I have 46 bags of mushroom compost in my driveway right now.
No, I’m not taking a picture. I’ve just finished a day of writing website articles for clients on everything from brain chemistry to sales techniques, and in the middle of my day, Shadow and I took the garbage to the dump and my friend Helen delivered 46 bags of compost…which had to be unloaded…and Helen’s upper body strength put me to shame as she handily hoisted 30 pound bags with ease and I staggered under their weight. Seems like gardening and farming is better exercise than dumb bells. Helen must hoist a lot of mushroom compost – and probably hay bales and feed sacks, too!
Seriously, though, I started thinking about how I’m always writing about starting a raised bed vegetable garden, but I rarely talk about maintenance of the garden. And the thing is, you don’t just start a garden. Gardens are ongoing projects. They are never finished. I don’t care how long you’ve had your garden. You’re always tinkering with it.
Raised bed vegetable gardens begin with light, fluffy soil. If you’ve done your job right and selected great soil, and amended it with nice compost, you’re going to have super garden soil for the first few years. Because you don’t walk on a raised bed garden the way that you do with typical garden beds, the soil stays light and fluffy. Plants love it.
After a while, though, you’ve got to replenish the soil. Plants do take up nutrients, so the soil begins to lose fertility over time. In my own garden, I lose some soil each gardening season as I harvest vegetables such as carrots, potatoes and others that you pull up completely. No matter how I shake the veggies out, some of the soil sticks to the roots.
The same goes for my annual fall garden cleanup. Try pulling up deeply rooted tomato plants. Guess what? They don’t want to come out. Tomatoes, peppers, and green beans also take with them a lot of soil. I shake and whack it against the sides of the raised beds, but I lose some no matter what I do.
Now that my raised beds are about seven years old, it’s time to get serious about soil. I was disappointed last year with some of our vegetable harvest, especially the peppers. This year, I’m taking a few steps to replenish the soil:
- Mushroom compost: I bought mushroom compost to add to the raised beds in the vegetable garden. What is mushroom compost? It’s a rich composted blend of growing media used in the mushroom farming industry. Most of it comes from Pennsylvania, which is where my friend is from and why she has it trucked into Virginia for crazed gardeners like me. It’s composted hay, straw, horse stall bedding, manure, cocoa shells, gypsum and peat moss. The gypsum adds lime to the mixture, which is excellent for our acidic soils. Mushroom compost improves soil structure, adds nutrients, and balances soil pH. Helen says that every time is rains, some nutrients wash into the soil from it, too, which I love. I’ll let you know how it works with my veggies. For more information on mushroom compost, see Mushroom Compost.
- Garden compost: The problem with my compost pile is that it just doesn’t create enough compost for my garden needs. I did compost in place over the winter, meaning that I buried vegetable scraps directly into one of the raised beds. I dug in the other day and they seem to have been reduced to soil, which is great news. I will dig into the compost pile over the weekend and try to turn some of it. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of placing my compost pile in the woods. It’s a “cold pile” meaning it takes a long time to decompose the materials. The pile is also under some big old loblolly pines. Can a pine tree have a smile on its trunk? Mine does because of all the nutrients delivered to its roots.
- Crop rotation: Ugh! How could I forget crop rotation? For the past three or four years, I’ve always planted my tomatoes here, my peppers there. Then last year was the worst pepper harvest in the history of my garden. It gives us time to use up all the jars of pickled and plain peppers from other bumper crop years, but it also upset me since I did a lot of work to grow those plants. I realized that I had neglected to rotate my crops, a really big sin in the gardening world. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I planned my garden this year to grow everything in different spots except for a few of the fixed crops so that the soil can be replenished a bit. Peas and beans both fix nitrogen into the soil, or make it bio-available for other plants, so I hope to plant beans and peas in the beds former occupied by tomatoes to rebuild the soil.
As you start to work in your garden this spring, don’t forget that you soil needs TLC, too. The better the soil, the better the garden, and the healthier the plants. Even with raised bed vegetable gardens, your soil needs plenty of care and help to give your veggies a healthy head start this year.
My Book: Plan and Build a Raised Bed Vegetable Garden
For those looking for a book on raised bed gardening, may I humbly suggest my own book, available in paperback and ebook on Amazon and wherever fine books are sold. It’s inexpensive and a great little primer on raised bed gardening. Click here to read reviews or purchase the book on Amazon or Smashwords.
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