“How to prepare the soil for growing leafy green vegetables…
Leafy green vegetables such as lettuce, swiss chard, spinach, arugula, endive, radicchio and cabbage differ among themselves in appearance as well as in taste. However, they also have certain things in common. For one thing, they all love fertile soil which is rich in organic matter and has lots of nutrient called nitrogen in it…
Nitrogen is what matters the most to leafy greens. This particular nutrient helps leaf vegetables produce chlorophyll and perform photosynthesis. As a result, the plants grow and develop quality leaves quickly. And that’s exactly what you want to achieve as a grower!
The main goal is therefore to ensure your garden soil has enough nitrogen in it…
Obviously, you can go to the nearest garden store, buy a synthetic nitrogen fertilizer and then apply it to the garden soil according to given intructions. This is quick and easy way of providing your vegetable greens with as much nitrogen as they need. But unfortunately, it also negativelly impacts our environment…
The runoff of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers is significantly contributing towards climate changes as well as polluting rivers, seas, oceans and the air we breathe. That’s why I don’t recommend it and definitely don’t practice it…
Instead, I prefer to add nitrogen to my soil in a natural and earth-friendly way. Yes, it does take more work and more time, but at least I know I’m growing my lettuce organically without unnecessary chemicals. If you feel the same, then here’s how you can enrich your soil with nutrients (most importantly nitrogen) your leafy green plants are going to need for optimal growth:
You can start at any time…
You don’t have to wait for a specific time of the year to start enriching your garden soil with necessary nutrients. There’s always something you can do to help plants develop bigger leaves faster…
However, the more time you have on your hands before sowing seeds or planting seedlings, the more you can do about the quality of the soil and the better harvest you can expect. That’s because it takes time for organic matter in the soil to break down and release nutrients back in the soil.
With that said, there are generally two different points in time when you can do the most. The first one is very early in the year when winter is ending and spring is beginning. And the second one is later on in the year when autumn is ending and the winter is beginning…
(1) Things to do early in the season before spring begins
At this point in time, new gardening season is just around the corner. Since you only have weeks available, you have to reside to fast-acting methods which don’t take months and years to release nitrogen and other nutrients into the soil…
So, here’s what you can do to prepare the soil for leaf vegetables when you’re only weeks away from sowing seeds and / or planting seedlings:
Create patches for leafy greens and add compost.
It takes time to create quality, nitrogen-rich compost which can be used in the garden. Not only do you have to gather and pile up different types of organic matter, you also have to wait several months and even years for it to decompose into soil full of plant nutrients.
That’s why most new gardeners don’t have any of their own compost available at the start of their first gardening season. I was not an exception to this rule…
However, if you can get your hands on a finished compost (pehaps one of your family members or friends is already gardening), it’s definitely a good idea to use it.
First, choose spots where you would like to grow leafy green vegetables. Second, shovel those spots to loosen and aerate the soil (eight inches or 20 centimeters deep should be enough). Then remove all (big) rocks from it. Finally, till as much compost into the soil as you have available. Finally, rake the entire area and create garden beds. Just make sure you don’t till it too deep into the soil, otherwise the plant won’t be able to reach it and benefit from it.
At this point, you soil is ready for sowing and planting greens.
Alternatively, you could also use compost as a mulch (instead of tilling it in). In this case, loosen and aerate the soil a bit with a gardening fork first and then simply cover the surface of the soil evenly with the compost you have available.
If the compost is done right, it’s ful of nitrogen and works perfectly as a plant food for leafy greens. If you have enought of it, you probably won’t need to do anything else. Your green vegetables will have enough food to reach the harvest stage…
Unfortunately, like I mentioned above, new gardeners rarely have any compost available right from the start. If you’re one of them, you’ll have to enrich your soil with nitrogen and other nutrients in different ways…
Mulch the leaf vegetable patches with grass clippings.
Grass clippings are a great source of nitrogen and other nutrients and can thus be very useful in a vegetable garden…
Use them as a mulch and they not only provide food to your leafy greens, but also help retain moisture in the soil as well as protect the soil from the damaging effects of sun, wind and rain. Obviously, this all helps in keeping your plants healthy and getting produce out of them!
So, if you’re a lawn owner, you’re in a great position to benefit from all the grass clippings you produce. Here’s what you can do:
Wait until the grass is tall enough to be trimmed. It shouldn’t take too long thanks to the surge of sun, warmth and rain in the early spring. Then cut it and leave the clippings laying on the ground for a day or two so they can dry out a bit. Once they dry out, simply grab them with your hands and cover the surfaces of your leaf vegetable patches with them…
Then rinse and repeat once the grass grows again, but stop immediately once it starts flowering – otherwise you may bring unwanted seeds into the garden and end up with unwanted weeds.
And that’s pretty much it!
As you can see, using grass clippings in a garden is quite straightforward. However, keep in mind that:
- Grass clippings alone won’t suffice. While the grass is a potent source of plant food, it takes a while before it decomposes and releases nitrogen and other nutrients into the soil. That’s why you’ll need to supplement it with other, more immediate source of nitrogen. Otherwise your leafy greens may not get as much food as they need.
- The grass used for mulch must NOT be treated with pesticides or herbicides. If the lawn you’re getting your grass clippings fom is eing treated with a weed-killer, I suggest you don’t use them in a vegetable garden. Some chemicals just don’t break down thoroughly and stay present in the soil for a very long time. They can not only injure the plants, but also contaminate the produce. And obviously, eating herbicide or pesticide contaminated vegetables isn’t the healthiest thing you can do for yourself.
- Leave some of the grass clippings on the lawn as a fertilizer. The lawn also needs feeding to grow well. That’s why you should always pick up just some of the grass clippings (to use as mulch in the garden) and leave the rest laying on the ground. This way you’ll fertilize the grass with nitrogen and other nutrients and thus ensure it stays healthy and provide you with food for your leafy greens in the future as well. With that said, I suggest you pick up the big clumps of clippings for the use in garden as these can actually deterioate the grass over time if you leave them laying on the lawn.
Make liquid fertilizer from stinging nettles and feed the leafy greens with it.
You may think of stinging nettle as an unwanted weed for obvious reasons. It does not only sting you if you touch it’s leaves, but also invades your garden spaces and leaves no room for other plants. No wonder then that many want to extinguish it from the garden. The sooner the better!
However, what you may not know is it can be a very useful plant for a gardener. This is thanks to it’s ability to pick up many different nutrients (including nitrogen) from the soil and then store it in it’s leaves and stems. That’s why you can use it in the garden to your own advantage!
What you need to do is make organic nitrogen-rich liquid fertilizer from it and then feed your leaf vegetables with it. It’s pretty simple and I explain everything in details right here. In general, all you need is a barrel or a bucket with a lid, rainwater, approximately two ounces (one kilogram) of young stinging nettle plants and some time. Then you brew the nettles in the barrel or a bucket for about four weeks…
And once you’re done, you have a perfect liquid plant food which is going to boost the growth of your leafy greens for sure. The only downside is it has a pretty strong stinky smell.
Fertilize the leafy greens with diluted human urine.
The thought of using urine in a vegetable garden sounds disgusting to most people. But believe it or not, it can actually serve as an extremely rich source of nitrogen and other nutrients which you can feed your leaf vegetables with…
What’s especially interesting about urine is it’s nutrients don’t need to be broken down before plants can use them. They can feed on them and benefit from them immediately (!) after the application. That’s why many believe it’s a perfect plant food!
If you’re concerned about the health aspects of using urine as a fertilizer, then it’s worth knowing that excreted urrne is sterile and pathogen-free. As long as you’re healthy and don’t take any medications, you can use it without worrying something will go wrong…
Just don’t forget to dilute it to about before using it. Otherwise it could burn the roots of the plants. Dilute it to 1:10 (1 part of urine and 10 parts of water) for already established plants and 1:20 for seedlings.
It’s also important that you don’t apply it to the leaves, only to the surrounding soil.
If, despite the benefits, you still don’t like the idea of using human urine directly in your garden, then you have another option. Instead of applying it directly to the soil, you can actually apply it to the compost instead and still benefit from it.
Plant leafy greens together with annual grain legumes
The vast majority of plants can only absorb nitrogen from the soil. The legumes such as beans, peas, soybeans and peanuts are different though. They can work together with bacteria called rhizobia which is able to convert nitrogen from the air into nitrogen that can be used by plants…
In this process known as nitrogen fixation, the legumes therefore form a symbiotic relationship with rhizobia bacteria. The plants provide the bacteria with energy and nutrients they need to survive, and in return, the bacteria provide plants with nitrogen fixed from the air. The legumes then store this nitrogen in the roots and use it for growth and development.
The fact is, most of the nitrogen fixed from atmosphere gets used by the legumes themselves. However, some of it also leaks into the surrounding soil. Obviously, the neighbouring plants can use this excess nitrogen for their own growing needs…
So, if you want to provide your leafy greens with some of the nitrogen fixed from the air, then plant them in direct proximity to annual legumes. I especially recommend growing leaf vegetables together with peanuts because they are very strong nitrogen fixers – much stronger than common beans which fix less nitrogen than they need it for themselves.
Start a new compost pile.
I already mentioned how helpful it is to have finished compost available at the beginning of the season. It’s an ideal plant food. I also mentioned why most new gardeners don’t have any at the start of their first gardening season. They didn’t manage to produce one yet because decomposition of organic materials into soil amendment takes time…
So, in order to be able to benefit from it in the future, you have to start working on your compost pile as soon as possible. The sooner you start, the sooner it will be ready and the sooner your plants can use it and benefit from it.
The basic principle of composting is simple. All you have to do is start piling all sorts of organic materials, turn the pile every now and then and the chances are you’ll end up with decent soil amendment by the start of your next gardening season…
However, keep in mind that certain organic matter contains more nitrogen than the other. It’s important you add these to the pile as well. That way the finished compost will contain enough nitrogen to satisfy the needs of leafy green vegetables.
I’ll leave the details of composting for another post, but for now, let’s just say that anything fresh and green (from potatoe and banana peels to top leaves of celery and outer cabagge leaves) that you throw on the pile enriches your compost with nitrogen once it’s decomposed…
The bottom line is to start piling organic materials as soon as you start gardening. And keep doing it regularly until the end of the season. Because it’s a very important part in producing an abundant amount of crop as well as in maintaining a healthy garden!
(2) Things to do throughout the gardening season
As the season progresses, you can keep working on the quality of the soil and thus providing food for your leafy greens (as well as for other types of fruits and vegetables) in the following seasons. Here’s how:
Leave the roots in the ground after you harvest a plant.
Digging up roots after you harvest the plant is not only a tedious task, but doesn’t do anything good for the soil in your garden either. That’s why I don’t recommend it…
You see, when you leave roots to rot in the ground you’re adding organic matter to the soil. The roots still hold lots of valuable nutrients, and once they break down, they release them back to the soil and thus provide food for your leafy greens and other fruit and vegetables plant as well.
Keep adding organic matter to your compost pile.
In order to have lots of compost at your disposal next year, it is important to keep piling organic material throughout the entire season…
The key to making nutrition-rich compost is simple. Keep adding organic sources of carbon (such as dry leaves and straw for example) and organic sources of nitrogen (such as grass clippings or hay) to a pile, keep the pile moist, turn and mix everything in it every now and then let the worms and beneficial microbes do the rest. You can’t go wrong!
(3) Things to do late in the season before fall ends
Autumn (or fall if you wish) is another great time period when you can do A LOT for the soil in your garden. The main reason is the abundance of leaves and other organic materials which is literally just laying on the ground and waiting for you to use it to your own advantage…
Now let’s see how to transform all the fall’s organic matter into nutrients for leafy green vegetables and thus get a larger harvest next year:
Incorporate leaves along with nitrogen-rich organic matter into the soil.
Those who rake their leaves, bag them and then truck the bags to the landfill probably won’t agree with this, but the fact is, leaves are one of the greatest gifts nature has to offer to a gardener. They can be extremely valuable natural resource!
They help aerate the soil, improve it’s drainage and, most importantly, enrich it with nutrients by feeding the beneficial microbes and earhworms…
And it’s pretty easy to use them. All you need to do is incroporate (either till or spade) them into the soil!
However, leaves alone are not enough. While they are full of carbon and other minerals, once they turn brown and fall off the tree they contain no nitrogen at all. And that’s the problem, because beneficial fungi and bacteria which feed on leaves need nitrogen to properly decompose the leaves. Without nitrogen, it would take years for this type of organic matter (carbon-rich also known as “brown” whereas nitrogen-rich is also known as “green”) to properly break down and release nutrients into the ground…
So, in order to speed up the break down process and ensure the soil is ready for planting by spring, it makes sense to incorporate leaves along with the following sources of nitrogen-rich (green) organic matter:
- Kitchen scraps. This includes everything from potato and banana peels, lettuce leaves, apple cores to coffee grounds, strawberry tops, citrus peels and carrot tops. But do avoid meat and dairy products though.
- Animal manure. A well aged or composted () manure from cows, rabbits, chickens, sheep and horses does work. Although some use fresh manure as well, I don’t recommend it due to the risk of E.coli contamination. Plus, there’s a chance it wouldn’t decompose properly by spring. In that case, it would burn the roots of the plants and kill them.
- Plant and crop residues. You can use any part of the plant (leaves, stalks, fruits and / or flowers) you can find in your good garden. Some of the examples include: corn husks and stalks, hay, grass clippings, tomato vines, cucumber vines and even pulled weeds. You shouldn’t have problems finding such green organic material since the gardening season is coming to an end at this time of year.
Now that you know which organic materials you can use, consider the following things as well:
- You can also spread instead of till. You don’t have to till the organic matter to incorporate it into the soil. Spreading it on top of the soil will do the job as well. In this case, start with a layer of leaves, cover it with a layer of ntrogen-rich organic matter and then throw a couple of shovels of soil on top of that. Then rinse and repeat.
- Shred the organic matter before incorporating it into the soil. Shredding the leaves and nitrogen-rich organic matter before incorporating themspeeds up the decomposition process tremendously. The smaller the material the faster it breaks down and the sooner your garden soil is rich in nitrogen and ready for growing leafy greens.
- Do not use diseased plant parts. If your plant gets affected by a disease, it’s better to discard it than to incorporate it into the soil or to add it to the compost pile. Otherwise, you risk that the disease will persist in the soil and affect your plants during the next season as well.
- Some tree leaves are toxic to plants. Walnut leaves, for example, contain a substance that is toxic to plants. Don’t use them in the garden and don’t put them on your compost pile. Otherwise, they stunt the growth of the fruits and vegetables and eventually kill them as well – even after they’re properly composted.
This method is quite easy to implement and is extremely powerful when it comes to enriching the soil with nitrogen. And the more material you use, the better results you can expect. Just make sure you add both leaves and nitrogen-rich organic matter.
Plant cover crops.
Winter rain and snow can easily wash away valuable nutrients (nitrogen included) from the soil if you leave it bare throughout the autumn and winter months. You can prevent this from happening in a very smart way – by planting cover crops!
With cover crops, you do not only protect the soil from nutrient depletion and add more organic matter to it, but also enrich it with nitrogen as well…
However, not every type of cover cropping plants can produce nitrogen. Some (mainly grasses and brassicas) simply capture the existing one and thus prevent it from leaching out into the groundwater. This obviously helps, but you can do even more for your leafy greens with legume cover crops. Legumes, as I already mentioned it above, have the ability to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and then release it into the soil once they break down and decompose.
Since your goal is to prepare the soil for growing leaf vegetables, it therefore makes sense to focus especially on legume type of cover crops such as hairy vetch, fava beans, red clover, white clover, sweet clover, Canada field pea and alfalfa for example.
The use of legumes depends on variety, on type of soil as well as on the climate zone. But in general, it’s not difficult to benefit from them:
- Plant them somewhere between the middle of august to the end of october.
- Leave them growing over the winter so the frost can kill them.
- In spring, incorporate (either till in or turn under with a garden fork) the remaining residues into the soil at least four weeks before planting.
With that said, some varieties can actually survive the winter if they get established enough in the spring. If you do use a hardy variety, you’ll need to mow it or cut it down in the spring to benefit from it. Do this just before it starts flowering and producing seeds since the plant has the most nitrogen in it at that time. It’s also beneficial to plant legumes with other types of cover crops as well, so consider doing that as well.
Put a few bags of leaves aside to create green / brown mulch in the spring.
I already highlighted how valuable leaves can be for you as a gardener. Incorporate them into the soil in the autumn together with nitrogen-rich (green) organic matter and your garden will be ready for growing leafy greens by spring…
What’s great about leaves is that autumn isn’t the only time you can use them. If you store them properly, you can benefit from them later on as well!
What I suggest you to do is gather a few bags of leaves and then store them in a dry and cold place over the winter. Then once spring starts and once you have grass clippings available, you can create a so called green / brown mulch with them. Simply mix the fall-gathered leaves with fresh grass clippings and mulch your leaf vegetable garden beds and patches with this mixture. Thanks to the leaves, the grass clippings break down faster, and consequently release nitrogen and other nutrients into the soil faster…
This kind of mulch does not only provide food for plants faster, but the food it provides is also more complete than in case you where you use solely grass clippings.
Keep using this kind of green / brown mulch throughout the spring and summer months and your leafy greens will have enough food to grow rapidly all the way until the harvest stage. Plus, not to mention all the other advantages of mulching you’ll enjoy as well, such as moisture preservation for example.
Keep using these methods year after year for best results
The fact is, leafy green vegetables thrive in soil rich in nitrogen. Without nitrogen, the leafy greens don’t have enough nutrients to grow rapidly. They do sprout, but their growth stunts soon afterwards and way before they reach the harvest stage.
Nitrogen is therefore the key to fast growth and good harvest of leaf vegetables. It’s easy to add this nutrient to your garden with a synthetic fertilizer. All you do is buy it and pour it on the soil. However, easy is not always the best…
You see, the nitrogen provided with a synthetic fertilizer gets quickly washed away by rain. There’s nothing to hold it in the soil. And once it gets washed away it leaches into groundwater and pollutes the water sources.
The story with nitrogen provided by organic matter is much different. The rain can’t wash it away that easily because it is locked in the organic material and is slowly released in the soil. And it also doesn’t pollute the environment. In fact, when you’re adding nitrogen to the soil with organic matter, you’re building a healthy soil and maintaining a healthy garden, especially in the long run!
The methods I describe above are all based on organic principles. While they do require lots of effort from you, they definitely work and will provide your leafy greens nitrogen and tons of other nutrients they need. All you have to do is implement them. And when you keep implementing them year after year after year the end results get even better!