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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Other Garden Systems

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Season Extension

Like several others on this list, Eliot Coleman started out in another field. In his case it was education. His master’s degree was in Spanish literature. He spent his early years teaching, with time out for hobbies such as skiing and rock climbing. He became acquainted with Scott and Helen Nearing, who were two of the original back-to-the-landers in Maine (Living the Good Life is their classic book). Coleman began farming in 1968. He purchased the 60 acres of what is now Four Seasons Farm for $33 an acre, although it was not until 1990 that he returned to the farm full-time. He spent the intervening years running farms for other people. Gardening in Maine means short seasons and cold winters, so Coleman started thinking about how to extend the seasons. The Nearings had used stone-walled greenhouses and he used some of their principles in his work. The basics of the system:

  1. Movable greenhouses. Coleman’s plastic-covered hoop greenhouses keep crops from freezing in winter. In the summer, they are rolled aside to expose the beds and prevent them from overheating.
  2. Soil health. Coleman operates on the theory that insects and disease attack weak plants. Healthy soil makes healthy plants that are less attractive – sort of the way a mugger will go for the tottering old granny instead of the buff football player. Although I can think of at least one case when an elderly friend of mine staved off a knife-wielding mugger by whacking him with her purse.
  3. Use lots of compost, which you make yourself. Coleman also has the option of using seaweed, which is often loaded with trace nutrients.
  4. Avoid chemicals, pesticides and herbicides.
  5. Use row covers and similar materials to ward off bugs and provide plant protection when it gets cold.
  6. Choose plants and varieties that do well in your area (although Coleman also grows a few oddities just for fun, such as artichokes, which are not normally a Maine crop. He once said in an interview that he does it to make the Californians nervous).

Coleman’s methods are terrific for the person who has a short season. They are also good for people who want to get a jump on the season for plants like tomatoes. His gardens are productive and healthy. He uses a lot of plastics and other man-made materials in his system, some of which can be pretty darned expensive.

No-Till and Constant Cropping

Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser farm eight acres just outside the town of Sebastapol, in Sonoma County near San Francisco, although they only harvest a little over three of them. Two more highly-educated farmers: Paul has advanced degrees in international relations, natural resources management and sustainable development, while Elizabeth holds them in public health and nursing. Both are former Peace Corps volunteers who worked in drought areas such as the Gambia to help revive agriculture. Their techniques allow them to produce four to seven crops a year from each acre of ground. The basics of the system:

  1. Practice agro-forestry. Plant trees for windbreaks, to hold soil moisture, build fertility or provide food and cover for beneficial insects.
  2. Plow or double dig your beds when you first start the garden. After that, you don’t till at all.
  3. Don’t harvest the roots of your crops (obvious exception, things like carrots and beets). Leave them in the ground to build humus, provide worm food and create channels to aerate soil and trap water.
  4. Keep the ground covered with mulch, compost or plants at all times.
  5. Don’t direct seed (with a very few exceptions such as fine-seeded carrots). Grow successions of transplants so you always have something ready to go in the ground.
  6. As soon as you harvest, apply several inches of fresh compost and immediately plant new seedlings. So if you harvest a bed in the morning, by afternoon, you will apply fresh compost and put in new plants. If for some reason you can’t replant immediately, cover the exposed soil with cardboard, heavy mulch or agricultural fabric. This prevents the soil from drying, stops weed seeds from germinating and keeps the microbial life in the soil working away.

This system is pretty new and to some, very controversial. The controversy comes primarily from concerns about whether the use of so much compost causes water pollution from high-nitrogen runoff and whether it’s sustainable over the long term. Paul Kaiser says that water testing has shown there is no problem with runoff. He thinks it’s because the constant cropping and soil building uses up all the nitrogen. My primary concern about this one is that the Kaisers have to purchase two-thirds of the compost they use. Given that they live so close to Sebastapol, they’re using a lot of biodegradable material from the city that would otherwise end up in landfills, so that’s a good thing. If you lived out in the boonies, though, I could see it being a problem. There’s no question that the soil in their garden beds is in terrific condition and extremely fertile. They also use much less water than the average gardener or farmer. They have minimal problems with weeds, because the repeated layering of compost and close plant spacing prevents germination of weed seeds. The concept of trees and hedgerows is good for the farm and promotes beneficial insects, insect-eating birds and the overall ecology of the farm. They make about $100,000 per crop annually, which allows them to pay year-round full-time employees a decent wage. Mind you, their market is really close to the farm, so things like shipping costs are low.

Dryland Gardening

The ancient Native Americans – Anasazi, Pueblo, Hopi and Pima, among others – were the first experts in this sort of agriculture. Steven Solomon (Gardening Without Irrigation: or without much, anyway) and Nita Wilton (blog: Throwback at Trapper Creek) are two modern proponents. Solomon was a history teacher who gave it up for a series of different careers, including creating a typesetting business and starting Territorial Seed Company. Wilton is and has always been a farmer (third generation and pretty much done raising the fourth generation, who is in her twenties), although she’s also brought in income doing things like accounting and consulting. Solomon originally gardened in the Pacific Northwest on the east side of the Cascades and now lives in Tasmania, Australia; Wilton farms near the Columbia River Gorge in northern Oregon. The basic principles of the system are:

  1. Direct seed or plant transplants as soon as possible after a spring rain so there’s plenty of soil moisture. If necessary, irrigate prior to planting. You may also need to water a little bit until the seedlings become established.
  2. Build your soil with cover crops that are tilled into the ground and left to rot. About half of Wilton’s gardens are in cover crops at any given time.
  3. Space your plants much more widely than in conventional gardening. You may need to give them 1½ to two times the space. Wilton gardens in rows but spaces the rows widely.
  4. Keep weeds down; this means cultivation prior to planting and lots of hand or hoe work once the plants are growing.
  5. Cultivate your soil regularly to keep the soil particles fine and provide a dust mulch that helps hold in moisture.
  6. The Native Americans used a system of small catchment basins that sloped down to catch rainfall. They planted in the low end of the basins. Some dryland gardeners use a similar system of level basins so plants are protected from drying breezes and there is no water runoff. Others plant in trenches.
  7. Choose varieties that are adapted to dry conditions. For example, the Pearson Tomato, Black Aztec corn, chard and amaranth are all naturally drought-resistant.
  8. Wilton also raises grass-fed beef, has a confined chicken flock and keeps a milk cow. Part of her system is using the bedding and manure of these animals to build compost piles with which she fertilizes the garden and her pastures/hay fields. During the winter, her beef animals are kept confined in an area heavily bedded with straw. At the end of the winter, the barn is cleaned out and the bedding goes into the compost pile. Her system does require heavy machinery, but for a smaller garden, you could duplicate it with bedding from the chicken coop and do it by hand.
  9. Dry fallowing and rotation. The first technique is to cultivate the ground in the spring and let it sit until fall, when you till under the weeds that have grown. Dry fallowing can help decrease soil pests and diseases. The negative – it can also cause erosion in areas with regular summer winds. What some dryland farmers do is rotate their growing areas. They plant an area to grasses and legumes, graze or hay it for a few years, and then turn the pasture under and grow vegetable crops. This also breaks disease and pest cycles, and adds to the soil fertility.
  10. Although it’s not specific to dryland farming, Wilton is also one of the few who ties in some historical methods of gardening. Among these are pollinator rows in the garden, seed saving (which Jeavons also espouses), companion planting (ditto Jeavons and the Kaisers), and planting by the phases of the moon. She grows root crops specifically for her milk cow. She is also, as far as I know, the only one who has a Cosmic Pipe in her garden. I only know what I’ve read, but the theory behind the Cosmic Pipe is that it draws down energy from the cosmos.
  11. Wilton uses fixed greenhouses for season extension, as she has a short season and would not otherwise be able to grow things like tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. The greenhouses are big enough so she can plow them with a tractor, and like the outside gardens, she also grows cover crops in them. She takes the cover off the greenhouses each winter to expose the soil to natural light and weather conditions, as she says it keeps the soil in much better condition. Removing the cover also protects the greenhouses from collapsing under heavy snow loads, which happened to her one year. The other big advantage to her greenhouses is that in the spring, when she has a lot of rain, she can plant and harvest in the greenhouse without worrying about whether it’s too wet to work the soil.

Dryland gardening, done right, can be very productive. In areas with limited rainfall, it may be the only way you can raise your own food. As the weather continues to get crazier, knowing how to raise food on less water will become much more important in many places. Even in my area, which is on the southern end of the Pacific Northwest, there are some years when we get only about half of our historical ‘normal’ rainfall. Aside from the weather, pumping water usually requires expensive electricity. You cannot do dryland farming without lots of soil improvement, as the fertility in the soil is one of the most important factors in water retention. Wilton has the sort of diversified old-fashioned farm in which animals are key to building fertility. She keeps her chickens in an unused hoophouse (she has several), lets them turn their bedding into compost and plows it in the next year before planting warm-season crops. The bedding from the beef and milk cows also becomes compost. She uses pigs to root up new areas for planting and get rid of blackberries.

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Garden Systems, Part I

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Almost everyone has some sort of garden system. They may design it on purpose to fit their situation or stumble into it accidentally just because something works for them. One of the nice things about gardening is the tremendous flexibility it offers. Everybody has to deal with their sun/soil/water/weather conditions, the time allotted to the projects, insects, animals, the availability of compost or mulch and the constraints of space. My system in my zone 7 northern California gardens isn’t (and shouldn’t be) the same as that of a gardener in far northern Maine, Iowa or even my stepmother’s zone 9 California garden 35 miles away. Temperatures and humidity make for considerable variances. Growing food in the hot, humid South is very different from growing food in the humid but cool Pacific Northwest or the hot but dry Arizona desert. In most cases, you’ll do best by picking and choosing among the various systems. Many use the same basic techniques. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of several garden systems.

Garden Systems: Biointensive Gardening

This is the John Jeavons method. One of the original members of the Ecology Action Project, Jeavons has been doing this work since 1972. He started off as a political science graduate from Yale University, then took a turn into the fields. Jeavons calls what he and the other members of Ecology Action do ‘sustainable mini-farming.’ The basics of the garden system:

  1. Double digging soil. Jeavons and team believe that soil is most productive if double-dug initially and then at least every two or three years after that. They see double digging as a way to improve drainage, hold soil moisture and encourage root growth.
  2. Raised beds for improved drainage, earlier spring warming and increased soil fertility. This also allows the gardener to build high-quality soil. Ecology Action originally started its research by building raised beds on an old parking lot. Jeavons et al also use slanted-side raised beds rather than some sort of retaining system, so they can plant the sides of the bed as well as the top.
  3. Crowding plants into the smallest space possible. With highly fertile soil, you can do this. Intensive planting allows for less water use, makes the overall size of the garden smaller, helps shade the soil and keeps down weeds.
  4. Succession planting. The idea is to keep the soil constantly occupied growing food or compost. This allows maximum production from a small space and helps shield the soil from erosion. Jeavons grows transplants for darned near everything – including crops like carrots and beets, which are usually direct-seeded – and moves them into bigger pots at least once as he says it promotes root development.
  5. Growing your own compost. Jeavons doesn’t think animals have a place in gardens as they are too wasteful of space and resources. Part of his thinking (the political science background coming to the fore) is that as the world’s population continues to grow, we will need to concentrate food growing on less and less land, leaving no room for animals. Without animals, and in the interests of sustainability, Ecology Action tries to grow all of its own compost crops. Some are dual-purpose crops such as grains; the grain is harvested and eaten, while the straw becomes compost. Others are strictly compost crops.
  6. Companion planting. Mixing edible and non-edible plants promotes diversity, decreases insect problems, may improve plant health and production and is just plain pretty.
  7. Constant research and record-keeping to improve the system.

One major positive of this system is that you can do it quite cheaply, especially if you use open-pollinated seeds. It is very productive, and by growing your own compost, it’s much closer to completely sustainable than most gardening or farming systems. It doesn’t require a lot of water or space. Timing is critical with this system, because of the tight succession planting. It’s also a little harder to plant on Jeavons’ recommended triangular spacing (which is the most efficient use of space). The initial round of double digging is really hard work, and even after your soil is in good condition, double digging is not a walk in the park. This is also a garden that requires a lot of time and attention (daily watering, for example).

Garden Systems: Square Foot Gardening

Like Jeavons, Mel Bartholomew was trained in an entirely different discipline than agriculture. He was a civil engineer who took up gardening after he retired. Engineers tend to look at systems and start asking questions like, “Why do you…?” In Bartholmew’s’s case, it was “Why do you grow things in traditional rows and waste so much garden space?” When he got blank looks and multiple variations on “because that’s the way we’ve always done it” answers, he started tinkering. The basics of the garden system:

  1. You build a bottomless wooden box above ground to put your garden in. You can put it pretty much anywhere – a lawn, a deck, a patio. Minimum size four feet by four feet; space the boxes three feet apart. Bartholomew says six inches is deep enough. He also recommends weed mat under the box if you put it on the ground.
  2. Fill the box with a special soil mix. Bartholomew sold it, but you can also create your own. His mix is 1/3 blended compost, 1/3 peat moss and 1/3 vermiculite.
  3. Lay down a 12X12-inch grid with wood strips over the box.
  4. Plant a different crop in each square. As you harvest, add a trowel-full of compost and replant with a different crop. Depending on the size of the plant use 1,4,9 or 16 plants per square foot.

Like biointensive gardening, this system doesn’t take much space. It’s water-efficient and productive. It can be expensive, because you’re buying the lumber for the beds and buying the soil or the components to make it. I disagree that six inches is deep enough; if I were going to use this system I would go a minimum of one foot deep. I think it also limits your choices of varieties – pole beans are tough in this system, for example. If I had really limited space and only wanted to grow salad crops, this would probably be a good system.

Garden Systems: Permanent Mulch

Ruth Stout was the original ‘lazy’ gardener (my heroine!). A Jill of many trades, she worked as a baby nurse, bookkeeper, secretary, business manager and factory worker. At one point she owned a small tea shop in Greenwich Village. After she officially retired in 1930, she started gardening at her 55-acre farm in Redding, Connecticut. As she refined her system, she started writing about it (writing ran in the family – her brother was Rex Stout, of fictional detective Nero Wolfe fame). Her garden system is pretty simple: cover the garden with a thick mulch of vegetable matter. Stout recommended an 8-inch mulch, preferably a combination of straw or hay and leaves. She also used cottonseed or soybean meal as a fertilizer. She did not dig or till except for plowing when the garden was first started. To plant, you pull back the mulch and tuck seeds or transplants in the ground. As time goes by, the mulch packs down and rots, building the soil beneath it. Any time you see a bare spot, toss on more mulch. If the mulch begins to sprout weeds (grass hay and straw are particularly prone to this), just turn it upside down. Stout continued to plant in rows, but she noted that over time you could put the rows much closer together. Stout’s garden was known for its productivity. She reports in her books that she had very few insect or disease problems, even though she wasn’t a fanatic about rotating crops. Managing weeds was also much easier.

Permanent Mulch: Lasagna Gardening

A variation on this system is called lasagna gardening, and was developed by Patricia Lanza. Lanza laid out a garden with paths between the beds, put cardboard on the paths and covered it with wood chips. Then each garden bed (no digging, just bare or grassy soil) was covered with layers of overlapped wet newspaper, followed by one to two inches of peat moss. The next layer was three to four inches of dried grass clippings. She continued to alternate peat moss and grass until the layers were about 24 inches high. Then she finished with a sprinkle of wood ashes and left the garden over the winter (she lived in a climate with reliable snow in winter). By spring, she had about six to eight inches of compost, with another six inches of soft, friable soil underneath. Essentially, Lanza was building a compost heap on top of the garden and she then kept a permanent mulch on the beds she had built.

Mulch serves the triple purpose of weed suppression, moisture conservation and building soil. You need a good source, which may or may not be a problem in your area. Spoiled hay, for example, is often readily available in some locales. Even in towns and cities, the local waste management department often maintains compost piles of leaves, grass and debris from suburban gardens and lawns. You’ll have to haul it or get it delivered and it may be a source of pesticides or herbicides. You can deal with the herbicides by mixing in activated charcoal. A permanent mulch system doesn’t necessarily save space. If you’re the sort of gardener who bows to the goddess of neat and clean, it may give you an ulcer.

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