Taking a year off of gardening
March 16, 2015 9:41 AM   Subscribe

What is the best thing that I can do for my vegetable garden plots if I don't want to do any gardening this year?

Because of *reasons*, I don't think that I'll be planting anything of note in my garden this year. I also don't want weeds to take over. And if there is something I can do to improve the soil (that's already pretty good -- I add compost from my pile every year) that would be good to know too.

Should I just cover with mulch/landscape fabric? Should I plant a cover crop? What's a good one? If I plant a cover crop, how to I make sure that it doesn't regrow next year to vex me? If I do plant a cover crop, and I plan to get a soil test just to make sure that my nutrient levels are still good, should I do that this year, or wait until I've dug in the cover crop next year?

I live in Minnesota, Zone 4. Average last frost is May 15. My veggie garden consists of four 4x4 square foot garden plots which started as raised beds but have sunk down to ground level over time. The unimproved soil in my yard is sandy. I'll still be planting herbs and maybe one cherry tomato plant in containers closer to the house.

In the past, the plots have housed: perennial herbs (damn you oregano), tomatoes, garlic, pumpkins, snap peas, corn, and sunflowers. The weeds I have struggled with the most are: lawn grass (it's a weed in the wrong place), oregano (ditto), sumac (runners from a neighbour's tree), stinging nettle and dandelions (both too hateful to be delicious).
posted by sparklemotion to Home & Garden (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
One thing that works well is putting down a layer of mulch -- straw would work -- and covering that with black plastic. You get weed-killing and composting action all in one.
posted by mudpuppie at 9:53 AM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've had bad luck with landscape fabric. It degrades in the sun and falls apart, and weeds will grow through it, or on top of it. I use old rugs as physical barriers when I need to really smother something, but they're unattractive.

Straw is an excellent option. It's great at smothering weeds and making those which grow through it (e.g. Canada explicative thistle) spindly and easier to pull by hand. Straw plus black plastic seems like a workable idea to me.

I've had good luck with buckwheat as a cover crop. It doesn't fix nitrogen (as, say, clover, vetch or other legumes do), but it grows very quickly, shades weeds well, and is brittle and easy to take down and turn under. Just make sure you turn it under before it goes to seed. You'll be able to get two or three plantings in this year.

I'd probably wait until next year for the soil test, but there's nothing wrong with using a test now to help guide your cover crop decisions.
posted by farmerd at 10:10 AM on March 16, 2015

annual rye grass is a great winter cover, but it dies in the heat - unsure how hot your summers are. Clover is the other oft-suggested cover drop.

If you're ambitious, solarizing your garden is a good thing (helps with weeds, pests and diseases).
posted by k5.user at 10:35 AM on March 16, 2015

I would plant a summer cover crop, till it into the soil in the fall and then repeat with a winter cover crop.

This is a great supplier.
posted by lydhre at 10:45 AM on March 16, 2015

Given your issue with persistent, intractable weeds, I would would suggest a heavy straw mulch over a smothering layer of scrap cardboard or newspaper. A cover crop may out-compete some weeds, but weeds are weeds precisely because they're one of the most competitive plants for whatever little microclimate you've got going, especially if they're perennial and/or spreading underground. A cover crop will also be more work than a heavy mulch.
posted by drlith at 10:51 AM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I wouldn't use plastic mulch or landscape fabric either.

I would plant buckwheat and then cover that with a thin-ish layer of straw (an inch or two). Let the buckwheat come up and cut it down once or twice over the summer before it goes to seed. Leave the cuttings there in the plot. In the fall cut it down one last time then pile on 4-6 inches more of straw. If you're really ambitious you can put another set of layers--say your last mowing grass clippings and then more straw or dried leaves. Wet it all down if you need to. Cover that with burlap and let it compost over the fall/winter. Next year scrape some of your composted material away and get a soil test. If your organic matter is good, use the composted material as mulch. If you need more then turn it into your soil.
posted by sevenless at 10:51 AM on March 16, 2015

If you go the cover crop route, you can do a mix of a cereal like rye or barley plus a nitrogen-fixer like peas, but you do have to be prepared to mow/cut it before it goes to seed, possibly a few times in the season. Straw and plastic might be the way to go if you really don't want to have to deal with any garden maintenance at all this summer.
posted by bluebelle at 7:23 PM on March 16, 2015

I mulch mine deeply, like more than a foot deep, with leaves (because they're here) and if any weeds pop up, add more mulch. This has given me some pretty amazing soil in the years I can get back to it.
posted by metasarah at 8:19 PM on March 16, 2015

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