What I learned in one afternoon about growing your own vegetables.
Tom Waller of Elm Tree Farm is a market gardener who’s been making a living selling truckloads of produce in Ottawa for twenty years or so. Our friend Mike has been doing it for his family for just as long. And Cheryl fed her whole family entirely from their land for many years. I picked their brains and got just enough info to get started without feeling overwhelmed with too much technical knowledge. I'll read Eliot Coleman's book more thoroughly later.
Only have a deck or balcony? Full instructions on growing in home-made self-watering containers at The EarthTainer.
Feeding your plants, organic vs. regular:
If you’re going to take ten pounds of food off a plot, you’re going to have to put back more than ten pounds of organic matter OR you’re going to have to replace the nutrients in the form of water-soluble fertilizer. Assuming you’re not a ‘Miracle Gro’ sort of gardener that means gathering and layering:
- leaves (in the spring I made a huge pile near my compost bins. By fall they were about 1/3 rotted and excellent for layering with the garden leftovers!)
- spoiled hay (if you can get it from a farmer who doesn't need it)
- swamp grass (get it in winter, walking on the ice)
- grass clippings
- clover or alfalfa you’ve grown instead of lawn (this is why scythes are in vogue).
- kitchen compost
- weeds (no seeds) and vegetable waste, such as cabbage leaves.
- swamp goo
- leaf mold - forest floor layers (but not too often, for the sake of the trees)
Two kinds of composting
1. Easy, but long range
Windrows are just long heaps four feet wide and as long as you like, with a dip in the top to catch water. You can put any vegetable matter from the above lists in them. You don’t turn the piles until fall. Then you flip the whole thing over into the space beside it, same size. This is either good compost for mulching your veggies next year OR you can grow squash and/or cucumbers right on it, next spring.
This is also what you do to build up a hopelessly bad patch of ground that you wish could grow food. It might take four or five years.
Windrows of compost are one place to put your red wigglers if you are a vermiculturalist, if you have a ‘squirm’ or a 'herd' of worms like I do, turning kitchen scraps into gorgeous black humus all winter long.
2. Labor-intensive, but fast and productive
The three-bin compost system is worth a whole page, it's so important in organic growing.
3. My way (a compromise)
I started some windrows, but they looked messy and the leaves kept blowing around, so I put all but one small one into the compost bins. Then periodically I tucked some green stuff into the middle. I also added my red wigglers. I was quite happy with the amount of black stuff I got. I spread a lot of half-finished compost on top of the garden in June and July. Then in September I had beautiful finished compost from the second round.
Homemade liquid fertilizer
Tom told me to make “compost tea” by soaking some finished compost (not kitchen scraps, as I previously misunderstood) in a bucket of water for two days, stirring now and then. You drain the liquid into a watering can and feed the foliage (there was a technical word for this). Vegetables love this! Especially squash, cabbage and tomatoes, “heavy feeders”, as Tom calls them. Then you can take the sludge and put it in the compost.
To dig or not to dig
There’s a lot of buzz about no-dig gardening. Back in the seventies I used to dig the whole huge garden up shovel-deep both spring and fall. Tom says you only need to do that once EVER, (whew, we’re way too old for all that heavy work!) because in recent years a lot has been discovered about “soil structure”. As long as nobody tramps it down, ever. There are pathways of fungus and microbes that lead the nutrients to the plants’ roots. Digging the ground trashes these. I dug up a 25 foot square garden last fall, leaving beaten paths every four feet to walk on, narrow enough beds to reach to the center from each side. Tom said 30” beds are even easier, because you can step over them. Too late now.
You do, however need to aerate the soil once a year. You do that with a broadfork. It’s like a two-handled giant pitchfork and you push it in with your foot on the crossbar and then just pull it down a bit to open up the soil a little. Etc.I'm doing this with my regular garden fork before spreading my finished compost.
You also need to find your favorite tool for working compost a couple of inches into the soil. It might just be an ordinary hoe to chop it in and an ordinary rake to "dress" the surface to prepare it for seeds. There are claw-like and star-like cultivators and even cultivators mounted on wheels.I find a nice small hoe and a rake work fine.
You can wait till they’re a foot tall and yank them out and throw them on the compost pile. This is the method you’ll use if you go camping for two weeks, when you get home.
If you let the weeds get an inch or two tall you’ll have to break up the ground an inch or so deep to kill the weeds. This is hard work.
Mike and Tom both swear this is the easy way to fight weeds. You use a lightweight tool, whatever’s most comfortable for you, and you use sort of a vacuuming motion to scrape the surface before you can really see much in the way of weed seedlings. This disturbs the earth just enough to kill the baby weeds. It also creates a thin layer of “dust mulch” which acts to hold in the moisture. I love my scuffler!!
* IMPORTANT PLANNING POINT
Plant your rows one scuffling tool width apart or a multiple of it. If you stretch a string along the seeded rows it will be safe to scuffle on either side even before they come up. That way the weeds don't get a head start on the veggies.
First off, Tom said that once you’ve built up your soil after a few years of diligent composting your vegetables will be so big and strong that the complexity of their tissue will be too much for the bugs’ simple digestive systems. I found this very encouraging and motivating.
The one veggie I eat all the time (duh) is cabbage. It stores in a cold place, so I could theoretically grow and eat fifty heads. But last year the small ones I succeeded in growing were pretty much decimated several leaves deep by bugs. Mike said this is the cabbage butterfly’s work. All you need is a re-usable fabric netting you can buy at gardening supply places. You anchor it to the ground with bent coat hanger wire. It has to be lifted up for weeding. It stretches up as the plants grow and no cabbage bugs get in. This is good for all the brassicas – cabbage, broccoli, kale, brussels sprouts, ec.
I used to totally refrain from killing, including mosquitoes. Those days are over. I had a huge infestation of rose chafer beetles, stacked in pairs, munching the blackberry leaves and the beans. I had to pick them off and drop them in slightly soapy water. It was nothing less than a massacre. I don’t like the sound of diatomaceous earth working like broken glass to slash the delicate flesh of grubs, nor did I much like the idea of sprinkling a solution of Bacillus thuringiensis on the veggies to kill 90% of the bugs, much like botulin toxin does. Those are options organic gardeners exercise. So, vegans who think avoiding meat and buying organic means they’re having no part in killing are sadly mistaken.
Yes, you have to. This is why it’s good to make a map of what you’re putting where and keep a journal each year, so you remember what works and what’s been where. Tom said he doesn’t rotate tomatoes. I was happy to hear that, because they’re tall and I wanted them at the back corner where they won’t shade anything else. And if you make a windrow next to an equal-size squash patch and always turn the windrow over onto the squash patch in the fall, you don’t have to move the squash patch since you’re actually replacing its soil every year.
And as far as I’m concerned, that was plenty to apply the first serious year I tried to grow what I actually eat.
Some crop choices
The Permaculture Way
Berry bushes, asparagus, rhubarb, fruit trees. There's a solid argument against growing too many annuals from seeds when you can have deep-rooted plants that just carry on from year to year.
Dry bush beans
If you're relying largely on legumes for protein, it makes sense to try to grow them. But the long and the short of it is you need vast fields of them.
Update fall 2010. From now on the only beans I'm growing are green beans for freezing and canning. Way too much trouble for a few cups of dry beans, however exotic they may be.
One thing I use a lot of that is imported in winter here is celery. I had read somewhere that you could grow it here in the north and store it, roots and all, in soil in a cardboard crate in the basement for months. But Tom and another very experienced local grower said celery is fussy to grow because you have to “hill” it to “blanch” the bottoms. For winter use it’s just as good to grow “leaf celery” and quickly dry the chopped leaves for use in soups and stews. Celeriac (a root with celery’s flavor) needs a really long time to grow as seedlings in the window and you have to keep the ground moist all summer to get nice big roots. Lovage is a perennial that has leaves just like celery. I couldn't get it to establish in my garden, but it's worth trying.
I didn't think they were worth growing. Wrong. If you want to try only one crop, make it onions. It will vastly improve the taste of most of the recipes on this site. The quality of the onions you grow yourself and properly cure is not obtainable in the regular grocery store.
Ditto what I said about onions and more. I have a whole page on it here.
A five-foot square patch with four plants growing out of the middle yielded many pounds of cukes, enough to make two batches of 14 pints of pickles. Bread-and-butter pickles are yummy with hummus sandwiches and squash soup.
Squash plants put out those long strands, which put down roots, so they need a lot of space. If you buy a bushel of winter squash at harvest time, it will keep well into the winter. Much cheaper and better than buying Mexican squash in February.
This was my gardening surprise success. I grew rutabaga, turnip, parsnip, beets, celeriac, and carrots. About my root cellar here.
Today at Lynn's House followed my gardening experiences.