Okay. We’re bad. Maybe even a little lazy.
Most all of the information you’ll find about raised bed gardening will instruct you to clean out your beds each fall before they freeze and are covered with snow.
But, if you’re like us, by the time late October comes around, you pretty much don’t want be in the garden again until next spring – if ever. After having sowed, thinned, weeded, watered, harvested, shelled, peeled, husked, canned, and frozen your crops during every spare minute for the last eight months, you could care less if the wilted beanstalks are left alone to endure the winter uncomposted. Unless a crop was particularly affected by a fungus or nematode, we just let it collapse on itself.
And you know what? We don’t think it really matters come spring. (Don’t tell the experts.)While the idea of a completely denuded and prone bed might be a sexy springtime fantasy for gardeners, we like the experiment of seeing how winter affected the beds. This year we even found kale and spinach still growing. Who’d have predicted our first harvest already?
One of the biggest questions facing a gardener is the phrase “as soon as the soil can be worked.” That’s a little vague. When desperate enough for spring, an avid gardener could feasibly work the soil with an icepick in January. But that doesn’t mean it’s ready.
We prefer the “chocolate cake” test. When a handful of soil feels and looks more like crumbly chocolate cake than either an icecube or mud pie, it’s ready. If you work the soil when it’s too wet, you’ll risk losing all of its natural air pockets and your seeds will suffocate and rot.
We aggressively amend our beds each year. In early spring, Farmer John starts removing the winter goat bedding from the barn, and depositing it in the beds. The mixture is about 50% straw and 50% manure. (note: unlike most manures, goat manure doesn’t need to be composted before adding to the garden.)
Many gardeners are now trying a “no-till” approach to soil preparation. They feel that tilling destroys the soil’s natural structure. Which, to be fair, it probably does to a certain extent. But we believe that the straw in our winter compost mixture helps keep adequate aeration in the soil when we lightly till it under. Plus, we simply like the satisfaction we get from roto-tilling. (We use this small handheld one in our beds.)
And having nice, evenly-raked soil makes planting seeds that much more uniform. And even though we might be a little lazy come fall, in the spring we’re full of perfectionist vigor.