Gardening is an enjoyable and exciting pastime that can provide you with plenty of vegetables for most of the year, without large spaces or requirements. Most backyard gardens can sustain a small family.
Gardening is also a good way of reducing your carbon footprint. By growing plants, you are allowing them to take carbon from the air and lock it in the soil and in organic matter. The key to great gardening is feeding the soil. You MUST keep the soil fertile if you expect to produce food from it year after year.
NEVER, and I repeat, NEVER use chemical fertilizers to feed your plants or soil. This will eventually kill your soil and add extra work in the long run. A lot of people will swear that fertilizers give extra yield, and “that’s how we feed the world”. Those people are certifiable and have no understanding of either agricultural history or soil fertility. Politely avoid talking about gardening with these folks!
So how do you feed the soil? In one word – compost. Compost feeds the microorganisms that in turn condition the soil. It also contains nutrients that you can’t get from chemical fertilizers, like trace elements, humic acid, and soil microorganisms. It is valuable stuff and at times in human history, it has been worth more than gold. Fortunately, it is very easy to make. In fact, it makes itself, and can be made from anything organic.
China farmed the same land for more than 4,000 years without depleting the soil, using compost and balanced farming techniques. During the last 60 years they switched to “modern” practices, which involved heavy use of chemical fertilizers, and they have depleted their soil at a rate almost equal to the soil depletion of the USA and Australia.
Did you know that over 30,000 acres of farmland are turned into desert every year? This terrible fact is due to the sterilizing effects of chemical fertilizers. Now ask your fertilizer friend how we feed the world when we don’t have any farmland left?
So use compost and organic fertilizers, if needed. Compost cannot be over used. A good application is at least 2 inches, three times a year. After three years of this, you will have the best looking soil on the block!
Once you get your soil fed and happy, you need to make the most of this soil. This means planting things very close together and keeping something growing at all times. Even weeds are better than barren land. By keeping something growing, you are helping the microorganisms stay alive, as they have very specific relationships to plants. Without plants, they won’t survive, and without them, your plants won’t survive well, either.
Wide row planting is a great way to grow a garden and take advantage of the space you have. Basically, you create beds that are 4-5 feet wide and as long as you like. These beds are spaced 1-2 feet apart. This allows you to avoid ever having to walk on the bed, as you can walk in between them and reach from the sides. Double-digging the beds is a good idea to loosen the soil up and get a good mix of compost and organic matter right into the soil. Even better is to build a wicking bed, from the ground up.
A good practice is to plant on a hexagonal pattern, tightly spaced. The mature plants want to barely touch leaves. On your seed packet, they will have plant spacing recommendations. Space your plants at about 75% of this value in all directions. For example, with tomatoes, they normally recommend 24 inches. You would do 18 inches. By placing them so close together, the plants establish a micro climate below them, like a miniature forest. The soil stays cooler, stays moist, and encourages soil life. You also use less space and water. Or think of it as producing four times the veggies with the same garden space. The absolute key to this method is soil fertility and lots of compost. With proper fertility, you will end up with big patches of beautiful green carpet!
Another good practice is starting plants indoors in flats, using soil blocks. This increases your growing season, uses less space and water, and allows you to achieve higher production rates. As some plants are growing in the bed, you are starting the next round in the flats, so there is a constant rotation with no dead space in the garden. Because flats are smaller, the young plants take up less space and use less water. Transplanting is fun, because it gives you an almost “instant” green cover on the garden. Some plants do not transplant well, but experiencing small failures is part of gardening too.
You should rotate your crops every season, between nitrogen feeders and carbon feeders, to distribute minerals into the soil and avoid taking too much out of your soil. Till under your plants at the end of the harvest and add compost in to help enrich the soil. Continue to add nutrients at every chance, and your garden will become lusher year after year.
As well as rotating your crops, you should also try and plant things together that compliment each other. This is called companion gardening and heightens the efficiency of your crop.
It is a great idea to cover your garden with mulch, a thick organic layer like cut grass. This helps keep the moisture in the soil and protects the microorganisms from the sun. We often pick grass and weeds that grow up in the garden and throw them around the plants. We do not pull up weeds, but rather let them grow again so we can continue to harvest our mulch material.
As places experiences unpredictable weather patterns, droughts, and increased population, water is becoming a very valuable commodity. It is, of course, something that is essential to gardening.
We live in a fairly arid environment, so water is precious to us. We use several methods to make our water go further in the garden.
First of all, we would never water the surface of the ground in the middle of the day, when evaporation is at its highest. We also do not water every day. A long, deep soak less often is more beneficial than frequent, shallow watering.
We have transformed most of our garden into wicking beds. This is a form of garden bed that is highly conservative with water. You place the water into a trough constructed under the soil and the plants’ roots then suck it up as needed. Loss to evaporation is minimal.
We have also started adding a “water battery” to any area we plant. This basically consists of placing rotting logs or tree limbs into the bottom of tree holes or along terraces. The soil and compost are then placed on top. The rotting logs will hold water under the soil, as opposed to letting it drain away. Furthermore, they release nutrients slowly into the soil as the rot, leaving air pockets for soil life to take over.
Because weather is unpredictable these days, you should also always provide overflows into your systems, so that water can drain away from your plants in the case of too much water.