How does your garden grow? |

How does your garden grow?

Though spring is typically thought of as the season of renewal, fall sets the stage. Right now we are in the season that provides the best opportunity for preparing soil and planting.

In my garden many of the leaves will be left where they fall, adding more organic material to soil that can use years of amending. Each year I welcome this season as an opportunity to collect a free amendment.

I know one organic farmer in the Chicago Park area who built his beautiful soil with bags and bags of leaves brought from the Sacramento valley.

I had the good fortune to be exposed to an extended family of organic gardeners in my childhood. This way of life was natural for me to pass on to my children. When my son Sean was four years old and we were visiting friends, I noticed that he had been carrying a banana peel for several minutes. When I told him he could leave it in the kitchen, he replied: “I can’t Mommy. They don’t have a compost container.” A beautiful moment.

Gardening organically is a process that knows no season and no age. The commitment to the health of our land, and thus to ourselves as stewards of this land, requires only an awareness of our responsibility and our opportunities.

The leaves now accumulating on the ground are an exciting opportunity. Sheet composting is one way to use them. A layer of leaves may be spread (or left) on clay soil. Add some oyster shell and another layer of decomposing straw and organic compost. By spring the worms will have done a lot of your work for you. This is the simplest approach to sheet composting, and this mulch of leaves will protect your soil from compaction or erosion. On a slope, hold the organic materials in place with jute netting.

Sheet composting may also be built to a greater depth. Repeat layers described two or three times and even incorporate good garden soil into the mix. Organic phosphorus may be added to the base soil and included in the layers.

To add more nutrients, sow cover crops such as annual rye, vetch, bell beans or a mix into the top layer of compost, or soil and compost. The roots of this “green manure” crop will develop through all the organic materials. In spring the cover crop may be cut down and incorporated into the sheet compost. For the past 30 years I have used this method to create new vegetable or flower beds in my foothill garden.

This is still a good time to plant. Trees and shrubs planted while the clay soil is still warm will be ahead in their growth by next spring. This means that they will need less irrigation water during the next dry season. Sheet composting near newly planted ornamentals provides an essential mulch.

This mulch retains moisture from rainfall, improves the soil structure, prevents compaction and adds to fertility. Plants need to grow in fertile soil. There is no chemical fertilizer that will compensate for lack of fertility. In fact, chemical fertilizers will have a negative impact on the soil you are building organically.

Decomposing leaves smell good. This seems to me to be a fragrance of fall that reminds us of the importance of natural cycles. Please do not burn any leaves.


Carolyn Singer has gardened in Nevada County for 29 years. She opens her garden to propagation students each summer. Check the current schedule at



Put your

garden to bed

Saturday, Nov. 3

10 a.m. to noon

Master Gardeners Demonstration Garden, 1036 W. Main St.

in Grass Valley


• How to prepare yards and gardens for winter.

• The benefits of winter compost and mulch.

• Which winter vegetables do well in our area.

• The importance of fall clean-up.

• How & why we clean

garden tools.

• Why fall is a good time to plant.

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