So you’ve been a diligent gardener this year, pulling weeds, watering when needed, mulching your beds, and you still don’t have a bountiful harvest. “What am I doing wrong?” you lament to yourself, your spouse, and your friends, none of whom can provide answers or comfort. Alas, poor gardener, if your harvest is not all you desire and you’ve followed all the advice above the only answer left is your soil.
Soil in New Jersey is notorious for being inhospitable to gardeners, unless you are lucky enough to live in an old house once owned by a gardener. Or one built by a generous developer who actually replenished the topsoil he stripped away during construction – sure, it could happen! Our native soil is generally either dense clay or loose, rocky shale. Improvements to soil structure and fertility are usually required. Ask any old-timer and they’ll invariably tell you to add sand to clay soil to increase porousness, thus improving drainage and helping fragile young roots to grow. Don’t you fall for it young gardener! Adding sand to clay is basically the recipe for concrete. The only cure for clay soil (or shale) is organic matter, and lots of it.
This fall after you have harvested your vegetables, try harvesting your neighbor’s fallen leaves as well. There are plenty of them out there, sitting in easy to move bags on the curb. Running them through a shredder or leaf vac if your neighbors haven’t already done so will help them decompose quicker, but if you don’t have access to either just toss them on top of your vegetable beds whole. For larger beds a tiller is recommended, if you don’t want to purchase one you can rent one cheaply enough. Your local home center or rental center can usually help with delivery too. Turn the leaves into the garden bed until they are well incorporated with the soil, water the bed thoroughly if there is no rain in the immediate forecast, and wait.
Come spring, turn the bed over once again, this time adding your preferred balanced granular fertilizer, either a 5-10-5 or 10-20-10 mix. Make sure you follow the recommendations on the package for application rates, as too much fertilizer can actually inhibit your plant’s growth. If you choose to fertilize with manure make sure it is well aged. Fresh manure contains entirely too much nitrogen which can burn a young seedling’s roots right off and kill the plant. It will also drive away beneficial organisms such as worms and nematodes (not all of them are bad!) Use cow or chicken manure if possible. Horse manure smells better, but it is notorious for carrying viable weed and grass seeds. Horses are not efficient at digesting what they eat, whereas little will survive a trip through a cow’s four chamber stomach, or the grinding stones in a chicken’s gut.
You may still notice large pieces or clumps of leaves while you are turning, this is normal and even desirable. Worms and other soil dwelling fauna will flock to them, breaking them down and leaving nutrient rich castings behind. The leaves will revert to the carbon they came from, replenishing the earth. All this activity will also help loosen the soil’s structure which will enable plants to develop extensive root systems, essential to plant health and crop yield. This practice is recycling at its finest, not only do you keep an enormous amount of bulk out of the landfills, you also reuse one hundred percent of it.
Gardening, as practiced by today’s suburbanite, is not a natural process. Nature is far messier than most homeowners are willing to tolerate. Healthy soil, and by extension a healthy garden requires a little boost. Even if you had a bumper crop this year, try harvesting some leaves this fall. Your garden will thank you next year.