Let’s flash back to May 2009. We started small with a 14x9’ garden that sat right behind the north-side of the house. We dug out the sod, filled the hole with purchased topsoil, and sprinkled in a little lime (you know, for good measure). We started many different things, but it was OK because we just planted a few plants of each. We grew red bell peppers, jalapeños, zucchini, pumpkins, and yellow squash. When I look back, I remember how excited and confused I was. That summer I harvested 25 zucchini, 20 jalapenos, 8 yellow squash, 0 pumpkins, and watched my red pepper plants get consumed by tiny white bugs and the leaves on my zucchini plants turn black.
At that time, I didn’t realize the very important fact that my plants can only be as healthy as the soil is (and that a little sun never hurts). I learned so much from that 14x9’ garden.
Now, we work four 8x4’ raised beds, one 4x4’ raised herb bed, three large raised row growing areas, a semi-portable hoophouse, and various perennial and come-again plants (including blackberries, blueberries, comfrey, lavender, cilantro, dill, calendula, rosemary, oregano, sage, mint, and a pair of pear trees), some of which are growing wherever the seeds landed the year before. I love it. But it took years to get to this point and we still learn so much each year.
I will briefly cover some of the management techniques we have tried and how they worked for us, as well as some other things we will be experimenting with. Please, as always, share your techniques, ideas, questions, and suggestions with us here, on Facebook, and in person!
The first thing I would like to talk about is soil health. Without healthy soil, we can’t possibly expect to get healthy plants. Happy, healthy soil teaming with microbes is the source of life for strong, nutrient-dense plants. And it is important to recognize that, if you plan to garden year after year, building soil fertility is the key to maintaining a growing area that will serve us and the plants we grow for as long as we need them. Fortunately, nature is abundant with the resources necessary to manage the soil in this way and we can avoid simply feeding the plant directly with soluble fertilizers each season, which can result in a whole host of issues. Much like our bodies, we can choose to build a healthy foundation from the ground up, or we can limp along with poor nutrition and palliatives when things go wrong.
Also, I would like to address the challenge of “depth”. In this case, I’m not talking about how deep your soil is but about how “deep” we want to go with any endeaver we take. For example, we could easily buy soil that would probably produce nice-looking, plump veggies. But what are we gaining by purchasing soil to grow food? Do we know where the soil comes from, and if it includes any chemicals or other additives? Why not just buy food from the store, like we buy soil from the store?
I understand that growing is different for everyone. Some folks don’t have the resources to grow things without purchasing soil, or that gardening might be about getting outdoors and getting our hands dirty, in whatever soil we can find. On the homestead, we focus on growing nutrient-dense foods for our family, but other people enjoy growing exotic treats to eat or things not for eating at all! So, it’s important to know why we’re growing anything in the first place. We love building our soil from compacted clay (and rocks, ohhhh the rocks) into healthy soil that grows delicious, nutrient-dense crops that we feed ourselves with. We do this because it makes us feel good and we recognize the growth in ourselves (of health, knowledge, and sense of agency and independence) while doing it. So, this is the perspective from which I write.
It took some time for it to sink in, but we now understand that before we plant we should tend to our soil quality. But how to do it? Please don’t feel overwhelmed, I understand this may seem like a lot to work all at once. I look at it like this: every little bit helps. Remember that you can do as much as you’re able to or want to this season and continue to improve the soil thereafter. No rush or stress needed! Gardening can be fun and relaxing; just do your best and your plants will thank you.
Organic matter, also known as humus, is the component of your soil that is alive. Bacteria in the soil are responsible for breaking down decaying plants, solubilizing minerals (nitrogen), and releasing carbon dioxide. Composted organic matter is an amazing addition that builds up a strong soil foundation, and there are a lot of options for sources. We encourage you to produce as much as you can from resources that you have (e.g., from kitchen scraps, grass clippings, tree prunings) first, and then collect from local sources if you need more.
We’re fortunate to have family members that run an alpaca farm, HomeBrew Alpacas, and they are more than happy to share their collection of poo with us. We pick it up by the truck load! We also use our own composted chicken manure because it is high in phosphorus and nitrogen. Man oh man, animals surely do poop (and we can benefit)!
The easiest way to know if your soil is healthy is to observe your garden and see if you’re getting the results you want. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the specifics of what vitamins and minerals to supplement with. But again, much like our bodies, a lot of this is premature optimization because we’re ignoring the low-hanging fruit. If we focus first on eating well and taking care of ourselves, we might be able to improve things a little with supplementation, but we’re already most of the way there. It is a good idea, though, to know what you’re starting with and if your soil is particularly deficient in some area. Virginia Tech, A&L Eastern Laboratories, and other labs in Virginia perform soil tests.
Along with adding organic matter to the soil directly, cover cropping can be very beneficial if you repeatedly plant in the same areas. Cover crops help keep plant nutrients from being lost from the soil and can even help work freshly added compost into the soil over time. Certain covers (legumes) are great for fixing nitrogen, which is an essential nutrient for plant health. Cover crops can be grown over the winter, as a main crop, or during the growing season as an undersown crop. Eliot Coleman’s The New Organic Grower (affiliate link!!) has specific information on these useful crops if you’re interested.
We experimented this past winter by seeding our raised rows at different times with combinations of rye plus hairy vetch (approximate 2:1 ratio) and oats plus hairy vetch (also approximate 2:1 ratio). Now, in April 2016, the rye has survived the winter and the oats have mostly been killed off by the cold. We were hoping that the oats would be killed completely and would form a dense mat of in-situ mulch for transplanting into, but the winter wasn’t quite as cold as we expected. So, we’ll have to cut what remains of the oats before planting, just as we plan to do with the rye. Mulching this way keeps soil fertility in the garden over the winter, helps regulate temperature, retains moisture, and adds decomposing organic matter, which all improve soil quality. Other covers may serve this purpose better, so we’ll continue to experiment while we wait to hear from others about their experiences.
The raised beds and raised rows are both great, so it just depends on what your goals are. The raised beds required work to put together and are not easily relocated. They are great for growing smaller volumes close together and keeping your area separated from grass and weeds, though they don’t remove the challenge entirely. We enjoy growing leafy greens and perennial herbs in our beds. Our portable hoop greenhouse fits nicely over two beds so it’s helpful for more delicate perennials, such as rosemary and marjoram, during super cold winters. Raised rows are ideal for growing larger amounts of veggies or for veggies that require a lot of space (like winter squashes and sweet potatoes). The rows help keep crops separated, retain water, and allow for easy crop rotation (if you have multiple rows). There is no right or wrong way to garden; whatever works best for you is your correct way!
We experimented with both a wooden A-frame trellis and rebar driven into the ground as trellising for tomatoes. I plan to write a tomato post for early May with all those details. These trellises will also work for growing other vegetables vertically.
We now either direct seed into the raised rows and beds or transplant seedlings that were started in soil blocks.
Right now, we’re newly experimenting with extending the growing season using row cover and low tunnels. We started a couple cold tolerant crops, including spinach, kale, and turnips, by direct seeding them early into raised rows covered with low tunnels. We also intend to lengthen the season through the colder months of fall and hopefully into the winter for some vegetables using the same method. The hoop greenhouse has already been super useful for starting seedlings, helping protect perennials, and growing cold tolerant veggies in the beds during colder months. We’re excited and hopeful that we will be able to grow more of the things we love for longer, and we will definitely keep you posted on how these methods work out for us.
As you see, we have techniques, crops, and patterns that have worked and failed but I am sure that each growing season will be unique and we’ll continue to learn more each year. We appreciate your interactions, questions, and suggestions so much because they help us to see how you do things, to understand how environments differ, and to gain new ideas. We thank you for your part in our journey.
I would also like to leave you with one last thought. Growing food can be really exciting, especially when it’s warm and things are growing wonderfully. And sometimes we’ve found that the “end of the season” can be disheartening as we brace ourselves for cold winter months. First, we try to recognize this time as a valuable transition from the hustle of planting and harvesting, to a more thoughtful time to garden. This break from the onslaught of ripening tomatoes allows us time to enjoy the nutrient-dense squash or sweet potatoes that grew all season and gives us room to plan for the following year. Second, it’s a great time to coordinate with others about resources they might be willing to sell, barter, or give away (like our family’s alpaca poo), and it might even be a good time to pick those things up (if you don’t mind working in the cold). Last, most of us keep our homes warm enough for growing things. While the light from a south-facing window in winter might be minimal (some supplementation with grow lights could help), it might be worth a shot if you feel as if you must be growing something. Of course, we probably can’t grow inside as much as we’ll eat, but it can be a good time to experiment (e.g., with different light requirements, soil fertility requirements, seed starting) and get our hands dirty.
For us, the “never-ending season” includes an incredible amount of joy. We hope it does for you too.
Resources (and affiliate links!!):
- Eliot Coleman - The New Organic Grower, soil blocks and other growing techniques
- Eliot Coleman - The Winter Harvest Handbook, greenhouse growing and season extension
- Harvey Ussery - The Small Scale Poultry Flock, cover cropping and other management techniques