My Garden System

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In my previous posts, I talked about several different garden systems. In my garden system, I pick and choose among the various strategies these experts use and recommend. Admittedly, I was only hitting the high points of these various systems. If you want to get into the nitty-gritty details, several of these folks have written books about what they do, maintain blogs or give workshop presentations periodically. For a fee, Wilton will consult with you on farm improvement. The systems have both differences and similarities. I’d say the most important principle – which is common to all – is BUILD YOUR SOIL. The next one is, don’t use herbicides or pesticides. The third is, make the most efficient use of available water. The majority of these systems make maximum use of space. Even Wilton, who has a huge garden by most standards, spaces and plans her crops to make maximum use of water. After that, they diverge. Jeavons eschews animals (although I notice their last catalogs had crops for animal forage – they no longer produce catalogs), while Wilton wouldn’t function without them. Bartholomew, Coleman and to some extent the Kaisers, are heavily into man-made products, many of which are plastic. Wilton also uses a fair amount of plastic for things like seedling trays and her greenhouses. She seems to be the one who really focuses on reusing this stuff, although the Kaisers do as well. Most of them use commercial seedling trays, pots and such. Jeavons prefers to build seedling flats from scrap lumber. Most of these folks use double digging, tilling or plowing. The Kaisers, Bartholomew, Stout and Lanza use it the least, Wilton uses it (plowing/tilling) the most.

Building Soil

We started our kitchen garden with cleanings from the milk cow’s pen, the sheep’s nighttime sleeping quarters and as much good, rich soil as we could get. All the dirt was collected from here on the ranch and had never grown anything but native plants. I have a compost pile just outside the kitchen garden, where it’s readily accessible to the backhoe. We add to it regularly when we clean out pens. I also add shredded paper, cardboard and other paper products to the pile, where it breaks down. Our pile contains plenty of manure, so it has the trace elements from the supplements we feed our animals, not to mention nitrogen. In addition, we periodically sprinkle on hardwood ashes from the woodstove. We also add azomite, a powdery silica-based mineral from an ancient volcano in Utah. The volcanic ash was covered by seawater some 30 million years ago, and the combination of the two produced a very rich mineral deposit. A little of this stuff goes a long way. The recommendation for the powdered form is two to five pounds per 1,000 square feet. The powdered form is also highly water-soluble, so even though it’s slow-acting, you’ll nearly always see results within a few days. I don’t compost food scraps, but the chickens do, and what they make goes on the garden as well, mixed with their manure. I use the Kaiser’s harvest/add compost/replant immediately system in the kitchen garden, because that’s where I grow the short-maturity stuff like lettuce and other salad crops. We also have an area that I suspect was a catchpond for excess water coming out of our big spring. Over the years (probably between 50 and 100), it silted up and became filled with cattails and reeds. Since we want to restore the catchpond, we’ve begun to dig out the dirt in the summer when it’s dry. This is the nicest black loam you could imagine, and you can bet that dirt is going on the gardens and pastures.

Mulch

Mulching ties into soil building as well as having a number of other benefits. I have a slightly schizophrenic mulching system. The Kaiser compost system pretty well covers the ground in the kitchen garden and acts as mulch for small crops. For bigger plants like summer squash, I intercrop between them initially with fast-growing crops like radishes and chard to keep the soil covered and producing. When I harvest these quickie crops, I lay down some compost, but then I cover it with wet cardboard, several layers of wet newspaper (and you have to keep both of these wet or they’ll blow away) or organic straw. Since the kitchen garden is on a slope and I water by hand, I need this protection to keep my soil from washing. A cardboard collar around plants like peppers helps keep the shallow roots from becoming exposed. It also keeps the soil covered, and the microbial life and worms can work happily under the dark, moist cover (I don’t have a slug problem – too dry). Before I gave up on the big garden, I thought what would work best was to use the cardboard-over-mulch for permanent plantings of artichokes, asparagus and blueberries around the edge. The rest got cover crops in the fall, a good tilling in the spring and a moderate amount of weeding in the summer. I also did some foliar feeding with manure tea and azomite. This is the garden where I planned to grow the space-eating stuff like corn, squash and pole beans, and we flood irrigate there. It’s hard to keep mulch like straw or leaves in place with flood irrigation, and compost just washes away. Sadly, I had to give up on the big garden, primarily because the major beneficiaries were the ground squirrels.

Animals

As you’ll probably have figured out by now, I part ways with Jeavons and anyone else who says you don’t need animals. First, I am a meat eater. I’ve tried vegetarianism twice and both times my health suffered. Everything I have learned over the years says humans are designed to eat and derive many health benefits from eating meat. However, they don’t do well on factory-farmed, CAFO meat (which is no great surprise, considering how the poor critters are raised, fed and slaughtered). Meat for human consumption should be primarily grass-fed and as close to wild game as possible. Second, well-managed grazing animals improve land in many ways. For example, did you know that a cow’s ‘nose dew’ – the drops of moisture that look like sweat on her nose – populates the grass and ground with beneficial microbes? Grazing animals are also a great way to get rid of many weeds. The kudzu problem in the southern states (kudzu is an invasive perennial vine from Japan) could probably be eliminated with intensively grazed ruminants like cows, sheep and goats, and the feed is free. Even in a small garden, a couple of hens in a chicken tractor can make a valuable contribution to the soil. Third, an integrated system that includes animals means the animals can feed each other as well as us humans. Excess milk becomes chicken cheese or is mixed with the grain screenings from our local mill, and whey from cheesemaking also goes to the pigs and chickens. Our dogs drink milk and eat yogurt and raw eggs. When we butcher chickens, necks and similar scraps go to the dogs and cats, while the offal goes to the pigs. When we butcher beef, pork or lamb, offal goes to the pigs and meaty scraps become chicken balls, dog and cat food. We save bones for the dogs to chew, and the chickens will also peck away the meaty bits. Fourth, animal manure is a valuable byproduct in the garden and pasture. Fifth, you can use raw milk to re-inoculate soil and promote plant growth. For areas you till, this is very valuable, as tilling tends to clobber soil microbes. And finally, I just plain like having animals around. There’s nothing more fun than watching a bunch of baby pigs or lambs playing.

Watering

I hand water the kitchen garden; there’s no question that my water use is minimal compared to the average garden watered with a sprinkler. When you’re planting intensively and successively, inches count. Although drip irrigation and soaker hoses don’t use much water, they’re much harder to fit into an intensively planted small garden with lots of different-sized plants. They will work best if you keep one bed for each type of spacing. So, for example, all the plants that need four-inch centers would go in one bed, all those on two-foot centers in another. It limits flexibility, though, and makes plant rotation a lot harder. We used flood irrigation (gravity-fed from the big spring) in the big garden. That one we would soak, about once a week, and then let it dry until the next watering. When I first planted or put out transplants in the big garden, I hand watered (with buckets and a watering can) for a few weeks until they were well-established.

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