Friday, May 29, 2015

Gardening - an ongoing, lifelong experiment

Chinese lettuce in a Square Foot Garden
I think I was born in a cabbage patch. As a kid I had a naturally green thumb, growing whatever I could, in whatever dirt and container I could find. Mostly by instinct, a lot by experimentation. I loved to be in the garden and in nature, more than I liked to be with people. I also loved to watch my Papa (grandad) work in his vegetable garden, and to eat the magnificent fruits of his labors prepared so lovingly by my Nana. His pristine garden was off limits to this curious & budding young gardener, but I observed and took mental notes, and stored them away for many years. Papa also taught me the basics of seed saving.

Many moons later, I studied Horticulture. I did a four-year apprenticeship in Horticultural Trade Studies — ornamental gardening to be more precise — with some extra night schooling in my last year to get an Advanced Certificate. I may still have the written notes! Then I spent a year in Canada on an agricultural exchange program, dabbling in vegetable gardening, poultry keeping, and even a stint on a bison ranch!

Our Chrysanthemums feed a host of bees, wasps and other vital pollinators
Then for the better part of the last 20 years I have pursued other interests ... photography, travel, youth and camping ministries, outdoor recreation, multi-media and communications, marriage, family ...

And now on the other side of the planet (Pennsylvania) to where I started (Australia), I find myself being drawn back to my first passion - that of gardening. And roping my family in with me! But now it is functional more than ornamental. We want to feed our family. We want to feed our chickens (and future livestock?) We want to improve the soil. We want to attract beneficial insects & pollinators. We want to be good stewards of the plot of earth God has entrusted to us. We want our garden to be as natural and organic — and as easy to maintain — as possible. And we want to leave a legacy for future generations.

We eat salads three to four times a week in Spring & early summer, then again late summer through late fall until the first frosts. Hardier greens like kale & spinach will withstand some light frosts and can be overwintered in a cold frame or greenhouse.
Having travelled half the world, I have encountered a significant variety of gardening environments & methods. And I have made many observations along the way. I have also continued to learn a great deal in the midst of my other pursuits, especially in this wonderful digital age. And now I find myself returning to my roots (you knew it was coming!) combining myriad experiences, knowledge, methods, and some common sense. And I am still experimenting!

One major adaptation was switching from two-season gardening (cool & hot in Australia) to four-season gardening (everything from 20 below to hot and humid - Zone 6-7, North America)

A few years ago I discovered Square Foot Gardening (SFG). Check it out here: www.squarefootgardening.com After a couple years of poor results from "row" gardening this looked appealing, especially in our small veggie garden space (20ftx20ft.) Being the cheapskates we are, we obtained whatever free soil/compost we could - free compost from our township, leaves from autumn drop, our own kitchen/yard-waste- composted, recycled potting soil from dead potted plants. Each garden bed had a different soil mix! Funny thing is, I only thought to mulch (also free from township) the paths between the garden beds (a sad testament to my years of study and common sense.)

Early years of Square Foot Gardening. Different soil in each box - white specks are either eggshells or perlite/polystyrene beads. Pathways heavily mulched. Decent yields.
My observations from the first couple years of Square Foot Gardening:
  • Pure township compost (made with leaves) dried out very quickly
  • Pure home-made compost (all fruit/veg scraps & eggshells, lawn clippings and yard waste) dried out rapidly too, but it also grew LOTS of "rogue" veggies (like squash and tomatoes) that never really produced well. Critters loved to dig in it for "leftovers" too.
  • Recycled potting mix (with slow release fertilizer beads, perlite, vermiculite and {cringe} polystyrene beads) was added to the other composts for drainage — perhaps too much?
  • The strawberries spread themselves to the mulched paths and grew better and prolifically there. Were they trying to tell me something?!
  • Most of these soils were somewhat sterile and void of nutrients. The plants grew, but definitely not to their full potential.
  • We had to water the garden a LOT (couple times a week) - too much for my liking.
  • Despite all the soil & water issues, we got a better yield and the gardens were easier to maintain. Weeding was a breeze because the soil was not compacted.
2014 4'x4' SFG bed filled with homemade compost, and planted with lettuce, mustard greens, kale and onions.
The same bed a month later! Those mustard greens (bright green) got HUGE - quickly!! They needed lots of water.
Last year I tried my hand at straw-bale gardening. Though the melons and zucchini got off to a great start, fed with liquid manure fertilizer, they ended up in almost all-day shade and then got mildew and/or attacked by squash bugs. The silver lining on that cloud was the wonderful mulch those bales provided this year! I think I'll try it again in some sunny spots this year.

2014: Honeydew melons off to a great start in a straw bale, but the continual shade reduced flowers & pollinators & mildew took over in the end :(
In the past year, after watching far too many documentaries about our {failing, toxic, destructive...} food supply system, and the trend toward local food sourcing and small-scale farming, I started spending more time researching "the latest" gardening methods ... discovering permaculture (www.permaculture.org), sustainable gardening, Back to Eden gardening (www.backtoedenfilm.com), and other such techniques that when you dig deeper (!) you discover are really old-fashioned, time-tested, "nature's way" of growing anything, preserving this precious planet, and feeding ourselves the healthiest food imaginable!

One recurring suggestion that could not be overstated was MULCH

The benefits of mulch are myriad. 
  • Mulch conserves water
  • Mulch breaks down to build topsoil and provide nutrients
  • Mulch helps retain soil nutrients & provides a buffer when concentrated nutrients/fertilizer are applied
  • Mulch protects & provides habitat for important & vital soil organisms like worms & fungi
  • Mulch prevents soil compaction when you are walking around in your garden
  • {Now think of these in the context of a healthy forest floor!}
So this year we have applied mulch - everywhere we could, but primarily on the Squares & open veggie gardens and around our fruit trees. The ornamental gardens came second. I even mulched potted plants as much as I could! Leaf mulch, aged straw bales, chipped up garden waste, free township wood mulch, and composted/aged deep litter from our chicken coops (pine shavings and chicken manure.) 

My observations in the first month of intentional mulching:
  • All plants that are mulched are thriving
  • Mulched plants are bigger and healthier looking than unmulched counterparts
  • The soil underneath is retaining moisture and we are watering less
  • Mulched plants have fewer pests & diseases
  • {All that noticed in just a month!}
2015: SFG so far (May) with beginnings of Back to Eden row at left. All beds mulched and off to a GREAT start!
We also expanded our chicken flock from 4 birds in 2013 to nearly 70 birds this year! Note that 24 are headed for "freezer camp" in a month, and I hope to sell a dozen or more pullets (almost-laying hens) :)

But more importantly we started utilizing our chickens for more than just eggs:
  • Their manure a.k.a. "Black Gold" can be used to activate compost piles with beneficial microbials, adds nitrogen to balance carbon-rich compost materials, and can be made into liquid fertilizer and fertilizer tea.
  • Their their natural instincts to dig & scratch, turning & breaking down compost piles, lightly digging & turning compost & mulch into topsoil layers (who needs a rake and a hoe?!)
  • Their "pesticide genes" — they eat weeds and bugs & larvae folks! They seem to instinctively avoid the beneficial insects too. They'll clean out our veggie gardens between plantings/seasons. 
  • This winter I hope to use them to "manage" & passively heat a greenhouse!
Our girls love digging through this pile of composting leaves for bugs, worms and insect larvae
We are also being more intentional about planting for pollinators. Pennsylvania experienced a 60% decline in bee populations over the last year! I blame the abundant and widespread use of herbicides and pesticides (even in backyards). So we are going to propagate and plant as many pollinator-friendly native & zone-appropriate perennials as we can. Butterfly Bush, Cone Flower, Black Eyed Susan, Rudbeckia, Echinacea, Marigolds, Calendula, Rose of Sharon, Heliopsis, Money Plant (if only it grew the real kind!) ... many of them with edible flowers and foliage for the chickens too! And weeds are our friends (except in my ornamental & veggie beds) ... Our lawn is more weeds than grass, but it is a gourmet-salad-bar for the chickens! And we could even consume some of them ourselves!! Dandelion tea anyone?!

Our lawn is more weeds than grass — a gourmet salad bar for chickens!
Rudbeckia (Black Eyed Susan)
Cone Flower
Did I mention we bought 4.7 acres a couple years ago? To get away from our one-eighth acre suburban "jail." Our piece of heaven-on-earth is begging to be turned into a sustainable, permaculture homestead. A work in SLOW progress. Building the new house is a more formidable and costly task than we anticipated. But we only live 2 miles away, so we are slowly starting the gardening part. Most of the chickens live there and are working and improving the soil for us!

Now to figure out how to protect our flocks and gardens from deer, groundhogs, rabbits, skunks, weasels, foxes, raccoons and other pests! But that's another post for another day!

Stay tuned for updates on this year's gardening experiments!