Sunday, October 26, 2008

Frugal tips for the autumn garden

With 40mph winds whipping around my house and a temperature of 48 degrees Fahrenheit, it was quite chilly outside today. The sun was shining, which helps, but it definitely felt cooler than autumn. However, all the planted areas around the house need to be put to bed for the winter. This is not cheap since using mulch and compost to ensure the plants make it through the colder part of the year and prepare your garden for spring planting can get pricey, depending on how large an area you need to cover. For the frugal gardener, casting your eye around the yard can yield dividends for both your garden and your wallet.

Save those leaves.
Not only is raking the leaves fallen from your trees a great excuse to be outside but it is good exercise too. Leaves are great material to add to your compost pile (you have started one right), or shred and use as mulch around trees. If you have a bagging lawnmower, it is easy to mow the lawn with dry leaves on top of the grass and collect the shredded material. Otherwise, try putting the raked leaves in a trash can and using a trimmer to shred them into pieces. Leaf pieces tend not to blow away like intact leaves and allow moisture to reach the plant roots below.

Or you can make your old leaf mold mulch. Just bag the leaves in plastic, water them well and let them sit over the winter. Alternatively, pile the leaves in a corner of your yard, water well and cover with a tarp. Either way, fungus will begin to break down the leaves and give you with a great cover for the garden in spring. Leaf mold greatly improves the structure and water-holding capacity of soil, and worms love it too.

If you do not have trees or do not have enough leaves, raid your neighbor's piles. In urban and suburban areas, people conveniently place piles of leaves curbside for collection. Just take what you want and use the leaves at your own place. Be careful what leaves you take as black walnut leaves can harm more plants than it helps.

Clean up garden beds.
You know those tomato plants that gave you some nice fruit but are looking a bit awful now? Just cut them off at the level of the soil, chop them up and add to your composter. Most green material in the garden can either be left in place or thrown on the compost heap. Be cautious where the left-in-place material is used. If you are rotating crops, do not use the brassica greens where you intent to plant them next year. Leaving in place or adding to the composter will allow you to return the nutrients to the soil, which means healthy plants during growing season.

Regardless how the above-ground greens are handled, leave the roots of the plants in place. They not only keep the soil aerated, but also may hold nitrogen. Beans and peas are among the plants that do so and fixation happens at the roots. By pulling out the roots, the nitrogen is lost to the greens planted the next year. Having nitrogen available is important for heavy nitrogen-using plants like corn.

Add compost to vegetable garden beds.
Your hard-working compost bin or heap has probably broken down a good portion of your contributions from the beginning of the year. Spread this black gold on top of the newly emptied garden bed to give the soil a nutrient boost before planting occurs in the spring. If you have just started a compost pile, you likely will have to wait another year or so, depending on how active the pile is. My composter is pretty slow so I have just started shoveling out compost from a bin started in 2006. If you are like me and suffer from a lack of material, ask people at work to give you banana peels, coffee grounds or other compostable material. Mix these with the leaves you are composting and see what you have in the spring.

By looking what you have in your yard, you can find enough material to product mulch and compost for your garden beds. Again, supplement judiciously as needed by finding a source of leaves or organic matter if you cannot produce enough. By using what you have and being self-sufficient, you will have no need to visit those expensive garden stores for plastic bags of compost and mulch. Happy gardening!

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