Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Thistletown Collegiate September Update: Simple fall gardening techniques to boost harvests

Thistletown Collegiate September Update 
Simple fall gardening techniques to boost harvests 

Don't we all like having easy access to an abundance of healthful food?  Don't we all want our friends, families, neighbours, and community members to have easy access as well?

One of the key aims of the schoolyard garden at Thistletown Collegiate is to support education about food gardening as well as improved community access to organic fruits and vegetables.

And, despite having a colder summer this year, the schoolyard garden continued to provide excellent harvests of a variety of fruits and vegetables including tomatoes, beans, squashes, and eggplants throughout the month of September.  


Crookneck Zucchini


The produce was distributed throughout the community through local partner organizations offering food programing, as well as at lunch and after school market stands at TCI.  The culinary program has also been putting all of those harvests to excellent use in cooking classes, fundraiser activities, and daily meals shared with the entire school community in the cafeteria at lunch.

Some of the amazing salsas prepared by the TCI culinary arts program as part of their fundraising efforts as they prepare for a ten day culinary tour of Spain and France in 2015.  These delicious products have been so popular they're selling out and making more day after day.    
As always, our heartfelt gratitude and thanks goes out to the whole school community and the many dedicated volunteers and supporters who have helped produce and share amongst the neighborhood an abundance of fresh food.  With the support of many gracious helpers, we had already harvest over 2000 lbs. of produce by the end of September! We will be continuing our efforts throughout October, and look forward to many more plentiful harvests.

Still, despite all of the copious amounts of produce waiting to be harvested, we are well aware that the end of the farming season is drawing closer and the important beginning steps for putting the garden to rest over the cold winter months are started.  A variety of simple but important growing techniques have been practiced during September to ensure our garden supports a continued abundance of fruits and vegetables, as well as a thriving and diverse ecosystem, in the years to come.  Improving and maintaining superb soil quality is always a central focus at the TCI garden, and this is especially important as we transition from the warm, sunny days of summer to the cool, wet days of autumn and the frigid winter not far away.  

Two key permaculture techniques for fall garden maintenance are cover cropping and sheet mulching. 

Cover cropping builds soil quality through a number of different processes.  At the heart of this technique is the establishment of a dense cover of plants.  This thick planting prevents erosion by shielding soil from falling rain and gusting winds, provides a thick humus litter on the surface in autumn and winter, shades and smothers undesired plants/weeds, stimulates subterranean growth (i.e. growth of roots and mycelium) by loosening and carving channels into the earth, accumulates nutrients in the top soil and on the soil surface, provides habitat for diverse micro- and macro-organisms, and adds organic matter below the soil surface. Cover cropping provides all of these multiple functions towards improving the harvest yields and soil quality, and best of all, is very light on labour. 

In order to maximize achievements of cover cropping, it is generally best to use a mix of different plants in the cover crop mix (e.g., peas, grasses, clovers, beans, mustards, radishes, vetches, buckwheat).
At the TCI schoolyard garden cool weather cover cropping seeds were thickly broadcast over beds this September as space was cleared following the harvesting of vegetable crops and/or as foliage dropped off exposing pockets of soil to greater amounts of sunlight and warmth.  We gathered up bags and bags of grass clippings from around the school property, and then thinly spread on top of the broadcast seeds to help them germinate and grow.

Cover cropping is fantastic for the limited time commitment required to practice this method.  Just throw out some seeds, then watch them grow! 

Pea plants sprouting in soil now exposed to sunlight under the black kale plants.  Peas are quite cold hardy and, as with other legumes, are well known for increasing bioavailable nitrogen in the soil through symbiotic relationships with soil bacterium.
Although not as cold hardy as peas, red and white clover are also excellent nitrogen-fixing plants.

Mixes of red and white clovers are included in this bed as a cover crop around black currant bushes . 

In these photos, corn and squash vines can be seen growing together. With the arrival of colder weather, the soil was exposed to sunlight; pea seeds were simply broadcast on the surface of garden beds as foliage began to die off.  
Strawberry plants also provide an excellent ground cover protecting soil throughout the cold winter months.  Swiss chard can be seen intercropped with strawberries in this photo.  Beans and onions also make good companion plants that can be added into strawberry patches.
Borage (larger leaves in photo on right), buckwheat, and vetch growing together as a ground cover crop.

Tomato plants with basil, dandelion, buckwheat, borage, and vetch as a ground cover crop.
Beets with coriander, buckwheat, and vetch. 
Swiss chard with daikon radish.
Sheet mulching is a significantly more labour intensive process of building soil quality, but is also simple and incredibly effective.  The two basic principles of sheet mulching is, firstly, smother out undesired weeds (using newspaper or cardboard) and, secondly, add organic material to the soil surface (e.g. straw, spoiled hay, yard waste, leaves, wood chips/shavings/bark, compost, manure, etc).  Adding organic matter to garden beds using this technique helps conserve water, keeps soil cool on hot days, suppresses growth of undesired plants, encourages thriving soil ecosystems, and improves soil texture and nutrient availability.  As sheet mulch heaps aged for 6 or more months are much more productive than fresh mounds, the fall is the ideal time to get started, and particularly so as the cold and winds of winter can so significantly lead to degraded soil quality, especially bare, exposed soils.  Check back in November for updates and photos of our sheet mulching progress during the month of October!

Contact Ben at tcigarden@gmail.com if you're interested in helping out in the garden!

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