It's that time at our house... the time when I take a look at my bedraggled garden, the one that I fully intended to carefully put to bed last fall (but didn't), and dig in. Sort of - it's kind of frozen here, so the amount of digging is a little iffy. But that doesn't mean there isn't a lot to be done, so if you find yourself in a similar situation here's my order of operations:
- Finally cut down and/or remove any detritus left from the fall. In my case this means sunflower and corn stalks, kale from last spring that grew so enormously that it finally fell over and while sort of growing isn't really productive, the tomato cages that are trying to permanently weld themselves to the ground - etc.
- I grow in beds with paths between them - sort of like raised beds, but without the fancy raised sides. This time of year, it's time to reassert what is a path and what is a bed. The paths are covered in wood chips, with landscape fabric or something similar beneath. By the end of the fall the weeds are always winning the battle with the weed barrier so during the winter I need to get back to a good baseline of path vs bed. This year I'm doing something a little different - I've been saving the horse feed bags and am going to line the paths with these instead of landscape fabric. They are a woven plastic material, so they'll certainly be a good weed barrier, but they may not be a great base for the wood chips. They are slightly thick and I can see them turning into a wood chip water slide in a heavy rain storm - but the idea of recycling the bags like this is too appealing for me not to give it a try, so I'll report back. Worst case - the wood chips wash to the bottom of the path (my beds are on a slope), and then I lay down a different weed barrier and spread them back out. It's a chance I'll take. And speaking of wood chips - these are all from some trees we had taken down last summer, so I've got a big supply of organic wood chips, which is a nice bonus.
- Once the paths are reasserted it's time to get the beds back in order. I'm a big fan of no-till gardening. (A) I'm lazy, and (B) I like the idea of not disturbing all of the soil layers. So I'm going to sheet mulch with cardboard, and cover the cardboard with compost, and then my growing surface is ready. Once my seedlings are a few inches high I start mulching with straw, and then weeds aren't too big of an issue. Full disclosure - once my plants are robust I will mulch *very aggressively* with straw, which basically solves your weed problems. And then breaks down and puts more organic matter into the garden, which is a win.
- As far as the compost I'm using - I'd love to say that I'm a master composter, but that would not be quite the truth. We do compost our kitchen scraps, and that finished compost ends up in the garden, but it's not enough volume to provide for the whole garden. I also have quite a bit of barn waste from the horse, but I don't compost it in a fashion that would make it appropriate for growing vegetables. Instead I designate one bed a year as the repository for all barn waste, and it lies fallow while I pile it full of barn waste. Then it's sheet mulched and the following year I might grow flowers in that bed, or let it stew for another year, and then after a couple of years it'll be in regular production for whatever I feel like growing. Basically the lazy way to integrate barn waste into the garden. As for the compost - there are a few commercial operations selling finished compost in Asheville, so that's what I do for the beds that are going to be used that year. Safe, and fairly easy.
Good luck getting your garden in order... and know that it means real sunshine and fun growing time is right around the corner. If you've got any questions feel free to drop them in the comments and I'll be happy to see if I can answer them. :)