Garden Basics

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All gardens require some sort of regular management practices to be productive. Here are some more of my garden basics.

Cultivation

If I’m building a new garden bed from scratch, I either dig up the soil or build a deep bed and bring in soil/compost mix that is already fairly well chopped up. In the kitchen garden, that’s pretty much all the soil disturbance that occurs, other than a little raking of compost or soil amendments.

Garden Structures

I use as much salvaged stuff as I can for beds, trellises and such. The kitchen garden beds are bounded on the downhill side by logs about a foot in diameter that are held in place by pieces of cut-off salvaged metal fence posts, pounded into the ground. The sides and uphill edge are held in place by smaller poles, cut from our land and stacked as necessary to raise the level of the soil. Some of my beds have rock sides from the rocks we’ve collected in the process of building the garden. I have some trellises that my husband built at least 20 years ago from old metal fence posts and recycled woven wire. They’re reasonably portable, very sturdy and are quite likely going to outlast me. I use wood scraps from our sawmill milling operations for plant stakes. Most are about an inch square. Heights vary; what usually happens is they start out five or six feet long. I use them for tomato stakes until they break or rot off enough that they’re too short. At that point they become pepper or eggplant stakes. I have lots of salvaged pots in sizes varying from five gallons to a few ounces. They include plastic, clay, ceramic, wood and metal pots. It’s a motley collection, but it works. Once they start to leak, I also use old metal livestock watering troughs as planters. These are great for perennial veggies you want to keep contained – like rhubarb or Jersualem artichokes – and they’re also deep enough to give room for the roots.

Weed Suppression

Mulch really helps keep down weeds. Cardboard or several thickness of wet newspaper keeps weed seeds from germinating. Circle plants like squash and pumpkins, tomatoes and other solanums for about a foot out. Then it’s easy to hoe or pull any weeds without worrying about damaging plants. This kind of mulch also helps prevent your plants from getting splashed with mud when you water them. Several inches of compost can also keep most weeds at bay until the plants have grown enough to shade and crowd them out. Although it might look messy, well-grown plants can tolerate a little weed pressure and still produce well. It also gives the beneficial insects places to hide and breed. However, in those areas where slugs are a problem, mulch of any kind provides cover for the slugs. Finally, weeds are good at pulling up nutrients from deep in the soil. Spread them on top of the ground to rot or add them to the compost pile to make those nutrients available to your plants. Some things need hand weeding. Carrots, for example, are slow to germinate, and by the time they really get up and going, so have the weeds. Snipping off small weeds with a pair of scissors leaves the roots in the ground to rot and build more soil; I try not to pull them because it disturbs the soil structure and microbes. A scuffle hoe works well to cut them off at ground level. I think it’s easier to use a scuffle hoe than a regular hoe and it’s pretty fast if you keep the edges sharp and use it regularly. Again, once your plants really get up and going, they’ll keep the weeds down by shading them out. If you’re in a dryland situation, you’re going to have to be much more of a weeding fanatic than I am.

Companion Planting

Many insects specialize and eat only one particular plant or its relatives, so there’s no question that small blocks of intercropped vegetables or different vegetables planted together to maximize space in a small area are less attractive to insects. Throw companion plants and flowers into the mix and it’s even better. The jury is still out on whether companion plants in general actually repel insects, make other plants grow better, affect flavor or retard growth. In a few cases, it’s pretty clear. Walnut trees secrete a substance called juglone that acts like a root repellent. Certain marigolds definitely help repel root knot nematodes. Some people swear by companion planting, others say it doesn’t work. I say try it and see how it works in your garden.

Attracting Pollinators

I’m in complete agreement with Nita Wilton that you need a pollinator row or two in the garden. Alyssum, cilantro, basil, borage, dill, celery, chervil, zinnas, calendulas, cornflowers, cosmos, poppies, scabious, yarrow, rye and barley are all good choices. They’re annuals and reseed freely. Once they go to seed, cut off the seedheads, dry thoroughly and dump all the seeds together into a big jar. Next spring, just shake the jar over the area where you want a pollinator row. The insects will thank you. Besides, it’s pretty. These plants also volunteer and you’ll find them all over the garden – if they aren’t in the way, just leave them.

Herbicides and Pesticides

I don’t use them at all, even the ones that are supposedly ‘safe’ for organic gardening. First, poisons on my food don’t appeal. Second, they’re indiscriminate. A pre-emergent herbicide doesn’t care whether it attacks weed seeds or the crops you just planted. If said crops are sensitive to whatever it is, you’ve got a problem. A pesticide will kill beneficials and pollinators just as quickly as it does the plant-eating bugs. Beneficial insects reproduce more slowly than the pests they eat, and you never get a 100-percent kill. So the surviving plant-eating insects (which are now developing resistance to whatever you sprayed them with) will quickly reproduce while the beneficials struggle to catch up. Once you disrupt the cycle, it will remain unbalanced, often for years. Third, a lot of them persist in the soil, often years longer than the manufacturers or scientists say they’re supposed to. Fourth, there’s more and more evidence that farming chemicals like herbicides and pesticides harm animals and people, especially children, whose developing nervous systems are much more sensitive to the effects of toxic substances. I had a bad experience with a persistent pre-emergent herbicide in some straw I used a few years back for mulch. Three years later, I was still having trouble with seedlings in the area where I used the contaminated straw. So I keep some activated charcoal powder around. Any time I use hay or straw for mulch, I sprinkle it with the powder, just in case. Activated charcoal will neutralize the poison (that’s why emergency room doctors make people who have swallowed poison drink an activated charcoal solution. Of course, they usually make you puke and/or pump out your stomach, too, so stay away from the poisons and keep them away from your kids!).

The closest I will come to this stuff is using something like a pepper or garlic spray on a plant that’s getting shredded. I find, however, that healthy, well-grown plants just don’t really have many insect problems. A plant that’s getting shredded is probably sickly and you might be better off just pulling it up. Goldfinches will peck holes in sunflower and chard leaves; it looks like insect damage but isn’t. The birds don’t hurt the sunflowers (even if they look raggedy) but can do quite a number on the chard. Row covers help there. I do use Tanglefoot, a sticky substance you can paint on to keep ants or climbing insects from using plants as a ladder, or to keep ants out of the hummingbird feeders.

Water

In the kitchen garden, I hand water because I don’t have a choice. That’s one reason I use mulch heavily. I like a fan sprayer with an adjustable volume control. I water until water starts to pool on top of the bed. If it disappears into the ground almost immediately, I soak the bed again. I usually water in the evening – less evaporation at night. If the weather is particularly hot and windy (it’s always dry here in the summer), I water again in the morning. Sometimes we have a dry spring, in which case I will water even those beds that aren’t planted to keep the soil moisture levels up. If you let them get too dry, the soil microbes suffer; when you do plant, you’re starting with a water deficit that you can’t make up with once-a-day watering. In fact, when you do use this system (very similar to John Jeavons’ biointensive system), it’s absolutely critical to start the growing year with plenty of soil moisture in your beds. If you don’t have at least two inches of rain in the week before you start your spring garden, water to make up the difference. And don’t guess; get out a trowel and dig several holes in each bed to be sure the soil is good and moist at least eight inches down. In the big garden, we either irrigated a week before or timed planting for about a week after a good rain, then I would hand irrigate the first week or two to give the transplants and seeds a good start. After that we used flood irrigation about once a week. The two-week (sometimes longer) hand-watering interval is to prevent irrigation from washing out seeds or tiny plants.

Choosing Vegetable Varieties

When you’re deciding what to grow, many of the factors above may influence your choice of vegetable varities. Only you can decide which of these are most critical. If you’re growing in dryland conditions, drought resistance may be the most important factor. If you have limited space, maximum production per square foot could be the most important. As an example, you might want to choose cherry tomatoes over a larger slicing variety, as the cherries need less space but can produce almost as much on a pound-for-pound basis. Taste also plays a role, of course. Most people tend to take one of two paths in selecting varieties. The first path (especially for seed savers) is to pick one or two varieties that you know are reliable in your area and stick with them, gradually selecting for the plants that produce best in your microclimate. The second path (which I tend to favor) is to pick three or four varieties, each with slightly different characteristics. The advantage of this method is two-fold. First, the diversity increases the odds that at least one of the varieties you plant will produce well in a given year’s growing conditions. For example, Rattlesnake pole beans do well in hot dry summers as well as hot humid summers. But in cool summers, Blue Lake – which was developed in Mendocino County on the coast of California – will do better than Rattlesnake. If you plant both, the odds of beating the weather improve. Remember, Mother Nature gets to roll the dice, and she cheats, big time. Second, planting varieties with different characteristics means you’re more likely get different nutritive characteristics. Beans that are purple, yellow and green have different anthocynanins (which give plants their colors). Anthocynanins are antioxidants that promote health. Although snap beans and Romano beans both come in pole varieties, they taste significantly different, which indicates they may have different nutritional properties as well. We know that humans get health benefits from getting food from a wide variety of sources. The more variety you can introduce in your garden the better, as far as I’m concerned. Not to mention that it sure livens up the garden. It does make seed saving a little more complex, but since almost all vegetable seeds are good for at least three years, I plant a larger amount of whatever variety I want seeds from every third or fourth year. This is primarily an issue with vegetables that are wind- or insect-pollinated, as they will cross easily. For self-fertile plants like lettuce, peppers and tomatoes, you don’t need as many plants for seed-saving activities.

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