Even though the ground outside is still blanketed in nearly a foot and a half of snow, and the crisp wintry winds seem to laugh at the idea of spring, our thoughts are swirling around our organic gardening, and the bounty that this summer will bring. Though the garden appears to be sleeping soundly now, winter has certainly not been a taskless time for us, and has given me the opportunity to do a fair amount of thinking and planning (so crucial to gardening success!).
I decided that the best way to get myself ready for this gardening season was to do a short review of problems, conundrums, and successes that we encountered over the last few years, a plan to tackle each of those problems and enhance each success, and a list of what we have done during the last month, as well as what needs to be done during the next few months. This post will be the first in a series that tackle those topics and document our organic garden experience this summer.
One of the foremost considerations with organic gardening is soil quality. Because we do not add chemical fertilizers, which often cause more imbalances than they correct anyway, we have to find other natural ways of conditioning our very sandy soil. When we first moved here three years ago, many of our neighbors chuckled at our plans to grow organic vegetables. What about the fertilizers, the pesticides? You'll never get anything to grow here that way, they warned. Since then, our bounty of vegetables has been the talk of the town. What did we add to our cucumbers to get them so juicy? How did we get our winter squash to produce so many fruits? We have been delighted to explain to people how organic gardening can create such a bounty, while enhancing the soil and deepening our connection to nature at the same time.
Our soil certainly was not ideal. Sandy, dry, soil is predominant in these parts. We live in blueberry country, and blueberries do wonderfully in sandy soil. Many vegetables, however, do not, and so the first thing we did, after selecting an area to plant and tilling the soil, was to add nearly one ton of horse manure to our plot just prior to our first growing season. We found a horse farm nearby that was more than happy to donate their composted manure to us, as long as we were willing to shovel it and haul it away ourselves. Not a pretty job, but with the help of our neighbors, a large trailer, and a couple of shovels, the manure was spread in a day's time.
Composted manure is much safer than raw manure, which can carry E. coli and other potentially harmful bacteria. The application of raw manure involves following strict guidelines to be deemed organic, and should be avoided, especially as a beginner. Also, it is safer to apply manure at the end of the planting season- but since we moved to our farm in spring and intended to do gardening immediately, we were limited in time and options. This year we will not be applying manure again, since proper organic gardening methods actually improve the soil's condition each year, and the repeated application of manure can pose environmental problems due to run-off and acidification of the soil, as well as excesses of nutrients that occur in large doses in manure.
Because our soil was acidic (a soil testing kit at any local gardening center can help you identify the quality of your soil), we also needed to add lime, especially since manure further acidifies the soil. The lime and manure were tilled into the earth, and allowed to sit for a few weeks before continuing with preparing our garden.
It did not take long before the weeds started appearing. Manure often contains weed seeds, and because we are in a rural area to begin with, and gardening on a plot of land overrun with weeds, they would continue to be our biggest challenge throughout the year. What I have learned over the last few years is that multiple methods of weed control are necessary, including succession planting (growing quickly maturing crops in some beds, then tilling them in and planting a new crop), cover crops (like clover), mulches, crop rotation (which also helps maintain soil balance and reduces incidences of disease and pest problems), and a lot of good old-fashioned weeding early on.
In addition to weed problems, we encountered an amazing variety of insect problems, including horn worms, potato beetles, squash vine borers, Japanese beetles, cabbageworms, aphids, various caterpillars, and flea beetles, just to name a few. No wonder our neighbors thought we were crazy to shun chemical pesticides! Though we are constantly challenged, we have found an arsenal of successful organic methods to reduce insect problems.
Sometimes control methods work for various problems; sometimes they are very specific. Creating floating row covers for young plants is a great method to keep away many pest problems; mounding red pepper around the stems of infested plants is a way to control specific pests like cabbage maggot. Having a good organic gardening resource is essential. I found myself looking up various insects, as well as symptoms of disease, nearly every day during our first gardening season. Two books that I continually turn to are The Complete Vegetable & Herb Gardener: A Guide to Growing Your Garden Organically by Karan Davis Cutler, and Rodale's All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, which covers plants individually and helps identify problems associated with individual plants.
It is also important to find a good source of organic applications that help control pest and disease problems. I love Arbico Organics- their products are organic, effective, and their knowledgeable staff of employees are available to answer whatever questions you can come up with. I use their Soap Shield Insecticide and Copper Fungicide, as well as Milky Spore Powder for Japanese beetles and beneficial nematode application for other grubs. They have a host of other organic products that will help, and a quality fish emulsion for organic fertilizer.
With experience, you can learn which pests are a major problem for your area and garden proactively, using precautionary methods to prevent the infestation, and you can learn to recognize signs of a growing problem early on. And if you are gardening in an urban environment, you will be fortunate enough to have much fewer insect problems than do rural gardeners to start with.
A garden journal is essential for learning from your mistakes. This is something that has always challenged me: at the end of a long day of gardening it can be really hard to sit down and write down what you experienced, learned, and need to figure out from that day. I'll do it tomorrow, you might tell yourself, but your memories will be a little less fresh, and tomorrow can quickly turn into next week. So my number one goal for this year is to do a better job journaling both my organic gardening successes and failures. This blog should help with that!
Finally, we are still working on creating the perfect watering system. We are fortunate enough to have well water, so cost is not an issue, but waste is. Overhead systems tend to be extremely wasteful compared to drip irrigation. Hand watering is time-consuming, but you can allocate as much water as is needed to each bed, avoiding problems with over- and under-watering that can occur in a generalized system. Overhead watering also tends to spread diseases, since they splash the soil up onto stems and leaves, and many diseases are spread through soil. Additionally, the moist leaf and stem conditions created through overhead watering contribute to the spread of disease. We started out with a timed sprinkler system our first season, which cuts down immensely on labor, but as I just explained, is wasteful and created new problems.
So this year we will be using a combination of watering techniques. A lot of hand watering in the early hours of the day, a timed sprinkler for the really heavy water feeders, and some soaker hoses for beds that will not be re-tilled for succession planting. Hopefully this variety of watering methods will help reduce some of the problems we encountered in the past.
Well, it's almost time to start our seeds! This year we have ordered heirloom seeds from Seed Savers, a wonderful organization that seeks to preserve our natural plant heritage. We have created an indoor growing shelf that will be started in our home office and then moved to the greenhouse just as soon as it's a tad warmer. We will be tilling and planting our cool weather crops (Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, cauliflower, broccoli, radishes, peas, onions) just as soon as the ground can be worked. All of these exciting things I will talk about in my next post. Until then, if you haven't ordered your seeds and started your garden planning, get going! Spring is just around the corner!