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Soil Situations: Putting Garden Beds to Sleep

June 03, 2019
By: Stephanie Loui

As the school year comes to a close, many ‘ĀINA garden beds are going dormant, giving them time to replenish soil nutrients and life. Ideally, schools use cover crops, shade cloths, other organic materials or a combination of all three to help keep the soil healthy until Fall when students plant again. Here’s a brief guide, created by ʻĀINA in Schools Program Coordinator Joe Wat, on how and why maintaining gardens—even when resting—is crucial to soil and plant health.

Protect the Soil
The foundation of a healthy garden is healthy soil. This requires proper moisture, aeration, and plenty of life! Cultivate soil “FBI,” or fungi, bacteria and invertebrates by adding plenty of organic material like mulch and maintaining proper moisture levels to support life. This microbiome is an important part of our garden ecology because it aerates the soil and makes nutrients more readily available.

Prevent Weeds
Prevent weeds from establishing to avoid future headaches. Weeds are one of a gardeners biggest pests. Being proactive through the summer and preventing them from getting an initial foothold makes garden care through the following year much more fun and less of a chore.

Avoid Soil Loss
One major reason for garden care over the summer is to prevent soil erosion by wind and water. Compost and texturing amendments can easily be lost to the elements! Garden beds also tend to sink over time as plants suck up nutrients so replenishing soil with more compost, vermiculite/ perlite, or other amendments may be a project for the off-season.

With these three goals in mind, here are a few different ways to put a garden bed to “sleep” or keep on growing:

Cardboard and Mulch
Level: Easy

Scrape away and remove any noxious weeds from your garden (like amaranth, centipede grass, nut grass, etc).  Other plants can be pulled and laid down on top of the soil to feed the FBI.  Thoroughly soak the garden and cover with multiple sheets of cardboard, free of stickers or other plastic adhesives. Use mulch or rocks to hold cardboard in place and water thoroughly if soil ever gets very dry. In the fall, simply remove the cardboard and remaining mulch, aerate and amend your soil, and you’re ready to get started.

Short Cycle Cover Crops
Level: Easy

A thick mat of cover crop will successfully harbor beneficial insects, hold soil in place, and build soil nutrition if nitrogen fixing plants are incorporated into your crop mix. Sow cover crop seeds a month or so before harvesting so they have time to germinate while you are still caring for the garden. Pulling vegetable crops before saying goodbye to the garden for the summer helps remove food sources for pests with specific diets like root nematodes, weevils, and many others. These cover crops can be tilled into the soil when you are adding compost in the fall.

Intensive Cover Crops
Level: Medium

Some cover crops, such as sudan grass, gandules, and sun hemp, come with the benefit of a lot of extra biomass. However, this also means that they grow into large plants with woody stems that can be difficult to break down without additional work. Although they produce much more foliage and plant material to be tilled into the soil, these should only be planted in garden beds if you are willing to put in the extra effort to break them down later. Chopping them into smaller pieces with loppers and clips will help them break down faster.

Keep on Growing!
Level: Medium-Difficult

Gardens can grow all year around with the proper planting schedule and soil maintenance. In between heavy feeders like kalo, ‘uala, corn, cabbage, tomatoes, and squash, switch out for nitrogen fixing plants like beans and peas, mixed with a diverse collection of flowers and other vegetable crops to provide habitat for a wide variety of wildlife. Plant plenty of food for pollinators and people like marigolds, nasturtiums, and sunflowers! If done properly, a garden can provide food all year!