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Blog Series - Soil Management and Fertility

Posted on December 30, 2009 at 1:30 AM

There are many of us who have limited space availability for food production gardening and yet still manage to produce a tremendous amount of our own food supply.   This post is the final segment of a blog series devoted to exploring the many techniques available to optimize food production gardening.   There are quite a few topics that relate to this pursuit - including (among others):

  • Crop Selection
  • Intensive Planting Practices
  • Season Extension
  • Soil Management & Fertility

Focusing on Crop Selection kicked off the blog series, which was then followed by a four-part exploration of Intensive Planting Practices - including the topics of Raised Beds, Closely Spaced Planting, Intercropping & Succession Planting, and Vertical Growing.   The next segment was devoted to a discussion of Season Extension and now this week we will wrap the series up by talking about the topic of Soil Management and Fertility.   You can see all of these blog series posts by selecting "Blog Series" from the Categories in the side bar menu on the right side of the screen.                    

 

Soil Management and Fertility -                                                   

Soil is so much more than just an anchor for our plants to grow from.     It’s a living breathing environment that if carefully tended will continue to provide garden production for future years, despite intense planting practices.   Soil that is regularly replenished with organic matter and depleted nutrients will ensure that the food we harvest is truly nutrient dense.   On the other hand, poor soil management generally results in more plant diseases, declining production levels, poor water percolation and moisture retention, crops that do not contain maximum nutrient potential, and plants that generally fail to thrive.                     

                                               

There are three main points I personally focus on as it relates to soil management and fertility.

  1. It is incredibly important to replenish organic matter in the soil.
  2. The structure of the soil and it’s layers should be maintained – or at least as much as is possible within the artificial environment of the garden.
  3. Vegetables and fruit plants deplete the soil of nutrients, which must be replenished to maintain fertility of the garden beds.

The Importance of Replenishing Organic Matter

Decaying and decomposing organic matter in the soil provides several important benefits.   First, it releases nutrients as the decomposition process occurs – both major nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and sulfur) as well as others generally referred to as trace minerals.   Second, the organic matter itself acts like a sponge to hold water (needed by our plants) and prevents soil particles from densely compacting down (particularly clay or silt soils) which then pushes out air (also needed by our plants).   As gardeners we want the organic matter to decompose to provide the nutrient benefits, but that same decomposition process means that the organic matter must be periodically replenished or we face reduced soil fertility and declining soil structure.   If we do nothing else for our gardens, regularly adding organic matter is probably the most effective action we can take.   As a general rule, we need to strive to keep organic matter at 4% to 5% levels in our soil.   This translates into an annual addition of approximately a ¼ inch of compost (or equivalent organic matter) to replenish what is lost through normal decomposition processes.   A new or depleted bed that needs rejuvenating will benefit from greater amounts being added.   Hot and/or wet climates will also benefit from greater additions of organic matter than the general rule, because heat and moisture speed up decomposition.                                   

           

Adding organic matter must be done thoughtfully because high carbon organic matter that is added directly to the soil will initially utilize all available nitrogen to break down and if plants are in that bed too, they will be robbed of needed nitrogen until the carbonaceous material has largely decomposed.   One method to deal with that is to compost materials in piles and then add the finished compost to the garden.   However, some of the nutrients from the decomposition process in compost piles is lost in the form of leaching and off gassing - particularly cold compost piles that are just heaped and allowed to naturally decompose over a fairly long period of time.   Hot composting (which requires frequent turning and careful balancing of the nitrogen to carbon ratios) is more effective in that it reduces the amount of lost nutrients but requires considerably more attention and work.   Green manure crops can also provide needed organic matter replenishment.   Turning a green manure crop over into the soil several weeks prior to the bed being used for crops – allows the vegetation to decompose sufficiently before the plants are introduced into the bed.   The warmer the soil, the shorter the time needed to finish that first major decomposition process.   When I turn my winter cover crops over in the very early spring, I try to do it six weeks prior to the planned planting date for the bed because the soil is so cold that the decomposition process is achingly slow.   One can also compost directly in the garden bed (known as sheet composting) but again, it must be done in advance of planting to ensure that nitrogen is available for decomposition but not at the expense of a crop planted in the bed.               

              

(bucket of finished compost)                

                 

Maintaining Soil Structure

Soil is actually a delicate living substance.   It’s ability to hold sufficient water (without getting water logged), and provide nutrients through organic matter decomposition and from living organisms feeding and excreting “stuff” - is very much a function of it being maintained properly.   Microbial activity in soil is what makes all this magic happen and sufficient organic matter to fuel it is the primary input.   The other major soil management task (after sufficiently replenishing organic matter) is to protect the soil structure from excessive compaction and excessive tillage.   The living web in soil is extremely important in that it works in symbiosis with roots to improve uptake of water, air, and nutrients.   Heavy duty tilling on a regular (annual) basis and walking on garden bed soils both have the affect of damaging the soil structure and disrupting the microbial activity in the soil.   Once a raised bed has been prepared initially, it really should not need more than an annual aeration with a broadfork and a cultivation of the top few inches with a three-tined cultivator to mix in compost, fertilizers, and to create a fine textured bed for direct seeding.   Compaction will naturally occur just from gravity, rain, snow, etc but the annual aeration process with a broadfork helps to counter those forces.                                                    

                              

(broadfork)                       

     

If soil is composed of heavy clay (which is inclined to compact readily), or has suffered from other compacting activity, then it may require another double dig process to rejuvenate it.   Luckily, digging a bed subsequent to the first bed-establishing dig is much easier and faster than an initial double dig process.   Walking on the soil or using a rototiller is obviously not the end of the universe, but avoiding both has been proven to increase soil fertility and soil health.            

         

Replenishing Nutrients

While regular additions or organic matter to the garden provides nutrients for plants (both macro and micro), the depletion of nutrients by heavy feeding plants (such as corn) can outpace the slow and low level release of nutrients provided by decomposing organic matter.   In addition, not all compost or organic matter is created equally.   The inputs to the compost pile, the care by which it was tended, and the amount of heat and rain it was subjected to – all determine it’s relative value as a provider of nutrient replenishment.   In general, most of us do not have the skills or inputs available to ensure our compost contains a uniformly consistent and properly balanced level of nutrients.    Many of our common vegetable garden crops are classified as medium to heavy “feeders” and can place a significant demand on the available nutrients in our garden beds.   I have found a three-pronged approach to nutrient replenishment works best for me.   First, I add lots of organic matter through either compost or green manure crops.   Second, I add rock minerals to the soil when initially establishing a bed and then periodically re-mineralize the beds about every three years or so thereafter.   I add rock phosphate powder (phosphorous), and green sand (potassium and many trace minerals) at the rate of about 10 pounds per 100 square feet for the initial application – generally less in later additions.   I also use dolomitic lime when the soil ph needs raising - which adds calcium and magnesium while affecting the soil ph as needed.   If the soil ph needs lowering I use garden sulfur (which as the name implies adds sulfur!).            

 

(rock powders)             

          

Rock powders are long-term resources that provide needed nutrients slowly over time.   Because these rock powders break down so slowly, it is difficult to put too much into your garden - so if you get heavy handed you will only be wasting some money rather than potentially harming your soil and plants, which can happen with a heavy handed application of organic or chemical fertilizers.   Finally, I use organic fertilizers and fish or kelp emulsion drenches to provide a more fast acting nutrient replenishment or to specifically add more nitrogen or phosphorus for plants that require more of those nutrients.   I generally use a general-purpose balanced organic fertilizer when I first plant up a bed in the spring or when transplanting out seedlings – adding more nitrogen (generally leafy greens) or phosphorous sources (fruiting or root crops) if the crop needs one or the other in larger amounts.   Good nitrogen sources are alfalfa pellets (50lb bags from the feed store are fairly inexpensive), blood meal, or fishmeal.   A good phosphorous sources is bone meal.   I use fish emulsion or kelp emulsion drenches to give a mid season fertility boost if a crop indicates it needs something more – otherwise, I generally no longer use a mid season side dressing of fertilizer.   I have found it to be generally unnecessary once soil has been sufficiently amended and improved – particularly if rock powders are used and organic matter is kept high.                               

          

There are certainly many more aspects to soil management and fertility than this brief discussion has touched upon, but these three elements are from my perspective the most important to pay attention to.   What are some of the methods and practices you use to manage soil health and provide nutrient replenishment?

Blog Series - Season Extension

Posted on December 17, 2009 at 1:12 AM

There are many of us who have limited space availability for food production gardening and yet still manage to produce a tremendous amount of our own food supply.   This post is part of a blog series devoted to exploring the many techniques available to optimize food production gardening. There are quite a few topics that relate to this pursuit - including (among others):

  • Crop Selection
  • Intensive Planting Practices
  • Season Extension
  • Soil Management & Fertility

Focusing on Crop Selection kicked off the blog series, which was then followed by a four-part exploration of Intensive Planting Practices - including the topics of Raised BedsClosely Spaced Planting, Intercropping & Succession Planting, and Vertical Growing.   This week let’s talk about Season Extension.

                     

Season extending is essentially the practice of using various tools and techniques to allow for a much earlier start and a much later ending to the growing season.   There are three primary reasons to go to the trouble and effort of extending the garden season:

  1. It allows you to grow crops that require more growing days than your area would naturally provide;
  2. It provides enough additional growing days that you can plant crops in succession that otherwise would not have sufficient time for the second crop to mature; and
  3. It lets you harvest fresh greens and vegetables for much longer than the traditional growing season would allow – throughout the entire year for really cold hardy crops.

My own experience with season extending is that it is most efficient and effective if I work with nature rather than against her.   In addition, I think that you have to be able to accept that there will be losses periodically.   A wise gentleman once told me that if you are not occasionally losing some crops in the early spring and late fall – you are probably not living close enough to the edge on your season extending practices to be getting full value from it.      

   

   

 

Season extension generally uses various forms of protective covers or structures to increase soil and air temperature, protect plants from wind and frost, and reduce moisture loss.   Of these benefits, I believe the greatest value comes from the warming of the soil.   The Rodale Research Center has conducted experiments that show temperatures at the plant’s root zone is more important to growth than air temperature surrounding the leaves.   The ability to provide a warmer environment and soil comes from passive solar heating that is then (in some part) captured by a heat sink (dark soil surface or dark plastic mulch) that absorbs the solar heat more than a light or reflective surface would.   Some folks move beyond passive solar options and actually use a hot bed or greenhouse that has an energy consuming heat source.   While this certainly will yield good results, it is also fuel intensive and can be quite expensive.   For the purposes of getting optimal production and value out of our home vegetable and fruit gardens, I think it is impractical to consider regularly using anything but passive solar options.                                     

                                       

The real trick to using unheated season extension is to capture and hold as much solar heat as possible and to grow crops that are by nature already very tolerant of cold conditions.   Cold hardy crops like spinach, kale, corn salad (mache), root crops (beets, parsnips, carrots), brussel sprouts, green onions, leeks, certain cold hardy cabbages, and a variety of less common greens are all really good candidates to be grown late in the season or overwintered with protection.   Similarly in very early spring, you can use protective covers to thaw and warm up garden soil long before the last average frost for your area - so that you can get an extremely early start for hardy vegetables such as peas, onions, Chinese cabbage, lettuce, spinach and kale.   These vegetables will germinate and grow in relatively cool soil temperatures (at least 40 degrees or greater) and often have planting instructions to “sow as soon as you can work the soil”.   I mentioned in another recent blog post that I think there are two simple tools most gardeners should have in their garden shed – one is a PH meter, and the other was a good soil thermometer.  

                           

   

     

During the early spring if you are going to push the start of the growing season you really need to be able to monitor the soil temperature to know when it is ready for planting up.   As noted before, the soil temperature is much more important to pay attention to than the ambient air temperature.   Soil temperature should be measured 1 to 3 inches below the surface of the soil and the best time to take the measurement is between noon and 3 pm.   Remember to shake the thermometer back down before you use it again.   If you place a season extending cover over a growing area it will take a while for the soil to warm (days), and it is important to measure the progress with your thermometer periodically so you know when you it is ready for planting up.    

 

There are many season extending protective covers that can be used ranging from a cloche, cold frame, grow tunnels (also known as portable hoop houses), full size hoop houses, or greenhouses.   Each of these examples of season extending protections provides the benefits previously described - with varying degrees of success.   In general (assuming an equivalent sunlight exposure), the larger the volume of air in the protected area and the more dark surface area available and/or insulating materials used – the greater the warmth will be for the growing area protected.         

      

I generally use three types of season protecting covers. The first is a simple plastic sheeting cover raised just enough off of the surface of the soil to provide solar heating of the soil for the purposes of warming up a seedbed for a very early planting.   The cover can be left in place after the germination has occurred until the plants get tall enough to push up close to it. Usually by that point the weather has continued to improve enough that they are safe anyway and ready to grow on without the protection of the cover.               

  

  

   

You may recognize my tomato ladders in the preceding picture being used as the support structure for the plastic cover - just laid on their side over the bed edging boards.                       

                   

The second type of protective covers I regularly use are grow tunnels.   I use 10 foot sticks of electrician’s PVC conduit (connector end cut off) inserted into brackets placed on the edge my beds or directly pushed into the soil (inside of the bed edging) to create support hoops.   Over the support hoops I place clear plastic (4 or 6 mil) that you can purchase at any hardware store (usually in the painting supplies area).   I use inexpensive “A” or spring clamps to hold the plastic securely to the hoops.   They last an incredibly long time and make quick removal and access to the growing beds possible.   These same hoop tunnels can also be used during the summer growing season to hold protective bird netting over the grow beds.  This is useful to keep birds and other creatures out of the garden (like bunnies, cats, and dogs).   I use netting regularly to protect my beds from my dog who seems to walk through every newly seeded bed that exists unless protected in this manner!     

                          

   

 

I generally use grow tunnels to either protect an overwintered crop (such as a large bed of spinach), protect newly planted seedlings during the early months of the growing season when weather is unstable and the plants are very young and tender, and to warm up large areas of growing bed for early crop starting.                

  

The third protective cover I regularly use is my unheated green house. During the late fall and winter months, I use it to grow cold hardy crops in large containers.   I generally grow mostly greens in the greenhouse because the larger air volume and greater surface area captures solar energy better and increases the odds of semi-hardy crops like swiss chard, Chinese cabbages, and lettuces of surviving.           

                                    

   

    

In the spring, I use the unheated greenhouse to grow on the semi-hardy crops that I started under the grow lights very early in the year.   This allows me to move them out of the seed starting area - making room for the next big round of seed starting (usually the summer crops of tomatoes and peppers etc) but protects them from the erratic and unpredictable very early spring weather conditions.             

         

Using season extension techniques can increase your garden’s production but as much as 25% just by adding 1 to 2 months of growing time at each end of the growing season.   Do you use season extending tools in your garden and if so, what kinds?

Blog Series - Intensive Planting (Part 4 Vertical Growing)

Posted on December 8, 2009 at 11:21 PM

There are many of us who have limited space availability for food production gardening and yet still manage to produce a tremendous amount of our own food supply.   This post is part of a blog series devoted to exploring the many techniques available to optimize food production gardening.   There are quite a few topics that relate to this pursuit - including (among others):

  • Crop Selection
  • Intensive Planting Practices
  • Season Extension
  • Soil Management & Fertility

Focusing on Crop Selection kicked off the blog series.   Now we are exploring Intensive Planting Practices.    Intensive planting techniques generally include a combination of planting in raised beds (either double dug or otherwise greatly amended and improved), closely spaced planting, intercropping and succession planting, and the use of vertical growing techniques – all for the purpose of producing the same amount of food in approximately 20% of the space used by traditional row gardening practices.   To date, we have discussed the topics of Raised Beds, Closely Spaced Planting, and Intercropping & Succession Planting.   This week we will wrap up the four-part segment on intensive planting techniques by discussing the practice of vertical growing.         

                     

Vertical Growing –                            

Growing a traditional row garden is quite linear.   When you make the move to raised beds using within-row spacing in all directions (closely spaced planting techniques) you introduce a second dimension to your food production garden.   To really kick up the production level you can add a third dimension – vertical growing.       

              

Consider this … if you install a vertical support structure that is 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide on one edge of a 4-foot by 4-foot section of garden bed you just increased the growing area of that section of bed by 150 percent!   The vertical plane provides 24 square feet of growing area and the horizontal garden bed provides 16 square feet.   Combined you now have 40 square feet of growing area.    All of this increase in growing room is in the same footprint of space you had already committed to the growing bed.   By growing crops that will climb on a vertical support structure, you can save space in the traditional garden bed area for plants that cannot be grown vertically.                                    

          

Growing crops vertically not only saves space but it can make harvesting crops much simpler because they are easier to see and require less stooping and squatting to reach.   Getting crops off the ground can also help reduce pest infestations too.                        

          

There are many different kinds of vertical support structures available to choose from.   The simplest are poles or branches pushed into the dirt with plants surrounding them or a teepee-like structure made out of poles.   More elaborate systems include A-frames, board frames that are screwed together, electrical conduit (metal or PVC), a fence if one is near a garden bed, traditional trellis lattices, and many of these types of supports also use string or netting attached to the framework.   Vertical supports also include ladders, towers, and stacked cages commonly used for crops like tomatoes to hold the plants vertically - keeping them from sprawling on the ground.                                                                  

  

   

  

All of these are perfectly good alternatives so long as it is mechanically strong enough to hold up fully loaded with mature plants if a wind kicks up and are reasonably tall enough to handle the types of plants you intend to grow.        

                 

    

 

Beyond those basic issues, what you choose is purely a matter of personal aesthetics, availability of materials, and your interest and skill level in constructing garden structures.   I generally use metal conduit pipe to create my trellis supports.   My husband is an electrician (although he has not worked in that field for many years) and as a consequence is quite comfortable using a conduit bender to bend metal conduit which is then connected in the center with a connector fitting to create a metal frame that I then attach nylon netting to (using tie wraps!).   They are pushed firmly into the ground so that they are well anchored and level.   The result are grow supports that are approximately 4 feet wide by 6 feet tall.    Here is a series of these supports that were installed on a 2-foot wide bed specially designed just for vertical growing.                    

                                             

   

    

The climbing plants are usually seeded or transplanted directly below the support structure so that they may grow up and easily grab on to (or be woven into) the support system.                           

                    

        

 

While you can install these trellis support structures on a wider bed, I have found that it is very difficult to pick crops reaching across 4 feet of bed area to get at the front section.   I personally prefer to construct 2-foot wide beds that have the grow support structures running along the length.   It is much easier to pick both sides of the vertical grow supports when the grow bed is narrower.   I use approximately 1-foot of the growing area to plant the climbing crops and then use the remaining 1-foot width to plant other items.   Here is a picture of a bed that has carrots growing in the front half of the narrow grow bed and vertical crops in the back half.      

              

       

 

To avoid problems with crops on vertical support structures shading out other parts of the garden, it is best to construct taller vertical supports on the north side of raised beds if at all possible.                               

  

I like to use trellis supports for peas, cucumbers, pole beans, runner beans, and I use other types of vertical supports for tomatoes and peppers (tomato ladders and stacked cages).   I could use trellis supports for other melon and squash plantings too but have personally found it easier to just find an area of garden they can run in and not fuss with slings or other methods to ensure heavier fruits (such as melons) do not slip from their vine and fall to a bad end from some height.                       

 

Do you use vertical growing in your garden and if so, what kinds of structures do you like to use?

Blog Series - Intensive Planting (Part 3 Intercropping and Succession Planting)

Posted on December 3, 2009 at 1:15 AM

There are many of us who have limited space availability for food production gardening and yet still manage to produce a tremendous amount of our own food supply.   This post is part of a blog series devoted to exploring the many techniques available to optimize food production gardening.    There are quite a few topics that relate to this pursuit - including (among others):

  • Crop Selection
  • Intensive Planting Practices
  • Season Extension
  • Soil Management & Fertility

Focusing on Crop Selection kicked off the blog series.     Now we are exploring Intensive Planting Practices.   Intensive planting techniques generally include a combination of planting in raised beds (either double dug or otherwise greatly amended and improved), closely spaced planting, intercropping and succession planting, and the use of vertical growing techniques – all for the purpose of producing the same amount of food in approximately 20% of the space used by traditional row gardening practices.   To date, we have discussed the topics of Raised Beds and Closely Spaced Planting.   This week we will keep moving through the intensive planting techniques by spending some time discussing intercropping and succession planting.                        

                                    

Intercropping and Succession Planting –                       

The goal is to maximize food production from a given growing area in the allotted time that our individual growing season provides.   Intercropping is the practice of growing different plants together in the same area to optimize yield.   Succession planting is the practice of maximizing productivity of garden space by having a new crop ready to plant as soon as an earlier crop is harvested.   Both of these intensive planting techniques can dramatically improve production per square foot of growing area.               

    

Intercropping can be used in several different ways providing different potential benefits.   The first use is to plant fast growing and/or shallower rooted and potentially shade tolerant crops in between plantings of larger and slower growing crops.   Large plants such as brussel sprouts, broccoli, cabbages, corn, etc, are spaced widely apart when first planted so that when they eventually reach maturity - they are properly spaced such that the leaves of the plants barely touch the leaves of adjacent plants and the roots are given adequate room.    However, while the plants are young and small - the required spacing leaves large areas of the growing bed essentially unused and unproductive.   Intercropping puts that unused bed space to work!   Planting lettuce between larger plants (like broccoli or tomatoes etc) is a great example of this technique.   The lettuces are fairly shallow rooted and actually benefit from the partial shade created by the maturing large plants as the growing season progresses.   Ultimately the faster growing crops (like lettuce) generally produce their harvests and then conclude long before the larger and slower growing crop is at the height of it’s production.   Pulling the spent second crop not only makes room for the maturing larger plants, but opens up and aerates the soil for the remaining larger plants.        

  

Another variation on this is to grow plants that physically complement one another, such as planting shallow and deep-rooted items intermixed together (beans interplanted with deep-rooted corn for example).   The combination of deep and shallow rooted items improves soil structure because plants with root systems at differing depths and widths in the soil open up the soil at differing levels and utilize nutrients from a greater span of soil layers.   This practice also allows more closely spaced plantings because the adjacent intercrops do not crowd each other for root room.    One plant uses the upper soil layer and the adjacent is spreading its roots out by burrowing down deeper.

 

Another intercropping technique is to use an under story planting of either a shade appreciative crop (such as cucumbers which like heat, moisture, a well drained soil , and some shade in the height of summer) or a green manure crop.   Green manure intercropping provides weed suppression and water retention while the main crop is finishing up and the green manure crop then enjoys a head start going into the winter.   Chosen carefully, the intercropping plant can also provide nutrient benefits to the main harvest crop, such as when a nitrogen fixing plant such as beans or clover are interplanted with a heavy nitrogen consumer such as corn.   The classic intercropping example is the “Three Sisters” combination of planting corn, beans, and squash.                        

                           

                         

    

The beans use the structural support of the corn to grow up upon while providing nitrogen for the corn and the squash.   The squash spreads out under the other plantings providing a living mulch and is content to grow in partial shade while the corn and beans reach up for the sun they love.   This classic combo maximizes bed space because it provides three crops in one bed area and the plants structurally complement one another.   However, I personally have found the three sisters combo to be somewhat difficult to do well because the squash plant vines tend to make it difficult to get to the other plants to harvest them!   My variation on that is to skip the squash altogether and use bush beans or half runner bean varieties intercropped with corn.   Full runner or pole beans tend to overrun anything but the tallest of corn varieties, but half runners or bush beans work pretty well.              

       

There are potential problems with intercropping that should be considered as you use this technique.   The obvious ones are the potential for overcrowding and too much shade creation for even plants that will tolerate (or prefer) some shade.   Careful planning can avoid most of those potential problems and the benefits of intercropping are considerable.               

  

Most of us have growing seasons long enough that multiple plantings of many crops are possible.   In my area, cold tolerant crops planted early in the season that are harvested and removed no later than mid July can be followed by another reasonably fast growing and cold tolerant crop that will produce well into the fall and even winter months. I   use this technique a lot.   I plant a patch of early spring spinach or garden peas, which usually are concluded by late June or early July.  These are followed by a planting of broccoli, cabbage, or carrots that produce a good fall and over wintering harvest.   Having plants started and ready to plant out just as the other crop concludes, makes this process even more efficient.   This is why many of us start seeds in flats even during the summer months for items that many consider easier to just direct seed in the garden.   The reason we go to that trouble is that we want to have plants ready to go into the ground as soon as the bed is opened up and available.   This practice gives a big jump on growing the second crop which is usually racing against the clock to get to maturity before the approaching colder fall weather arrives and sun strength and day length are reduced.   You may recall that I did this with the bed that had my 2009 spring planted pea patch.   The peas produced a heavy harvest that was completed on the Fourth of July weekend.   The bed was then planted up the very next week with sturdy seedling starts that I had going of broccoli, kohlrabi, and some loose leaf cabbages.                 

            

(Pea Patch in Early June) 

(Harvesting the Peas on July 3rd)

(The Same Bed Planted Up with Cole Crops on July 11th)

(Same Bed Two Weeks Later on July 25th)

(Mature Cole Crops - Mid September)                 

 

Succession planting is one of the more important and effective intensive planting techniques available to the food production gardener.   Next week in part 4 of the Intensive Planting topic we will look closer at another very important method of maximizing output from our modern victory gardens – vertical growing.

Blog Series - Intensive Planting (Part 2 Closely Spaced Planting)

Posted on November 27, 2009 at 12:43 PM

There are many of us who have limited space availability for food production gardening and yet still manage to produce a tremendous amount of our own food supply.   This post is part of a blog series devoted to exploring the many techniques available to optimize food production gardening.   There are quite a few topics that relate to this pursuit - including (among others):

  • Crop Selection
  • Intensive Planting Practices
  • Season Extension
  • Soil Management & Fertility

The blog series was kicked off by focusing on Crop Selection.   Now we are exploring Intensive Planting Practices.   Intensive planting techniques generally include a combination of planting in raised beds (either double dug or otherwise greatly amended and improved), closely spaced planting, intercropping and succession planting, and the use of vertical growing techniques – all for the purpose of producing the same amount of food in approximately 20% of the space used by traditional row gardening practices.   Last week we focused in on the topic of Raised Beds.   This week we will keep moving through the intensive planting techniques by spending some time discussing closely spaced planting practices.   

       

Closely Spaced Planting –                   

Taking full advantage of the greater planting area provided by a raised wide bed is the next critical technique of intensive planting.   The idea of closely spaced planting is to take the one-dimensional row planting process and make it two-dimensional by planting the raised bed using within-row spacing in all directions.   This greatly increases the quantity of a crop that can be produced in a given planting area. The plants are spaced such that when mature, their leaves should just barely touch.   This close spacing provides an additional benefit (besides efficient space utilization) in that it provides a mini-climate and living mulch that reduces weed growth and helps hold moisture in the soil.                                  

           

For those who use the square foot gardening techniques of planting in grids this should not be a new concept.     The square foot method recommends using a grid of squares dividing every square foot into a number of sub-squares appropriate to the spacing of the crop being grown.    Similarly, the Grow Biointensive method employs a hexagonal pattern using various hexagonal and triangular shaped planting jigs with the spacing dictated by what is appropriate for the specific crop.     Wide row gardening uses a scattered broadcasting of seeds that is later thinned using a common garden rake (if needed).   Another variation I have seen is to just plant a traditional row across the width of the bed using the optimal spacing between each seed, then mark the distance from that row to the next row that gives the optimal plant distance and then plant another row and keep doing this until the bed area is planted up.   This year, I have seen one more method that achieves this result – Annies Granny has created her own tissue paper seed mats which do a great job of ensuring optimal spacing.            

        

I personally most often use a combination of the square foot grid system and wide row block planting.   I have also used the multiple rows method a time or two but it is not my usual method.   My bed widths and lengths are all in increments of 4 feet - so it makes it very easy to employ the square foot method of using a grid of squares and sub- squares.   I use block planting for large beds of spinach, carrots, garden peas, and bush beans.    In this next picture, you can see some of both methods.   The broccoli (with the copper collars) in the foreground is planted in 1 foot square grids.   Behind it is a block planting of spinach.                                       

                   

   

  

This is one area of my gardening that I can stand to most improve upon and as such, it represents my best opportunity to further increase my yields.   Specifically, I am guilty of doing two things:

  1. When I use broadcast block seeding for spinach and carrots I tend to not do the required rake thinning or I am not aggressive enough with it when I do.   The consequence is that I often end up with areas in the bed that are too closely spaced, which causes plants to be small and not reach their potential. 
  2. My trenching method for planting potatoes produces a reliable crop of potatoes each year but it leaves a wide section between each trench that is essentially unused.   I should be getting much more production out of each 100 square feet of growing bed than I currently am.   For example, in 2009 I had 208 square feet of bed area planted in potatoes and I got a yield of 120 pounds (would have been about 140 but I lost some to late blight).   This works out to approximately 70 pounds per 100 square feet of growing bed.   An average expected production for potatoes per 100 square feet of intensively planted growing bed should be 200 lbs!   Obviously, I can do better than I am on this crop.

My plan to address these issues is to continue using broadcast seeding for beans and peas because the size of the seed makes it very easy to do a good job of spacing with them and I have had no issues with those two crops.   For the spinach and carrots, I may give Annies Granny’s tissue paper seed mats a try or go the route of the multiple rows method.   I am not a fan of the square foot grid method for large plantings of these closely spaced crops because it is just too time consuming to do a large area in this manner.   As for the potatoes, I am going to give a deep grid planting a try.   John Jeavon’s recommends just planting potatoes as you double dig, placing the seed potatoes on the top of the lower trench of loosened and amended soil and then covering them with the soil from the next trench’s upper level as you work your way down the bed. He recommends spacing 9 inches and then offsetting the next trench to create the Biointensive hexagonal grid pattern.   I think it would be simpler to use a 12-inch spacing and just do a typical square foot gardening squared grid.   I am not sure if I will do a full double dig on the potato beds, but at a minimum I will do a full u-bar aeration and then plant them deeply on the grid spacing.    I will likely need to add a heavy mulch layer to get full production out of the bed since I will not be backfilling a trench.   I will have to think about what to use for that layering because when I have used straw for that in the past, I ended up with an explosion in the slug population.                       

          

Do you use closely spaced planting techniques? 

Blog Series - Intensive Planting Practices (Part 1 Raised Beds)

Posted on November 17, 2009 at 11:34 PM

There are many of us who have limited space availability for food production gardening and yet still manage to produce a tremendous amount of our own food supply.   Over the course of several weeks, I plan to devote some of my blogging time to exploring the many techniques available to optimize food production gardening.   There are quite a few topics that relate to this pursuit - including (among others):

  • Crop Selection
  • Intensive Planting Practices
  • Season Extension
  • Soil Management & Fertility

Last week I kicked this blog series off by focusing on Crop Selection.   This week the focus will be on Intensive Planting Practices.   This is a very important topic with several subtopics that are worth discussing at some length.   In order to devote proper attention to these areas (while also sparing your poor eyes the task of reading page after page of blog text!) I am breaking this particular topic into several parts.                               

              

Intensive planting techniques generally include a combination of planting in raised beds (either double dug or otherwise greatly amended and improved), closely spaced planting, intercropping and succession planting, and the use of vertical growing techniques – all for the purpose of producing the same amount of food in approximately 20% of the space used by traditional row gardening practices.   You may be familiar with Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening, John Jeavon’s Grow Biointensive method, or Dick Raymond’s Wide Row Gardening.   All of these authors and their recommended practices are using intensive planting techniques in various shapes and forms.   My own gardening style and intensive planting practices have evolved by incorporating and combining elements from of all of these sources, as well as from many others.                              

          

Planting In Raised Beds – Traditional row gardening has plantings in a relatively narrow row - generally spanning several inches in width and with wide strips of walkways in between.   This allows for the easy use of power equipment (rototillers etc) to do weed management and cultivation.   The proportion of growing areas to walkways in a traditional row garden is therefore significantly lower than a garden that utilizes raised garden beds, which generally are 4 feet in width with wide strips of walkways in between. More growing bed area and less walkways translates into greater production per square foot of available garden area.   Wide row gardening also takes advantage of this technique by increasing the width of rows significantly (often 12 to 18 inches wide) but wide rows are still only 1/4th the width of a typical raised garden bed.                 

                        

Raised beds can be created without using any edging materials by simply mounding and shaping the prepared soil into the bed shape.   I prefer to use a boxed edged bed to prevent edge erosion and I also find it discourages accidental walking from occuring in the prepared soil.   Another advantage of a raised boxed edged bed is that it allows me to use a weed whacker to keep the walkways trim and tidy without harming the plants which are safe within the protective edging of the bed.   Finally, boxed edged beds also provide a place to anchor PVC hoops and other structures that are useful for season extension and vertical growing (future topics!).   For all these reasons (plus I think they look nice!), I use edging on all of my garden beds.    

  

 

 

In addition to increasing the amount of planting area per square foot of garden area, raised beds also improve production in that they are generally prepared by either double digging the soil or otherwise deeply cultivating the area and amending the soil.   Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Garden method actually calls for the creation of a soil mix that is utilized in place of native amended soil.   This mixture is referred to as Mel’s Mix and is intended to achieve the same result as double digging – creation of a well aerated, well amended soil, that drains well and provides an optimal growing area for plant roots to develop.   My experience has been that double digging provides more optimal results – but it is a great deal of work to create the beds initially.   Using your native soil but improving it significantly has the advantage of less initial cost and generally contains minerals and other bio elements that a manmade mixture will not provide.   You can learn more about double digging a garden bed HERE.   I think it is an investment that yields significant rewards and once completed really does not need to be done again unless you allow compaction to occur by walking within the beds.   Once double dug a bed can be kept aerated by the periodic use of a broad fork or a garden fork and regular additions of compost - which always improves soil structure.   You can read more about prepping garden beds and specifically about using a broad fork HERE.   The advantage of a double dug garden bed is that you have a growing medium that is rich in nutrients and minerals, allows air and water to reach the plants roots, and encourages the colonization of the soil by beneficial creatures (such as worms) and bacteria to break down organic matter in the soil making even more nutrients available to the plants.   My preference for double digging comes in part because it provides a very deep environment of this greatly improved soil structure for roots to really grow and stretch down into – something a more shallowly cultivated or sealed bottom bed will not provide.   The vitality of plants that have been given really ample room for root growth is very apparent when compared to the same plants grown in less “roomy” conditions.           

 

Next week, I will continue the blog series and the focus on intensive planting techniques by discussing the concept of closely spacing plants.

Blog Series - Crop Selection

Posted on November 11, 2009 at 8:56 PM

I am constantly working to obtain the greatest food production possible from our limited growing area.   I don’t have the luxury of expanding my garden much beyond what I currently have - because it would require cutting down significant portions of our wood lot to provide needed sun exposure.   We like our trees and the beautiful setting they create for our home, so that is not a good option.   Instead, I work with the area of our property that gets adequate sun exposure and use various techniques to optimize food production therein.   There are many of us who have limited space availability for food production gardening and yet manage to produce a tremendous amount of our own food supply.   Over the next several weeks, I thought I would devote some of my blogging time to exploring the many techniques available to optimize food production gardening.   There are quite a few topics that relate to this pursuit - including (among others):

  • Crop Selection
  • Intensive Planting Practices
  • Season Extension
  • Soil Management & Fertility

To kick this blog series off, I will focus today on Crop Selection.   Our choice in what to plant greatly determines the success we will experience in producing a greater amount of our own food supply.   There are several things to consider in this process.                                                

                     

Minimizing Waste – Using limited and valuable garden bed space to grow items that ultimately end up not being eaten is contrary to the pursuit of optimizing the garden’s food production capabilities.   I suspicion we have all been guilty at some time or another of growing items that we only marginally like and end up either letting it go to seed or rot on the vine because we just are not interested in using it or even preserving it for later use.   To the extent we can avoid such waste by choosing crops more carefully, the greater our food garden’s actual production will be.   For these reasons, I generally do not grow eggplant, cauliflower, bitter greens, and only occasionally (and in modest amounts) grow beets and kohlrabi.   For the 2010 garden season, I intend to pass on growing beets and kohlrabi altogether to make greater room for more valued crops.                 

                

     

 

 Nutrition Per Square Foot - Some crops are much more dense nutritionally and provide greater value accordingly.     Some particular noteworthy garden produced “Super Foods" include; spinach, blueberries, broccoli, cranberries, kale, winter squash & pumpkins, dried beans, tomatoes, garlic, and onions.   Virtually all plants and fruits are of great values nutritionally, but these particular items are significant in their contribution to good health and should be given some extra consideration in the process of choosing crops for the home food production garden.   Of course, if you do not particularly like to eat any of these items,  then it is wise to remember the goal of minimizing waste by not planting items that will not be fully used – no matter how good for you they are supposed to be!   Luckily, I happen to love all of these super foods and so they have a place in my garden.                         

           

     

    

Yield in Pounds Per 100 Square Feet of Growing Area - If your growing space is limited, then producing as much as possible from that available area is important in the pursuit of producing a greater amount of our own food supply.   I have added to this site a table of average crop yields for a selection of vegetables and grains grown in intensively planted beds.   It gives a good approximation of yield for planning purposes based on a number of assumptions.   Specifically, non-hybrid plant varieties in ordinary soil with sufficient water are assumed.   Obviously actual yields will vary greatly based on actual variety selection, soil condition, sun exposure, and climate etc.   It is quite possible with excellent soil and growing conditions that yields can be even greater than these averages.   You can see from this table that certain crops provide a better yield per 100 square feet of intensively planted growing bed area.   One of the astounding revelations is that chard actually out produces potatoes!

 

If you adhere to the food pyramid guidelines and serving sizes then you would need 456 lbs of vegetables, 365 lbs of fruits, 250 lbs of grains (wheat, corn, oats, and rice etc), and 159 lbs of protein foods (lean meats, dried beans, dairy, & eggs) for one adult person.    My primary focus and goal is to provide all of our family’s vegetable needs.   To do this and meet the suggested quantities of the food pyramid for my family of two adults and one (almost adult) teenager - I would need to produce 1,368 pounds of vegetables.   Currently, I do produce all of our family’s vegetable needs in that we do not buy any vegetables other than those we consume in meals eaten out (such as restaurants, potlucks, or when eating at someone else’s place).   Obviously, we are not eating the recommended amounts of vegetables as I am only producing between 600 to 750 pounds of produce a year and that does not come anywhere close to the recommended 1,358 pounds of vegetables!   Our daughter will be heading off to college in less than a year’s time so our numbers will be more closely aligned to the recommended amount for two individuals but we will need to change our eating habits too - basically including greater volumes of veggies and lowering our meat consumption.   I will never be able to grow all of our fruit needs on this property given our space limitations, but I can get to approximately 50% with wise planting and crop selection.   My recent additions of bush pie cherries, raspberries, and more cranberries and strawberries should help me work towards meeting that goal.   I need to give consideration to other fruit options that might further increase our production.                

 

Climate & Growing Conditions – Planting crops that naturally do well in your specific climate and growing conditions will give you a big jump in production.   Devoting a great deal of bed space to plants that fail to thrive because they are out of their preferred element is squandering valuable bed space.   Some crops are just plain worth the extra effort to grow, but the trade off of production capability should be factored into the decision to grow such high maintenance crops.   Similarly, where you grow items in your garden can also greatly influence production capability.   I have one section of garden that gets very good sun and this area is where I plant all the sun intensive crops.   The other section of the garden is bordering on marginal sun exposure and if I want to optimize food production, I need to confine myself to planting more shade tolerant crops there – such as greens and carrots.                                                 

                           

Variety Selection – Carefully choosing varieties that are noted for good production, disease resistance, and with days to maturity that match your area’s growing season and conditions is very important to the pursuit of increasing food production capabilities.   If you are interested in seed saving, then open pollinated varieties will be an important factor in the decision.   However, if you are not planning to save a specific item’s seed, you may find that a hybrid variety offers more vigor and production potential than it’s open pollinated cousins.   That is certainly not always the case since many heirloom varieties meet or exceed their hybrid counterparts in production yield, but in certain circumstances a hybrid is the better performer and should be given some consideration when selecting a variety to grow.                                        

         

From my perspective, these are some of the more critical elements of crop selection that heavily influence the garden’s utility and productivity.   As I begin the process of choosing crops for the 2010 garden, I intend to think about these considerations and hopefully wind up with even better results next year as a consequence.