Posted on September 2, 2011 at 12:35 AM
My garden is not just a hobby. I definitely enjoy it and find great pleasure in the time I spend in the garden, but I have a definite purpose to what I do. To put it simply, the primary objective is to feed this household with all of our vegetable needs and as much of our fruit as is possible, and to do it in a fashion that is economical, significantly less reliant on fossil fuels, and produces food that is nutrient dense and of a quality surpassing that which I could acquire even from local suppliers. The challenge is to do this in my “spare” time and within the limiting factors of my property and location. Specifically, tall trees surround our property so only a portion of our land receives adequate sun exposure for most vegetables. In addition, I live in a coastal/maritime climate that is cool and frequently cloudy. The combination of these two factors means that most vegetables grow more slowly here than they usually do in other areas that receive more sun exposure and warmth. On the plus side though, our mild winters allow us to grow and harvest frost-hardy crops virtually year-round and our abundant rainfall through much of the year means that irrigation efforts are generally minimal and mostly confined to the brief dry period we get in late summer (Mid July through September).
Since I garden with purpose, I find it useful to periodically take stock on how I am doing. Reflecting on what is working (and what is not) helps me to make useful adjustments and often challenges me to increase my efforts in certain areas. I have been thinking about a couple of topics lately but one in particular has been occupying my focus more than others – that being the goal of achieving greater independence from fossil fuels in the food production garden.
The abundance of fossil fuels is declining and demand globally continues to climb. As a result, everything made with oil has been (and will continue to) cost more. Many things in my garden are products of oil – the PVC pipe I use for grow tunnel supports and the plastic sheeting that I drape over them, the hose I use to water my garden with, and even the waterproof gloves I love to wear in the garden – all are examples of how fossil fuels are present in my garden. I know I will not erase oil from my life or my garden, but I do try to consciously make decisions to keep my fossil fuel dependence as low as I can practically make it. To the extent I purchase an oil based product, I want it to be something that will be durable and long lasting as opposed to a repetitive input to the garden production system. Making those kinds of decisions and efforts translate into economic savings and ultimately a more sustainable food production garden.
The things I think I am doing reasonably well at to keep my fossil fuel dependence minimized in the garden include:
- I almost entirely use manual tools in my garden. The tools I regularly use include a sturdy and well-engineered broad fork (for aerating and loosening the soil), a shovel, garden spade, garden fork, pitchfork, a hoe, a rake, a three-pronged cultivator, and a scuffle hoe. I have acquired over the years some really well made tools and I take good care of them.
- I don’t use chemical fertilizers that come from fossil fuels and I don’t use oil based pesticides or herbicides in my garden either.
- I reuse and recycle garden pots and planters. My friends and co-workers often bring me pots to reuse such that I am actually heavy on inventory of them at the moment. Occasionally my supply gets depleted but I have found that all I have to do is mention I could use some and people start bring them to me in great number.
- I use my PVC hoops, plastic sheeting, and bird netting over and over again. When not in use, I carefully store them away to keep them from unnecessary sun exposure that causes deterioration.
Things I need to improve on (or have recently started changing) include:
- I still use a gas powered weed whacker about four times a year to clean up and mow down the weeds and grass in the garden walkways. It’s really the last vestige of gas powered tools left in my garden tool arsenal that gets regular use. The amount of walkway area makes it rather impractical (and expensive) to try and put down weed barriers and mulches. Mowing and trimming truly is the simplest and least fussy option with my raised boxed edged beds and larger garden size. Consequently, I am planning to look into purchasing a narrow (small) push reel mower to keep the main walkway areas mowed down and then when my current gas powered trimmer finally dies (as they always eventually do) I will purchase an electric trimmer to use on a more limited basis to trim up against the edges of the beds periodically. I need to learn how to properly sharpen the blade of a reel type mower though if I go this route. A knowledge and skill I currently do not have.
- I use plastic starter cell packs to start seeds in. I rinse and reuse them a few times, but they are thin plastic, which cracks easily, and often I only get two uses out of them before they must be discarded. About a month ago, I purchased a basic soil block maker and am intending to begin using it with my next seed starting efforts. I plan to just repot the seedlings into larger recycled pots so I did not purchase anything but a basic medium sized block maker (cost about $35). I have a learning curve ahead of me with this, but I think it will be ultimately more economical and certainly less resource wasteful.
- I need to work harder at keeping my purchased and transported inputs for the garden as minimal as possible and to find local (preferably free!) sources for items I do need. Less packaging and less transportation means less fossil fuel dependence. Food crops are generally heavy feeders and deplete the soil if a replenishment program is not constantly employed. Compost is a great amendment but rarely of high enough quality to provide all that food crops need nutritionally without the addition of other fertilizers. I periodically remineralize the garden soil with the applications of rock minerals which provides slow release phosphorus and potassium, but the garden still requires applications of nitrogen sources on a regular basis. Recognizing this, I am going to begin a separate compost bin operation to gather up pure (not mixed with bedding) chicken poop from my hens and try and create a more concentrated composted chicken manure product and to do it in such a way that I don’t lose too much nitrogen via leaching and off gassing. That will require using a more closed container approach for this particular composting. Not sure what I will repurpose for that project, but I am on the hunt for something that will serve the purpose.
I have other topics that I have been thinking about recently, but I will save them for some future blog post. Do you think about this topic in the context of your vegetable garden and do you have things you are working on as a consequence?