Last October my garden helper Joyce Bonesteel and I spent hours cleaning up the raised beds in my vegetable garden, known as a potager. We carefully removed all the spent vegetation, especially the bits and pieces of rotted tomatoes that had fallen from the vines, so there was no plant material left for late blight spores to take refuge in. The dreaded late blight overwinters in tomato and potato plants and fruit, not in the soil. Though they can’t survive freezing temperatures, I am not about to take a chance.
Next I covered the surface of the soil with a mix of shredded leaves heavily laced with worm castings. I left a 6-inch layer of shredded leaves on the ground over the summer, and I swear earthworms came from miles around to feast. The mix was incredible and you can’t buy that stuff even if you wanted to.
Over the summer, our resident mole moved into my potager to partake of the earthworms and did his part in the pathways grinding up and mixing the hardpan clay with the layer of dark black humus under the bark chips. The fresh bark chips spread on the paths four years ago have slowly composted over time, leaving behind a layer of black gold. For hours I sat in that garden scooping that soil mix from the paths, sifting it through a riddle into the raised beds and returning the leftover chunks of wood chips to the walkways, while dreaming about the mother lode of tomatoes and other veggies this garden would produce next summer.
A riddle is the gardener’s rendition of a flour sifter used to remove chunky stuff from soil. My late husband and gardening pal, Hank, made mine by stapling metal hardware cloth on to a wooden frame made of 1-by-1s.
I’m a dirt fanatic who inherited 20 acres of hardpan clay and the soil in those raised beds almost brings me to tears. I loved just looking at it. And then it snowed — and snowed and snowed some more. It’s been a long winter.