When was the last time you fed the worms? After a busy summer, the hardworking worms in your vegetable garden may be hungry. With fall right around the corner, now is the time to prepare your vegetable patch for next year. With a few tips, you'll be well on your way to bountiful harvest in 2012.
The quality and size of your squiggling friends can tell you a lot about the health of your soil. Take a shovel, dig a few holes a foot or so deep and run your fingers threw the soil. If your guests are looking a little on the smallish side, you'll know it's time to beef up the organic components in the soil.
Worms love decaying matter. One easy way to provide them with the nutrition they need to survive is by starting a compost bin. Local hardware stores often sell ready-made containers for your backyard. However, if you're a DYI fan, the University of Missouri Extension provides instructions on various methods of composting that includes everything from simply digging holes to instructions on building wooden or wire structures.
The process for making compost is simple. I collect drained coffee grounds, egg shells and vegetables in my bucket that features a filtered lid to reduce odor and once it's full, I pour the contents into the composter. (Based on my Internet research, a few handfuls of garden soil added to the outdoor container can help initiate the breakdown of the compost or you may be able to purchase starter from your local hardware store.)
Once my outdoor composter is started, I check my contents every few days and give the easy to turn bin a few spins to help aereate my compost. If the compost looks too wet, I shred up paperbags and add them to the mixture. You can continue to add your kitchen scraps until the bin is full enough that it still spins easily and the contents still have room to breathe. (The directions that come with the bin may be more specific.)
Once everything breaks down to my satisfaction, I remove the container from the base, roll it into the garden, remove the lid and allow the contents to fall out onto the ground.
The time it takes to make compost varies with the temperature. The hotter it is outside, the more quickly you will have completed compost. When the temperatures grow cold, you will empty your container and allow it to sit until the following warmer season.
Another method for building your soil to to purchase ready-made additives like mushroom compost, humus and manure. There are a variety of products available to meet most any budget. What you add is based a lot on personal preference but soil testing can provide specific direction to what nutrients may be lacking. If you decide you'd like to test your soil, the University of Missouri Extension has a location in St. Louis and offers various testing services for a fee.
Another thing to consider near the end of each season is planting a cover crop. Cover crops are vegetation that you sow into the soil in order to increase nutrients and aeration for the next season. According to MotherEarthNews.com, "When planted early enough to put on good growth before cold weather sets in, cover cropping prevents erosion, protects soil microbes, outcompetes cool-season weeds and builds soil fertility."
Composting and cover crops are two of the ways to create a bountiful environment for our hardworking worm friends. As you close your garden for winter, give them a little love and they'll reward you next year.
Cheryl Hughey is a St. Louis-based freelance writer and author of Beyond Bacon Grease, a farm-inspired cookbook for the low-fat generation. She has been published in Natural Muscle, Ms. Fitness, Concierge Magazine, West End Word, Sauce, Intermission Magazine and more. A candidate for a black belt in taekwondo later this year, Cheryl often finds often finds inspiration by working in her garden.