Sunday, February 10, 2013

Soil Maintenance in Raised Beds

Waiting for chickens
             Being a serious gardener is not about growing the purple-podded peas and heirloom tomatoes, searching the catalogs for new and exciting varieties of potatoes. It’s not about new and fancy gadgets, or garden art and colored flower cages. It’s not even about planting your own starts on a rainy day, slipping them into the ground under the cloche just before the hail sets in. Being a serious gardener is about maintaining the soil. And it is not easy, nor for the faint of heart.
            A few years ago, veggie boxes were all the rage in Corvallis. I’d see them out on my evening walks—a raised bed, four by six feet, filled with Fertile Mix and one tomato, a six-pack of lettuce, two types of basil, and some strawberry plants. Nothing wrong with that—it is how we all start out. All summer, the gardeners watered and harvested and bragged. “We have so many tomatoes we can’t eat them all!”  The neighbors benefited and were inspired to plant their own boxes. And so it went down the street. But, there is a small snag in the process; one I discovered myself my second year of gardening. Fertile Mix is fertile…for the first year. The second year, all of the soil nitrogen is bound up breaking down the woody debris and plants don’t grow. They sit there in the bed, tiny and yellow.  I saw this pattern everywhere. Discouraged gardeners stopped watering. Strawberry plants shriveled. The soil compacted. By year three, the frame sat, half empty and full of dust.  People renewed their CSA subscriptions and returned to the grocery and farmer’s markets.
Chicken Tractor
            We hit the same snag and bought chickens. The chicken coop sat on the garden beds and I tossed the soiled straw down from the perch and nest box, a perfect blend of nitrogen and organic matter. It was Transformative.  Sunflowers grew eight feet high. No more yellow plants! Fewer slugs and pill bugs!  The next year, I began hauling in the leaves off the street in the fall and piling them onto the beds as well. Over the winter, they slowly rotted down, adding to the organic matter in the soil. The next year, I realized that, if I gave the bed a light turning right after the chickens moved on, the soil biology came into contact with the fresh organic matter more quickly and facilitated aerobic decomposition, which was much faster. So, now, this is the system, starting in early October:

·        Pile leaves on every bed.
·        Place the chicken tractor on  the first empty bed.
·        Toss down straw and poop every week.
·        Move the coop about every three weeks.
·        Turn the bed lightly after the coop has been moved.
·        Add ash from the fireplace whenever possible.
·        Plant in the rough bed, usually under a cold frame in the spring.
·         Toss a handful of Bio-fish in with every plant.
·        Mulch with straw or more leaves in the summer, after the hoses are down.

Post Chicken Tractor
If I did not have chickens, I’d still use leaves in the Sunbow system, where we pile them around young plants right after weeding, as summer mulch. But chickens do make the system work better.

Black Bean Chili—the perfect potluck food

Starting in the morning, toss about six cups of black beans (ours are locally raised), and adobe pepper, and several garlic cloves into the crockpot. Cover with water and cook all day.  The long slow cooking is essential to the flavor of the beans!

About an hour before guests arrive, sauté a large onion, a red pepper, and some carrots in a frying pan. Add salt, basil, oregano, and chili powder—and some more garlic to the mix. When the onion is soft, add to the beans.  You can add other veggies too, like frozen corn, but purity can be lovely.

Serve with warm cornbread. Everyone else can bring the salad!
Lightly turned

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