Garden beds need some TLC as the fall comes to a close? Let John Wickman, owner of Native Roots, tell you how to tuck them in for the winter.
Everything’s been harvested, my beds are bare. Now what?Till it up. One of the keys to insect control is to till it up in the fall, because if you leave the leaf litter on the surface, the insects can overwinter in that. If you till them under, there’re other organisms and predators in the soil that control them for you. I like to go in and till after the first frost and then till it again a few weeks later. Cleanliness is the main thing to keep your garden over the winter.
What does tilling do for the soil?Around here, we tend to run high pH, which is a measure of alkalinity, and this time of year, tilling the vegetative materials goes a long way to balancing the pH because you add organic matter. Sulfur should be added in the fall – if it needs to be added – because it has to interact chemically with the microbes in the soil to produce sulfate, which then lowers the pH. If you put it on in the spring, the process is too slow to get going and you really don’t get the interaction with the sulfur that you need.
What about if you’re planning a new garden?If you’re planning a new garden and need organic matter, now’s a good time to put that in. Compost, manure, leaf litter – all that needs to go in during the fall so that it has time to react biologically. Decomposition is a biological process, but there’s a lot of chemical processes that go on, and even bacterial processes that go on. Going from sulfur to sulfate is driven by bacteria. That all occurs in fairly warm soil. This time of year, the soil temperature is still in the low-50s, which means that you’re still getting a lot of biotic activity. Once the ground gets too cold and freezes, then that all stops. During the spring, as it’s warming up, it takes a while for that biological activity to get going. That’s why doing it now is ideal.
How much organic matter does a bed need?Ideally, you want to strive for about 10 percent organic matter in a garden. You can get a soil test done by the Colorado State Extension Service – they’ve got an office at the Fairgrounds – and they’ll tell you nitrogen levels, phosphorus levels, potassium levels. Those are known as the “NPK.” They’ll give you organic matter levels, salts, and provide you with all sorts of interesting data. From there, it becomes a matter of mathematics.
What about looking toward next year?
Before you plant, you ought to have a soil test done and get the analysis on nutrients. In the fall, you really don’t want to add nutrients because if we have a wet winter, they’ll leech out. So in the spring, you want to know what your crops are – whether they’re leafy vegetables or fruit-producing vegetables like peppers and tomatoes – and then you want to add nutrient according to your soil analysis. A lot of people will come in and say, “Well, I think I need nitrogen.” Nitrogen is pretty expensive, especially organic nitrogen, and I ask them, “Well, how much do you need?” and they tell me that they have no idea. Well, I don’t either! Without a soil test, you can’t know. A lot of times in our soil, because it’s so alkaline, plants will go yellow even though they have adequate nitrogen. The problem usually is that the pH is too high. You could put nitrogen on them all summer long and they’d still be yellow. That’s where a soil test can prove really helpful. Rather than spend $50 on nitrogen, you could spend $25 on a soil test and then spend $5 on sulfur and save yourself $20. We stress soil testing for exactly that reason. All the nutrient in the world won’t improve plant growth if the rest of the chemistry is incorrect. Salts are another problem. You can have high salts, and the only way to get rid of them is to add water – good water, clean water. If you add well water from the salty ground, you’ll only get saltier soil.
What do you enjoy most about gardening? The problem solving?To me, growing plants is easy. I’ve been doing it for almost 40 years now. The challenge is the pest control, the soils. Soils are fascinating, and they’re different. Even here, this garden plot is different than that garden plot and they’re 10 feet away. They vary greatly in small geographic areas. That variation is dictated by history and what’s been grown in them historically, whether they’ve ever been fertilized – it’s just a fascinating field. And every year is different. Weather is different, pests are different, it’s all fascinating.
Cyle Talley is WHO CARES?! THE CUBS ARE IN THE WORLD SERIES!!! If there’s anything you’d like to GET SMART about, email him at: [email protected]