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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Gardening Basics Pt. 1 Layout Strategies

If you are anything like me you have probably been thinking about gardening since the first frost killed off the last of your summer produce makers. However many people are thinking about gardens these days. Seed supplies are running low and many are dreading the worst of this economic decline. Some even remark how recent legislations in the food industry threaten to cripple our food supplies. Still others just like the taste of really, really great food, fresh from their own little piece of earth. Either way, you may be thinking about a garden for the first time, or maybe re-planning your garden layout. In the past several years I have just put seeds in the ground wherever I had space. This year I am thinking more strategically about the garden, and as I look at the pile of seeds I have accumulated over the years I am wondering just where the heck I am going to put everything. So I got out the 300' measuring tape, some rope and some stakes to really put forward my plans.
If you are starting from scratch, you will want to survey your area. Look for a place that has full sun most if not all the day. How big you want your garden is strictly up to you, these basics should work for you. The very next thing you want to do is start tilling. Start tilling now! Now before you say, 'Oh wait, I need a tiller' think again. I have roughly 9,000 square feet of gardening area and I till everything with nothing more than a shovel. It's a great work-out, and it get's easier from one year to the next. In fact, I have shovel-tilled my garden for two years now, and this year my soil is so soft I could probably get away with not tilling at all. However I want to turn the earth for one or two more seasons before my heavy mulching plan goes into effect full time. But more about that later.
Shovel-Till: To shovel-till your garden, all you do is stick the spade in the earth and drive it with your foot all the way to the top of the shovel. Lever down on the handle, picking up grass, earth and all, then flip it over on top of itself. This exposes the roots of the grass and pretty much kills it for the most part, leaving the earth part facing up, the grass part facing down. I recommend shovel-tilling for a number of reasons, but the most important to me is that I believe you get a much better depth using the full 6" blade than a 6" depth setting on a tiller. With a shovel you get a TRUE 6" into the earth, however with a tiller, the tiller only reaches about 4" effectively despite what the depth setting is. The reason for this is that on the first pass, the tiller digs up about an inch to two inches of soil and fluffs it. As the dirt gets fluffed up this adds height to the earth-line which means that if it takes 2" of soil and fluffs it to 3" then your second pass is less effectively really only re-fluffing the soil you have already dug up. The reasoning behind my theory is that the first year I gardened I used a tiller. The very next year, I used only a shovel, and found that just below the 3" mark on soil depth I found a strata of earth that the tiller never touched in the previous year. To be fair however, I recommend using a tiller at least the first year, especially if you are just getting started. Makes that first year a bit easier. Otherwise shovel-till repetitively until you have your base gardening dimensions. I recommend a rectangular arrangement for the garden footprint, however many people do a number of different configurations, circles, triangles, squares, and even more complicated geometric patterns. If you go with the rectangle I prefer the garden to run east-west on the long side, and North to South on the short side. There is a reason for this.
East-West Orientation: There is a great deal of conversation behind the east-west orientation and a north-south one. Many believe that a east-west orientation does not allow for maximum sun-exposure for vertical gardening (a concept we will explore in a minute). There are three things that I take issue with on this subject. #1. If anyone has ever been outside in June, July and August here in the south you will find that escaping the sun is very difficult. The sun comes up in the east and sets in the west. Which theoretically means that in a trellised garden some rows will not get much in the way of morning or evening sun, however for about six hours or so between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. everything will be getting hit with full on sun. I do not believe those early morning and late evening intervals are necessary for great food production. In addition, there really is NOT any time of the day where plants are not getting some kind of sun, whether direct or indirect. #2. There is some scientific research on sunlight utilization among garden plants and it appears that once a plant 'sees' some sun it gathers all it needs, then shuts down for several hours as a full day of sun is not necessary for energy production. If plants get all the sun it needs from the morning sun it then shuts down photosynthesis for the remaining day until energy stores are depleted. The metabolic cycle is then fired back up and more sunlight is gathered depending on how much sun the plant needs for energy then shut down again for the evening. #3. Sunlight is crucial for brix levels among sweeter fruits etc. Vineyards and Orchards require HUGE amounts of sun and I have seen these planted extremely close together. Vineyards for example are planted in all sorts of configurations, N-S and E-W without any fear of shading each other out. The one thing where I would accept the argument for N-S to E-W discussion is in the case of rain-forest type areas where cloud cover shields direct sun from plants. Vineyards will hardly make any sugar at all in grapes for Hawaii because there is so much yearly cloud cover. In fact, grapes from Hawaii have to be sprayed with a chemical in order for them to ripen enough for wine. However, here in the states as long as you do not plant your garden in the shade, you should be fine. Finally, and East-West orientation ensures maximum pollination for wind pollinated varieties such as corn.
PermaCulture: You could spend years research and reading up on the ideas of permaculture. However if there is one thing you should take from the idea is that you will want to #1: Create permanent raised beds. This does not mean you have to encase your garden with a smattering of 2X8 boards then fill them with dirt, but rather you just raise the level of the earth itself so that the area your plants grow in is higher than the earth around it. Most of the time the act of tilling itself raises the soil level just enough for you to be able to take advantage of the raised earth idea. Raising the earth creates a dome of earth in your bed that allows excess moisture to drain off so that your root zone doesn't become water-logged. In addition the raised bed also increase marginal surface area so that plants earlier in the year stay warmer in the cool, and cooler in the hot. I create 4' wide gardening zones, in which I can plant densly or not so densely. for example, if I were to garden peas, I could easily plant my peas in three distinct rows in every 4' wide gardening zone. With tomatoes which need a bit more room, I will plant 2 rows 20" apart within that 4' zone. These are permanent growing zones that you will develop and maintain year after year. In relation to these growing zones you will want to put in some kind of permanent paths so you do not ever walk on the growing zones. This ensures your soil stays soft and 'raised'. Every once in a while I have to step into a growing zone, but because I have hardly ever walked on a growing zone in over two years the soil there is very soft and doesn't really need tilling. Heavy mulching will help this as well, but more about heavy mulching later. Lastly, my permanent paths are roughly 24" wide, or two feet. This allows me to get between the growing zone easily enough with a wheel-barrow, while not taking up too much room in the garden.
Summary of Steps: #1: Determine full sun garden location. #2: assign either East-West or North-South orientation. (preferably East-West). #3: start tilling now. #4 begin to determine (at least in your head) the locations of permanent growing zones 4' wide and begin to hill these up in a raised be fashion. #5. Establish or begin to establish permanent paths.
Vertical Gardening: If this is your first garden, then you may be taking a lot of what I am writing about on pure faith. Be sure that you can do research to verify my theories here, much of what I am writing about has been partly as a result of painful learning (practical) combined with theoretical learning. However after several years of trials if there is one thing I have learned is that 'Vertical Gardening' is MUCH, MUCH more superior than any other kind of gardening in existence. There are a lot of reasons for this, but I will give you just a couple. #1: Vertical gardening is MUCH easier on the back and joints. Once your plants have gotten to production stage, pretty much all you do is walk down between the rows picking your pleasure right off the vines. #2. This means a couple of things, a: Choosing the right kinds of plants for your vertical garden, and b: building trellis systems. I am still experimenting with creating the perfect trellis-ing system, however I am closer this year for the perfect set-up in cost and practicality. This will most likely come at a later post, however with regard to 'a: Choosing the right kinds of plants' this is actually easier than you may think. Fortunately for us, most heirloom species grow indeterminately. That is to say, there are no natural growing restrictions. For example, just about all heirloom tomatoes will grow vines of up to nine feet or even more. Trellising these crops keeps fruit off of the ground and rotting, and provides better sun-exposure for the plant in general. In addition, there is more air-flow between plants reducing mold's and fungus diseases to non-existant. I have never had any kind of infestation on vertical vegetables. Cucumbers grow on vines that can be trellised, squash grow on vines that can be trellised, squashes grow on vines that can be trellised, melons grow on vines that can be trellised and beans grow on vines that can be trellised. Just be sure to select 'pole-type' beans. Most good heirloom beans such as Kentucky Wonder, Silverlake and others grow in a pole bean variety. Pole beans are also much more productive beans, the one caveat with pole beans is that you have to be sure to pick them in timely intervals or the pods get stringy. You have to plan a little with vertical gardening however, with regard to shorter plants like leafy-greens, and peppers. Be careful not to plant these within the vertical areas. Plant these according to height from the southernmost rows to North. That is to say, that all of your short leafy greens need to be in the southern-most rows, then your peppers in the next rows, then your eggplants and other taller varieties.
Additional Stuff: Now to be sure we have only covered the very, very basics here. One of the things you will absolutely want to do is document things. Document everything, in later years you will wish like crazy you had. For documentation I highly recommend 'low-tech', and nothing is better than 'Field Notes' brand notebooks. They are small and easy to carry, easy to store. I have nine that I use. I carry one with me at all times, this is my multi-use notebook that I use to jot down notes, ideas, and a myriad of information. I also have several others for different more specialized things. I have a 'gardening' book for just my garden stuff. Other things you may want to do is get a soil test done, but for right now you should be good to go until next posting.
Getting Some Seed Started: Getting some seed started: Check out the Iowa Preppers Network for some great video on seed starting.