In the Garden:
New England
December, 2001
Regional Report

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After several years of tilling in thick layers of organic mulch, the soil in my pumpkin patch is dark, rich, and loose.

Plan Ahead for Next Year's Gardens

Although we have snow cover here in northern Vermont, many parts of the northeast are still waiting for their first significant snowfall. If the ground is still bare in your yard, and you have plans to enlarge your garden next spring, consider taking some steps now to get a head start.

Dealing with Sod

If you wait until spring, you'll need to deal with the sod in the new garden area in one of two ways. You can till the sod right in, but then you'll be dealing with sprouting clumps of grass for at least a few seasons. You can dig up and remove the sod, but then you'll be removing lots of organic matter, not to mention the topsoil and beneficial organisms like worms that cling to the grass roots. As you can see, neither of these options is ideal. However, if you plan ahead, there is a third option.

Smother the Grass

Several years ago I created a new garden bed by smothering the grass in the fall. I covered the entire area with overlapping pieces of corrugated cardboard or thick layers of newspapers. Then I covered this with a 3- to 4-inch layer of sawdust and wood shavings.

Free Mulch

There's a furniture shop near our office that sets out huge garbage bags of sawdust and wood shavings on Monday mornings, and they're gone in no time. I guess I'm not the only one that covets free mulch! Fortunately, I managed to get half a dozen bags, enough to cover the area. If you scout around, you may be able to find a source of free organic matter. A thick layer of chopped straw or leaves would also work well.

Watch for Nutrient Deficiencies

The next spring, I tilled in the mulch; since the area is relatively damp, the newspaper and cardboard had begun to disintegrate. (However, I could have simply planted right through the mulch.) Note that when you till in carbon-rich organic matter like sawdust, it can cause a temporary nitrogen deficiency. The added carbon causes a flush of growth of the microorganisms responsible for breaking down the sawdust; these microbes use up all the available nitrogen, incorporating it into their bodies. The deficiency is temporary because once the carbon is used up the microorganisms die, and the nitrogen that was tied up in their bodies is released.

If possible, it's a good idea to add some nitrogen-rich material (such as poultry manure or fresh grass clippings) before tilling in a carbon-rich mulch, to provide a better balance of nutrients for the microbes. In any case, it's best to wait at least a month, and preferably longer, after tilling in uncomposted organic matter before planting, to allow the decomposition cycle to run its course. You can also compensate for soil nutrient deficiencies during the first growing season by fertilizing the plants with a nitrogen-rich fertilizer such as fish emulsion. Foliar feeding is especially good in this situation. And keep an eye out for signs of nitrogen deficiency, such as pale foliage and stunted growth.

Because my new garden area was on the edge of a wild, overgrown hayfield, I repeated the mulching and tilling regimen for three years. The result is a bed with deep, rich, loose soil - perfect for my annual pumpkin patch!

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