover crop is like green compost growing in your soil, which is then allowed to return the nutrients contained in the plant material to the soil. Often a nitrogen-rich plant is used, from the legume family, such as clovers or vetches. Sometimes a grass is used, such as winter barley.
Sowing a cover crop is quite simple – just scatter the seed like you’re feeding your chickens.
You can buy cover crop seed by the pound at many local feed mills, or even through some seed companies. I would recommend Sustainable Seed Co. or Sow True Seed. You’ll need about 50-60 pounds of seed for an acre.
Most cover crops do well in cooler seasons, but there are a few that prefer warmer temperatures. When you purchase seed for cover crops, be sure what you’re sowing will survive cold temperatures so you get as much growth as possible before the winter snows come. The cover crop will compost slowly underneath the snow throughout the winter, adding a boost in nutrients to your garden.
Most clovers, like the one pictured below, don’t mind cold temperatures. Clovers are also legumes, which are able to fix nitrogen, the most in-demand nutrient, and add it to your soil.
Get a Good Mulch on Your Garden
If you choose not to use cover crops, make sure you cover your soil well with a good mulch. We always recommend a wood-chip mulch. DON’T till it in. Just cover your soil in a layer 1-3 inches thick.
What to do with it come spring, when you want to sow seeds in your garden? Use a garden hoe or a rake and make a line in the mulch and plant your seeds directly in the soil. Then, when your plants have grown big enough, gently push the mulch back around your plants.
Mulch protects the soil from being washed away, slowly adds nutrients to your soil, adds good tilth to your soil as it breaks down over time, conserves moisture, protects plant roots, and prevents weed seed from sprouting.
Soil Temperature in the Spring
One last note – mulch insulates soil, as well as protects it. If you want your soil to warm up more quickly, rake the mulch to one side, after the snow has melted, and expose it to the sun for a few days. Even your most cold-hardy plants won’t sprout unless the soil is at least 45 degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees Celsius). Allowing the soil to see some sun for a few days will warm it up and allow you to sow your seeds a little sooner. Then gently rake the mulch back over your soil and around your plants.
(For more information on the benefits of mulch, I would highly recommend that you watch Back To Eden.)
I personally experimented with deep hay mulch this year and had great success! After my garden clean-up is complete, I’ll be covering it with a thick layer of mulch for the winter.