Applying mindful laziness to your fall garden clean-up
I’m a lazy gardener. I don’t pull weeds. I don’t harvest the kale and lettuce that’s going to seed. I don’t till the plot where I’m planning on planting fall vegetables. That’s too much work, it’s way too hot, and, besides, the bees enjoy the weeds and kale flowers, and my chickens will gladly do the tilling for me.
Despite being lazy in some respects, I put a lot of thought and planning into my garden. I’m not doing nothing, I’m working towards doing nothing. Do-nothing farming is an idea put into practice by Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka, who grew rice by scattering seeds in straw mulch, and filled his mandarin orchard with perennial and self-seeding vegetables. He never tilled or used chemical fertilizers, and instead let nature guide his farming practices. Transitioning from gardening to farming, reading every book on the topic I could get from my library, I found that Fukuoka’s The One-Straw Revolution spoke to me the most. Why sweat in the hot fields pruning tomatoes, or pushing a heavy, stinky, polluting rototiller, when I can sit in the shade under my cherry trees drinking homemade dandelion beer?
I apply lazy gardening techniques to my fall garden. Starting in early August, after the garlic is harvested, I move my chickens onto those now-empty plots, where they quickly get to work weeding, fertilizing, tilling, and eating up ants and slugs. (Since I got backyard chickens three years ago, my garden has never had fewer pests). Then, two or three weeks later, I move the birds somewhere else. (We use hardware cloth and broken hockey sticks for a simple – and truly Canadian – portable fence system). Then I start prepping the beds for fall crops.
Depending on how compacted the soil is, I may broadfork the plot, then I’ll layer composted chicken manure and municipal compost. Like Fukuoka, I’ll scatter seeds, gently rake them in, add straw and seaweed mulch, then water. In amongst the emerging seeds, I transplant fall and winter crops like kale, collards, and beets, which I have seeded in soil blocks around the time I harvested the garlic. Soil blocks are the lazy gardener’s friend – no plastic, no garbage, just a square of soil ready to be popped into the ground. Just before freeze-up in December, I put hoops in the ground, cover it all in plastic, and – voilà – instant greenhouse for four-season growing!
In some parts of the 6,000-square-foot yard around my company house in New Waterford, N.S., the food grows by itself. By fall, the kale and lettuce I’ve let go to seed (which fed my honeybees throughout July) have started to dry and fall over. Though I collect and save seeds, I prefer to let the seeds plant themselves. I’ll throw manure and compost on top of my “perpetual kale yard,” and just let the kale grow back on its own. The kale tends to move around, in part thanks to the chickens. Carol Deppe, in The Tao of Vegetable Gardening, advises that the only plants that really need to be rotated each year are tomatoes and other nightshades, so I don’t worry too much about rotating my other crops.
As a four-season grower, I don’t really put my garden to bed for winter, but rather tuck it in. Instead of ripping up spent plants, I leave them in the soil to break down naturally; that way, as Fukuoka suggests, the nutrients those plants took from the soil go right back into the soil. The plants also add extra protection from winter erosion. The only time I ripped up plants was the year my beans got blight. It broke my heart to put something biodegradable into the trash, but thanks to better soil management, it never happened again. My summer and winter squash almost always turn grey from powdery mildew, which in our Maritime climate is unavoidable. I compost my squash vines and tomato plants only because, by fall, I’m tired of tripping over them. I snip the plants at the base of the stem, and leave the roots in the soil to rot – again, to add back nutrients. Everything else, I leave in the garden.
Fall is all about mulch – the blanket I use to tuck in my crops. The cheaper the mulch, the better. On Nov. 1, I place an ad on Kijiji looking for straw and hay bales used as Hallowe’en decorations. People text me their address and the location of said bales, then off I go to pick them up. The hay bales insulate my vegetables; the straw bales I use around the chicken coop and on top of my garlic beds. (A word of caution: don’t let your chickens get at the hay, as they could develop crop impaction problems.) No worries about introducing new seeds to my garden; the chickens take care of those. This past spring I planted zucchini and cucumbers in the leftover, rotting bales, and so far the squash seem to love it.
Fall leaves are another favourite mulch. On my bale collection rounds I also pick up bagged leaves. How nice of my neighbours to do all that raking for me! Last fall I dragged home two giant bags of leaves from a Sydney cemetery, and they contained bonus apples that the chickens enjoyed.
My favourite mulch has got to be seaweed – something coastal gardeners have used to build and amend their soil for centuries. Irish farmers with rocky land planted their potatoes directly in seaweed. Seaweed is full of nutrients that plants love. Late last November, after I’d planted my garlic, I mulched the beds with a layer of seaweed, then a layer of straw. The mulch was so thick that, once the ground froze, the chickens could free-range over the beds without damaging the garlic underneath. I had to loosen the seaweed come spring – it was a bit too much for the garlic to poke through – but the bulbs I harvested this year were huge!
When a rogue pattypan sprouted in my garden last year, producing pounds and pounds of squash, my search for an easy, lazy method of preserving led to my newest passion: fermenting. No boiling, no hot-water baths; just chop, salt, toss in a crock, weigh it down, and wait. A week or so later, I’d produced almost five gallons of a unique fermented spread that tasted great on pizza. This year, with all the heat we’ve gotten, I have a bumper crop of basil and hot peppers, so I’m looking forward to making fermented hot sauces and pesto – which I’ll get to, eventually. The fall sunshine has got me feeling lazy, and I’ve got another glass of dandelion beer to finish.