This week we look at how we can get ready for next year's gardening with preparations now and by letting nature do the heavy lifting for us. Also, more great native perennial shrubs that are no-fuss and highly productive. Finally, bringing back childhood memories with grape jam!
Preparing Garden Beds for Next Year
The thing with gardening organically is that we rely on natural, organic matter to provide fertility for our plants and feed all the beneficial micro and macro organism in the soil. It’s a complex, symbiotic relationship between soil and plants. But it takes time for organic matter to break down therefore, we need to be placing it on our garden beds now so that over the spring, summer, and fall next year our plants can benefit and be productive. Layering our gardens with some materials now means that material will be at least partially broken down when we go to plant in the spring. We like to use thin alternating layers of caron rich and nitrogen-rich materials as soon as we take this year’s crop out of the garden.
Here’s what we use:
Cardboard – corrugated is best
Leaves – mow them a bit to start the breakdown process
Nitrogen Rich Materials
Animal manures – see if there is a horse farm in your neighborhood. They are often glad to have someone come take some away.
Use what you have most conveniently around you, but try to balance out the carbon and nitrogen-rich materials. Adding just a few inches each year to your veggie beds will give you more productive soils and you will have less work next spring and throughout the growing season.
Take a look at these videos to see the benefits sheet mulching and amending your garden soil.
One warning - in this video they advise using hay but we disagree. Hay is loaded with seeds from grasses and meadow plants that may start sprouting all over your garden. Straw is a better alternative because it is just the stems of grains and should have very few seeds.
Planting Native Plants for Food, Health, and Beauty
Elderberries (Sambucus canadensis) are one of the few native fruits of North America. They have been used for centuries to make jams, jellies, wines, and to solve a myriad of medical problems. You can make a syrup from the berries that is an excellent immune booster. Just what we all need these days.
They are tolerant of partial shade and damp soil, although they prefer full sun and a well-drained, loamy location. Before the summer berries form, large, flat clusters of sweetly scented white flowers appear in spring.
You can plant just one because elderberries are self-fruitful, but you will get a larger yield when two varieties are planted nearby. They have shallow roots, so you should mulch heavily to keep the soil moist.
They will fruit in about 2 to 3 and tend to sucker freely so you will end up with a grove of elderberries. In late winter, prune back old stems (3+ years old) to the ground to maintain the plant’s vigor.
Elderberries are an excellent choice for wildlife habitats. Butterflies especially like elderberries and the birds will flock to the fruit. Netting placed over the plants will keep more of the fruit for your own use. Once established, the plants are deer resistant.
Pawpaws (Asimina triloba) are delicious fruits that can be grown in your backyard orchard. Though they look tropical they are adapted to our Cape Cod climate.
Pawpaws (a moist shady area when they first start out but to have good fruit production, they need full sun. So, plant in a sunny area and create some temporary shade for the first few years until they get established. This can happen by erecting a small trellis just to the south of the seedling and planting with an annual quick-growing vine like a pea or bean. Make sure to mulch well to keep the soil moist.
Pawpaws can be spaced about five feet apart. Plant at least three different varieties for cross-pollination, because they need to be pollinated by a different variety to fruit successfully.
Pollination is a bit tricky with pawpaw. The flowers have the female organ and then it turns into a male, so they can’t pollinate themselves. It requires pollination from a tree with entirely different genetics to be successfully pollinated. Buy different pawpaw varieties to ensure the most successful pollination, two minimally. The flowers are a deep reddish-purple color to attract the flies that pollinate them. The easiest way to assure fruit is to pollinate by hand, taking a male flower from one tree and using a small paintbrush to pollinate a female flower from a different tree. The process is easy if you’re watching over your trees closely over the flowering period.
The pawpaw is relatively pest and disease-free. Deer tend to avoid eating pawpaw leaves.
The fruit is eaten fresh and is extremely perishable and amazingly delicious when it is perfectly ripe. It can be used much like you would use a banana. It works well when used for baking like for banana bread recipe or for adding to a smoothie. For longer-term storage, you can freeze the fruit and make ice cream out of it.
We have so many grapes around our farm that the air is thick with a jammy scent in the fall. It's hard not to want to do something with them, so we have been making grape jam from them as a family project for years.
Grape Jam From Foraged Concord Grapes
8 cups Concord grapes
1/4 cup water
6 cups granulated sugar
1/2 lemon, juiced
1/2 teaspoon unsalted butter
1. Separate the grape skins from the pulp by squeezing the grapes between your fingers. Put the skins in one bowl for the food processor and the pulp and seeds in a saucepan.
2. Pulse the skins with 2 cups of until coarsely chopped.
3. Bring the pulp and seeds to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the grapes lose their shape, mashing them every few minutes with a potato masher. This takes about 10 minutes.
4. Pour the grape pulp through a strainer into a large bowl. Force out as much pulp as you can and discard the seeds. Then add the strained pulp back into the saucepan and add the grape skin sugar, plus the remaining 4 cups of sugar, lemon juice, and butter.
5. Bring the pot to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, and 30 minutes, skimming off foam as it forms.
6. Meanwhile, prepare the jars by boiling six clean canning jars in a large pot for 10 minutes, covered with water. Place the accompanying lids and rings in a separate pot, boil quickly, then turn the heat down to low to keep warm.
7. Once the jam has thickened and reached a gel-like state, fill the prepared jars until just below the rim with the hot jam mixture. Add the lids, screw the band fairly tight, and let stand until set. Jar lids should make a popping noise and have a concave indentation when properly sealed. If a jar is not properly sealed, keep in the refrigerator and eat within a week.
Continuing our journey of exploring regenerative agriculture, permaculture, and edible landscaping, we have another resource to share:
Kiss The Ground is a new feature film that presents a hopeful view about how we currently have the knowledge and practices to sequester carbon that’s in the atmosphere. Mainstream agriculture is starting to make a shift towards some of these relatively simple ways to pivot agriculture practices that are more sustainable and actually start turning back the carbon dioxide load in the atmosphere.