Nurturing Soil: Getting The Most Of A Summer Hour

Summer Garden
My ‘Green’ Children

Ignore Parenting

It’s my style of rearing kids through the unscheduled summer days. It spills over into how I care for my vegetable garden as well. I’d like to think that I fall somewhere between helicopter parent and free-range parent, the two extremes. I prefer nurturing — rather than micro-managing or ignoring — the ground beneath my plants. It’s not my natural habitat, and I don’t want to inadvertently mess things up.

With kids, as it is with soil, I find it best to get out of the way and let plants be plants.

Learning From My Mistakes

Child-rearing and gardening are two things I’ve done only for a few years. I don’t have decades of experience or a mentor who helped me, I don’t save seeds, and I certainly don’t have extra time (yet) for a greenhouse experiment. What I have settled into is something of a stewardship with the soil on my property, so that nature is doing most of the work for me.

So far, it works. In fact, it really works.

It’s nice to no longer be chasing my tail. In the long lesson of switching to not micro-managing the garden, I few things stand out:

1. Mechanically turning and churning the soil destroys not only earthworms but also the fungal mat beneath the soil I’d worked so hard to create. These are real workers in healthy earth; they need to be left alone.

2. Store-bought chemicals and remedies are out for one thing and one thing only: return customers. Use them and plants will become little druggies and I, their ‘pusher.’ It’s best to prevent rather than ‘treat.’

3. The root-microbe relationship is the foundation to healthy plants. Healthy Roots = Lots of Fruits. For not only human health reasons, organic is the best approach to achieving that end.

4. There is rich, expensive organics literally pouring out of every human household. Most people toss this stuff as ‘waste’ to the curb (*gasp*) to be buried in a landfill or recycled elsewhere. This is a resource to be tapped.

5. When the right conditions are met in your planting zone, and the right plant is grown during the right season (important!), hard work is replaced by lazy, minimal work and maintenance. I really like this.

6. A no-till, weed-free garden is very possible, but it takes time and patience. The end game should always drive the effort.

What 90 degrees and 90% humidity looks like.

We are now entering triple digit temps in southeast Texas, the time of year when autumn can’t come soon enough for us. It’s hot — really hot, and really muggy — but there’s that one last hoorah if a fall garden is to happen.

In the morning with kids and activities filling up the days, I’ve only an hour to do it.

Today’s hour lesson in the lasagna ‘compost pile’ garden is in switching seasons from summer to fall, replenishing organic material, and getting beds ready for seedlings to be direct-sown.

Pulling The Spent Vines – 5 Minutes

IMG_8922Four tomato annuals have served me well and were worth the $3-per-plant I spent at the nursery. The two Roma variety acted as pest attractant so that the two Cherry variety could feed our faces, bug-and-disease-free. Both were great producers for three solid months.

The cucumbers also must go. Showing signs of stress — I’ve not yet had success with a fall crop of tomatoes — they will all get pulled to become food for the turf grass.

Hand tools only: 4-tined rake, pitchfork, leaf rake, butcher knife, screwdriver

I start by getting tools off the pegboard. You will straight away notice that there is no roto-tiller or shovel in that pile. I gave away the tiller and I rarely use the shovel, usually when I’m (guess what?) digging big holes. These are also worm-and-fungi killers.

The pitchfork is minimally invasive and used only to loosen the soil at the root base,aerating as a bonus. The 6-foot-long plants are too woody for the compost pile, so they will be tractor-mowed during the next lawn maintenance.

The cherry tomato out of the keyhole center basket is shown below for scale. The tap root is 18″ in length and the plant sprawled to six feet. I think it’s safe to say that the ‘soil’ in the thrown-together keyhole was working just fine!

One, Big, Bad Cherry

Two tomato volunteers remain in the garden as they are still cranking out fruit, or are just beginning to. Even I can’t believe it’s August and we’ve been eating tomatoes from the garden for nearly four months now. So worth the ‘work.’

RIP, maters and cukes. See you again next year.

Removing Weeds and Grasses – 10 Minutes

Lizard Nut Grass — whole system comes up in lasagna ‘fluffy’ soil

There is practically zero regular weeding with the no-till-layering method, unless you call a tomato volunteer or an avocado tree a weed.

Grasses are easy to remove from the rich, fluffy substrate. It’s difficult to imagine that we had gumbo clay in this area before. Organic matter is the healer of soil!!

Again, rocking a pitchfork back and forth in the area loosens the roots, and a screwdriver serves for close hand-work as a ‘trowel.’ This method helps keeps earthworms and the fungal mat underneath the surface in tact. These are the lasagna garden’s true heroes; tilling erases the board every season.

The entire system of nut grass — nobby root nodules, thin stolon connectors, tops of plants — comes up all at once and is thrown aside to be mulch-mowed as food for my preferred turf grass. In Texas, that’s St. Augustine, a great protective barrier against other competing grasses — Bermuda and Torpedo — coming into the garden space.

A quick edge with a sharp butcher knife will successfully cut any stolons at the surface. Edging done.

The Grass Smother Method – 5 Minutes

IMG_8914On areas where there is heavy foot-traffic, nut grass takes better hold. Used here are two black contractor trash bags and some T-posts and bricks for weight. In a couple of months, the bags will be removed (to get re-used later) and the area amended with more organic matter to soften.

This empty void will serve as space for pumpkin vines to sprawl. In the meantime, they will serve as an alternate path for the wheelbarrow since a tomato volunteer blocked the path from the other side of the garden. Bloom where you’re planted, Little Fella. I’ll find another way.

Layering Stolen / Bought Materials – 30 Minutes

Green, Brown, Compost

Each bed with plants still growing in them — bell and jalapeno pepper, basil, eggplant — will get a few layers of Green-Brown-Compost.

I always run out of fresh compost mid-summer, so I bought some at the garden store. My criteria for purchase: 1) must be organic; 2) does not contain manure (as a vegan, I avoid products from factory farmed animals); and 3) does not contain peat (robbing from peatlands has other unintended environmental impact).

Vote with your dollars, folks.

From the last collection effort, plenty of green and brown in the form of grass, leaves, and shrub clippings are ready for use. Thank you, Generous Neighbors!

Eat your veggies, Little Children.
They’ll make you big and strong.

No tools needed. Just an old-fashioned butt and shoulder burn. (And to think some people pay money to do this.)

Clean-up, Hydrate and Cool-off – 10 Minutes

IMG_8908
Forgotten Thai Basil!

It is so hot outside when the shade disappears in the morning that the only way to cool off is to stand underneath the water hose fully clothed.

Very refreshing.

The thermometer now reads 94 degrees. I finish by rinsing off any garden tools and putting them away. I’ll want to make sure I’ve accounted for all my tools — particularly the screwdriver and butcher knife that I could ‘find’ later with the tractor mower. Not a good idea.

I stand back and admire my [not-so-hard] work with space now created for the next season’s greens and fruits. Like the basil hiding underneath the bushy, jumbled tomato plants, I discover other little treasures while I’m puttering.

Isn’t the little devil cup-marker ironic for the heat?
I love blue jay feathers.

After drinking a big glass of cold water and chasing that with a big glass of Gatorade, I cool off in the shade and hope for rain, which I can literally smell all around me. Nothing as yet.

An hour’s enough. Time to go keep a look-out for fall migrants and boss the kids for chores that need to be done indoors. There’s always something that needs to be done.

 ♠

PS – It took an hour to do the work, and two weeks
to write this post. Sheesh!

Have you found methods that have made
your gardening easier?

17 thoughts on “Nurturing Soil: Getting The Most Of A Summer Hour

  1. When do you plant your fall garden.?We are getting ready to work the dirt but I think it is too hot to add worms to our raised garden. We have plenty of worms in a shade bed we have. Our kids use to dump fishing worms in that bed now we have a big population.

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    1. If you direct seed, here’s a great link: http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/archives/parsons/fallgarden/falldirect.html

      There’s no wrong way to garden, Sonya, but each plant has a time that it will produce the best. For instance, I’ve never had luck with fall tomatoes, but friends swear by them. I stick with the easy-to-manage volunteers (pumpkin, winter squash mostly) that come up where they are, then will plant peas, a few brassica, turnip, and beets (for the tops). If you want a pumpkin patch for Halloween, plant them now!

      Worms are the best workers money can (can’t?) buy! Just don’t put anything into your soil (salts / fertilizers, rototiller) that kills them or makes them go find better soil and you will enjoy their benefit season after season.

      I can’t say enough about leaves, compost, and grass clippings. Cheers!

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      1. We have been adding grass clippings and leaves already. Since there are no worms we will give it a few big stirs before adding the worms. When you compost do you have a compost pile, a can or do you add it directly? We are trying some different things this time to see if we can not have better luck. I might plant some pumpkins in the pasture for the grandkids they would like that. Have you ever planted gords?

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      2. I think you’ve seen it, but here is a post on my compost-building exercise (http://wp.me/p28k6D-1IC). Because I’m generally lazy (or busy with kids and life), I use predominately ‘acquired’ materials for that 4x4x4 open pile, and it’s mobile in that it rotates around the space for planting as it’s flipped. The space where the compost was is already full of nutrients, water, worms, and fungi. Super easy.

        It’s the main reason I don’t create traditional raised beds (stone, wood sides, etc.). I don’t want to limit my garden’s success and flexibility.

        I’ve not planted gourds. If you do, let me know how it goes!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Yikes! Stay cool down there, though it sounds like you know how to. 🙂 Back when I lived in New Zealand, my windows used to look like that in the winter!

    I hope your blog is still around in 10 years when I finally get to settled somewhere and start my dream veggie garden so I can use all your tips. 🙂 Its so interesting learning these things. Your garden looks lovely.

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    1. This post is actually for last year’s garden (it’s a re-post). Everything is still pretty much the same, except we’ve had more than adequate rainfall. The rain barrels are still full of water; I’ve used only to water potted plants, which, in triple digit temps, is thrice daily.

      No, Mother Nature is definitely the best way to go! Once I got out of the micro-managing mode, garden yield exploded. Cheers, Hazel! I hope you have a garden of your own soon!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha! I’m really just a crazy, dirty Texas gal. I get far too many sideways glances from folks who watch me load up bags of soil goodies to bring home. What must they think of me? What am I saying? I don’t care. 😀

      I love to think that I inspire people to grow food in their backyards or balconies. If I can do it, surely ANYONE can.

      Liked by 1 person

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