Keyhole Gardens vs. Row Gardens

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Elizabeth considers keyhole gardens vs. row gardens:

“David,

I enjoy your practical approach to organic/permaculture. I currently garden annual vegetables in rows on borrowed land. I styled the rows with narrow paths across the hill. This works great for me but not for my husband and friends. Anyone else walks on the planting rows. I have permission from the land owners to plant anything in any way I choose. 
Is it practical to transition to keyhole design? The keyhole design reduces the area of paths. I prefer the look of circles instead of rows. I could slightly raise the downhill side of the circle. In your videos, you do make mounds on the downhill side of some plantings. 
At this time I mostly use hand tools. The only power tool I use is a string trimmer. I have dreams of using a BCS.”
A BCS tractor, I assume. Yeah, that would be nice. I could use one of those myself.
Let’s take a look at keyhole gardens vs. row gardens.

Keyhole Gardens vs. Row Gardens

Keyhole gardens are cool. I’ve mentioned them before, but never built one.

That’s because, at heart, I am really lazy about digging and building things. I also like to plant large spaces when I can.

This is a pretty typical keyhole garden:

I mean, it’s really cool and all that—but the labor involved! Holy moly. You could plant a quarter acre of row gardens with that amount of labor in the same amount of time. To me, keyhole gardens are what happens when engineers get overly clever. I generally feel the same way about aquaponics systems, but I’m tired of taking abuse on that front so I won’t say anything more.

It would take me a day to build a keyhole garden—or to put in an entire, much larger traditional garden. I cleared, dug, and planted a half-acre in about six hours with the help of a local farmer last year. Row gardens are easy to weed with a hoe, can be built rapidly, and don’t need all the digging, piling up, and materials. I’m also not sure that a plot of land covered with keyhole gardens would have less path space than one with row gardens, as you lose the space between the circles. Perhaps someone has done the math on that already—let me know in the comments if you have an idea.

Beyond that, don’t get me wrong: There may be a good place for keyhole gardens. Beds close to the house for herbs and salad greens where you can dump your daily kitchen scraps—great! Build ’em!

But your row gardens are already doing well—so why change? Ah! That’s right. We need to face . . .

The Real Problem

Your husband and your friends are terrible people.

Kidding.

The lack of obvious paths in some of my garden beds have led visitors astray. Just because I know how I laid something out doesn’t mean that my wife, children, or neighbors—or the police detectives searching for bodies in my compost pile—do.

Why not stick some sticks in the ground to mark paths? Or just mulch some paths with straw? Or put down a few stepping stones? You could string strings between sticks to mark areas off in just a few minutes. Sure, it’s less convenient for you—but it would be a lot easier than building keyhole beds.

Even if you made dirt-mound style keyholes without bricks and sticks, it’s still a lot of digging—plus you lose growing space in between those circles.

If you’re really keen on some keyholes, I would go ahead and build a few on part of your land and see how they compare with what you’re doing. You’ll probably be tired after that—but, if you find you love them and they work great, great! Convert the rest.

I’ll bet you stick with rows, though. When you look at the keyhole gardens vs. row gardens fight in terms of labor, row gardens will win. And labor is big when you’re farming.

Just my two cents. Thanks for writing, and good luck. If you do build those keyhole gardens and have luck, drop me a line and send pictures. I’d be happy to be proven wrong.

 

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Should You Plant on Mounds in Sandy Soil?

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Calen asks about planting on mounds in fast-draining, sandy soil:

“I’m a native Cracker from [coastal Florida]. I’ve been homesteading on ancestral farmland with a survivalist and traditionalist mindset for three years now. All heirloom and organic, etc. I own all of your books, and they, along with your blog and videos, have been the most helpful gardening advice that I’ve ever found anywhere. Last year I grew tons of Seminole pumpkins with great success using your “melon pits.” I passed that along to many friends who did likewise. I also plant the pumpkins in many “guerrilla gardens” in the swamp and backwoods on public land, and that’s worked out great as well. I never revisit them until harvest time, and they normally do better than my tended ones. Anyways, this year I want to give the three sisters a try. My plan is to use Jimmy Red corn, Cherokee black pole beans, and Seminole pumpkins. Pretty much everything I read says to plant on mounds. However, my place is high, dry, east-bank-of-Lake George sugar sand. Is mounding the way I should go? We didn’t even have standing water during the past two hurricanes. My thought was to maybe do these in slight pits like the melons and pumpkins but wanted to see if you had any advice on the subject? Thanks for your time.”

Fantastic. It’s good to hear from a fellow Floridian.

Mounds are what you always hear about. It’s even on the back of the seed packets. Calen is right to question the practice in his soil conditions.

For people who haven’t planted in “sugar sand,” it’s hard to explain how very hot, dry, and fast-draining the stuff is. It contains almost no humus and needier crops planted in sugar sand need almost constant watering.

Scrubland Sandy Soil

My old homestead in North Florida had large patches of almost sandy loam with smaller granules which would hold water for longer. There, I would double-dig and loosen the ground to plant, which would mound it up somewhat.

GardensFebruary2015-5

Those loose raised beds did very well, so it would be easy to say, “Oh yes, Calen, go ahead and plant in mounds—it works in Florida!”

But sugar sand isn’t the same as the soil above. Just because something works in one area of a state doesn’t mean it will work in another. And in his area, I would try to stay as flat as possible.

When you raise the height of the soil in one area, the water will drain out of it faster as it finds its level. You really can’t afford to let that happen. If he’s not holding onto water even after a hurricane, raised beds and mounds, unless amended with extra compost before every planting, are not the way to go.

You might want to go even further and grow in sunken beds, as is sometimes done in the Southwestern U.S.

Even across my old homestead, the backyard was loamy and the front yard was sandier.

This is how I used to plant melons and pumpkins in my fast-draining front yard:

Melon Pit

Those are sprouting legumes, by the way. In the winter I would plant melon pits with cool-season legumes like lentils, chickpeas, peas, and fava beans to feed the soil and pave the way for the curcurbits I planted in the spring.

Read More: “No Bare Soil! Vegetable Garden Cover Crops”

I would try planting in sunken beds, Calen, and see how it works. If you really want to see if it makes a difference, plant one area flat, one area in sunken beds, and one area on mounds, then compare how they did over the season. That would be a really good way to gain a bunch of data from one growing season.

I planted corn in flat ground when I had a sandy area:

Corn in Sandy Soil

And on mounds in clay:

Planting-on-mounds-1

You’re right to think outside the mound, and you get serious extra points for guerilla gardening Seminole pumpkins. The melon pit method is one of my favorite discoveries.

If you’re reading this and don’t know what Calen is talking about, here’s how to make a melon pit:

In sand, dig deeper and go for an indentation instead of a mound.

What about you? Have you had success planting on mounds in sandy soil? What about with using melon pits? Let me know in the comments below!

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Supercharge Your Garden! 4 Steps to Vibrant Soil Using Compost and Crop Rotation

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Pest management and pathogen control are great reasons to use crop rotation. For me, though, nutrient management is my most important reason.

Our soil was devoid of organic matter when we moved to our homestead. I sheet-mulched, piled my beds with fresh compost, cover-cropped, chopped and dropped, trench-composted, and spread worm castings like I was icing a cake.

In short order, we had incredible yields. I thought I was a gardening genius…

Parsnip - Crop Rotation

The first clue that I’d run up against diminishing returns on compost applications was my parsnips. The tuber-tops peaking from the soil were 5 inches wide. The greens were shrubs. I expected a lifetime supply of parsnips. Then I harvested. My parsnips were only 2-3 inches long and looked like parsnip pancakes.

That’s when I learned about nitrogen overload from compost. I yanked my disappointing parsnips and planted corn. My corn was supposed to grow 6 feet tall and have 1 large ear and 1-2 small ears. I got 3 full-sized ears on 10-foot stalks.

With the magic of crop rotation revealed to me in that experience, I studied it and experimented extensively to create optimal crop rotations. Here’s what I learned.

1. Start with a Soil Test

If you haven’t had a comprehensive, professional soil test recently, get one. You’ll be surprised by how much they can tell you about your soil and gardening practices.

Mineral Content

Soil tests include listings of mineral content. If you have deficiencies, they will include application rates for minerals to bring your soil up to par.

They’ll include the phosphorous and potassium (the PK in NPK) content. If you are a regular compost user, it’s easy to overload soil with phosphorous and potassium. This test can let you know if your compost habits put you at risk for excesses.

Soil pH

Soil tests divulge soil pH. Unless your pH is right for what you plan to grow, you might as well be planting on the moon. Most vegetables like a pH around 6.5.

You may have to add lime to make soil alkaline (e.g. raise the pH). Alternately, you may have to add sulfur to acidify soil (lower the pH). A soil test should include recommendations for this, too.

Organic Matter Content

Tests also tell you how much organic matter is in your soil. Less than 3% and you need to add a ton (or tons) of organic matter to get your soil into shape for growing healthy vegetables.

Nitrogen

Nitrogen level is the one thing a good soil test will not tell you. Or, it should warn you that nitrogen results are unreliable. Nitrogen, in the soil, is inherently volatile.

Nitrogen changes based on what you plant (or your weeds), tilling and harvesting practices, amendments used, weather (e.g., lightning adds nitrogen), and water sources. Heavy rain can leach nitrogen, while acid rain adds it.

This volatility is why nitrogen is one of the most difficult forces to manage in a vegetable garden. It’s also why professional growers tend to use slow-release fertilizers, or multiple applications.

If you are like me, though, you want to use stuff you can produce at home without spending a fortune. In that case, consider rotation plans that include rotating your food crops, cover crops, and homemade amendments for nutrient management.

Start by making the adjustments determined by your soil test. When you have a good soil-health baseline, start using crop rotation for long-term nutrient management and soil improvement.

2. Rotate Food Crops by Nitrogen Needs

Nitrogen is like candy to plants. They love it. Some plants can eat all the nitrogen they want and grow better. Others eat too much and end up sick. And just like people sometimes do with candy, plants are prone to eat too much nitrogen when it’s available—even when it’s not good for them.

Plants do need some quantity of nitrogen to grow. The right quantity is good for them (I can’t say the same about candy for people). Still, this analogy offers an easy framework for understanding nitrogen and its use in crop rotations.

To manage plant consumption of nitrogen, the first thing you do is load up the nitrogen in your soil. Then start the rotation party!

  1. Start with plants that thrive on nitrogen—a.k.a. heavy feeders.
  2. After the heavy feeders, bring in plants that benefit from moderate nitrogen. These are your medium feeders.
  3. When the nitrogen is nearly depleted, bring in the candy addicts. These plants can’t handle much nitrogen, but they love it so much they’ll suck every speck of it out of your beds. We call these light feeders, but they are really more like the cleanup crew.
  4. Once your bowl is empty, refill it and start the progression again. Grow nitrogen-fixing plants or add nitrogen-heavy amendments like fresh compost. Or do both.

Real Garden Crop Rotation

In a real garden scenario, this would look like adding a whole bunch of compost and fertilizer to your beds. Then, plant corn, followed by cucumbers, and finally turnips. Next, add more fertilizer and/or bring on the beans (or peas, or clover…).

If you spread this cycle over a four-year period, you have also created a rotation schedule that works for pathogen management by using four different families of plants.

Identify Heavy, Medium, and Light Feeders

When I tried to find a good list of plants by feeding type, I found a lot of discrepancies. I recommend you make your own lists based on what you actually plan to grow and on your own experience in your garden.

Whether you like big agribusiness or not, they sure know how to manage nitrogen for optimal production. Checking nitrogen application rates for commercial fertilizers is a great way to identify your feeder type (even if you won’t be using their products).

Here’s the list I used to glean this information. It’s geared for Wisconsin, but the general reference tables have universal utility.

Page 43 starts a table of nitrogen application rates for many common crops. Those rates change based on the amount of organic matter in soil. Compost-rich beds need less nitrogen than tilled dirt because the biological life in the soil continues to make nitrogen if soil is kept moist.

A table on page 30 tells you how much potassium and phosphorous plants need—as well as which plants will remove it from the soil—which conveniently brings us to our next topic!

Cover Crop - Crop Rotation

3. Rotate Cover Crops for Healthy Soil

In addition to rotating food crops, rotating cover crops is important for nutrient management. Different cover crops serve different functions.

Cover Crop to Remove Excess Potassium and Phosphorous

Compost adds humus and fertility to your garden. However, without good crop rotation, compost can overload soil with phosphorous and potassium in the long run. To prevent this, you need to rotate in plants that are effective at extracting those nutrients.

Alfalfa and red clover are exceptional at extracting potassium and good at extracting phosphorous. Hairy vetch and field peas are excellent for removing excess phosphorous. These plants are also potential nitrogen fixers.

For phosphorous and potassium removal, harvest the above-ground greens to feed your greens-eating livestock or add them to your compost pile for later application. Do not use them as chop-and-drop, or they will just end up right back in the soil. Always leave the roots in the ground, though, for nitrogen-fixing benefits.

Cover Crop to Add Nitrogen

Nitrogen fixers are plants that pull nitrogen from the air and store it in nodes on their roots. When the plants die, the nitrogen nodes decompose and release that stored nitrogen into the soil. Nitrogen fixers add more nitrogen when they are killed before they flower. If they set fruit (e.g., peas or beans), they are more like “nitrogen neutral.”

Nitrogen fixers work best when inoculated with a beneficial bacteria that encourages them to store more nitrogen. Planting rates are different for nitrogen fixing than for food production. To kill plants being used as nitrogen fixers, scythe or mow them to the ground. Leave roots in the ground and greens on the beds.

Cover Crop With a Biofumigant

Mustard is a beneficial biofumigant to break up soil pathogens and pest problems. Mustard also scavenges minerals in deeper soil and makes them available to plants that don’t root as deeply.

When using mustard as a biofumigant and mineral source, you need to purchase cover-crop mustard seeds (not edibles). Before the plants flower, cut them to the ground and gently turn them into your soil.

Cover Crop to Preserve Nitrogen

Grasses like wheat and annual rye are used as cover crops because of their ability to protect soil and scavenge nitrogen. While they don’t technically fix nitrogen like legumes, the biological organisms in your soil will quickly decompose those grasses if they are cut while green and allowed to decompose in the beds they were grown in. As the grass decomposes, it releases nitrogen into the soil at the surface, making it more readily available to next-round crops.

Choosing Your Cover Crop

Cover crops work best when selected based on either what you plan to grow next or on what you harvested, to correct for deficiencies. For example, corn is a heavy feeder. It sucks up nitrogen like a vacuum—as in, everything easily in reach.

After corn, wheat would be a good option. Wheat will pull nitrogen from all the areas the corn missed. If chopped and left on the bed, it decomposes and disperses that nitrogen more uniformly for the next planting (e.g., cucumbers).

Alternately, if nitrogen depletion is suspected, Austrian peas or clover used as a nitrogen fixer would work better than wheat. Rather than having a set schedule for cover crop rotation, make decisions based on the needs of your beds. There are fewer pests and pathogens in cooler weather, so strict rotations are not as necessary with winter cover crops.

Compost - Crop Rotation

4. Rotate Your Homemade Amendments by Crop Needs

If your main amendments are of the homemade variety, you also want to consider rotating the kinds of amendments you put on your beds along with your crops.

4 Types of Compost and Their Uses

Humus Compost

Humus compost is the stuff made by layering browns and greens at a ratio of 25 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen, making a large pile that heats to at least 130°F, turning it a few times, and then allowing it to age for 2 years. Humus increases the air- and water-holding capacity of soil and allows biological life to thrive. This kind of humus compost doesn’t have a lot of nitrogen.

Fresh Compost

The biological life that makes compost also creates nitrogen through their digestive processes. The longer a pile ages, the more nitrogen and other nutrients leach out by way of rain, air, etc. Fresh compost is made by the same process as humus compost. It’s just been aged less than six months and so has more nitrogen.

Composted Manure

Composted manure—i.e., a pile of manure mixed with fallen feed and bedding materials not necessarily at a rate of 25:1—can radically vary in nitrogen and nutrient content. Store-bought chicken manure has a 3-2-3 rating for NPK. Meanwhile, uncomposted chicken manure could have an NPK rating of 40-60-40, 55-55-47, or other variations.

Personally, I use a mix of chicken and goat manure that’s been aged for 3-6 months as a nitrogen source. I don’t know the exact nitrogen content, but it doesn’t burn my plants and it grows huge corn and cabbage.

Mystery Compost

Mystery compost happens when you throw a bunch of stuff together and wait. The nitrogen content will vary by what’s in the pile and what decomposed it. You could just throw it on your beds fairly fresh and hope you get lucky! Or, you could age it and use it for humus.

With these compost definitions out of the way, on to when to use them for nutrient management crop rotation.

Rotating Compost Applications for Nutrient Management

Here’s what my amendment rotations generally look like:

Year 1: Apply 4 inches of fresh or manure compost.

The risks from E. coli and other bad bacteria are minimized if your compost materials are 6 months old when your food is harvested. If you are growing lettuce, aim for 6-month-old compost to start. If you are growing vegetables like winter squash, aim for 3-month-old compost, because it will be over 6 months old by the time you harvest.

Year 2: Apply 2-4 inches of humus compost

Humus compost will still provide some nitrogen and other nutrients. Mainly though, it will help preserve any leftover nitrogen from the fresh compost in year 1 and replace the organic matter you harvested.

Year 3: Apply 2 inches of mulch to preserve moisture.

By year 3 in this plan, you are organic-matter heavy. You may also have extra potassium and phosphorous. For light feeders, just use mulch to protect your soil and preserve moisture rather than piling on compost.

Mulch is essentially browns with no greens. Straw, leaves, or wood chips work well. Mulch will eventually decompose and add nutrients, but not within the planting period that you apply it.

Year 4: Add nitrogen; remove phosphorous and potassium.

This is when you want to plant your nitrogen-fixing, phosphorous- and potassium-extracting cover crops.

Personally, I like to eat some peas and beans, too. I plant peas and beans to eat in early spring through mid-summer. I cover-crop from late summer through winter. I mulch the plants I grow for me and leave them on the beds. I remove the greens and leave the roots from my cover crops.

Year 5: Soil test and repeat.

Start the cycle again. But first, get another soil test and make adjustments as necessary. That second soil test is like a report card on how you are doing with your crop rotations for nutrient management.

Be Flexible in Your Use of Amendments

Just like with cover-crop rotations, if your beds seem depleted, then you may need to add fresh compost rather than humus compost. You may want to add humus compost rather than mulch if your beds feel dirt heavy and humus short. You may also need to up your game at times and apply worm castings or other stronger amendments. Use the health of your crops as your guide.

Crop-Rotation Conversation—What Do You Think?

To do crop rotation really well, you need to make it specific to your soil, pests, pathogen risks, crops, and amendments. There’s no canned crop-rotation plan that is going to work well for every garden.

Personally, I love the challenge of figuring out effective crop rotations. Gardening could get boring really fast if you weren’t taking your skills to the next level, paying attention to your plants, and improving your processes.

My intent with this series has been to inspire you with some of my crop-rotation concepts. Now, I’d like to hear from you!

What kind of rotations are you thinking of, what are you using now, and what is your intuition telling you? What works? What doesn’t?

(Also, include your growing region and soil type (loam, sand, clay) if possible so others can decide whether your ideas will work for them. I started with clay, but now have what I call clay-loam.)

Please join the conversation on crop rotation and share your comments below!

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The post Supercharge Your Garden! 4 Steps to Vibrant Soil Using Compost and Crop Rotation appeared first on The Grow Network.

Crop Rotation for the Home Garden, Part 2: Pathogen Prevention

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Pathogen…. That just sounds like a creepy, scary word. And when you are talking about pathogens in your soil, it really can be.

Crop Rotation for Pathogen Prevention and Control

Irish Potato Famine

You’ve all heard of the Irish Potato Famine, right? A million Irish people died and another million emigrated because the Irish potato crops were decimated by a pathogen called Phytophthora infestans.

When it happened, Irish farmers were growing potatoes about like the rest of us grow weeds. They were so good at it, that the diets of the Irish poor revolved around that one calorie crop. Little did they know that a vicious pathogen was lurking in their soil, biding its time until it had the numbers to totally decimate the Irish food supply.

OK, in reality, the pathogen itself is not quite that menacing. The real reason this was such a big deal was because more diverse food options were not available for a large percentage of the Irish population. (The wealthy had diverse diets; the poor relied on potatoes.)

Additionally, because potatoes were planted prolifically, the pathogen spread quickly through the sharing of seed potatoes (like the way a cold spreads through an office). Once in the soil, it stayed dormant until significant rains sent it into reproductive overdrive and allowed it to infect and thrive in sopping wet potato plants. Heavy rain is to fungal pathogens what dry wind is to an open fire.

Crop Rotation for Pathogen Prevention and Control

How Pathogens Spread

If you grow tomatoes, you are probably familiar with two well-known pathogens commonly called blight and wilt. These pathogens are similar to the Irish potato plant killer. They spread slowly in the soil—usually transmitted by transplants, compost, soil mixes, or even your shoes.

In relatively dry conditions, these pathogens may be present in the soil, but have no impact on your plant. Then one day, you get 2 inches of rain, your soil compacts and doesn’t dry out for days, and leaves turn yellow and drop off. Then, on the next sunny day, your tomatoes get ugly sun scald spots and rot before you can eat them.

Here’s the thing: Pathogens alone present no risks. Many of them are plant specific, which means that unless they come into contact with a suitable host plant, they are harmless. Even when you have the pathogen and the plant in the same place, this will not necessarily result in plant damage.

It’s only when you get a trifecta of conditions that include the right plant, the right pathogen, and environmental conditions suitable for incubation and infestation that problems happen. Here’s a simple mathematical expression for how that works:

Pathogen + Susceptible Plant Host + Optimal Environmental Conditions = Disaster

Remove one of these pieces from the equation, and you can avert disaster. Since you often don’t know the pathogen is present in your soil and you can’t control things like the weather, the most logical way to avert disaster is to take the host plant out of the equation.

Crop Rotation for Pathogen Prevention and Control

Rotate Plants by Family to Reduce Risk

This is where the idea of only planting one family of plants in the same plot once every four (or more) years comes into play. By rotating your plants, you limit the risk for having a trifecta. Also, depending on the life cycle of your pathogen, sometimes without a host plant, the pathogen will disappear over time.

Crop Rotation Slows the Spread

Additionally, with good plant-rotation plans, even if you do occasionally get small infestations of a pathogen, you can slow the spread by not offering host plants in close proximity year to year. Many pathogens are soil bound. They must make their way around on the bodies of soilborne critters, through transplants, on your garden tools, by catching a ride with an airborne insect, etc.

If they can move from host plant to host plant year after year, they can build up more quickly. With no nearby hosts, they remain dormant and pathogen populations remain in check.

Crop Rotation Gives you Time to Identify and Solve Pathogen Problems

Four-year rotations improve your odds by limiting a buildup of pathogens and spreading risk. Longer rotations are even better, since many pathogens can persist in the soil for 10 years or more. However, this can be more difficult to achieve in a small garden.

Luckily, if you do have plants that become infected with a pathogen, four-year crop rotation plans give you time to research and remedy your pathogen before you plant that family in that location again.

Start by identifying the pathogen. Aim to understand its life cycle and avoid planting the susceptible host plant again until you are sure the pathogen is gone.

Depending on your pathogen, there are different strategies you can follow to make your soil safe for planting again. For example, you can plant certain kinds of mustard and till them in. This practice is called biofumigation.

You can solarize your soil. This will kill all the biological life in your soil, too. You’ll need to then build back up your biological life with organic matter inputs.

With some pathogens that have long life spans, you may also need to consider more drastic measures. Replacing your soil, installing equipment to improve drainage, and developing alternate garden areas may be necessary in some instances.

Rotate by Families Prone to Similar Pathogen Problems

Because pathogens tend to affect entire plant families, rotating by family is the most common way to avoid pathogen problems. For example, tomatoes and potatoes might seem like very different plants to us. However, even if they have a preference for tomatoes over potatoes, opportunistic pathogens will take what they can get.

These are the family categories I use in my vegetable plant rotations:

  1. Nightshade Family: Tomato, Potato, Pepper, Eggplant
  2. Grass Family: Corn, Sorghum, Wheat
  3. Lettuce Family: Lettuce, Sunflowers, Dandelion, Chicory, Radicchio
  4. Beet Family: Beets, Spinach, Chard
  5. Cole Family: Cabbage, Mustard, Turnips, Arugula, Broccoli, Cauliflower
  6. Curcurbit Family: Squash, Cucumbers, Melons, Pumpkins
  7. Legume Family: Peas, Beans, Clover, Alfalfa
  8. Umbel Family: Carrots, Parsnips, Parsley, Fennel, Celery
  9. Allium Family: Onions, Garlic, Chives, Shallots
  10. Miscellaneous: Buckwheat, Okra, Sweet Potato

This is a lot to try to rotate in a small garden. Personally, I lump a few families together to create rotational pairings.

  • The nightshade, allium, cole, and sweet potato families tend to take up more space in my garden than the other families. They each get their own rotation.
  • I lump the grass, legume, and curcurbit families together in my rotations. I use that grouping because I tend to only need one row of space for those three plant families to one row of sweet potatoes based on how we eat. Sweet potatoes are a calorie crop that we need a lot of. Corn, cucumbers, and even beans (which are hard to grow enough of in useful amounts) are things we grow for fun to add variety to our diets.

Create Interplanting or Seasonal Plant Groupings

As long as you are consistent in your crop rotation methods, you can mix and match your families to get down to a four- or five-year planting rotation cycle.

If you use interplanting in your beds for soil protection, you may want to plan your family rotational groupings using this information. For example, if you grow carrots, radishes, and lettuce in the same bed at the same time, then one of your rotations would include the umbel, cole, and lettuce families.

Once you establish that grouping of families as a rotational pattern, then you can use that information to plan other rotations. You could grow early cabbage, followed by summer sunflowers, and then over-wintering parsnips. Using that same family grouping in different ways, you can achieve more food production while still having distinct rotations geared at preventing pathogens.

If you are following this series, you now have information to help you plan your crop rotation schedules to prevent pests and pathogens. However, there is one more really big reason why you may want to use crop rotation, even in a small garden. It’s for nutrient management. In the next post, we’ll cover that in more detail. Then you can take these three concepts and apply them to growing a more problem-free garden at home.

Read More: “Crop Rotation for the Home Garden, Part 1: Pest Control”

In the meantime, start thinking about what you grow, and the kind of pathogens that are common to your area. Are there any you are particularly worried about? Talk to your local agricultural office and find out what risks may apply to your garden.

If you have any tricks or tips you’ve learned that might help with crop -rotation planning, we’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.

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The post Crop Rotation for the Home Garden, Part 2: Pathogen Prevention appeared first on The Grow Network.

Never Lose Another Garden Tool With This Super-Simple Hack

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How many times have I been out in the garden, needed my widger, and had to spend precious minutes hunting for it … and then even more minutes trying to remember why I needed it in the first place?!

The same thing used to happen to me when I needed to make a note of something—and then realized that the notebook I use to jot down my gardening records was half an acre away in my house! Between the urge to “just finish one more thing first” and the fact that one of my kids inevitably needed me for something the second I stepped foot in the door, I didn’t always remember to update my records after all.

But this simple gardening trick changed all that. I first learned it from one of my organic gardening heroes, John Dromgoole. (In fact, if you saw my TGN On The Road interview with John in the Honors Lab this month, you already heard this tip!)

It’s one of those “why didn’t I think of this?” hacks that will keep your garden tools and records high, dry, and—most importantly—right at your fingertips when you need them most!

Check it out here:

 

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Planting Corn in Stations

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Before I moved to Central America a couple of years ago, I always planted corn in rows, one plant every 6-12 inches, 1.5-3 feet apart.

Like this:

Planting Corn in Stands

Then a farmer taught me the local method of planting corn in stations, and I’ve found it really saves prep time.

Read More: “Hand Pollinating Corn for Seed Saving”

Instead of tilling an area, you just take a string trimmer (or scythe or whatever may be your weed-clearing weapon of choice) and scalp the ground right down to the dirt.

Then knock loose holes in the ground about 2.5 feet apart, plant 4 kernels in each hole, and feed with manure or whatever high-nitrogen material you have.

In a few weeks, the corn will grow taller, but the weeds you knocked down will also return. Come back with your string trimmer and knock all the space between the corn back to bare earth.

In a few more weeks, the corn will be tall enough to take care of itself and shade out the weeds. Eventually, you harvest the ears, then turn the ground over to grow something else.

It’s really an easy system. You can see a patch I planted this way in this video.

This method of planting corn can also be used in a pigeon pea/corn intercrop system like I wrote about here.

As I remark in the video, I’d really love to try this in a typical lawn. Imagine doing this in the midst of an expanse of St. Augustine or bahia! What great fun.

Here’s a large patch of corn growing this way:

Planting Corn in Stations on Hillside

See how it was done? It’s the same method of hacking holes into the soil and planting kernels. 3-4 seeds are planted in each hole and the corn grows nicely that way in a small clump. Between clumps is about 2.5 feet in all directions.

This method seems to work very well on slopes, as the roots of the weeds and grass hold the soil together, whereas tilling it all and row planting corn could lead to serious erosion issues.

The harvests are decent as well — I haven’t noticed a drop off in productivity at all. The wider spacing also means you can often grow corn without any irrigation, depending on your climate.

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5 Keys to Food Security in Extreme Weather, for Home Gardeners

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Back in August 2015, I wrote a post about the findings of a joint task force of experts from the U.K. and U.S. The group had released recommendations for Extreme Weather and Resilience of the Global Food System. You can read the original post on food security here: 

Read More: “Extreme Weather and Food Resilience for Home Growers”

Quite frankly, that report was pretty scary. It detailed all sorts of reasons why our global food supply was in serious jeopardy. When that report was released in 2015, I had noted how relevant it was in light of a number of catastrophic weather events going on at the time, wreaking havoc on crops and raising food prices in some areas.

Now, just a couple of years later, the situation has become even worse. Hurricanes, mudslides, drought-related fires, disrupted weather patterns, wars, and more have caused crazy fluctuations in food supplies around the world.

In March 2017, the Food Security Information Network (FSIN) released a Global Report on Food Crises 2017.1)http://www.fao.org/3/a-br323e.pdf In that report, they indicated that the number of people suffering from severe food insecurity had increased by 35% since the release of the 2015 report.

Quite a bit of that lack of food security was related to conflict. However, catastrophic weather events like droughts had also driven up the costs of staple foods, making them unaffordable for large groups of people.

If you think this can only happen in poor, war-torn countries, then consider this. In the U.S. in 2017, there were at least 16 weather events that cost over a billion dollars each and resulted in losses of crops, livestock, and other resources, as well as of homes, businesses, personal property, and lives.2)https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/events/US/2017 In 2016, there were 15 of these weather catastrophes; in 2015, there were 9; in 2014, there were 8; and in 2013, there were 9.

It might be too early to say that 15-16 catastrophic, billion-dollar weather events is the new normal for the U.S. However, new data modeling shows that there are real risks that both the U.S. and China might simultaneously experience catastrophic crop losses that could drive up prices and send more countries into food famine in the coming decades.3)https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/15/climate-change-food-famine-study

In 2017, due to a weakened dollar, food prices in the U.S. increased by 8.2%.4)https://www.thebalance.com/why-are-food-prices-rising-causes-of-food-price-inflation-3306099 That trend hopefully won’t continue in 2018, but between weather and world volatility, isn’t it better to bank on building your own food security independent of global markets and events?

We think so, too! So, we want to give you some ideas to help you build your own food security at home.

Food Security Recommendation #1: Understand Your Risks

Building on the ideas from our earlier post on “Extreme Weather and Food Resilience for Home Growers,” it’s really important to know the risks for your area and plan your gardening practices to be resilient even when disaster hits.

Many  governments and global non-governmental organizations have made predictive models for the likely regional effects of climate change available. You can use these models to identify trends in your area. Here are a few example models available:

Even if you don’t live in one of these areas, a quick Internet search for “climate change impacts” for your area should give good results. This search may link to articles about impacts as well as to modeling tools. Focus on search hits from government or academic websites for more comprehensive, peer-reviewed climate change data.

Food Security Recommendation #2: Consider Using Permaculture-Based Landscape Design

There have been so many weather-related disasters recently that it is hard to know what to prepare for anymore. In California, extreme dry weather and winds made for a devastating fire season. Then, the loss of vegetation from the fire season led to severe mudslides during torrential rains. Parts of Australia have also been suffering similar catastrophic cycles of drought and flooding.

In Western North Carolina where I live—a locale that we chose specifically because it is expected to be less impacted by climate change (e.g., sea levels rising, coastal hurricanes, etc.)—we’ve had extended dry periods followed by heavy rains that led to lots of vegetation losses in our area.

Drought-flood cycles are extremely damaging to plant life. In dry periods, plant roots dehydrate and shrivel. Soil also shrinks from water loss. Then when heavy rains come, the soil and roots no longer have the water-holding capacity they once did. Rather than the rain being absorbed, it sits on top of dry, compacted soils in flat areas, causing flooding. Or it moves downhill, taking topsoil and vegetation with it as it goes, causing mudslides and flash flooding in other areas.

When you use permaculture design in planning your foodscapes, you take into account these kinds of cycles of drought and heavy rain that would otherwise be damaging to vegetation. In fact, you make them work for you. Simple solutions like catching and storing water high on your land can help you better weather the cycles of drought and flood.

By applying permaculture principles, you can help safeguard your food security by making your landscape more resilient to weather extremes and diversifying your food supply to ensure you get good yields regardless of weather.

To get an idea of how permaculture works, check out this tour of Zaytuna Farm given by Geoff Lawton.

Also, if you want a short but powerful introduction to what permaculture can do in extreme landscapes, check out these titles by Sepp Holzer:

Food Security Recommendation #3: Manage Your Microclimates

Every property has microclimates. For example, in North America, it will almost always be a bit warmer along the edges of a south-sloping blacktop driveway. This is because the path of the sun will cast more sun on southern-facing slopes. They are literally like sun scoops, catching its rays.

food security - blacktop asphalt

“Closeup of pavement with grass” by User:Angel caboodle is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Additionally, dark colors absorb more heat than light colors. If you painted that same driveway white, it would still be warmer due to its southern slope. However, the white paint would reflect light and heat away from the driveway and would keep that same area cooler than with a blacktop driveway.

The physical mass of blacktop asphalt material also acts as a heat sink. It draws in heat during the day and releases  it back into surrounding areas as air temperatures cool at night. The same driveway made with light-colored concrete might not absorb quite as much heat as an asphalt driveway due to its color. However, it would still act as a heat sink by virtue of its mass.

The shade of a large oak tree creates a cooler area than the dappled shade of a pruned fruit tree. Large bodies of water will help regulate extreme temperatures. A wide, stone knee wall around a raised bed will insulate the soil inside better than thin wood boards because of its mass. Boulders in your landscape are also heat sinks. Even things like black trash cans can impact temperatures directly around their vicinity.

Gaining a basic understanding of how colors attract light waves, learning how different kinds of mass (rocks, soil, trees, etc.) store heat and divert wind, and knowing the path of the sun at different times of the year in your area can help you use microclimates to moderate the effects of extreme cold and heat. Using your slopes, like north-facing slopes to keep things cooler and south-facing slopes to heat things up, can also help. Working with shade patterns to minimize or maximize sun exposure can help moderate hot and cold temperature extremes.

For example, I live in USDA planting Zone 7a. With the extreme cold weather we’ve had this year, our conditions were closer to Zone 5.  Some of my plants—like rosemary, which is hardy to zone 7—were killed by the cold. After our last risk of frost passes, I plan to replant rosemary bushes in front of our south-facing house and mulch them with dark stones. In that location, even if we have Zone 5 conditions again, my rosemary should make it just because the heat mass from our house and the stones, the southward orientation, and the wind protection give it the right microclimate.

Cold frames, greenhouses, and underground areas (e.g., walipinis) are also good ways to create microclimates on your property to ensure longer and more secure food production in extreme conditions. Check out this post from Marjory to learn about building your own underground greenhouse.

Read More: “Underground Walipini Pit Greenhouse Construction”

Food Security Recommendation #4: Go Big on Organic Matter in Your Soil

If I pour a bucket of water over some of the heavy clay soil in my landscape, water runs off on slopes. In flat or cratered areas, it sits on top, eventually making a big muddy mess that becomes algae-covered if we don’t have enough wind or sun to dry it out.

If I pour a bucket of water over the same approximate amount of area in one of my vegetable garden beds, loaded with compost, the bucket of water soaks in. Even on sloped beds, the water sinks and stays put rather than running off.

Soils that are high in organic matter are more porous and spacious than compacted soils.

If you try the same experiment with sand, the water will also soak in as it did in my garden bed. Unfortunately, it won’t stay there. Come back a few hours later and that water will be gone, which means it is not stored in the root zone for later use by plants.

Soils that are high in organic matter also preserve moisture better than sandy soils.

In order to hold water in your soil during droughts and catch it during heavy rains, you need a lot of organic matter in your soil. Here are a few easy ways you can up your organic matter quotient at home.

  1. Add compost.
  2. Mulch with things like wood chips, straw, old hay, grass clippings, and mulched leaves.
  3. Plant, then chop and drop cover crops like grain grasses, clover, mustard, or chicory.
  4. Use no-till or minimal till practices and leave decaying roots and plant matter in the soil.

Check out these TGN posts to learn more about these methods.

“No Till Gardening: Homesteading Basics (VIDEO)”

“Build Your Compost Pile Right On Your Garden Beds!”

“From Weeds to WOW: The Weed Island”

“No Bare Soil! Vegetable Garden Cover Crops”

Adding organic matter not only slows the flow of water in your landscape and sinks it deeper into plant roots, but it actually sinks carbon dioxide, too.

Yes! Building soil that is higher in organic matter can actually help solve our CO2 problem. And solving our CO2 problem will moderate the disastrous effects of climate change and can mitigate future weather extremes. (No, this one answer won’t solve all our problems—but if lots of us do it, it will help!)

Food Security Recommendation #5: Remember ABC—Always Be Cover-cropping

Plant roots are like plumbing for your soil. They create little channels that help divert water down into the earth so it can be accessed by the plant and other biological soil inhabitants. By growing something in your soil at all times, you keep those pathways open for water to filter down into the soil.

For annual growing areas, planting cover crops in off seasons is critical. However, even for the rest of your landscape, having some sort of cover crop is necessary for extreme weather resilience.

Many of us grow lawns as our primary perennial cover crop. Traditional lawns, though, are shallow-rooted and do not contribute much to soil health. Growing grasses with deeper root systems like perennial rye and other prairie- or meadow-type grasses can be even more beautiful and give you deep roots to help sink water further into your soil.

Using vegetative perennials (i.e., that die back in the winter) with expansive root systems is also a great way to prevent soil erosion and build biomass in your landscape. Yarrow, Russian comfrey, curly dock, burdock, vetches, and even invasives like mints are useful for covering bare soil in a hurry. Since these plants lose their leaves each year and can be heavily pruned in the growing season, they make great green manure or mulch plants, too. Tap-rooted trees like black locust and paw paw also drill water and air down deep into your soil.

In addition, having a continuous cover of plants (or leaves from those plants) keeps your soil cooler on hot days and warmer on cool days. This protects all the biological life in your soil like bacteria, fungi, worms, and more so that they can work year-round. Their continued hard work means that your soil will get better year after year so that your plants will have more disease resistance and resilience during bad weather streaks.

Bare soil  = No biological life = More pests, more diseases, and greater weather sensitivity for your plants

Covered soil = Year-round biological workers = Healthier plants better adapted to your weather extremes

If you are willing to do the research and the work, there are plenty of things you can do to mitigate your risks from a changing climate and more volatile weather patterns. These ideas are barely the tip of the iceberg (which is lucky for us since glaciers are now melting at an alarming rate)!

What about you? What other ways are you safeguarding your food security against extreme weather patterns?

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References   [ + ]

1. http://www.fao.org/3/a-br323e.pdf
2. https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/events/US/2017
3. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/15/climate-change-food-famine-study
4. https://www.thebalance.com/why-are-food-prices-rising-causes-of-food-price-inflation-3306099

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Are Tire Gardens Toxic? The Case For And Against

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Are tire gardens toxic?

In a newsletter last year, I shared some thoughts on tire gardens, along with this video:

In response, one of my readers wrote:

“Hello David,
Tires do leach toxic, carcinogenic chemicals into the soil and plants grown in them. No time to research this? Then do not show pictures of plants grown in tires. That is irresponsible and bad karma as you pass on injury to others. Look into it. Fact: tire gardening and straw bale gardening are bad if you do not want toxin-suffused vegetables.”

And Sheila writes:

“One year, my father and I planted potatoes in tires. Just put on another tire and add dirt. We had lots of potatoes with seven high. PVC pipe with holes in it to water the plants. Problem was that they tasted like tires. Since then, I am not a fan of tires for living or gardening.”

Vegetables tasting like tires? And bad karma! Oh me oh my, I just want to give up.

Actually, I don’t care about tire gardens, though I do like the idea of recycling a waste product into a gardening bed.

But growing vegetables in tires isn’t a method I have any personal stake in. I’m happy to drop the method if it’s got its downsides, like straw bale gardening seems to have.

So—are tire gardens toxic? Let’s do a little digging.

Are Tire Gardens Toxic? The Case For Tires

Tires are, of course, cheap and widely available even in the third world. ECHO uses them in their urban garden demonstration area. You can set up tire gardens on driveways, on roof tops, in rocky lots, and in tight spaces.

They’re convenient, too. But are they toxic?

When Patrice at Rural Revolution blogged about their tractor tire gardens, she got a similar response to that which I got … but even harsher.

Someone wrote:

You could have created a floral landscape, a Dutch Masterpiece, an English Rose Garden, a French Formal Garden, and you chose Fords-Ville, Michelin Man, and polluted Mother Earth. Scrap timber is everywhere, so are bricks, tiles, even rockery stones, but tires no. Are you sure the food grown will be free of carbon rubber tire oil moisture? A carcinogen?

You can read Patrice’s response and entire defense of tire gardening here, but most of it boils down to what she wrote here:

“Tires have a lot of nasty things bonded into them, things that arguably ARE carcinogenic. But it’s the term BONDED that must be considered. Intact tires are distressingly inert (that’s why they’re everywhere rather than quietly decomposing into Mother Earth).”

She then quotes extensively from research done by Mr. Farber of www.tirecrafting.com (which now redirects to an Etsy site so the original essay appears to be missing):

Used tires already exist, and in their solid state, they are as safe or safer than any other construction material. The process and the result of this global discard nightmare being recycled by industry, whether grinding them up for road base, burning them as fuel, or recouping the oil, releases more hydrocarbons while costing the global economy billions of dollars for tire cleanup and commercial recycling. Modifying tires to create green space and home gardening available to everyone would not only absorb hydrocarbons, it could well be the key to salvation for practically every family on the planet that is otherwise excluded from adequate sustenance. Personal tire recycling potential benefits far outweigh all perceived hazards.

Still, I am not convinced. After all, if vegetables are tasting like tires, well, that doesn’t inspire confidence. Yet I do love what Patrice has done at Rural Revolution. In her case, it made sense.

Are Tire Gardens Toxic? The Case Against Tires

According to Brighton Permaculture Trust:

“Due to commercial secrecy, it’s difficult to find out the exact ingredients of a tire, and there are lots of different types. The list below is from a ‘typical tire’:

  • Natural rubber
  • Synthetic rubber compounds, including Butadiene—known carcinogen
  • Solvents: Benzene—known carcinogen, Styrene—anticipated to be carcinogenic, Toluene—has negative health effects, Xylene—irritant, & Petroleum naphtha
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons: Phenols—some are endocrine-disruptive, Benzo(a)pyrene—linked to cancer
  • Heavy metals: Zinc, chromium, nickel, lead, copper & cadmium
  • Carbon black—possibly carcinogenic
  • Vulcanising agents: Sulphur & zinc oxide
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls—known carcinogen
  • Other synthetic chemicals”

Again, though, these terrible things might have off-gassed during the tire’s usable life or been stabilized and made inert during manufacturing.

Yet as Mischa argues in that article:

“When it comes to growing food in tires, why take the risk?

Whilst the quantity of toxic chemicals may be small, we don’t know the exact amount used in tyres because of commercial secrecy.

People generally grow food organically for themselves to avoid exposure to synthetic chemicals. It seems ironic that a ‘Permaculture way’ of reusing tires could be unintentionally reintroducing potentially harmful chemicals back into the equation.”

And over at Science Daily, it gets scarier:

“Draper’s method has been to make up clean samples of water like those inhabited by several kinds of aquatic organisms—algae, duckweed, daphnia (water fleas), fathead minnows, and snails—and under controlled laboratory conditions, put finely ground tire particles into the samples. By letting the particles remain in the water for 10 days and then filtering them out, she created a “leachate” that included substances in the tire rubber. All the organisms exposed to the leachate died, and the algae died fairly quickly.”

This is not complete tires, of course, but tires will break down slowly over time in the garden—and if it kills ground life, well, that’s obviously a bad thing.

The science isn’t settled, but it is unsettling.

Conclusion

After multiple hours of research, I am now leaning against tire gardening. On my new property, I have not built any tire gardens and I don’t plan to add any.

If you’re in an urban setting, have terrible soil or no soil, and no options, etc., there might be a place for tire gardens. I built mine for fun in a few minutes and have enjoyed them, but I now have no desire to expand and add more. Yet digging beds is free—so why use tires at all?

Especially if it’s going to ruin the karma I don’t even believe in.

If you want simple, tried-and-true and even off-grid methods for growing lots of food without much money in tough times, stick around The Grow Network and keep learning!

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Featured Photo Credit: Mark Buckawicki / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

 

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Companion Planting Favorites (Your Answers to the Question of the Month!)

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What Are Your Favorite Combinations for Companion Planting?

Recently on the site, we’ve been talking about Three Sisters Gardens. Of course, this classic symbiosis is a great example of companion planting …

… which got us wondering …

… what do you do in YOUR garden?

You let us know in your replies to TGN’s March Question of the Month.

Answers encompassed a range of uses for companion planting—from keeping pests away to extending the season by providing shade.

Here’s how your fellow TGN Community members put companion planting to work for them:

  • Frances Graham has found that interplanting herb barbara (Barbarea vulgaris) with brassicas helps keep whiteflies under control.
  • Scott Sexton uses a number of planting combinations to his advantage: “I like strawberries with blueberries. I also like comfrey with my fruit trees. It helps shade out the grass. I’m planning on trying a muscadine cultivar growing up my fruit trees. I haven’t tried it yet, but I think it will work. They’d be growing up trees in nature. I’ve had some unintentional overlap between my passion flowers and sunchokes. The passion vines climb up the sunchoke stalks, and they both die back in the winter. So far, they both seem to be okay with the situation.”
  • Tasha Greer uses a clever trick to provide a microclimate for her arugula in warm weather: “Since I am a total arugula addict and really want to eat it year-round, I discovered a trick for germinating arugula outdoors, even in mid-summer. I interplant my arugula with buckwheat. The buckwheat comes up quickly, providing some shade and a bit of a microclimate for the arugula. I don’t know if this will work in extreme heat, but it has worked for me in 80-90ºFtemperatures as long as I keep my buckwheat/arugula patch well-watered.

Read More: “Growing Arugula: The Rocket in Your Salad Bowl and Garden (With Recipe)”

  • Marjory Wildcraft offers this tip for keeping lettuce from bolting so quickly when the weather warms up: “Lightly shading lettuce plants can provide enough of a temperature drop to keep them from bolting, sometimes up to 3-5 weeks. Shade can be from a shade cloth or a row cover on a low tunnel, or by companion planting tall, wide-leafed plants such as some types of pumpkin.”

Read More: “Growing Lettuce From Seed”

  • Riesah likes growing strawberries and asparagus in the same bed, and Kathy does the same with tomatoes, peppers, and lettuces.
  • Carolyn says she gets better crops of both basil and tomatoes when she plants them together. “Although,” she says, “marigolds with about anything is good, too.”
  • Willow likes marigolds, too, and says she places them in her bed borders or rows about every 3 feet. “They work for the broadest spectrum of insects in all stages.” She also interplants mint and chives among her crops, and says she’s found that “plants that taste good together, grow well together.” For example, squash grows well with dill and garlic.
  • Sdmherblady interplants marigolds with bush beans, and also grows carrots and onions together. “I had read they are great companions,” she says. “They repel each other’s biggest insect pests.  I had my doubts, as they are both root crops and I thought they would compete for specific nutrients. But planting them in an alternating grid pattern worked fantastic. Both crops produced very well, made large healthy roots, and there were NO pests to be seen throughout the entire bed.”

What about you? What crops do you plant together, and why? Let us know in the comments!

 

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Crop Rotation for the Home Garden, Part 1: Pest Control and Pathogen Prevention

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I am betting that you’re already familiar with the idea of crop rotation. You may have seen large swaths of farm fields covered with corn one year and soybeans the next. That is crop rotation as its most basic level.

Corn is a nitrogen hog and soybeans are a nitrogen fixer. By planting them back-to-back, you help regulate the nitrogen levels in soil, while producing two important food staples.

More sophisticated monoculture rotations include corn, soybeans, wheat, a different nitrogen fixer (other legumes). Some even include using the fields to grow grasses and graze horses or cattle for several years before planting again. This practice of incorporating animal grazing is still fairly common in my region.

Though we often associate crop rotation with industrial farming, the idea of rotating fields is an ancient practice. The early rendition is often referred to as “food, feed, fallow” and has been traced back to ancient Rome.

Essentially, in the first year farmers would grow crops for humans. The second year they would grow grains and graze animals. The third year, they’d let the field rest so the manure age. Then the cycle would start again.

Farmers – and more recently gardeners — have been experimenting with crop rotations to varying degrees since those ancient times. In this three part blog series, I am going to go over some of the main reasons why crop rotation is important and how you can do your crop experimentation at home.

Making your own crop rotation plan based on what you are growing and how you are growing it will get you much better results than following  pre-fab rotational plans made by others who may not have the same challenges as you. That’s because we all have different pest pressure, different pathogen risks, and different ways of amending and tending our gardens.

So, let’s dig into the details of how to create your own crop rotation plan at home.

Why Use Crop Rotation?

There are three primary reasons why people use crop rotation. These include pest prevention, pathogen control, and nutrient management. Let’s get started by examining pest control.

Pest Control – Rotate Your Planting Times

One of the most common reasons to rotate crops is for pest control. If you were growing a large field of pesticide-free cabbage in the same location, year after year, I bet you’ll end up with a severe cabbage moth problem.

A single cabbage moth can lay 2500 eggs in a season. Even if you are diligent at picking off eggs, let’s say you miss some and ten female cabbage moths make it to maturity and begin to reproduce. Each of them also lays 2500 eggs and has 10 females (and a few males) make it to reproduction. This goes on for a few seasons.

Even with just a minuscule number of survivors, from 1 moth, you jump to 10 moths, from 10 moths to 100, from 100 moths to 1000 in just four seasons. Instead of picking off 2500 eggs, you now have to pick off 2,500,000 eggs! In a field full of cabbage, finding all those eggs is impossible and so the problem grows.

Luckily, it’s easy to break this cycle. Since cabbage moth larva feed pretty exclusively on brassicas or cole crops, take away their food supply and the cabbage moths will have no place to lay their eggs. Without suitable host plants for their eggs, the moths will fly off and look for a better place to lay. Viola, pest problem solved!

Why Field Crop Rotation Practices Will not Help the Home Gardener

For the home garden, though, crop rotation for pest management has to be a bit more strategic than just changing planting locations from year to year. Here’s why.

Let’s say you have a 20 x 20 foot garden. Even if you plant cabbage at the top of your garden one year, and the bottom of your garden the next, cabbage moths still only have to fly 20-40 feet to lay their eggs on a host plant. My garden is 100 x 60 feet and cabbage moths fly over the entire area and then go visit my flower patches an acre away. Trust me, 20-40 feet of difference in planting location isn’t going discourage cabbage moths.

How to Use Crop Rotation Strategies for Pest Control in a Small Garden

For crop rotation to be effective in a small garden, you need to think beyond rotating rows and instead think about rotating the timing of your planting to break up the reproductive cycles and prevent infestations.

To do this, you need to know the life cycle for the pest you are trying to control.

As an example, the cabbage moth typically has two generations of offspring each year. The first starts in mid-spring and the second in late summer. If you are planting cabbage in both spring and fall, you are literally offering cabbage moths the perfect conditions to increase their numbers from year to year.

Strategy 1: Shift your Planting Season

A good rotation strategy for controlling cabbage moths and still getting an annual cabbage crop would be to plant in spring one year and fall the next year. By doing this, you cut off the larva food supply during two reproductive cycles back-to-back. Cabbage moths either get the clue and move on or they fail to reproduce successfully. Either way, you win!

Strategy 2: Start Early or Late using Larger Transplants

If you must plant cabbage in both spring and fall, then starting earlier or later can help. Mature plants can withstand more insect damage than smaller plants. By transplanting larger plants into prepared soil before the cabbage moths begin laying, you can increase your yeilds by giving plants a head start over moths.

The challenge with this strategy  is that cabbage doesn’t always transplant well after it gets bigger. Growth may be stunted plants may suffer shock.

Using paper pots that will quickly decompose in the soil can help limit root damage.

Growing transplants in extremely loose planting medium can also make it easier to relocate plants without causing root damage. Note, loose soil medium often requires more watering and nutrient management than heavier mixes.

Strategy 3: Use Observation and Experience to Create Pest Prevention Rotations That Work

Here’s another example to help you figure out how to use the idea of crop rotation for pest control in your garden.

Our first year here, we planted potatoes in an area that had once been covered with crabgrass. We tilled up the soil, amended with compost, and started planting.

Unfortunately, I barely got any potatoes because we ended up with an infestation of wire worms. Those orange mealy-worm-looking guys love living in the roots of grass. It’s like the wire worm equivalent of a nice little house in the suburbs.

Well, when I swapped their suburban grass roots for potatoes, it was like I took those root eaters to Vegas and told them to have a great time on my tab. They went crazy, decimated my potatoes, and exploded their population in the process. Wire worms gone wild in my potato patch…Yikes!

That experience taught me something though. Don’t plant potatoes after grasses if you have wire worms! Since corn, sorghum, and wheat are grasses, I don’t plant potatoes after those plants for at least two years as a habit now.

Strategy 4: Keep Adapting Your Rotation Plan for New Pests

Good crop rotation for pest management is not just a “set and forget it” kind of activity. It’s something you’ll need to update as new pests make their way into your landscape.

Last year I saw my first blister beetle. Actually, I saw hundreds of them. They were demolishing the leaves of my potato plants. This brand new pest had sailed in and started devouring plants that I’d been growing diligently for over three months.

Well, I wasn’t going to have that! So, I got a bowl of water and started knocking them into it.

My chickens love eating all sorts of beetles. I was about to take those pesky pests to my chickens, when some inkling of intuition told me to identify them first. I covered the bowl and hit the computer.

First site I found started with something like “lethal to livestock”. They call them “blister beetles” because they cause blisters if you squish them by hand. The same substance that causes blisters in humans can kill a chicken with the smallest taste and even take out cattle with large infestations.

More research revealed that pigweed is a host plant for these bugs. I wasn’t growing pigweed, but I was growing Elephant Nose amaranth – pigweed’s city cousin – right next to my potatoes.

I went back to the garden, checked my amaranth plants and discovered even more blister beetles. They were covered with them. Except the blister beetles weren’t eating the amaranth – they were just living there and going across to the neighbors for dinner (e.g. my potatoes). I had found their secret hideout!

Well, down came the amaranth, and out went the blister beetles. I had to pick some more off my potato plants since they apparently hadn’t gotten the memo that I’d destroyed their habitat. However, they didn’t return once I removed the amaranth from my garden.

I had been using amaranth as an exotic edible to sell at the farmers market and as a trap plant for flea beetles since they like it a lot more than my other leafy greens. However, those blister beetles are such bad news that amaranth is now rotated out (of the garden) for good.

Steps For Making Your Own Pest Prevention Crop Rotational Schedule

As you can see, using crop rotation for pest control in a small garden is not just about moving plants to new locations. It is about managing pests by knowing their reproductive cycles, their food and habitat preferences, and using that understanding to plan useful rotations.

I Know it can be a bit tricky to figure it out at first. Try these tips to help plan your strategy.

  1. Start by identifying your most persistent pests.
  2. Study up on how the multiply, what they eat, and where they live.
  3. Use that knowledge to time your planting to interrupt reproductive cycles, limit the pests’ food supplies, and offer less hospitable habitat. Aim to break up at least one reproductive cycle to keep your populations in check. You may need longer interruptions for serious infestations.
  4. If your strategies effectively reduce pest populations, then incorporate them into your planting calendar and crop rotation plan.
  5. Repeat as necessary!

Other Examples of Pest Prevention Crop Rotations

Here are a couple other rotations I have figured out based on our pest pressure that might help you create your own rotations.

1. Squash Bugs

Squash bugs only have one reproductive cycle per year. However they are so good at hiding and flying large distances that it has proven impossible to control them with short interruptions.

Instead, we only grow plants in the curcurbit family for two years, then we take a year off.

We still hand-pick and kill squash beetles. We also  choose varieties like Seminole Pumpkin and a Virginia strain of Waltham Butternut Sqaush that seem less bothered by these pests than other squashes.

During our off year, I arrange to have others grow us squash and cucumbers in exchange for something we are growing. Or I buy from local farmers I trust.

After our yar break, we still have a few squash beetles that have  managed to stick around or found us again. However, their numbers are low and controlling them is easier! This strategy seems to prevent squash borers too.

2. Mexican Bean Beetle

I thought I’d struck gold when I first saw these yellow lady bug looking insects moving in to my garden. Who wouldn’t want thousands of beneficial lady beetles to come eat your aphids and other pests?

Except, these lady beetles were the one kind that is not beneficial to your garden. These were Mexican Bean Beetles. Within days they had consumed by bean leaves and desiccated my vines.

I tried to pick them off.  Since I had planted the three sisters (beans, squash, and corn), I couldn’t find them all and their population exploded (as described for cabbage moths above).

Well, then I noticed that they had left a few plants mostly unscathed. Those were the plants running along my fence, planted on their own, mostly for aesthetic purpose, that I’d been watering regularly because they were closer to my water barrel.

The next year I planted a bunch of beans in a plot by themselves. I neglected them – no watering, no weeding. Those sad little plants still managed to grow and even produce, but they were clearly quite stressed.

When the bean beetles emerged, they went straight for my sad little bean patch. I waited until they had laid their eggs and saw a few larva crawling on the plants. Then I yanked those plants and burned them!

After that I planted my real beans in a different location. I treated my new plants like royalty to ensure good health.  I still had a few bean beetles show up on my well-cared for real beans.  Since I planted those beans on flat trellises rather than as a companion planting, I picked survivors off with ease.

This strategy worked well because bean beetles do most of their laying in June in my area. This still left me plenty of time to plant and grow beans late in the season.

Since I am planting beans later when our temperatures are warmer, I choose varieties that germinate in warmer temperatures and can take the heat. Cowpeas always germinate in high heat, but there are other varieties that work well like scarlet runner beans.

Final Words on Crop Rotation for Pest Control

This might seem like a lot of information to take in.  But I have literally just shared my entire crop rotation plan for controlling pests in my garden.

  1. I use seasonal cabbage rotations to control cabbage moths.
  2. I rotated amaranth out of the vegetable garden permanently.
  3. I take a year off after two years of growing curcurbits.
  4. I grow a trap plant for Mexican Bean beetles and plant my my real bean crop after the mating season for this troublesome pest has passed.

I have a few more pests that visit my garden like Harlequin bugs, aphids, and tomato hornworms. Luckily, their populations are so small, that hand picking is sufficient to keep them in check.

You won’t need to use crop rotation practices for every pest you have, just those that interfere with your production (or that might be dangerous to livestock, like blister beetles). However, there are two other big reasons why good crop rotation is important. And we’ll get to those – pathogen control and nutrition management – in our next two posts.

What kind of insect pests are you dealing with in your garden? Do you use crop rotation to help manage them already? What works? Or has this post sparked some new ideas you might try this year? Please share your challenges, ideas, and successes using the comment area below. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

 

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Gardening Humor: Need a Laugh? Watch This Now!

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Got spring gardening fever? So do we. That’s why this video by TGN blogger Scott Sexton strikes such a chord. Plus, it’s hilarious … and who couldn’t use another chuckle in their day?

Trust us … do yourself a favor and press “Play” now. This is too funny to pass up:

Then, leave us a note in the comments section and let us know: What seeds have you already planted (whether indoors or out) for your spring garden?

 

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The post Gardening Humor: Need a Laugh? Watch This Now! appeared first on The Grow Network.

Three Sisters Gardens: Grow More Food With Less Work

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Imagine a small garden that produces an above-average harvest, yet needs minimal water, fertilizer, and weeding—and, as a bonus, leaves your soil more fertile at the end of the growing season. Some might call that a dream come true, but what it’s really called is a Three Sisters Garden.

Yet this remarkably savvy strategy for growing corn, beans, and squash wasn’t developed by a Ph.D. in a modern research garden. Instead, it began centuries—perhaps millennia—ago as a Native American agricultural tradition.

Three Sisters Garden 3

What is a Three Sisters Garden?

Unlike today’s gardens where plant varieties are separated by straight rows, a Three Sisters Garden allows corn, bean, and squash plants to grow together and benefit from each other.

The beauty of a Three Sisters Garden comes from the symbiotic relationship between these three crops.

  1. As corn stalks grow, they create poles for beans to climb on to gain support and find sunlight without getting outcompeted by the sprawling squash.
  2. The bean roots also help stabilize the corn in heavy winds and fertilize it by “fixing” nitrogen from the air into a form that corn and squash roots can absorb.
  3. The squash’s large leaves are prickly enough to deter pests from coming close, and they shade out weeds while keeping the soil moist.1)The Old Farmers’ Almanac: The Three Sisters: Corn, Beans, and Squash 

History of the Three Sisters Garden

When agriculture began in the Americas 7,000 years ago, it quickly changed the landscape and local cultures beyond recognition.

Maize, beans, and squash were domesticated in Central and South America and gradually made their way to the American Midwest.2)University of Nebraska: The “How” of the Three Sisters: The Origins of

Different Native American tribes began to integrate these crops into their horticultural traditions, though the Iroquois (also called the Haudenosaunee) first used the phrase “Three Sisters” to describe the practice of growing them together in highly productive garden plots.

Over the centuries, the Three Sisters gained physical and spiritual importance for the Iroquois. Their planting method involved sowing all three seeds in fertilized mounds that prevented the young plants from getting waterlogged.

Women then weeded and hoed these mounds throughout the summer and harvested the crops in the early fall before drying and storing them for winter. Celebrated as a gift from the Great Spirit, corn, beans, and squash were eaten together for most meals.

American colonists first learned of Three Sisters Gardens over 300 years ago.

Since they were used to straight, orderly farm fields, most settlers first dismissed these densely planted gardens as wild.

However, they soon learned that this biointensive combination-planting method was perfectly suited for the region, as cleared land was difficult to maintain and small Iroquois garden plots needed to produce higher yields than European ones.

Today, a Three Sisters Garden is a great example of an ecological guild in America because each plant directly benefits the others.

Grown together, Three Sisters crops produce more food with less water and fertilizer.

In fact, Three Sisters Garden plots tend to produce 20 percent more calories than when the same crops are grown apart.3)Estimating Productivity of Traditional Iroquoian Cropping Systems from Field Experiments and Historical Literature

A Nutritional Cornucopia

Not only are the Three Sisters naturally suited to grow well together, they also pack a powerful nutritional punch. In fact, a diet of corn, beans, and squash is nutritionally balanced without the need for other protein sources.

Corn kernels are rich in carbohydrates and become a complete protein source when eaten with beans.

Full of vitamins and minerals, squash rounds out the diet nutritionally.

Making them even more valuable, corn, beans, and squash all could be dried and eaten throughout the winter.4)Native Seeds: How to Grow a Three Sisters Garden When combined with other vegetables native to America like peppers and tomatoes, the Three Sisters fueled culinary creativity and promoted health all year long.

Three Sister Variations

Not all Three Sister gardens are the same.

While squash, beans, and corn were important food crops throughout America, many native cultures made variations on the growing method to better fit their local conditions.

For example, throughout the dry Southwest, the Three Sisters were often planted in separate fields with wide plant spacing to maximize the use of a limited water supply.5)Native Seeds: How to Grow a Three Sisters Garden

In some places, a fourth sister joined the trio. Sunflowers attracted insect pollinators to the garden while distracting birds from the corn and providing support for bean vines.

Throughout the Southwest, tobacco was interplanted with the Three Sisters as a ceremonial plant.

Likewise, watermelons and gourds were easily substituted for squash.6)Native Seeds: How to Grow a Three Sisters Garden

Three Sisters Garden 4

Tips for Getting Started

When you follow the Three Sisters method today, you equip your garden with the building blocks it needs to grow flavorful plants that are well suited to your natural conditions.

You can also help preserve a Native American heritage and benefit from centuries of horticultural innovation and experimentation by growing your own Three Sisters Garden at home.

Layout

There are plenty of variations for laying out a Three Sisters Garden, but it’s always best to plant your corn in clusters instead of rows. This makes it easier to attract pollinating insects for your squash plants and for wind-pollinated corn tassels to fertilize each other.7)Native Seeds: How to Grow a Three Sisters Garden

Make sure you choose a spot with plenty of direct sunlight and a neutral pH level (6.0–7.0 is best).

Minimal space is needed for a Three Sisters Garden. A 10-foot-by-10-foot plot tends to be ideal. That’s a small enough space to be fairly simple to prepare and maintain while ensuring that you sow enough corn (about 10–20 plants) for it to cross-pollinate.

To set up a traditional Three Sisters Garden in a 10-foot-by-10-foot plot, mark off three rows spaced five feet apart. Each row will have five 18-inch mounds, alternating corn/bean mounds with squash mounds.8)Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine: Growing a Three Sisters Garden

Planting

Sowing a Three Sisters Garden takes a little longer from start to finish, but the steps are simple—and the results are oh so worth it!

  1. Start by fertilizing the garden bed with your favorite amendments.
  2. Form the soil into flat mounds that are a foot high and 18 inches in diameter.
  3. Alternate the corn/bean mounds with the squash mounds.
  4. Stagger the planting by species to create a “stacked” garden that gives the corn and/or sunflowers a few weeks’ head start. This also prevents the plants from outcompeting each other in their beginning growth stages.
    1. Once the danger of frost has passed, plant four kernels of corn an inch deep and six inches apart, with each kernel forming one of the four points of a diamond shape.
    2. Once the corn reaches five inches tall, plant four bean seeds in a pattern that adds corners to your diamond shape, effectively making it a square.
    3. Squash seeds should be planted one week later in the remaining mounds. In each mound, plant three squash seeds four inches apart in a triangle shape.9)The Old Farmers’ Almanac: The Three Sisters: Corn, Beans, and Squash
  5. Make sure to hill up the soil as it starts to level out so that there is plenty of material for the root systems to work with.

Maintenance

As the Three Sisters grow together, you will notice the bean sprouts starting to climb the corn stems, and heavy squash leaves starting to fan out along the ground.

While squash leaves help shade out weeds as they grow, it’s best to regularly weed your plot when the plants are young to prevent them from getting outcompeted. Laying down a layer of organic mulch is also a good way to help the soil retain moisture on hot summer days.

Insect pests are likely to find your garden as exciting as you do, so make sure to watch for squash bugs, squash vine borers, and corn earworms.

A drop of vegetable oil on the tips of corn ears can help fend off an invasion, and you can keep your beans healthy by working them only when the plants are dry.10)The National Gardening Association: Growing the Three Sisters

To preserve the purity of heirloom varieties, you can hand-pollinate your corn plants. Simply place waxed paper bags over the corn silk to prevent pollen from getting in. When the tassels are two inches out, remove the bags and shake your preferred pollen on the silks before replacing the bags to prevent contamination.

Harvest

By mid-to-late summer, your Three Sisters Garden will be brimming with produce.

Summer squash is often the first to mature. You can harvest the squashes once they are two inches in diameter, as they taste best when small and tender.

Winter squash needs to be harvested when the outside skin is hardened and the squash has lost its natural sheen. Make sure to cleanly slice the stem with a knife, and leave the stem on the squash to help it stay fresh for several months.

Green beans are best harvested when the pods are slim and tender. So long as you prevent your beans from over-maturing and going to seed, they should produce vigorously for a month or two. Take care not to damage the vines as you pick them, and you should enjoy fresh beans for much of the summer.

Ears of corn are ready to pick about 20 days after the first silk stacks appear. You’ll know the ears are mature when the silks are dry and brown and the kernels are smooth and plump, and emit a milk-like juice when you puncture them with your thumbnail. Simply twist off each ear when ripe, and eat immediately for the best flavor.

Three Sisters Garden 2

Best Three Sister Varieties to Grow

Not every variety of corn, beans, and squash grows well in a Three Sisters Garden.

Oftentimes, traditional heirloom varieties are better suited to the specific growing conditions that companion planting calls for.

Below are varieties of corn, beans, and squash that are well suited for Three Sisters Gardens.

Corn

Sweet corn was a staple food in Native American diets,11)Mother Earth News: Native American Gardening: The Three Sisters and More and most varieties grow well using the Three Sisters method. Native corns tend to be heartier and more drought resistant than industrial varieties, so make sure you look to corn varieties that are naturally suited for your growing conditions.

It’s best to choose a tall variety so that your bean plants have plenty of room to grow.

Pencil Cob corn is a prolific, six-foot variety, and Flor del Rio is an excellent heirloom popcorn.

If water is an issue, Southwestern varieties like Tohono O’odham and Hopi mature fast and use less water, but their short stature makes it harder for them to support beans.

Beans

When choosing your beans, it’s essential that you select pole beans instead of bush beans to ensure they trellis themselves on the corn stalks. Common pole bean varieties include pinto, kidney, black, lima, and navy.

Ideally, you should grow “corn beans,” as they have adapted to growing in shady conditions and won’t suffer from overcrowding.12)Mother Earth News: Native American Gardening: The Three Sisters and More

Few Native American bean species have been preserved, but the Ohio pole bean and Amish Nuttle are two options.13)Mother Earth News: Native American Gardening: The Three Sisters and More Other versatile pole beans include Blue Lake, Kentucky Wonder, O’odham Vayos, and Four Corners Gold. If you do end up with a short corn variety like Tutelo Strawberry, you might pair it with a bean variety like Wild Pigeon, since it isn’t aggressive enough to overpower the shorter corn.

Squash

Unfortunately, few squash varieties that were common in traditional Native American gardens are still in use. While Yellow Summer Crookneck and Early White Scallop date back at least to the 1700s, the varieties available today are significantly different from the originals.

The best squash variety depends on the amount of space you have to work with.

If your garden provides ample room for plants to sprawl, go for a winter squash variety like Tarahumara Pumpkin or Magdalena Big Cheese.

Tighter arrangements better suit Yellow Crookneck squash, Ponca butternut, and Dark Star zucchini.

A Harvest of Heritage

A delightful combination of science and history, the Three Sisters Garden nurtures both body and soul.

Yes, it provides larger harvests with less work and water. But it also connects gardeners with centuries of heritage—and lets them play a vital role in ensuring that this wondrous planting method survives to nourish yet another generation.

For more information on Three Sisters Gardens, check out THE definitive book on the subject—Native American Gardening: Buffalobird-Woman’s Guide to Traditional Methods.

 


 

 

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Underground Walipini Pit Greenhouse Construction

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Here is an excellently written PDF document on how to build an underground Walipini pit greenhouse. These greenhouses are an excellent technique to use in arid Southwestern climates.

Click here to download the 29-page PDF document on “Constructing A Walipini Pit Underground Greenhouse.”

Deep appreciation is extended to the Benson Institute, which created the document. The Benson Institute was founded in 1975 at Brigham Young University as part of the College of Biological and Agricultural Sciences. It was named in honor of Ezra Taft Benson’s service as Secretary of Agriculture during the administration of United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Benson Institute strives to teach families in developing countries how to become nutritionally self-sufficient and how to improve their economic circumstances. Participants learn techniques for food production, nutrition, diet, and home food storage. Families learn to grow vegetables and fruits or raise small animals appropriate to their circumstances in order to better provide for themselves.

Find out more about the Benson Institute here.

(This article was originally published on August 26, 2014.)

 

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The Laws of Nature: A Touchstone for Gardening

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As a rule, when we grow plants, we follow some known practices. The practices may be based on our own experience, on the wisdom of our parents and grandparents, or on scientific research. Whatever the source, it is useful to examine the practices through the lens of the Laws of Nature, sometimes referred to as ecological principles.

The Laws of Nature are broad and substantive statements for how nature functions.

So the question becomes, “Are our plant-growing practices in harmony with or in conflict with the Laws of Nature?”

What other criteria would we use for how we treat our lands, the soils, and all ecosystems, if not the Laws of Nature?

I think of this as a pyramid, with practices on the top, undergirded by Laws of Nature criteria. Then, the practices and Laws are undergirded by our personal land-use ethics.

9 Laws of Nature

Below, I’ve listed nine Laws of Nature.

This list is not fully inclusive; some may seem to be more pertinent than others; and someone else may choose to describe them in a different manner. Nevertheless, they are all statements that hold true, with rare exceptions.

In my garden, if a practice violates a Law of Nature, I look for a substitute practice that is in harmony with the Law.

This broad topic has deep implications and is worthy of further study. The more we understand and apply these Laws, the more we can grow healthier crops, become healthier ourselves, and more fully appreciate the magnificence of nature.

Calvin Bey - Harmony Gardens

#1: Everything in Nature Is Connected

It’s like a huge spider web. Every spot on the web is connected to the whole web. All the factors effecting growth and development—from the minerals in the air to the plant’s physiological processes to the soil microbes to hundreds of additional factors—are all part of the whole.

The implications of this concept are significant.

For example, apply too much nitrogen and the plants get a pretty green color, but at the same time produce an excessive amount of simple carbohydrates, which are ideal foods for the ever-present aphids.

Chemicals and other toxins that reduce soil microorganisms have impacts on soil mineralization and soil digestion processes, which all affect quality and quantity of production. For example, if your soil has a shortage of available calcium, a tomato plant is not likely to set fruit.

Laws of Nature - Mile-High Corn - Calvin Bey

#2: Plants Are Designed to be Healthy

Like humans and other living organisms, plants have an immune system that makes them resistant to insects and diseases that are native to their environment. Plants become weak and sick when they become stressed because of environmental factors, inadequate nutrition, and/or exposure to toxins.

Chemical pesticides and fertilizers create plant and soil conditions that are not conducive to the desirable bacteria and fungi in the soil. The soil microbiome is part of the plant’s defense mechanism.

#3: Insects and Disease Are the Appropriate Response to the Existing Conditions

Insect problems and disease are the result of plant weakness, not the cause of plant weakness. When we improve the conditions, we improve plant resistance. Diseases are nature’s demolition crew and insects are nature’s garbage collectors. Both are appropriate when plants are stressed. Unhealthy plants actually send signals to the insects so they can perform their meaningful designed role.

#4: Mineral Nutrition Supports Plant Immunity

When plant growth is supported with proper mineral nutrition, plants will create higher-order compounds—for example, plant secondary metabolites like essential oils. This and other enzyme developments can lead to optimum levels of health and immunity.

The thousands of enzymes needed in metabolic processes each require a mineral “enzyme cofactor” to function. Without the mineral cofactors, enzyme pathways collapse and plants accumulate soluble compounds in plant sap, leading to pest infestations as plant health begins to fall apart.

#5: Microbial Metabolites Are More Efficient Than Simple Ions as a Source of Nutrition

The ultimate level of plant nutrition and immunity exists when plants can absorb the majority of their nutritional requirements as microbial metabolites. In this model, the soil microbial community serves as the plant’s digestive system. A complex community of soil microorganisms digest and break down organic residues and plant root exudates. In this digestive process, minerals are extracted from the soil mineral matrix and released in a bioavailable form that plants absorb and utilize very efficiently.

Laws of Nature - Strawberry Harvest - Calvin Bey

#6: When Fruit Quality Improves, Yields Increase

When management emphasis is placed on plant nutrition to improve quality, the immunity of the crop increases, creating higher yields, longer produce shelf-life, improved flavor, and reduced dependence on pesticides.

This fundamentally different approach to plant nutrition can lead to yield increases ranging from 10–30 percent. Yield increases come in not only bushels per acre, but also in higher test weights, increased protein production, and increased nutrition per acre.

#7: Healthy Plants Create Healthy Soil—an Investment in Their Own Future

It is commonly understood that healthy soils create healthy plants. The reverse is also true.

Healthy plants create healthy soils.

Healthy plants with high levels of energy can, at times, send as much as 70 percent of their total photosynthates (manifested as sugars, amino acids, and other compounds) into the roots, and then out through the roots and into the soil. Those root exudates are the fuel that feed the soil microbial community and lead to the rapid formation of organic matter.

This process, called carbon induction, is the fastest and most efficient way to sequester carbon and build soil organic matter.

It is an advantage to the plants to invest in soil building. Root exudates rapidly build humic substances. Humic compounds last in the soils for many years. In the end, the entire process ends up rapidly building soil health. It’s another win-win for nature.

#8: Genetic Variability in Plants Serves as a Buffering System

Plant variability allows for selective fitting of plant genetics to specific qualitative differences in the environment. It’s like an insurance plan, with the goal of increased probability of improved plant survival and growth. There are positive synergistic effects, above and below ground, that result from creating diversity through the mixing of species.

#9: Weeds Are a Barometer of Soil Health

We know that different crops have different soil, mineral, and soil biology requirements. So, too, with weeds. When compared to healthy domesticated crops, weeds are usually pioneering (first to enter) species that thrive in soils with imbalanced microbial and nutritional profiles. As soil health improves, crops will improve and weeds will lose their vigor. The weeds are no longer needed to correct the soil imbalances.

Laws of Nature - Harvest Basket - Calvin Bey

Take-Home Lessons

To sum up how nature functions in nine Laws certainly does not do justice to the topic nor does it show the magnificence of nature. Still, despite the inadequacies, the nine Laws are sufficient to provide guidance as to which gardening practices fit the Laws of Nature model.

The following list of gardening practices, which I use in my natural/organic garden in Northwest Arkansas, respect the Laws of Nature. Furthermore, the practices fit my personal land-ethics values.

I do these things to eat healthy food, to teach others, and especially for the children and future generations.

I hope you will consider joining in the transformation.

  1. Use no or at least minimum tillage. Never use a roto-tiller. Besides destroying the natural soil structure, roto-tillers will seriously damage the beneficial fungi in all kinds of soil situations.
  2. Keep the soil covered with a vegetable crop, cover crop, or some type of organic mulch at all times. This practice will promote soil microbial life.
  3. Keep something growing on the beds for as long as possible throughout the year. Where you can, grow crops specifically for deep-root penetration and/or high carbon production.
  4. Wherever possible, encourage diversity of species. Use companion planting where you can.
  5. Use organic fertilizers, compost (sparingly), bio-pesticides (if needed), filtered or structured water, foliar fertilizer sprays, natural biologicals for organic matter decomposition, and natural amendments (like paramagnetic rock) for plant fortification.
  6. Among all things, “communicate” with your garden through positive intentions. Remember: “Thoughts become actions. Choose the good ones.”

Thanks to John Kempf of Advancing Eco-Agriculture (www.advancingecoag) for some of the ideas included in this article.

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Banana Trees: Tips for Planting and Growing (Even During a Cold Snap!)

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Living in Florida, there are lots of tropical plants around, among them fruit trees. Our new property is on the border of Zone 8 and 9, so it is still possible to grow tropical fruits as well as some heat-tolerant stone fruits such as nectarines and peaches. We planted several different types of food-producing trees on our property in expectation of having a house there and enjoying the bounty.

Banana Tree Missteps

One of the first fruit trees we acquired for free was a banana tree. I planted it among some large palms in an area that I knew would get lots of water.

I gave it kitchen scraps from making salads and other plant-based foods, and it thrived.

I made the mistake of giving it some cooked bone scraps, and it promptly died.

My second gifted banana tree was planted on property that is still undeveloped land. We had other tropical plants growing there such as avocado, mango, and guava, and I created a barrier around the garden area with old logs and branches piled up on three sides. I thought this would be sufficient to keep it from getting too cold during the winter, but again, I was wrong, and this banana tree also bit the dust.

Read More: “The Top 10 Tropical Staple Crops”

That was almost a year ago.

When the hurricanes whipped through Florida in September, a friend of mine who had a yard full of mature banana trees lost most of them. So, while Mother Nature sometimes conspires against us, at least I am not the only one who has had problems keeping banana trees around

Another neighbor who lives about a block away had a stand of banana trees along his fence and these managed to survive the hurricanes, although the fence was completely ripped up. When I noticed that he was replacing his fence and taking out some of the banana trees, I stopped my car to ask what they were planning to do with them.

Read More: Build a Community in 9 Easy Steps

I was told that the trees were going to be discarded, so I offered to take them away with the help of my husband and his truck. About an hour later, we took the truck over and filled the back with banana trees!

Planting Rescued Trees in Winter

Knowing that winter is upon us and can drop the temperature at any time, we headed up to our property with the banana trees, a load of abandoned bamboo, several gallons of graywater, a few weeks of kitchen scraps (all plant matter), and some shovels. Along the way, we picked up a few bales of straw and potting soil—some with fertilizer, some without.

  • We dug a trench about two or three feet deep and a bit more than a foot wide, then added the kitchen scraps (to provide moisture and heat from decomposition) and the potting soil.
  • Next, we added the banana trees, placing them close together the way they normally grow.
  • After that, we put the excavated dirt back in to hold up and secure the trees, and installed four-foot lengths of bamboo vertically around the hole and fairly close together.
  • You may be wondering what the straw is for…. Insulation! We packed the inside of the bamboo enclosure with straw about three feet high, and then watered the enclosure with the graywater we brought.

Since that weekend, we have had some fiercely cold weather in Florida—two inches of snow in the Panhandle!

What about the banana trees?

They are still holding up, but even in the worst-case scenario where the tops are frozen, the bottoms should still be okay. We will trim them down at the end of February to give new growth a chance.

Once we get our ducks, the duck pond will go in nearby to feed the banana trees and the other tropical plants that will appreciate the fertilizer-rich soup that the ducks will produce. A chance meeting with a person in our area who will be moving this year brought us a free liner for the duck pond and loads of other materials that we can use to improve our homestead.

Banana trees, bamboo, pond liners, and more all came our way through a little communication!

 

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DIY Hoop House: The Easy Greenhouse Alternative

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By popular demand, we’re offering our step-by-step, DIY Hoop House Plans — originally available only as part of TGN’s 2017 Home Grown Food Summit — for just $4.95

Click Here to Buy Today!

This is a short-term experiment … and please pardon the fact that our sales page is so crude. 🙂 But we got so many requests that we thought we would make this available as inexpensively as possible.

________________________________________________________________________________________________

This is Marjory Wildcraft. On this edition of Homesteading Basics, I’m going to talk about the lessons I’ve learned from several years of operating a hoop house.

The Easy Greenhouse Alternative

This is a hoop house that’s about 12-feet wide by 48-feet long. If you need a big greenhouse quickly and economically, a hoop house is definitely the way to go. In fact, for me, it was super easy. I actually built this thing with one finger.

Yeah, I said to my husband, “Hon, I want a hoop house right there.” He built it. He’s really handy, and he loves it. Actually, I did help some. Anyway, it really is pretty quick to put up, and it’s very cost effective.

My DIY Hoop House Plan

There are a couple of things we’ve learned about it. We’re growing here in Central Texas, and we get extremes of heat and cold. In the summer, we get a lot of intense sun here. What we found works really well is using a 70 percent shade mesh in the summer months. It provides a good amount of shade, yet allows a breeze to go through. We are able to grow things really well inside the mesh-only greenhouse.

In the winter, just taking the mesh off and having plastic on is the best way to go. The plastic definitely keeps the greenhouse nice and warm. We are able to grow fabulous plants all winter long.

The main thing about this is it creates a pretty big maintenance issue twice a year.

In the spring, we’re taking the plastic off and putting the mesh on. Then, in the fall, we’re taking the mesh off and putting the plastic on. We did operate it for a while with both the plastic and mesh on in winter, and we found that it just doesn’t work that well.

That maintenance chore twice a year is going to take about four people for a greenhouse this size. That means we get the whole family involved with that chore.

But you can use a greenhouse for all seasons if you’re willing to do that kind of work.

Plans For A Summer vs. Winter Hoop House

My other concern is that the mesh seems to be holding up really well, but I’m not sure what the lifetime of the plastic is going to be. I think taking it off and putting it back on adds extra wear and tear to it, and it may not last as long as it would if we just kept it in place throughout the whole year. I’ve spoken with different operators of commercial greenhouses, and it seems the plastic lasts anywhere from one to three years according to the different farmers you talk to.

Personally, I feel that that’s a lot of waste. But it does seem to be effective, and that’s the way it is.

This is Marjory Wildcraft on operating a hoop house. Again, if you need a big greenhouse really quickly and fairly inexpensively, this is a good way to go. We’re going to be doing a lot more about greenhouses and growing in greenhouses on future episodes of Homesteading Basics.

Stay tuned. I’ll see you on another one.

(This article was originally published on January 30, 2017.)

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Make Homemade Potting Soil With 3 Simple Ingredients

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Today you’ll learn how to create homemade potting soil using only three simple ingredients. I’ll also give you alternate recipes for potting soil in case you don’t have those three readily available.

My Homemade Potting Soil Recipe

If you’d like to see me make my homemade potting soil, here’s a video I created illustrating the process:

First, you’ll need a place to work.

I like to spread a tarp on the grass and use that as my mixing area, but you can work on any solid surface. A tarp is easy to roll back and forth to help you mix, but making potting soil isn’t rocket science and you can really do it anywhere.

Second, gather your materials. My potting soil recipe has three main ingredients:

1. Rotten Wood

Fresh wood chips will eat up a lot of the nitrogen in your potting soil mix and can cause your plants to struggle. Rotten wood doesn’t cause that issue, plus it holds moisture and provides a loose and airy texture to the mix.

homemade potting soil recipe ingredient rotten wood

As you know if you’ve read my popular book Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting, I don’t throw away or burn the logs and sticks that fall in my yard. Instead, I use them to feed the soil.

Leaving a pile of brush and logs in a corner of your property to rot over time will give you a ready source of rotten wood.

If you haven’t started doing that yet, just go for a walk in the woods and get a nice sack of fluffy, crumbly wood and drag it home.

2. Aged Cow Manure

I gather manure from my neighbor’s cows and leave it on a piece of metal in the sun to age and dry for a few months.

Homemade potting soil recipe aged manure

Fresh cow manure is too “hot.”

If my home-baked manure sounds too weird, just pile it up in a compost heap somewhere and let it go for a few months. That will leave you with a nutritious, organic-matter-rich pile of good stuff for your homemade potting soil.

NOTE: Manure in the United States is often contaminated with long-term herbicides that will destroy your garden and your potted plants. Read Karen’s story and learn more about that danger here.

3. Sifted Soil/Grit

I let my chickens do a lot of composting for me, like this:

I go into the coop or chicken run, sift out the grit, soil and compost, then use it in my homemade potting soil.

Homemade potting soil recipe sifted chicken run soil

You don’t need to do that, though. No chickens? No problem.

I sift grit from the local creek bed and add that sometimes. I’ve also just added good garden soil, old potting soil mix from expired plants and even regular old sand.

Mix It All Up

Now all you need to do is get mixing.

Smash the rotten wood into smaller chunks, break up the cow patties, and pour in the grit. I use one part rotten wood, one part aged manure and one part grit/soil in my potting soil recipe, but don’t overthink it. If it looks loose and feels good, the plants will be happy.

As you’ll notice in my video, I often leave pretty big chunks of wood in my homemade potting soil. The potted plants seem to like them and they act as moisture reservoirs and soil looseners.

If you need a finer homemade potting soil for starting seeds, just crush the mix finer or run a coarser mix through some hardware cloth to sift it.

Alternate Ingredients for Homemade Potting Soil

If you don’t have cow manure, try goat or rabbit manure. Both work quite well. Homemade compost is also excellent, though I never seem to have enough for everything I want to do. It’s often full of seeds, so watch out for that unless you want pumpkins growing out of your potted begonias.

Don’t have grit/sand available? Vermiculite or perlite both work nicely, though you have to buy them.

Rotten wood can be replaced with peat moss or coconut coir. I prefer the coir. It seems to repel water less. You can also use leaf mould. Sift it out in the local forest – it’s wonderful. As a bonus, it contains beneficial bacteria and fungi.

Along with these ingredients, I’ve also added some ashes, crushed charcoal, coffee grounds, old potting soil, peanut shells and even moldy cocoa nibs.

When I ran my nursery business I often stretched my potting soil budget by mixing purchased soil with rotten wood chips I got from a local tree company and set aside for years to break down.

Just keep your homemade potting soil loose and fluffy with a good mix of ingredients and your plants will do great.

 

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Growing Gardens Under Oak Trees?

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Growing gardens under oak trees? Jennifer asks if it can be done:

Dear David,

I have 10 very mature oaks in my front yard. At the base of one of 
the oaks I have started my food forest experiment. I dumped a layer 
of compost, a variety of seeds (squash, beans, herbs, morning glories, 
echinacea, passionflower and i forgot what else lol!), and light mulch 
because of the oak roots, it is growing good so far. So we talked about 
before i would begin to stop raking leaves and let the leaf litter collect.  
I would then have a self mulching landscape. From my understanding 
not much will be able to grow as ground cover since the leaves will 
ultimately smother them out. I know i can grow vines that travel up though.  
Also any fruit trees or bushes will be of low yield since they would only 
receive dappled light. Is the solution to just plant more?? Please tell me 
if what all I am saying is true? Also I am thinking this is a mesic oak 
hammock since we are on a lake but our house is not in a flood zone 
because we sit up in the hammock zone. Hope that helps.

Thanks

Jennifer

I like her approach. Compost and a big mix of seeds. My kind of growing.

There are two issues here that I can see. Let’s tackle them both

1: Too Much Shade

Oaks are hard to garden under, but I hate to remove them. I explore this conundrum and my thoughts on it in my book Compost Everything in the chapter on “Stupid Worthless Trees.”

I was joking when I called them stupid worthless trees, but that’s the way many people view big, “non-productive” trees. An oak or a maple or a sweetgum is viewed as worthless by many food growers because they aren’t good sources of food. Sure, you can eat acorns or tap maples, but the work involved with processing makes them a less-than-desirable source of food.

Jennifer has a different approach. She’s letting them drop leaves and feed the soil, which large trees are great at doing. They also support other species such as birds and mushrooms—sometimes even edible mushrooms—so they’re vital parts of the ecosystem.

Lactarius_Indigo_Edible_Mushroom

This edible Lactarius indigo was discovered beneath an oak tree.

The problem is the shade they create. Gardening under oaks isn’t easy unless you’re growing shade-tolerant plants. I grew grape mahonias, pineapples and gingers under mine back in North Florida. Around the edges of oaks you can also grow citrus and other fruit trees provided they get enough light. It takes a lot of solar energy to get fruit-producing vegetables like squash, tomatoes, peppers, beans, etc., to make much worth eating.

Throwing down a lot of seeds is a good idea, though—Jennifer may discover some species which are more tolerant than others of the shade.

Sometimes you can strategically remove limbs and open up the canopy to keep things growing underneath.

Planting a big variety is a good idea. The area may not be as productive as it would be without the canopy, but the oaks will buffer the overnight lows during the winter and can help you push the zone, so there are benefits.

Research shade plants for your area, test lots of species, then see what flies.

2: Leaves Covering Everything

If you are starting plants from seeds, having a lot of leaves drop can crush out young seedlings and make it hard to get things started; however, if you plant seeds when leaf drop is minimal, the plants should get established before the leaves get too thick. Older plants will be fine and the leaves will feed their roots as they grow.

Leaves

One of the things I love about mature trees is how many leaves they drop. Leaves are great food for the soil and your compost pile. Perennial vegetables are easier underneath oaks, which is one reason I loved ginger. It likes the shade and will grow through leaves without trouble.

Something worth doing: travel to local parks with natural woodlands and observe what is growing beneath the oaks in wild areas. See if you can mimic what is happening in your own yard. Look for species that are edible. Smilax? Try growing its cousin asparagus.

Beautyberries? Sure, plant some of those!

Violets? They’re a good edible.

Wild blackberries? Plant some cultivated types.

See if you can find patterns in nature and then put those patterns to work in your oak gardens. I learned this concept from the late Toby Hemenway and it has worked wonderfully.

It’s not easy to grow a garden under oak trees, but it’s not impossible. Keep planting and follow your intuition and your observations.

And have fun.

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Build Your Compost Pile Right On Your Garden Beds!

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If you’ve read my book Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting or watched my presentations during multiple Home Grown Food Summit events, you know that I recommend building compost piles right where you plan to garden in the future.

Go ahead — build ’em right on your garden beds!

After following my advice, long-time reader W. R. sent me a composting field report:

“It is good to see you all are having fun in the tropics. I watch your videos weekly.

I haven’t been doing a whole lot of active gardening, but I wanted to give you a little update in photos.

I have two to 4’x 8′ raised beds next to each other that were left fallow since last fall. They were both recently cleared of weeds and grass, and here you can see the difference between them:

Which-bed-compost-in-the-garden

The left one is a native soil I started adding kitchen scraps to, but not for very long. It also was more exposed to the sun. The right one was a compost pile I threw kitchen scraps and coffee grounds in.

This bed had more growing in it, and the soil was more protected by the sun. The right one looks more like good soil, eh?”

This is a great illustration of what in-bed composting accomplishes. It just makes sense to build compost piles on top of garden beds.

Why Compost on a Garden Bed?

Less Materials Handling

When you compost directly on top of a garden bed, you don’t have to worry about moving as many materials.

You throw your kitchen scraps, leaves, rabbit manure, etc., right onto a bed. Don’t worry about it getting hot — it will rot down over time.

If you want it to compost hot and fast, build up a compost pile higher over the bed like I do in this video:

But really, nature will handle it.

Throw everything down on a garden bed and then some months later when you’re ready to plant, fork off the rougher stuff onto the next closest bed and get planting.

More Good Stuff Stays Where You Want It

Second, all the good leachates that would normally run into ground beneath a compost bin are instead transferred right into the ground where you will be growing.

If you’re ever moved a compost pile and seen the right worm-filled soil beneath it, you know what I mean. If you’re not planting that area, it’s a waste!

W. R. has also been composting meat and bones like a good extreme composter should:

bones-in-the-garden

As bones break down in the soil, they will feed your garden long-term. Yes, I know you’re “not supposed to compost meat” and all that. Heck with those rules — if you throw those materials away, you’re throwing away nutrition for your garden. There are plenty of ways to compost meat safely, though that’s fodder for another article.

For now, I just urge you to quit working so hard and start composting right where it will make the biggest difference.

Wherever you compost, good fungi and bacteria populations explode, worms arrive and till the soil, plus you don’t have to move your compost all over the place.

Though I do still have a bin, I also keep a compost pile going on one of my garden beds at any given time. It works.

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Apartment Gardening: Reaping Abundance in a Small Space

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Today we’re going to set to work on the self-sufficiency task of apartment homesteading. Let’s talk about your Apartment Homestead garden!

There is something so simultaneously spiritual and physical about digging in the dirt, planting seeds, nurturing them to grow and prosper, and reaping the harvest of your hard work a few short months later.

But it does take work and determination, especially when you are an apartment homesteader.

Why Apartment Gardening?

As apartment homesteaders, we have to bring potting soil into our apartments instead of simply tilling up a piece of our land for the garden. We have to take cleanliness and visual appeal into consideration as we plan our apartment gardens, because we have landlords and neighbors to contend with. We have to troubleshoot issues of lack of sunlight at certain times of the day, and we have to find ways to bring the garden inside when we don’t have enough space on our patios.

In short, apartment gardening takes some creativity and determination in order to truly reap the benefits.

But we certainly have good reason to attempt to grow our own food and be on our way to self-sufficiency, even while we are still apartment and condo dwellers. Those reasons include avoiding the pesticide contamination of non-organically grown produce, saving money, and learning how to be self-sufficient for the future.

And, even if you’re a non-apartment dweller, keep in mind that you can use some of these techniques to extend your growing season by bringing the harvest indoors!

Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen

The Environmental Working Group keeps track yearly of the amount of pesticides used to grow certain fruits and vegetables. The foods with the heaviest pesticide contamination go in the “Dirty Dozen” column. The foods with the least amount of pesticide contamination go in the “Clean 15” column.

Here are the lists for 2017:

Dirty Dozen

  • Strawberries
  • Spinach
  • Nectarines
  • Apples
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Cherries
  • Grapes
  • Celery
  • Tomatoes
  • Sweet Bell Peppers
  • Potatoes

Clean Fifteen

  • Sweet Corn
  • Avocados
  • Pineapples
  • Cabbage
  • Onions
  • Sweet Peas
  • Papayas
  • Asparagus
  • Mangoes
  • Eggplant
  • Honeydew
  • Kiwi
  • Cantaloupe
  • Cauliflower
  • Grapefruit

I know we can’t all afford to buy only organic produce from the store, but with these lists in mind, we can at least be careful to purchase the Dirty Dozen organically and be a little less strict with how we purchase items from the Clean Fifteen list.

But, even better than simply buying organically produced items on the Dirty Dozen list, we can grow our own! The items in bold text on the Dirty Dozen list are the ones we’ll talk about growing in a patio, container, or indoor garden in our apartment homestead. We’ll also talk about growing other items, such as herbs and salad greens.

Remember, it is highly unlikely that you’ll be able to grow everything you need to live off of in an apartment. (If you are able to do that, please comment below and share your methods with us!)

But you can grow a variety of herbs, vegetables, and fruits to get you part of the way there. And, if you can grow some of the Dirty Dozen fruits and vegetables in your apartment, you’ll save money by having to buy fewer of them at the store!

Seeds vs. Seedlings

Some of the garden items below are easiest to grow from a small plant that you purchase at a local farm. But growing from seed is entirely possible and you may decide to go that route.

Whichever route you choose, be sure to find a seed or plant source that grows using organic methods. You don’t want to start your apartment garden with seeds or plants soaked in pesticides. You’re trying to get away from that chemical yuck!

Look for certified-organic seed sellers. Local is always better for you and for the environment.

Herbs to Grow While Apartment Gardening

There are two different types of herbs you can grow in your apartment homestead: medicinal herbs and cooking herbs. Often times, a single plant variety will serve both purposes.

We won’t get into the specific medicinal uses of each of these herbs here, but look for a future post on how to create your own “apartment apothecary”!

These are some of the herbs you might decide to grow in your apartment homestead garden:

  • Mint: Great for cooking and has medicinal uses (both)
  • Basil: Both
  • Thyme: Both
  • Oregano: Both
  • Chamomile: Use to make a medicinal tea
  • Echinacea: Medicinal
  • Feverfew: Medicinal
  • Johnny Jump Up: Medicinal
  • Lavender: Use to make a medicinal tea and for other medicinal purposes
  • Lemon Balm: Medicinal
  • Marigold: Medicinal (Pretty, too—and it helps keep pests away!)
  • Parsley: Both
  • Rosemary: Both
  • Sage: Both

There are so many ways to grow herbs in your apartment garden, but here are two of my favorites:

Grow individual herb plants in large-mouth mason jars. Plant and clearly mark one herb plant in each mason jar and display them on your kitchen counter. Most of these need some sun, so try to place them near a window. They look really nice hanging or sitting in a window sill!

Grow an “herb wall.” Plant herbs side by side in long, rectangular, wooden boxes that are lightweight and can easily be hung on a wall with studs. I’ve also seen some clever uses of old shipping pallets to make a wall planter.

Analyze your apartment space and decide what herb-planting method will work best for you . . . then share it with us!

The Apartment Homesteader Herb Garden Schedule

  1. Decide which ailments you would like to treat with natural, organic herbs. Do a simple Internet search to see which herbs may help improve those ailments or your overall health. Also make a list of herbs you use regularly in the kitchen.
  2. Look up the growing recommendations for each herb you want to plant, and make note of the supplies you’ll need. (Or, check out Marjory’s herbal how-to here!
  3. Find a local, organic seed or plant seller and purchase your plants. Also purchase (or repurpose!) your materials to “build” your garden.
  4. When your herbs are ready to harvest, decide how to preserve each herb and reap your herb garden abundance for months to come. You’ll probably use some fresh and save others for later use. Most herbs can be easily dried simply by hanging the cut stems for a few days. Some people also chop up fresh herbs, place them in ice cube trays, add water, and freeze them for later use!

Container-Friendly Vegetables and Fruits

In addition to herbs, you can also grow a bunch of your favorite fruits and vegetables in your apartment garden!

Here’s a list of some of the plants that are easy to grow in small spaces—in pots, in wall gardens, and on your patio in garden boxes:

  • Microgreens
  • Garlic Greens
  • Tomatoes
  • Salad Greens
  • Bell Peppers
  • Carrots
  • Radishes
  • Green Beans
  • Kale
  • Scallions
  • Strawberries
  • Rhubarb
  • Ginger
  • Winter Squash
  • Watermelon
  • Asparagus
  • Peas
  • Artichokes

Pick two or three of your favorites from this list and research planting and growing recommendations for those plants.

Start with the ones that are easiest to grow. (And bonus points for growing some of the produce on the Dirty Dozen list!) Consider planting one tomato plant, two bell pepper plants, and two different salad greens in your first garden go-round.

Just like with your herb garden, each plant will have specific instructions for optimal growth. Also, make sure you look into how much soil space each of the plants you want to try requires when mature. Then, purchase or build your pot or garden box to accommodate them.

The Apartment Homesteader Vegetable Garden Schedule

  1. Decide which fruits and vegetables you want to try to grow in your apartment garden. Pick stuff you like to eat and wouldn’t mind eating in back-to-back meals.
  2. Look up the growing recommendations for each item you want to plant, and make note of the supplies you’ll need.
  3. Find a local, organic seed or plant seller and purchase your plants. Also purchase (or repurpose!) your materials to “build” your garden.
  4. When your produce is almost ready to harvest, make a menu schedule. Find a multitude of recipes that use the produce you are growing and eat as much of it fresh as you can. You can also find recipes and methods to can, dry, or otherwise preserve your produce for eating in the future. There are some stellar tomato-preserving recipes out there!

Pick a Garden Design You (and Your Neighbors!) Will Love

I was clicking around on Pinterest the other day and came across some truly awesome patio garden designs.

One of my favorites used cinder blocks and garden fabric. This pinner stacked the cinder blocks in different ways to expose square openings in the blocks and then attached garden fabric to the inside of the exposed openings. He then filled each “cinder block pot” with soil and planted what he wanted to grow in them.

I also love the raised garden bed designs floating around. I give it bonus points if the gardener uses repurposed materials during building! Make it fun, make it fashionable, and make it sustainable—just like everything else you do as an apartment homesteader.

The same goes for your indoor garden and any container gardening you do. It might seem a little “hipster” or HGTV-wannabe to do so, but making your garden fun and fashionable (think “Pinteresting”) will inspire your friends and neighbors to create their own fun and fashionable apartment gardens. Making self-sufficiency and sustainability look cool encourages more people to pursue it.

What to Plant if You Don’t Get Enough Sun

If your apartment doesn’t face the right way for optimal sunlight, don’t fret! You can still grow a multitude of plants, but you need to get even more creative with your choices.

Here is a list of herbs that grow well in the shade:

  • Mint
  • Chives
  • Parsley
  • Cilantro
  • Tarragon
  • Golden Oregano
  • Lemon Balm
  • Thyme
  • Angelica
  • Anise

And here are vegetables that grow well in the shade:

  • Salad Greens and Leafy Greens
  • Cauliflower
  • Beets
  • Peas
  • Brussel Sprouts
  • Radishes
  • Swish Chard
  • Beans

Or make your own sunlight by purchasing a sun lamp. Just search online for “plant growing lamps”—you’ll find a bunch of options to choose from.

Restarting Plants From “Scraps”

Another really cool way to live a truly sustainable apartment homesteader life is to restart some of your garden items from scraps!

Check out this long list of produce you can restart from your organic table scraps:

  • Leaks
  • Spring Onions
  • Scallions
  • Fennel
  • Lemongrass
  • Romaine Lettuce
  • Celery
  • Bok Choy
  • Cabbage
  • Ginger
  • Potatoes
  • Avocadoes
  • Bean Sprouts
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Pineapple
  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Pumpkins
  • Mushrooms
  • Peppers
  • Tomatoes
  • Basil
  • Cilantro
  • Turnips
  • Cherries
  • Apples
  • Peaches
  • Lemons
  • Hazelnuts
  • Chestnuts

Remember, once they get going, many of these will need more room than a pot provides, plus a warm climate or heated greenhouse to grow properly. Take that into account before you go through the work of restarting a lemon tree in a northern climate.

Community Gardens

If gardening in your apartment is simply not an option, look around your city for community gardens to join.

You’d be surprised how many community gardens there are around you. For a small fee, you’ll be allocated a small parcel of the garden and you can plant what you want to plant.

Make sure you ask about the garden’s policy on the use of pesticides. If the rest of the gardeners douse their produce in chemicals, you may want to look elsewhere for a garden space.

Once you’ve found your community garden plot, plant a handful of medicinal herbs, a tomato plant, some leafy greens, beans, a row or two of potatoes, a few pepper plants, and any other vegetables you can’t live without.

If for some crazy reason there aren’t any community gardens near you, start your own with other apartment homesteaders! Start a Meetup group for people in the area interested in homesteading and gauge how much land you’ll need to grow a community garden.

Ask your landlord about possible locations for a community garden in the area, or seek out churches and community groups to see if they will sell or allocate a small parcel of land for garden use. You never know what kind of neighborhood green initiative you might start by simply asking questions and offering some encouragement.

What if You Don’t Have a Green Thumb?

Do you lack the gift of growing? Don’t worry; do research. Find local homesteaders and inquire about working in their gardens or in other areas of their homesteads in exchange for free produce.

But don’t just work. Ask questions. See what knowledge you can glean from established homesteaders who grow their own food.

Before you know it, you could be well on your way to becoming a green-thumbed expert in the field of apartment-homestead gardening.

There are so many ways we apartment homesteaders can practice self-sufficiency, even when we don’t have any physical land to grow on. With some creativity, research, and a little determination, we can become abundant apartment homestead gardeners.

Share your apartment garden projects below! We’d love to hear from you!

 

References:

http://www.hgtv.com/outdoors/flowers-and-plants/herbs/15-herbs-that-grow-in-the-shade-pictures
https://www.thespruce.com/growing-vegetables-without-full-sun-2540014
https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/#.WdTouNOGMfE
https://www.rd.com/health/conditions/medicinal-herbs/
http://mashable.com/2015/06/07/plants-you-can-grow-in-apartments/#NnTSQaEnHGqV
https://www.rodalesorganiclife.com/garden/10-fruits-and-vegetables-you-can-grow-in-a-tiny-apartment
http://blackthumbgardener.com/1-plants-you-grow-from-kitchen-scraps/
https://www.diyncrafts.com/4732/repurpose/25-foods-can-re-grow-kitchen-scraps
https://bonnieplants.com/library/grow-tomatoes-pots/
http://www.contemporist.com/make-modern-outdoor-diy-succulent-planter-using-cinder-blocks/
http://www.diyhowto.org/diy-raised-garden-bed-ideas/
http://www.pinkwhen.com/how-to-make-an-herb-garden-from-a-pallet/

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Pueblo Farming Methods For Your Resilient Garden

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I spent the morning in Albuquerque, New Mexico at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center’s Resilience Garden learning about the history of Pueblo Farming Methods. There are 19 Pueblos of New Mexico represented at the center.

The Resilience Garden tells the story of pre-contact foods and traditional farming methods all the way to modern plants and gardening methods for urban communities.

Watch the Interview (15:49 minutes):

Irrigation

The Zuni Pueblo is highly represented in the Resilience Garden because of its unique irrigation method, called a waffle garden. It is a brilliant technique to harvest and conserve water and is several thousand years old.

Zuni Pueblo Waffle Garden

Without a permanent water source, you can’t water a large area of crops. The waffle garden acts like a puddle. You hand-carry water to the beds and make sure the water stays concentrated where you put it.

The walls of the waffle bed are hand formed to catch any rainfall and focus that precious water around seeds and the roots of plants. It keeps the soil damp during the weeks of the dry season.

Water is a vital, life-giving element, especially in this desert climate. Pueblo cultures honor water through sustainable practices, as well as seasonal dances praying for generous rains, healthy plants, and a bountiful harvest.

pueblo-farming-methods

Acoma and Laguna Flood Garden

Seasonal rains were crucial in Pueblo agriculture. Many of the Pueblos are located near plateaus. When the seasonal rains come, the rain runs off of the plateaus and into the flood gardens.

A wall around the flood garden holds the water in a particular area to water their crops. There were often multiple flooding areas, so if one area filled up with water, a wall would be removed so the water flowed into the next area and so on.

Pueblo crops planted in these types of gardens

The waffle and flood gardens were planted with melons and squash. The heavy amount of water would undermine a corn plant’s root system causing it to fall over.

Plants

The Pueblos are scattered throughout the state of New Mexico with a wide-variety of climates, from mountains to desert and plateaus to scrub. However, the Pueblo People concentrate their gardening around the Three Sisters (Corn, Beans, and Squash).

Community food production

Most of the crops grow in communal plots. Land was not owned, making it easy to move your garden each year. You weren’t planting in the same place (preventing pest and disease issues, and giving the land time to rest). By the time you got back to your original growing space, nature had time to rebuild healthy soil.

Want to know more about community food production? Click here to watch I Don’t Want to Grow All My Own Food. 

Prior to European Contact

Prior to contact with Europeans, there were many berries and different types of shrubs that were wild harvested.

Other pre-contact plants:

  • Mint
  • Cotton
  • Strawberries
  • Raspberries
  • Wild Spinach
  • Yucca
  • Wild Celery
  • Tea (a tall grass)
  • Chokecherries
  • Wild plums
  • Wild mushrooms

Traditional herbs and many plants were not cultivated but harvested where they grew naturally.

Learning through history

Lessons were learned throughout history in places like Mesa Verde and Bandolier. These sites were built into cliffs with little or no space for agriculture to support such a larger community.

Corn is one of the oldest plants, which came from Mexico. The Pueblos have had corn for many thousands of years.

It is unknown when or how Beans and Squash came into Pueblo agriculture. There isn’t an exact story of where these plants came from.

The stories that have been handed down through the history of Pueblo culture speak to why they garden as they do and the way plants are cultivated or not.

When the Spanish came to the New Mexico, the pueblos were thriving. They had seven years-worth of food stored. The stored food kept the Spanish from conquering the Pueblos. It was the generosity of the Pueblo people that helped the Spanish survive in this harsh environment.

The Spanish, in turn, brought sheep, horses, chickens, and even the fruit trees that are grown today.

There are still families at the Pueblos who grow in the traditional methods and incorporate modern plants. Even the younger generations are becoming interested in the agricultural traditions once again.

Pueblo Ceremonies

Pueblos have many ceremonies throughout the year. The dances and songs vary from Pueblo to Pueblo. The reason many dances are not open to the public is because they are sacred. The dance and song are prayers to the soil, the plants, the pollinators, and gratitude for the harvest.

The season starts in the spring with ceremonies for preparing the soil and starting seeds. The ceremonies also bless the land with songs and dances.

Then throughout the summer, there are many dances that bless the field and crops, bring in the pollinators like the butterflies, and for a good harvest.

All of the dances, songs, preparations, plantings, and seasons lend themselves to the story of living life close to nature and gardening in a sustainable way.

Your Resilient Garden

At the Resilience Garden, they’re inspiring modern gardeners. Their methods are thousands of years of trial and error.

If you got out in your garden for the first time today, you would still come up with these methods on your own. Learning some of the best methods right away and adapting them to where you live will only help you create an abundant harvest.

The Resilience garden shows what gardeners have learned over the years:

  1. Preparing the soil is the foundation to sustainable gardening
  2. Planting the right plant in the right place
  3. Harvesting with gratitude
  4. Sharing knowledge with others

Resilience is a common theme for the Pueblos throughout history. They have survived contact with many nations and still remain humble, loving, and incredibly generous. The Pueblo agricultural methods and seeds are still alive after thousands of years. That’s pretty amazing!

The name of the garden is powerful and inspiring for the Indigenous people of the area, and anyone who comes to this space. There is even a Seed Bank, where the Pueblo people drop off seeds that have been in their family for many generations. That’s better than money!

If you’re in Albuquerque, please stop by and learn more about Pueblo Culture and the Resilience Garden. Click here for more information.

Resources:
Historic Images: Library of Congress
Dance footage courtesy of the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center

 

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The Garden Redesign – Adding A Little Flair

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It seems like each and every year  – we find ourselves writing a Sunday Farm Update about changes to the garden. Our garden has changed a lot since those first vegetable seedling went into the ground in the Spring of 2011. It has always been

The post The Garden Redesign – Adding A Little Flair appeared first on Old World Garden Farms.