Saturday, June 6, 2015

Gardening Smarter Not Harder

I have gardened my whole life, but it is funny how a change in environment can really increase the challenge. For most of my life my gardens have been successful, some years better than others, but all in all its been good.

After the 2011 tornadoes, I moved to a new county, new agricultural zone, and a new soil type. I thought gardening would be just as easy as I had always found it before, but I was wrong.

My First Year's Garden on Our New Homestead

My first years gardening was pitiful. Corn didn't produce well at all. Peppers did okay and we got a few tomatoes. All in all a very disappointing harvest. The only bright spot was the squash and zucchini, they did great. I was starting with what would be called new ground. That is ground that has not been cultivated in a long time. I just took part of the yard and made it into my garden. Our okra did fair.

Problems and Challenges Year One

The soil wasn't in great condition. It was compacted and heavy. The soil just wasn't very healthy. We didn't have much money for fertilizer and I really didn't want to go the chemical route anyway. I had not been here long enough to have a good supply of compost and I just couldn't justify spending the money on organic certified soil amendments. I learned that where I planted the corn just didn't receive enough sunlight and the soil was too poor to support a heavy feeding crop.

Victories and Lessons Year One

I learned that if I was going to continue to garden I would have to improve the soil and work to retain moisture. I learned where I could put what crops because of the amount of sunlight. I learned that a compost pile is an absolute must. I started my compost pile during my first year's garden, but didn't have enough to make a difference. You can read more about composting in my post The Low Down on Compost.

I did some experiments with Americanized Hugelkulture and No Till Gardening. I was trying to use wheat straw as a mulch. This quickly became expensive and several of my plants just had bare cardboard around them. 

The Second Year's Garden

The second year's garden was much better. We had taken another part of the yard back from Chinese Privet. This was as new a ground as was imaginable. In this new ground I found a great place to grow corn and it produced very well. With 4 very small rows we had fresh corn and even put some up in the freezer. The tomatoes did well too, but the battle of the weeds was lost about mid season. Peppers did okay. Okra did great. The squash was a bust because squash bugs invaded. 

Problems and Challenges Year Two 

My two biggest problems in the second year can be summed up very simply, weeds and time. I had too many weeds and not enough time. It is very disheartening to have a really good start only to have your garden grow up to the point that you eventually just mow it down because it is too far gone. You can read my post on Farming on New Ground.

Victories and Lessons Year Two

The soil was getting healthier. We were not having to water as much because the soil was retaining more moisture. Compost was most certainly a friend. Cardboard is also our friend. I used a lot more cardboard this year then I did the year before. Everywhere I used the cardboard I didn't have as large a problem with weeding. This was a massive leap forward for me and our food production. 

My wife and I both work and our time that we have together is very precious to the both of us. I am the primary gardener, so I have to prioritize my time so as to spend as much time with my family as possible while still maintaining my garden. By the end of year two I realize I had to garden a lot smarter or I would need to reevaluate my priorities. 

The Third Year's Garden and Gardening Smarter

I have faith that this year's garden will be our best yet at this location. Over the course of the past couple of years I have learned some valuable lessons.

Cardboard is My Friend

Most large retailers will give you cardboard boxes just for the asking. I have been bringing home 10 or more boxes a week. I place the cardboard around the plants. This does a couple of things for me. First it is a weed barrier and second it slows evaporation. I am picky about the boxes I am willing to bring home. I do not want boxes that have contained chemicals of any type. I know that all of the chemicals are in their own individual containers, but I have seen too many bottles and jugs that have leaked during shipping to take that chance. 

Cardboard breaks down during the growing season, increases organic matter in the soil and as long as you don't use the boxes with the shiny finish or colored writing there shouldn't be anything harmful in them. They are just helpers. Be sure to wet the cardboard really good after you lay it down, but before you mulch. 

Mulch is My Friend

Mulch magnifies the benefits of the cardboard. Mulching on top of the cardboard keeps it in place, if you don't mulch your cardboard it may just blow away. Mulching further decreases moisture loss due to evaporation, increases the weed barrier effect, gives a home to beneficial insects, and to be honest just looks better. 

There are places where you can get mulch for free. Two towns nearby have mulch giveaways once a year. You can go with your pickup and load the back full if you want. The cool thing about mulch is it really doesn't have to be mulch. I know that sounded confusing but allow me to explain. I have seen people who have used shredded newspaper and even wood shavings or sawdust. If you have a sawmill close most of those will let you take as much of their shavings and dust as you want for free. The finer the material you use for your mulch the quicker it will break down. 

You can even make your mulch yourself if you have a chipper. I have an electric wood chipper and I love it. Pruning, cleaning up brush, even fallen limbs. Anything that is small enough to go through the chipper does. I will even run larger weeds through it. Anything that is too large to run through the chipper goes onto the woodpile. 

Inter Planting Helps

I have read and read and read about inter planting and I have even played around with it in the past, but this is the first year I have seriously tried it and so far I have to say I am liking what I see. I have incorporated flowers in the vegetable garden, something I would have never done before. After doing some research I have found that there is significant evidence that flowers can be used to ward off bad insects and attract beneficial insects. 

With all of the additions I have talked about, so far I have seen very little insect damage. I am hopeful that this will limit the damage from squash bugs and tomato worms. Even though there are insecticidal soaps, I would really prefer to get my soil healthy enough to not have to worry about them at all.

I have been impressed with Jobe's Organic Fertilizer so far. I have been using this in addition to compost. My soil still is not where I want it to be, but it is much better than it was when I started. I am really excited about this year's garden.

One more good thing about gardening this way is you can do it a little at a time. Constantly growing your garden in area as well as productivity.

If you would like to watch the video, here it is.


I would love to hear about your gardening adventures.

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