With summer winding down and fall right on our doorstep, there are a multitude of garden chores that need to be done around our homestead. It feels a little overwhelming, at times, with our large garden. In fact, it often feels like the work is never done. Living in Central California, where our mild winters make it possible to garden almost all year ’round, there is never really a time, here, when the garden gets completely put to bed. As one crop finishes up, another one takes its place as the cycle of succession planting continues from year to year.
Right now, I am working on one of my least favorite gardening chores: uprooting the corn plants.
When I first began gardening, I always used to leave the corn stalks in the ground to die back after the harvest. In fact, I left them in the ground all winter. While it did make the plants a lot easier to remove, the following spring, I realize, now, that it was a huge waste of an opportunity.
- First, it allows me to produce more food during the year. One of the main reasons I have a garden is to produce as much food for our family as I possibly can. My goal is to become less and less reliant upon our local grocery store for as many of our favorite food crops, as possible. That means I need to have a high turnover of annual food crops, throughout the year. Corn is one of those crops that I can do that with. Unlike other crops, such as green beans, which can be harvested over an extended period of time, or tomatoes, which can be left to develop and ripen on the vine over an entire season, corn has a definite time period when it gets planted, matures, and needs to be harvested, and it is better that it be harvested all at once, I’ve decided. I’d love it if I could just leave the ears on the stalks, like I do my tomatoes, and simply come out and harvest a handful, throughout the season as we desire fresh corn with our meals, but I’ve learned that leaving corn on the stalks too long after they reach peak ripeness results in a lot of food waste, as the kernels become dry, tough, chewy, and not very appealing to the taste buds. Yes, that means that we don’t get to eat as much fresh corn, during the year, but remember, my goal is to maximize food production. So, most of the freshly harvested corn gets preserved, either by freezing or canning, and will be actually get to be enjoyed over an even longer period of time, throughout the rest of the year, as we bring it out of the freezer or cupboards and onto our dinner table. After all of the corn is harvested, I immediately return to the beds where they were planted, uproot all of the stalks, and get the next crop started, in the hopes of eeking out a little more food before the year is done.
- Second, peas are a perfect crop for following corn because they give the soil a rest and actually return some nutrients back to the soil that heavy feeders, like corn, steal. How do they do that? From what I understand, plants from the Fabaceae family, such as peas, fix nitrogen in the nodules of their roots. The nodules contain a bacteria that lives symbiotically with the plant that are able to fix nitrogen from the air, which they use to to feed the plant. When the plant is dug into the soil, where it will rot down quickly, the soil absorbs the nitrogen, replacing what was previously lost. So, instead of spending money on expensive nitrogenous fertilizers (which actually do more harm to the soil, than good, because it makes the soil lazy about fixing its own nitrogen), after I gather in my harvest of snap peas, I do with them what I used to do with my corn plants: leave them to decompose in the soil where they will benefit the next crop that is planted there, the following spring.
So, as another gardening year comes to a close, and the harried work of harvesting, clean-up, and planting out the winter beds takes place this fall, while I would much rather leave the corn stalks in the ground until next spring, and eliminate one more chore from my long and, seemingly, endless list of fall garden chores, I know that, if I just get out there and get it done, we’ll all be rewarded with another harvest of one of our favorite food crops before the winter “starving time” hits, and I’ll be doing my soil a huge favor by exercising its muscles and causing it to work a little harder at fixing its own nitrogen, benefitting the new crops that will be planted in their place, next spring.
This is just a small glimpse into the world of succession planting. If you’d like to know more about it, simply type in the words “succession planting” or “crop rotation” into a Google search, and you’ll turn up a host of helpful articles on the subject. If you’re a visual learner, like me, simply type those same words into a Google Images search, and you find a host of handy dandy charts that speak to the matter. Here’s a simple chart that I found at Organic Gardening Info.com that helps me remember where I am at and what crop should come next in my rotation cycle: