Category Archives: Cover Crops

Continued Planting in the Vegetable Garden (May 14, 2013)

The first week of May brought some warm weather which then turned into rain and very cold weather. Two days ago it was 40 degrees outside (covered the young plants at night over the weekend) and then today it got up to 90. It’s been difficult to predict the weather this month.

Cherry Tomatoes and Ground Cherries are the focus of this new unfenced garden area.

Cherry Tomatoes and Ground Cherries are the focus of this new unfenced garden area.

On May 4th, I weeded a small pie-shaped area by the patio which I am going to refer to as the Nightshade Garden. I planted two varieties of cherry tomatoes there (Sun Gold and Sweetie), three ground cherry plants, and three marigolds. Those plants were purchased as seedlings from the Westside Farmer’s Market. A couple days later, I planted some sunflower seeds there as well (free packet from Metcalfe’s). This garden area is not fenced, but I’m hoping that the rabbits leave it alone. I pulled off the marigold flowers that were on the seedlings to encourage the plants to grow more roots and new branches where it can have more flowers later.

Two weeks ago I had planted cover crops in the Vegetable Garden. The idea was that they would help cover the ground while I didn’t yet have other vegetables planted. It has been working well so far. The cover crops came up on May 9th after a few days of rain. Since then, whenever I want to add seeds or seedlings, I consider if there are patches of soil where the cover crop is sparse and then use that ground, or I just pull a few of the cover crop sprouts to make room.

Vegetable Garden - 20130514Additions to the vegetable garden:
* chives (planted 5/11, plants pulled up by Madelon from the FPL People’s Garden)
* thyme (planted seedlings 5/14, from seeds planted at my son’s gardening party)
* cilantro (planted SSE seeds 5/14)
* broccoli (four seedlings planted 5/6, from Westside Farmer’s Market)
* peas (planted seeds 5/14, Tom Thumb variety from SSE)
* zucchini (planted seeds 5/14, Black Beuty variety from Botanical Interests)
* pepper (planted 5/12, seedling from the Fitchburg Fields Garden Fair plant sale)
* marigolds (planted seedlings 5/6, from Westside Farmer’s Market)
* mystery flower (seedlings from seeds planted at my daughter’s gardening party)

The nasturtium that I planted along with the cover crop doesn’t look like it has come up yet. I’m a little concerned by the color of some of the leaves: the marigolds are too purple and the buckwheat is pale (yellow’ish). There may be a nutrient deficiency, but I haven’t done any soil testing so far. I’ve done a little watering, trying to give the seeds or seedlings a good soak about every 3 days.


Planting in the Vegetable Garden (Early Spring 2013)

April brought chilly weather and showers this year, but this last week some warm and beautiful days finally arrived. I used a hoe to loosen the soil at the top of the vegetable garden. I was happy to see many worms. I’ll chalk that up to our vegetable garden prep last fall and our effort to stay off the soil so it doesn’t get compacted. With opportunistic plants (yes, weeds) quickly making a break for any uncovered soil in the yard, I decided to get some flowers, vegetables, and cover crops in the garden right away. To make this first planting simple and quick, I thought I’d start with mostly cover crops. I can always plant the next vegetables in bare spots or pull some cover crop later for more additions.

My 14'x16' vegetable garden with two 4'x16' beds.

My 14’x16′ vegetable garden with two 4’x16′ beds.

On April 28th, we planted a Victoria rhubarb plant (from the Westside Farmer’s Market) in the south corner of the vegetable garden. I noticed that a garlic bulb that I planted last fall was coming up in the north bed. On April 30th, I planted four Fiesta Mix nasturtium seeds by the garlic, the remainder of the north bed with a cover crop of buckwheat, and the remainder of the southern bed with a cover crop mix of oats and peas. Last fall, I had the same cover crops planted but in the opposite beds. See diagram for plantings.

My vegetable garden goals for this year are to experiment to see what I can grow and to improve the soil. I don’t want to set my expectations high for vigorous plants or a huge harvest, but rather, I want to be pleasantly surprised if anything goes well. I continue to contemplate if the neighbor’s pesticides are in the soil, whether it’s a good time to invest in raised beds, and if we should remove the large blue spruce tree nearby which shades the garden in the late afternoon.

Right now I have the following seedlings and seeds sitting around:

Seedlings under a light in our basement:
• Cherry Roma tomatoes (SSE)
• Five Color Silverbeet swiss chard (SSE)
• Sweet Basil (Organic Burpee Fordhook Collection)

• Hidatsa Red beans (SSE)
• Early Fortune cucumbers (SSE)
• Tom Thumb peas (SSE)
• Aunt Molly’s ground cherry (SSE)
• Cilantro (SSE)
• Rosemary (SSE)
• Marigold (saved from our church’s gardens)
• Early White Vienna kohlrabi (Livingston)
• Sweet Burpless Hybrid cucumber (organic Burpee)
• Sugar Baby watermelon (Seeds of Change organic)

I’ll post updates as the season continues to warm up!

Preparing our Vegetable Garden Soil

We moved into our current house in July 2012, chose a vegetable garden site, and put up a rabbit fence in August. In September, we were thinking about how we could prepare the soil so that it would be deep and loose by the following spring.

Flipping over the compacted sod was hard work. Our son loved trying to help though.

Flipping over the compacted sod was hard work. Our son loved trying to help though.

First, my husband used a spade to remove the grass by flipping the sod onto its back over the 14’x16’ garden area (two 4’x16’ beds and three 2 foot wide aisles on the long sides). The ground was compacted in those areas, so this was hard work (thank you to my husband! I was more suited to working on the rabbit fence). We chopped at the sod to try to break it up, but it looked like it would need something more to loosen up. I didn’t like the idea of a rototiller as it would kill earthworms and microorganisms, mix up soil layers, and cost money to rent. Double digging would have been tough with the soil so hard. And we weren’t ready to invest in raised garden beds and new soil since we wanted to evaluate the garden spot further to see if it would be successful. Yet, the existing soil needed some love that fall to become healthier.

Spreading manure and top soil on the garden beds.

Spreading manure and top soil on the garden beds.

I started thinking about how I could encourage earthworms to make their home in our vegetable garden. A partnership with the local invertebrates seemed like a good deal: they could aerate and enrich the soil and I could add organic matter for them to munch on and keep my feet off the garden beds. Our compost wasn’t ready yet, so I went to Menard’s to find a peace offering to give them. I wasn’t able to find compost there (which would have been ideal), but I did find bags of manure and top soil that were quite cheap. I thought that would provide a soft medium for the worms to crawl around in, so I filled the trunk of our car with about 20 large bags. Spreading the manure and top soil over the two 4’x16’ garden beds didn’t go very far, but it was a good start.

Buckwheat (far bed) and oats and peas (close bed) being chopped into the soil six weeks after the seeds were sown.

Buckwheat (far bed) and oats and peas (close bed) being chopped into the soil six weeks after the seeds were sown.

Next, I decided that the earthworms might enjoy some cover crops, which would also keep the number of weeds down, fix some nitrogen, and help break up the soil. I planted seeds for buckwheat in the south bed and oats and peas in the north bed and then set up a sprinkler to water the area each morning. September 1st was a bit late in the season for planting, but I hoped I would get something before the frosts came. Two weeks after sowing, the cover crops were several inches tall. I was pleased to see this because the garden site only gets about 5 hours of sun each day. They continued to grow, and by mid-October, it seemed time to incorporate them into the soil for worm food. I was disappointed to find that the plants’ roots were tiny. I believe this was due to the fact that the ground was so hard and I watered frequently in September.

My peace offering to the worms still didn’t feel complete. Once the cover crops were done, I added autumn leaves on top of the garden beds. They packed down a bit from rainfall, but I mixed some of them into the topsoil (the kids were impatient so I didn’t do this very well) and left some leaves on top. I believed that the leaves would add warmth to the soil and encourage worm activity, decomposition, and moisture over the rest of fall and into next spring. We had some leftover straw in the garage, so I added that on top of the leaves as well. Like the manure and top soil, a large bag didn’t go very far over the 128 square feet of garden area. Did the worms like my peace offering?

Our vegetable garden disappeared for 4 months during a snowy Wisconsin winter.

Our vegetable garden disappeared for 4 months during a snowy Wisconsin winter.

We received a lot of snow over the winter and the vegetable garden and rabbit fence disappeared for 4 months. It’s now April and the last of the snow has melted. I raked the leaves back from over the garden beds onto the aisles so the sun could worm the soil. I hope the leaves in the aisles don’t retain too much moisture and encourage slugs and snails. I noticed that there are still chunks of sod which we weren’t able to break up, so I worry that the soil hasn’t gotten any looser. But there is hope: I tried pushing a bird feeder crook into the yard around the house and couldn’t get it to budge into the hard ground. However, when I pushed it into my garden bed, it slid in effortlessly.

As the ground warms up further, I will continue to evaluate and look for ways to improve the soil in these vegetable garden beds. I will try some vegetable crops this spring and also add more cover crops. If the vegetables are successful, I will be more willing to invest in raised beds, better soil (such as Mel’s Mix from the “All New Square Foot Gardening” book), and the removal of a large blue spruce tree that shades the garden in the afternoon. Our vegetable garden has only begun, but so far, I am enjoying the process of making the soil healthier and looking forward to seeing what we’ll be able to grow.