With the temperatures stuck in the 90s and this year's vegetable garden petering out, it's hard to think about replanting next spring. But in fact, work we do in the garden over the next month or so will make a difference in how our vegetable crops fare next time around.
What's more, if we get into the habit of laboring in the garden after each season has ended, we can produce long-term changes in their productivity.
The suggestion that vegetable gardeners get out the tiller and other garden tools this time of year probably will have a few readers rolling their eyes. It's one thing to work a garden in spring, in anticipation of a new growing season, and quite another to roll up your sleeves at the end of the summer simply to put the garden to bed for the winter. But that's exactly what I'm advocating.
Now is the best time to feed a garden. In this part of the country, the soil in most gardens that aren't located in a river bottom area has poor texture and is low in nutrients. The easiest way to fix that is to till or dig organic matter into the garden. But this generally cannot be done at the beginning of the growing season.
Most of the soil amendments we place on a vegetable garden, such as composted vegetable matter and aged livestock manure, can be high in nitrogen content. Particularly in the case of rotted manure, it's best to apply in the garden in late summer or early fall, till it under and allow it to decompose further over the winter - in the soil.
It's important to spread rotted manure or any soil amendment evenly over the surface of the garden. I remember one year when we shoveled aged horse manure out of a truck, over the garden fence and into a nice, big, steamy pile. From there I distributed the manure throughout the garden, but the area where the pile had been was hotter, in terms of nitrogen content, than the rest of the garden. I later planted sweet corn there, and the stalks that emerged from the hot soil towered over the corn that grew just a few feet away.
The best way to improve the soil structure is to add vegetable matter that is at least partially composted. One of my Rodale garden guides suggests adding one inch per year. Grass clippings, weeds (prior to going to seed) and kitchen compost decompose quickly, particularly if they get a head start in the compost pile. In six months, these amendments will be almost fully decayed. At that point, they become humus, which is rich in nutrients and the micro-organisms that are the hallmarks of healthy soil.
Although I have applied rotted livestock manure to my garden, I have learned a few lessons along the way. While the sweet corn loved growing in highly fertilized soil, other crops, such as tomatoes, didn't. If you overdo it, you'll hurt your plants more than you'll help them. For best results, make sure the livestock manure is at least two years old before you spread it on your garden.
Also, some weed seeds can be slow to decompose, and horse manure in particular is usually loaded with them. Remember that whatever the horse eats is going on your garden. The first time I applied horse manure, I also planted cocklebur.
Many gardeners till under their crops when they are done and allow them to decompose in the soil. This is a good idea if the plants are not diseased. To speed up decay of healthy but spent vegetable plants, it's a good idea to shred them before tilling them under. Running over them with a lawn mower will do the trick.
Two short sentences were missing from the instructions for the carrot cake recipe in last week's column. The missing sentences are in parentheses below.
Cream the butter and then cream in the sugar until very light and fluffy. Add the spices and grated orange rind and beat. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat well. (Stir in the carrots and the nuts. Sift the dry ingredients and add with the water.) Do not beat when adding the flour, but rather fold in just until it is moistened well. If using an electric mixer, so this on the lowest speed. Turn into a greased and floured or greased paper-lined pan 11-by-15-by-2 inches, or into three 8- or 9-inch pans. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven about 25 minutes for layers or 30 to 40 for a sheet cake; the cake is done if it springs back when pressed lightly in the center. Cool for a few minutes, then loosen from the sides of the pan, and turn it out onto a cake rack to cool.