In the Garden:
Lower South
September, 2010
Regional Report

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A large stockpile of leaves provides a supply for mulching all year, or they can be left to compost slowly over time.

Fall Vegetable Garden Rehabilitation

I know a guy who got busy this summer, grew very tired of the hot, dry weather and kinda let his vegetable garden fry and die in the late summer heat. What remained were some brave pepper and okra plants, and lots of weeds. It was a mess. Obviously the results of a fair weather, novice gardener.

Okay, you probably know anyway but I'll confess that it was MY vegetable garden. I have a very large vegetable garden and it was a very large mess!

I'll confess that, standing there looking at the forsaken mess, it crossed my mind that the best options were to either move to a new house or call in a napalm flyover and start over! Instead, using some tricks that I'll share in a moment my family and I took it a little at a time and have rejuvenating it, turning it into a place I'd be proud to have you see. In case you are now or someday will be in the same situation, here are some tips for rehabilitating a lost cause garden patch.

The first step was to pull out all the irrigation lines, metal pepper and tomato cages and other such hardware. Then the lawnmower took everything down to the ground, except for some pepper plants that looked worth saving.

Next we gave the soil in the entire plot a thorough soaking. Our soil in this spot is a heavy clay, and we had drought cracks that were large enough to lose a small child in! The watering softened the soil so it could be worked. The trick with clay soils is to water enough to wet the soil deeply, but not so much as to leave it too wet to work a day or two later.

Then we waited two days and headed back out. Some weeds were starting to regain their evil hopes, but I didn't fret over that as I had plans for the dastardly invaders.

With the mowing done, the irrigation lines were relaid down the rows. And the entire garden was covered with leaves stashed from last fall. The idea is to cover the weeds and soil, blocking out all sunlight. In the moist warm conditions beneath the leaf blanket those weeds will soon be transformed into decomposed organic matter.

If you don't have the habit of collecting extra leaves each fall for mulching all through the year, I suggest you do so, beginning with the coming "leaf season" in late fall. I have used other materials in the past for this task including spent hay from a nearby farm, rotted stable bedding from a local stable, or when all the above are limited, newspapers laid six sheets thick and covered with a thinner layer of leaves or compost.

This done, the garden looks like the forest floor. We wanted to get in a late planting of summer squash, chard and amaranth greens so one row was left unmulched and rototilled to loosen the soil for planting. A spading fork works fine too, but in an effort to maintain the willing interest of my working crew (spouse and 2 kids), I wisely opted for the easier option.

Now planting will continue with the cole crops and cool season peas. In areas where I want to add compost to the soil, we will pull the thick mulch blanket back from a section of row, spread compost and rototill it in. I find that if we have been building the soil over time I can just pull the mulch back in a spot and use a hand spade to set a transplant into the warm moist soil. Then I pull the leaves back around the plant to deter weeds from seeing the light.

Granted this was some work, but it was not nearly as big a job as I'd imagined when I first looked at the mess that neglect and a southern summer had created. The initial acts of mowing and mulching brought great hope and confidence, along with the motivation to press on.

This is not the first time that I have taken on a new garden plot or a neglected one in this way. I learned years ago from the writings of Ruth Stout the wonders of a thick mulch for making weed control easy. Our garden is well on its way back and we are looking forward to planting and harvesting fresh veggies in the weeks to come. My family has made me swear, "NEVER AGAIN". Next year we will keep the garden mulched and avoid the recovery effort. Thanks guys, for saving the day!


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