31 Oct 2018


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The Lazy Gardener – October

Watching and harvesting

On our patrols through the garden, we have to do more than just keep an eye on the crops – most of all, it’s time to harvest them. Every year, we are fascinated anew by the sheer richness of nature’s gifts to us. We have shared the journey our vegetables, fruit, and herbs have taken from spring to fall. It’s almost as if we have developed a relationship with the plants and when harvest comes, it has blossomed into a true feeling of respect.

Some vegetables, such as kale or Brussels sprouts, lettuce and herbs, flower and go to seed. It’s an amazing sight appreciated by all the insects in the garden. Fennel flowers add a classy touch to any bouquet and dill and asparagus fern blossoms give a more creative look to a bouquet of flowers than baby’s breath ever could. What’s more, they add culinary value to any meal. Vegetables like carrots and parsnips are left in the ground and harvested as needed. However, if you live in areas with winter frosts, or at a high altitude, it’s advisable to harvest them from the beds in good time. Garden fruit and root vegetables can easily be left to ripen in a cellar storage room. Any soil still clinging to the roots should be left there, since root vegetables store better if you leave them unwashed.

Storage tips and tricks

Onions, potatoes, beets, and turnips must never be exposed to frost during storage. Healthy, unblemished pumpkins like to be stored in a cool cellar, so they can be easily processed throughout the winter. Beets will also keep for weeks on end and can then be used to prepare pickles and chutneys.

Storing root vegetables in mounds

In the old days, root vegetables were stored in the garden in mounds. To make a mound, a 20 to 30 cm layer of clean straw is spread out in a dry, sheltered area and the vegetables are then stacked on the straw in the shape of a pyramid. The whole mound is then covered with a layer of clean straw and about 20 centimeters of soil. For safety purposes, we place a fine wire mesh underneath and on top of the mound, to prevent small rodents from feasting on the vegetables inside. If very cold weather is expected, the mound can also be covered with additional straw, tarpaulins, or felt. We use this technique to store root vegetables such as carrots, potatoes, and beets.

Harvesting vegetable seeds
Since we only cultivate organic vegetables and avoid hybrids or modern new varieties, we can collect seeds from many types of plants, including tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, and pumpkins. This is easy to do; we simply remove the seeds from the flesh of the vegetables as we process them in the kitchen, dry and then store the seeds until spring in paper bags or in firmly sealed tins or jars stored in a dark place. The seeds of beans, peas, and bell peppers are very easy to collect; all you need to do is remove them from the pod or from inside the vegetable itself, allow them to dry and store them as described above until planting season the following spring. In addition to our delicious homemade herb oils, herb vinegars, chutneys, pesto, and jams, we often bring along herb and vegetable seeds as an extra gift when invited to the homes of fellow gardening aficionados.

Gardener’s gold

Fertile soil is the gold of the future. Composting is a must for anyone who cultivates a garden. As soon as temperatures begin to rise, the microorganisms and worms in the compost heap start working overtime again. To increase the rate of the decomposition process, it’s a good idea to turn the compost over. Using compost as a fertilizer is an ideal, simple, and cost-effective method of soil management. Compost not only improves soil quality, it is also a means of reducing both garden and kitchen waste. The compost heap is where all kinds of “green stuff” are converted into valuable humus.

A partially shaded area is best for composting. Although good-quality compost doesn’t smell bad, to avoid unpleasant surprises it might be better not to set up your compost heap below your neighbor’s window. Once the location is determined, you need storage bins. Numerous options in plastic or metal are available at your garden center. Bear in mind that simple, low-cost options made of wood are also available. The compost material should be in direct contact with the ground to give easy access to the microorganisms and other tiny creatures living underneath. That’s why closed composting systems are only good up to a point; plus, water cannot fully drain from the container. If stagnant water collects, the composting process takes longer or is even prevented by rotting material.

Three to four containers are ideal. In the first one, you can store kitchen and garden waste. The second is used to initiate the composting process. This is best done by thoroughly mixing together all of the different waste types collected. Hobby gardeners often make the mistake of adding the various materials, such as grass cuttings, to the composter in layers, which results in the material forming a sticky mass that then starts to rot and give off an unpleasant odor. When the compost is ready, it is remixed in the third and fourth containers until needed. This remixing means the materials used in the composting process are thoroughly mixed together, making the job of decomposition easier for the microorganisms. Mature compost has a pleasant odor and should never give off a bad smell.

Of course not every gardener has space for such a system. Hobby gardeners can also do a good job with just one or two compost containers. In a perfect world, the finished compost is worked into the soil as early as fall and not just shortly before spring planting begins.

Everything you need to know about compost

Here’s a short summary of the key things you need to know.

Mixing the compost
Plant residue, fresh grass cuttings, or withered cut flowers should not be left lying for long. Otherwise they will attract unwanted pests or fungal diseases. We mix them as quickly as possible with dry, wispy material, rough prunings, leaves, or straw and also add fresh compost or soil. The resulting material should be damp like a wet sponge with the water wrung out; if not, we add some water from the watering can.

Storing the compost
The key elements of successful decomposition are plenty of nutrients for the microorganisms in the ground, sufficient moisture, and air. The eggs and larvae of these microorganisms are found in the soil and above all in fresh compost. Adding fresh compost speeds up the decomposition process. To prevent large amounts of water from getting into the compost unchecked, we cover it with a tarp.

Turning the compost
After three to four months, once the compost has cooled to below 30 degrees Celsius, we check the decomposition status. If the compost has an earthy texture and is moist enough, we can keep it for another five to six months. But if it is either too dry or too wet, we remove the cover and turn the compost. That promotes better decomposition.

Sifting the compost
We sift the compost before spreading it. It is important to sift out wood chunks that have not decomposed because they rob the plants of nitrogen. The material removed during sifting is composted again. Since it is partially decomposed already, it acts as seed material, accelerating the decomposition process in the newly constructed mound.

Spreading the compost
Compost that has the right mix of ingredients and is fully decomposed not only dramatically improves soil quality, but is also excellent fertilizer. This saves us a lot of money we would otherwise spend on potting soil, fertilizer, and peat. It is our stated goal to minimize our purchases of such materials. If you manage your garden properly, you really should have little or no expenses for the purchase of soil and fertilizer. We usually spread about 2–4 liters of compost per square meter during the gardening season. Our main fertilizing cycle is once in spring before planting, once more during the growing season for plants with a high nutrient uptake, then once after the fall harvest. If we have time before the start of winter, we add rough compost and manure as mulch on the beds we have harvested, or we cover them with plant trimmings or fir branches.

Dealing with diseased plant matter
Since the temperatures reached when composting in our own garden are never as high as in a large-scale composting operation, we never add plants with diseases (late blight, brown rot, club root, or fire blight) or seed-bearing weeds to the compost. We dispose of them in the regular household waste (residual waste).

A good compost recipe
We take one part plant residue from the kitchen and garden and one part woody, dried out material, fresh compost, and soil, break it down into hand-sized pieces, sprinkle a little stone powder on top and if the material is a little dry then we add some water. We mix the composting materials thoroughly, then form them into a mound or put everything into a composting container or a wire mesh composter.

Readiness test
We take a large jar with a lid and fill it half full of finely sifted, damp compost. Then we sprinkle watercress seeds on top and cover them with a two-millimeter layer of compost. We add a little water to make the surface of the compost damp but not wet, close the lid, and stand the jar in a bright location. If the seeds all show strong, even growth within two to three weeks, our compost has passed the readiness test with flying colors. But if the shoots are yellow or even rotten, the compost is not mature enough to do its job. Dosage: The ideal amount of mature compost to apply is 2 to 4 liters per square meter each year.

Choosing the right ingredients

The following waste is great for composting:

  • Raw organic waste from fruit and vegetables
  • Eggshells (crushed)
  • Tea leaves and coffee grounds
  • Cut flowers
  • Balcony plants and potted plants with roots and soil
  • Manure from small animals
  • Feathers and hair
  • Wood ash
  • Leaves
  • Grass and lawn cuttings
  • Reeds
  • General garden waste
  • Hedge and tree trimmings
  • Semi-decomposed compost or soil as an accelerator

The following waste should not be used for composting

  • Plants with severe pest infestations or plants treated with spray agents
  • Weeds such as goutweed, thistle, couch grass, and bindweed
  • Cigarette butts and ash
  • Cooked foods
  • Ash from chemically treated wood
  • Dog droppings and cat litter
  • Oils and fats
  • Metal, glass, stone, plastics

Why we cultivate heirloom fruit varieties

People keep asking us why we maintain heirloom fruit varieties, and also why these varieties have more or less died out nowadays. A good way to explain why is to take the woodland strawberry as an example. When the garden strawberry with its large fruit began to appear, the small woodland strawberry was largely pushed out of the market and the garden as well. Because time is money, fruit cultivation methods have largely focused on the quantity and size of fruit plants in recent decades. Picking a kilogram of woodland strawberries is much more time-consuming than picking the same quantity of a modern commercial variety with its large fruit. Though the criteria applied today are more concerned with transport, storage, and uniform size considerations, we still prefer to invest our time in developing a garden using criteria such as flavor, diversity, and self-sufficiency, prioritizing healthy, organic seeds over modified hybrid varieties. This also enables us to exercise a little bit of control and take some responsibility, both for our environment and our own health.

Native wild fruit varieties generally grow on sturdy trees, bushes, and shrubs that require minimal maintenance and produce fruit with a multitude of uses, often featuring rich, exotic flavors. What’s more, they offer a bee-friendly habitat and support local bird life, while their abundant blossoms add a splash of color. We should also bear in mind that these sturdy wild fruit varieties require almost no looking after and can be more or less left to fend for themselves.

Pruning perennials
Once we are done insulating the sensitive plants against frost, the water pipes and rain collectors are all drained and the bare root plants are all safely planted, we can take a deep breath and take it easy for a while.

And mull over the question: Should we start pruning the perennials now, or wait until spring? Opinion is divided on this issue: to cut or not to cut, that is the question! Our feeling is that it depends on a number of aspects, such as climate, method of planting, and garden size.

If, like us, you live in a region which gets a lot of snow, it is unlikely you will ever enjoy the sight of seed pods in a fine dusting of powdery snow, because they are buried under mountains of snow. Whoever has a big garden will feel pressed for time and will get started with pruning the shrubs as early as fall. But our mantra goes like this: Leave as many plants as possible alone in the fall so that insects and birds can find food during the winter months. However, fall is the best time to prune all shrubs with leaves and seed pods which turn mushy and look unsightly when the frost comes. Plants like this also attract snails, which like to use them as a hiding place. That’s why we tidy up the herb garden by pruning back mint, lovage, lemon balm, oregano, and St. John’s wort, and do the same chore in the flower garden with our hostas, coneflowers, and fall-blooming anemones.

We leave all our grasses uncut before the onset of winter. The main threat they face during winter is from moisture which penetrates into the core, which is the heart of the tuft, and causes the grass to rot. That’s why we recommend tying the fronds of medium-height and long grass together with string to prevent moisture from getting in from above.

Woody plants
The fruit trees and shrubs slowly enter their dormancy period during the winter and so now is the perfect time to tackle the chore of pruning them back, before it gets too cold. Now is also the time to plant bare root trees and shrubs. The remaining heat of summer is still stored in the ground and if we use enough mature compost and a small dose of manure, the trees and shrubs will already gain a foothold before winter starts.

Plant yourself an apple tree
Many gardeners feel their garden is not really complete without an apple tree. There’s nothing mysterious about planting an apple tree. First we dig a big hole and loosen the soil underneath. We often had problems in the past with moles eating the roots of the young trees, but recently we’ve successfully tackled that issue by placing fine wire mesh in the hole. Then we work some compost plus a little manure into the soil and hammer in a stake before planting the young apple tree in the hole. Only then do we secure the young tree, before covering the soil mix around the truck with compost almost up to the level of the grafting point.

Beds and tree rings
In fall, we apply some algal lime to the beds; this contains the natural ingredients of calcium, magnesium, and silica, which improve the properties of the soil and help retain nutrients, and we also add compost to the soil around the trunks of the fruit trees. If time permits, we apply a coating of clay and lime to the trunks of the fruit trees; this prevents frost damage and keeps pests from penetrating the trees.

Clay and lime coating
For every 10 liters of water we need: 5 kg clay, 5 kg cow manure, 500 g algal lime, 500 g horsetail (equisetum) broth. Combine the ingredients in a large bucket. This mixture is enough for five to ten fruit trees. Specialist stores also sell ready-to-use mixtures for coating the trunks of trees.

A brief biography of Remo Vetter “The Lazy Gardener”

Born in Basel in 1956, Remo ran an international company selling natural products for over 35 years. He’s now in demand as a garden designer, consultant and author and has created many successful garden projects in Switzerland, England and Ireland.

  • Self-employed since 2018.
  • Lectures in Switzerland and abroad exploring sustainability, our interconnected natural world, and finding meaning in life.
  • Numerous appearances in radio, TV and print media in Switzerland and abroad.
  • Monthly columns in various magazines.

His book “The Lazy Gardener und seine Gartengeheimnisse” Achieving Better Results in Your Organic Garden with Little Effort is available from atVerlag ISBN 978-3-03800-941-2