Ask Aaron: Give Your Soil a Break
"What are your tips for giving a garden “the year off” and recharging the soil without weeds/grass winning?" - Amber
This is such a great question! On our small Decatur Urban Farm, we’re lucky enough to have enough growing space that we can “recharge” our soil bed by bed throughout the growing season, instead of taking a whole year off. But we realize that not everyone has that luxury, so letting your garden lay fallow is a super good practice! The practice of letting land lie fallow isn’t new at all and dates back to the dawn of agriculture. There are multiple references in the Torah, Bible, and Quran that reference the necessity of letting the land rest every seven years. While our crop rotations might be a bit more complex than that, we should follow their lead. As you rightly suggest land does need time to rest, especially after successive years of vegetable cultivation. Here are some steps we’d recommend!
If you’ve ever been to a Growing Gardeners Workshop you’ve probably heard one of us go on ad nauseum about the importance of cover crops. We’re referring to any number of plant species that are planted not with the intention of harvesting (although many have edible bits), but of holding soil intact, suppressing weeds, and contributing to overall soil health. While the good folks over at SARE are the definitive experts on cover crops, we can attest to the wonderful things they do. Buckwheat is a warm(er) season cover crop that is excellent at suppressing weeds and providing excellent habitat and food sources for pollinator insects. Oats are an excellent groundcover and have also been shown to have allelopathic effects on other plant seeds, meaning the oat plant releases biological residue that can hinder the germination of weed seeds. Legumes, like peas and vetch, are excellent sources of nitrogen, and that tends to break down more quickly when incorporated into the soil. There are several good sources for locally grown cover crop seed:
Green Acres Cover Crops, Omaha, NE
Paradigm Gardens, Omaha, NE
Green Cover Seed, Bladen NE
Stock Seed Farms, Murdock NE
If you’re not planning on planting your garden this year, you can always mulch over it. This will effectively prevent soil erosion and exposure to elements, suppress weeds, and eventually contribute to the organic matter content of your soil if you incorporate the mulch. We love using straw, as it’s high carbon content makes it slow to break down. But hay, dead leaves, and even wood chips would work, (although wood chips have been shown to tie up much-needed nitrogen, so we’d caution against using them).
If none of the above are feasible for you, the very least you can do is to cover your soil. This will help with discouraging weed growth and will prevent soil from running off or being too exposed to the elements. Cardboard would be best as it’ll allow the flow of oxygen and moisture to the soil. Silage tarps or regular tarps would work well also!
Best of Luck!
- Aaron French | Urban Farm Manager
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