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The smell of fresh earth

As syrup season comes to its slow, dripping end, it’s time to think about the garden again. In West Michigan there’s usually a few times over the winter where the snow will briefly melt before we’re pummeled again and schools are closed for another snow day. Those short melts are more than a break from the gloom of winter. They’re also a prime time to clean out the chicken coop and transfer that to the garden for fertilizer. Whatever doesn’t get absorbed must be dealt with though, so that’s where we start.

For our coop, I use straw in the winter and pine shavings in the warmer months. By spring most of the manure we’ve transferred has absorbed into the garden area, but the straw remains. You’ll want to rake the excess straw into a pile, and then transfer that pile to the compost pile. It may be straw now, but eventually it will become prime compost and then make its way back to the garden again.

After the straw is removed, I’ll till the entire garden area. This does two things. First, it helps mix in the manure. Winter’s snow and springs rains may have washed it off from the straw, but most of it is still in the upper layers of dirt. Second, it helps disrupt any weeds that may have snuck in last year. We’ll deal more with those later.

Now that the garden is tilled, it’s time to lay out the rows. By planning what grows where, you can get the most out of your space. It’s also important to leave rows for you to work from. When you have room to work, weeding is a lot easier. If you want to have a clean, productive garden, you’ll want that weeding to be as easy as possible. Once your rows are established, you can put down a weed inhibitor. I like Preen. It’s organic, safe, and it actually works. If you’re planting seeds, you’ll want to skip using Preen in that area until the plants are two to three inches tall and have established leaves.

We're still a couple weeks away from planting, but now we're ready. It’s a good idea to plant things that you and your family will eat. It’s also a good idea to be realistic about how much you and your family will eat. Tomato plants are fun and easy, but they also produce a lot of food. The big one for us is strawberries. We’ll plant an average of 30 plants each year. Our youngest son loves them and if we do end up with extras, making strawberry jam is an easy answer. Other staples in our garden are potatoes and onions. Once harvested, they’re an excellent addition to the venison in the freezer. Cucumbers, lettuce, peppers, and tomatoes usually have a place in our garden and make for a great homemade salad. String beans and sweet peas are a perfect snack. We used to plant pumpkins for Halloween, but they took up too much space. This year, per the boy’s request, I’m going to plant a pumpkin patch in one of the fields. Any extras will be sold or used to help feed the goats they’re getting.

The garden at Grey Dog Maple Farm helps to feed our family. It’s more than that though. It’s time spent with the boys, scraps for the animals, and a chance to get my hands dirty. I hope your garden is just as much fun.

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