Preparing Your Garden For Winter By Laurel Anderson Now is a great time to grow your soil. Reducing the amount of tilling will slow the breakdown of organic materials and keep valuable nutrients in the ground. No-Till methods will improve moisture retention, air space, microbial ecosystems and even provides a time to talk about soils' role in climate change with your students.
To protect your soils over winter cut back plants at soil level and let the roots decompose into soils. Allow leaf matter to decay on the top of beds building organic matter. Cover beds with a thick layer of rice straw (has no weed seeds).
Alternatively, you can plant cover crops which is a lot of fun with your students. Cover crops are winter hardy plants. Most often we plant a combination of plants in the legume family because they have this amazing symbiotic relationship with a rhizobia bacteria lives on their roots and is able to” fix” the abundant nitrogen from the air into the soil. You can observe white nodules on the roots of these legumes which is the home of the rhizobia bacteria!
The most common covercrop blend or green manure blend is a mix of bell beans, vetch and field peas. These seeds must be inoculated with the rhizobia bacteria which you can buy along with the seed. The seed is not very expensive so the kids can at last throw seeds by the handfuls into the beds. You can learn more about cover crops here.
I sometimes throw in some crimson clover because it is pretty and adds diversity. As an added benefit I have found that cover crops is a wonderful habitat for ladybugs so you can plan some spring lessons around this phenomena in the garden.
Fall is also a good time to sow wildflower seeds. Seeds must be sown in cleared beds and you will have to hand water until we get some good winter rains. You could consider making some seed balls with CAPoppies, Yellow mustard and Crimson clover all seeds that germinate pretty easily. You can learn more about seed balls here!
If you have the room, you might plant garlic in November. Garlic needs a very rich bed with lots of compost since it stay in the ground for almost 9 months. Usually harvested in June so is a bit tricky to pull off in a school garden but such a fun harvest! It can be done and is a fun class project. An interesting activity is to weigh the cloves planted and then weigh the harvest! It can be pretty impressive how many pounds you get from your few cloves.Best to plant in a bed to themselves as you do need to turn off water as they start to form the heads or plant with crops that would be coming out in may.
Fall Activity Natural Dying with Plants If you have the ability to heat water in the garden doing some experiments with natural dying is a colorful and exciting fall activity. You could use a solar cooker as well to get water up to temperature. It is useful to know that plants create " stains" which are not colorfast and won't stand up to repeated washing but still are lovely for a demonstration or "dye"s that are colorfast. Calendula which is the easiest garden plant to harvest makes a lovely yellow dye. Another easy plant for next season to grow is Calliopsis tinctoria which makes a rich saffron dye and American Goldfinches love the seed. Avocado pits make a pink color and grapes can stain silks a lovely shade of purple. Black walnut makes lovely browns. Common sunflowers make a green dye.
When I did this with students I used small silk squares I purchased from DharmaTrading Company which I put in a mordant bath using alum which is the least toxic before garden class. I would get a dye bath going first thing in the morning or day before. I would then work with small groups. We harvested plants from the garden and added a bit to the dye bath. Then each student would stir the bath and we would put 2 silk squares in each bath. One we would take out after 10 minutes or so and the other I left in over night and showed students at the next class. This would be a much richer color. We then made a silken prayer flag for the class with all the different shades we had created. This would be fun if you just did it with one plant but if you get inspired you can play with lots of different dye plants. Maybe plant a dye garden!
Harvesting Color: How to Find Plants and Make Natural Dyes by Rebecca Burgess is a great inspiration!