Thursday, October 1, 2015

October: When fertilizer falls from the sky

October is the most important gardening month.

This statement may seem strange, as we typically think of this time of year as a transition from an active summer to a restful autumn. We consider May, when we are busily planting the majority of our crops, as the key gardening season.

But for a Microbe Rich gardener, October is crucial, for this month is when fertilizer falls from the sky. With piles of leaves, we build our garden beds to create the healthy soil ecosystem that will make for seamless spring planting. Decaying leaves contribute to garden fertility and provide food for beneficial microorganisms, which unlock nutrients in the soil for plants to uptake.
Photo of M R Gardens, October 2013, by Vickie Burick

Leaves are the main ingredients in the "layer cake" of a Microbe Rich garden. The goal is to create an ecosystem for beneficial microbes to thrive in the soil, and leaves host these beneficial microorganisms. The wider variety of leaf types the better, as an array of leaf species promotes a high diversity of microbes.

To compare Microbe Rich method to a compost heap, leaves are a carbon layer while manure is a nitrogen layer. The exact ingredients and quantities of the layer cake vary depending on the consistency of the existing soil and the vegetation that will be planted. Following is the recipe I usually use if I'm starting a vegetable garden on an existing lawn in red clay soil common to the Southern Appalachian Mountains.

I first lay out at least one sheet of cardboard on top of the grass. I then spread a sizable layer, at least three inches, of compost such as manure (free of weed seed) or mushroom compost on top of the cardboard. Over that goes an even larger layer, at least six inches, of leaves.

This layer cake bakes at cool winter temperatures for a minimum of three months, preferably four. In spring, the cake is "done"—or at least finished enough to be planted for the first time. I then use a digging fork to marry, or intertwine, the layers. I fork it gently, just lifting the soil so that the black layer sifts gently into the red layer. I do not turn and I do not till. I simply assist nature in doing its work. Nature knows how to rebuild topsoil far better than I do, so I don't want to disrupt the soil layers that are forming.

If herbaceous mulch, which could be leaves, grass clippings or cover crops, is always kept on the bed, then the soil ecosystem will only improve with time. In red clay soil, I also add on a yearly basis a thin layer (usually about one inch) of compost to help keep the consistency of the soil similar to loam.

Photo at M R Gardens, by Vickie Burick

I never walk in the beds, only in the pathways around them. That way the soil is not compacted and the tilth, or structure, stays intact. I also maintain a three-inch path around the perimeter of the garden to keep weeds from encroaching into the beds.

Ideally I have an area equal in size to the vegetable garden planted in beneficial flowers, particularly those in the dill and aster families. The flowers attract a large population of predators such as parasitic wasps to keep garden pests under control. My aim is to create an ecosystem rather than just a vegetable garden.

I highly recommend the Microbe Rich method, but keep in mind the limitations to learning how to garden by reading—details get lost in translation and only so much can be explained on paper. That's why I recommend hiring a garden coach to give hands-on help with new endeavors such as this one.

To really grasp them, some activities require someone by your side, and gardening is one of them. With garden coaching, I create a tangible memory for the clients as their senses are fully engaged. The knowledge becomes engrained rather than remaining information on a sheet of paper. Therefore they can more easily remember what to do the next time they are in the garden by themselves.

Beginner gardeners often cannot foresee pitfalls. By hiring a garden coach, clients are not only working with someone educated in the field, but also with someone with years of experience—and that means years of mistakes. While blunders have their value, as they help us learn, personally I am tired of spending time and money on them. So now I can sniff one out a mile away. I walk the line of allowing enough room for my clients to experiment, but also suggesting an alternative route when experience tells me they won't get the outcome they desire.

It is possible to garden for a lifetime and still learn until our last breath, especially with ecological and edible gardening. So at some point our hardwired intuition becomes our most useful tool. I consider it my job to uncover the hidden gardener that is in almost all of us—helping clients tap into their intuition deep within, while also steering their creativity so that it contributes to the project rather than deters it.

With a garden coach, you are paying for much more than labor, although that's certainly a bonus. You are getting a private lesson, a mentor, and a support system as you transition into a new lifestyle of eating high quality food grown on your own land in a healthy ecosystem.

This article was originally printed in WNC Woman's October issue.