Saturday, February 21, 2009

Organic Gardening

Local and even national newscasts are talking about a renewed interest in gardening. Most families are starting their garden to help lower their food costs, but are also re-embracing some of their childhood memories. They remember helping parents or grandparents work in the garden, producing something from nature. I remember picking tomatoes and other items ready for the evening meal. And I also remember cleaning the vegetables, preparing them for Mom and Dad’s afternoon of canning and preserving.
They made fresh spaghetti sauce, salsa, bread and butter pickles.
My dad recently mailed me all the original recipes he and my mom used for caning. I’m looking forward to recreating these favorites this year.
This is why I jumped back in to gardening!
Working in the soil is something primal, the hunter-gatherer, like working with clay and producing a vase. The investment and reward are, well rewarding.
When I decided to return to this family activity I did so with the old ways.
Roto-tilling the ground, fluffing the dirt and mixing the store-bought ingredients to create what was thought to be the magic of soil. That’s how my dad did it; everybody had a tiller, it was a right of spring, the smell of freshly tilled soil was a deep-rooted memory in my mind.
I learned quickly that I was taught incorrectly. I realized that putting chemicals into where our food was growing was not going to produce what I wanted to feed my family with.
The internet is great, information at your finger tips. I found a wealth of info gathered at the speed of light. I love to read and have amassed a large collection of books about gardening and composting, companion planting, herbs and canning. It was within these pages and on internet groups like Yahoo Organic gardening that I have learned a better way.
The magic of the soil is in the earthly ingredients. The combination of leaf and grass of all things organic, of eggshells and last year’s vegetables or grass clippings and tree trimmings and that leftovers are the key.
The layering of life left to the bugs and biology of God’s earth.
They call this the Soil Food Web.
The circle of life, the building up and breaking down of all things, this is the natural order of things.
Without this we interrupt the growth and order of plant life.

If you want a good garden, the use of store bought gardening supplies will work just fine. Every year, you add to the soil and every year it gets depleted as the plants and rain drain the nutrients.
But if you want a great garden, compost!
Composting can be done in a number of ways and many books have been written about different methods and the science behind it.
I am including my list of must-reads at the end of this.
The primary thing I have found is DO NOT roto-till the soil! Rather, do what nature has been doing for a millennium: sheet compost.
Now, I’m not saying not to roto-till the first time you start a garden, because in most cases you wouldn’t have a garden without tilling the soil. But, and there’s always a but, that should be the first and last time that you do till the soil by mechanical means.
Composting and amending the soil is the way to go from then on.
I subscribe to a method called Lasagna gardening, or sheet composting, which is a fancy name for layering.
You just add layers of rich natural cuttings, newspaper, leaves, grass. The layers of “browns and greens” to make rich dark coffee like soil are the perfect combination of things that Hyphae, protozoa, fungus and nematodes feed on; earthworms of all varieties, beetles and sow bugs spiders and ants. They all work to break down the layers of material thereby making perfect soil for plants to grow and produce for us.

The soil food web: Dr. Elaine Ingham from The Soil Foodweb Inc
The functions of a healthy foodweb are:
• Retention of nutrients so they do not leach or volatilize from the soil. Reduction or complete deletion of inorganic fertilizer applications is possible.
• Cycling nutrients into the right forms at the right rates for the plant desired. The right ratio of fungi to bacteria is needed for this to happen, as well as the right numbers and activity of the predators.
• Building soil structure, so oxygen, water and other nutrients can easily move into the soil and into deep, well-structured root systems.
• The only way to deal with this is to have the proper biology build the structure in the soil again, so oxygen and water can move into the soil. When the biology is functioning properly, water use is reduced, the need for fertilizers is reduced, and plant production is increased.
• Suppression of disease-causing organisms through competition with beneficials, by setting up the soil and foliar conditions to help the beneficials instead of the diseases.
• Protection of plant surfaces, above or below ground by making certain the foods the plant surfaces release into the soil are used by beneficial, not disease organisms, making certain that infection sites on plant surfaces are occupied by beneficial, and not disease-causing organisms.
• Making certain predators that prefer disease-causing organisms are present to consume disease-causing organisms.
• Production of plant-growth-promoting hormones and chemicals can result in larger root systems, although whether forcing larger root systems on plants is a positive results needs to be understood.
• Decomposition of toxic compounds.

Lastly, buy organic and heirloom seeds. Why go through naturally amending your soil and inoculating with the good biology and then buy something that has been treated and has less favor or ability to grow in tune with nature?
Today’s seed is bred for looks and marketability, not flavor and sustainability.
We are breeding Stepford vegetables, tasteless perfection for the food engineers, not the consumer and certainly not the canner and chef.
This is why so many chefs have embraced the buy local movement and support farmers’ markets.
Please feel free to write me with any question regarding Organic Gardening and composting.

My book list:
• The Vegetable Gardeners Bible
Edward C. Smith
• Basic Composting
Stackpole books
• All New Squarefoot Gardening
Mel Bartholomew
• Composting
• The New Self-sufficient Gardener
John Seymour
• Four Season Harvest
Eliot Colemen
• New Organic Grower.
Eliot Coleman
• Let it Rot
Stu Campbell
Creative Vegetable Gardening
Joy Larkcom
• Lasagna Gardening
Patricia Lanza