Build Your Vegetable Gardens in the Winter

Reader Contribution by Sheryl Campbell and The Lazy Farmer
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All the extra time at home this year during the pandemic gave you a taste of the wonders of vegetables grown in your own soil and raised without chemicals. You’ve experienced the gustatory delights of vegetable varieties saved across generations because of how good they taste.

Now you want to expand your gardens. This amazing food is a blessing you don’t plan to give up even when life returns to normal. But fall is wrapping up and we’re heading into winter. Surely there’s no way to build a garden in the cold.

Get ready to experience the lazy gardener’s method of breaking new gardening ground. No tillers, no plows, not even cover crops. You will need to find and haul some straw bales but that’s a one time job and over quickly.

Depending on how much garden cleanup (vegetable or flowers) you have left to do this fall, you might want to start two or three straw bale compost piles instead of just one. When we first began vegetable gardening, we marched a line of these down each side of our small existing planting area. Within one year we’d doubled our planting area. 

Build Your Straw Bale Compost Pile

Starting at the edge of your existing garden (or any new area you wish to garden in), lay out a square of straw bales. Place them two bales per side and build them two bales high. In the center of the pile, insert a long piece of slotted PVC pipe on end – stuck into the ground to hold it upright. This will allow air to come into the center of your pile causing it to compost more rapidly.

image by Wolfgag Eckert from Pixabay

There’s no need to prepare the ground for the piles. Just place them on top of the grass, weeds, or dirt. They even work wonders on top of packed clay soil that seems to have hardened into concrete. Trust me, I know!

Nourish Your Compost Pile

Start feeding your pile by dumping in the last of the fallen leaves, old foliage cut from spent flowers (no seed heads), and any last vegetable plant trimmings from your fall and winter garden. Grass clippings from your final mowing can go in too. After every foot or two of depth scatter a cup of soybean meal on top of a layer of garden trash.

Throughout the winter throw in all your kitchen scraps:  vegetable trimmings, crushed egg shells, coffee grounds, and stale bread. Leave out meat scraps, fat, and dairy products so you don’t lure animals to your compost pile.

Tending Your Compost Pile in the Winter

Put on your slippers, grab a cup of coffee and some seed catalogs, and curl up by the fire. Yep, that’s it. This is all you’ll do this winter to tend to your pile except for feeding it your scraps.

Since you are planning to garden in this spot, your pile is naturally placed in full sun, and is open to the rain and snow. Let nature do the work for you. You’ll be amazed at how quickly the internal size of the pile reduces as the composting process starts even in the cold of winter.

Tending the Compost Come Spring and Summer

When your straw bale compost bin is full, build another near the first one. Using a pitchfork, turn the contents of the first bin into the second one. Now you’re done. Make some lemonade, grab a ripe tomato to munch on, and relax in your hammock.

Really and truly, that’s all you are going to do to make compost.  In the fall (one year from when you started composting) you’ll find spongy, black compost is ready for you to spread on your depleted garden beds. 

Well, you could do one more thing.  It won’t hasten the compost, but you’ll get points for style.  As soon as you’ve turned your compost this one and only time, plant seedlings in it that thrive on heat. You can plant them a couple of weeks earlier than you might have since being planted higher keeps frost off them as does the heat from the pile.

Small cantaloupe and honeydew melons are my favorite plants for this because the vines have lots of area to travel and can hang down from the straw bales. The extra heat generated by your composting pile will cause your melons to ripen in record time and increase their sweetness. 

An Extra Bonus

Something more than compost is made by creating one-year straw bale bins. The ground below each active pile is drenched with super rich compost tea for a full year. No matter what the site looked like when you started it is now rich, black earth full of worms and ready to have seeds or seedlings planted in it.

Not only can you start new garden beds this way but it is also an excellent method for constantly replenishing your garden.  Once your garden is as big as you want it, simply dedicate a new area within it each year for your compost pile.  This allows the earth below to rest for a year and soak in compost tea.  It keeps your compost pile right where most of your composting material lives – in the garden. And it sites your compost near where you’ll want to put it when it’s completed. 

When your straw bales start to disintegrate after holding a couple of years of compost, simply break them up and use them as the bottom layer for a new compost pile. Waste not, want not!

Join the Lazy Gardening Movement

Now you are ready to enjoy the lazy gardener’s method of breaking new gardening ground and rejuvenating your existing gardening space. No tillers, no plows, not even cover crops. Grab your pickup truck, get out there, and buy some straw bales. And then look for shady places to relax and watch your compost happen without you.

Sheryl Campbell is an heirloom gardener, shepherd, and edible flower educator who owns Bouquet Banquet in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Read Sheryl’s previous blogging with Mother Earth GardenerandGrit and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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