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Marin IJ Articles

Feeding the garden that feeds you

  • Marie Narlock
  • If your vegetable garden could talk, it would probably yawn and tell you how tired it is. It takes significant energy and nutrients to crank out big buds of broccoli and 6-foot towers of tomatoes. To successfully grow edibles year after year, it’s imperative that you feed the depleted soil to replenish the nutrients that were gobbled up last season. Question is, how?

    For some the answer is to buy a box of fertilizer and sprinkle generously. This, however, is a short-term answer to a long-term problem. Synthetic fertilizers do nothing for the structure of your soil. Furthermore, you need to be careful when you use them. Improper use can pollute our waterways, and even lead to soil nutrient imbalances. It’s sort of like eating a lousy diet but loading up on vitamins. Definitely not your best strategy!

    You’ll know your garden is ready for planting when you can effortlessly sink a shovel into the soil, which is dark, crumbly, weed-free, and teeming with earthworms. If you pick up a damp clump and work it between your fingers, it neither falls apart nor turns into a rock-hard ball. If this is you, congratulations. Feel free to gloat.

    If you’re like the rest of us mortals, you have some work to do before you sow the first row of carrots. Here’s how to give your soil what it needs now so that it’s poised to crank out produce by the pound.

    The first order of business is to clear all weeds. Weeds suck up nutrients and water that your (future) vegetables want and need. Plus, let’s face it, they’re ugly. While you’re at it, be sure to clear out any remnants of last year’s veggie garden, even those last rogue underground potatoes.

    Once your beds are cleared, it’s time for the most critical step adding organic material. Compost is about the best thing you can add to your soil for two reasons: as it decomposes it releases nutrients, and it improves soil’s water- and nutrient-holding capacity. Layer it on top of your beds, turn it in, apply liberally and often, and let the rain (hopefully there is some) soak it in. Seriously, it’s hard to overdo it.

    Another effective way to add organic material is by growing a cover crop. Also called green manure, these legumes and grasses are grown for the specific purpose of enhancing soil, smothering weeds and warding off unwelcomed pests. Cover crops, including clover, rye, fava beans, and vetch, are often grown in the fall and winter and chopped up and turned into the soil before spring planting. They add a mighty boost of organic material.

    Once you’ve added organic material to your weed-free veggie beds, you are just about there. The only missing ingredients are a drip irrigation system and a blanket of mulch on top to keep your soil warm and happy. Get your hands on a good planting calendar and follow it. (You can find one on the Marin Master Gardener website at marinmg.org and click on the link growing edibles). Knowing when to plant (or not) makes all the difference. There’s a reason why corn doesn’t sprout in February and planting tomatoes before May usually leads to frustration. Don’t ask your garden to do the impossible, because you will be sorely disappointed.

    Now, here’s the key: you need to repeat this process every year, preferably starting in the fall when your warm season crops (tomatoes, squash, beans, eggplant, etc.) are petering out. There are many types of low maintenance gardens, but edibles are not among them. Vegetable gardens take work, but the rewards are delicious.