Garden Planning Tips – Part 2, by Sarah Latimer

Companion Planting

Our family grows using organic techniques, for health reasons and because we practice now what we want to know how to do in the event resources become unavailable long term. Some of the things I use to fertilize, like Sea Magic fertilizer, or for pest management, like TheraNeem Neem Oil, or severe pest control, like NOLO Grasshopper & Cricket Control, are purchased rather than produced locally, like the dairy cow manure and compost we use to amend the soil. However, I try to keep the number of the purchased items we regularly use in our garden to a minimum, because we never know if they will continue to be available, and I stock those few items in quantity. Furthermore, organic gardening depends upon companion plants for optimum performance.

By planting certain plants together, known as companion planting, we can boost productivity and minimize pests without having to add anything else to our gardens! The most common companion planting system is known as “The Three Sisters”. In this planting method, corn, green beans, and squash are planted together. The corn is planted and used as a stake upon which the beans grow. The beans help provide nitrogen to the corn and stabilize them when they are tall and the winds pick up The squash grows low to the ground and thick, holding the moisture in when the summer heat intensifies. We have incorporated this planting method for at least five years, though we don’t use squash in all of the areas where we have the corn and beans, since we don’t eat as much squash as we do beans and corn. However, there have been years that I believe I got so creative finding ways to utilize zucchini that I could have published a cookbook just in ways to use zucchini, including zucchini chocolate brownies.

I am absolutely overjoyed with a plant I only discovered about six years ago– borage. Wow! Not only is it a great attraction to the bees that produce that delicious honey we so enjoy, but all of the children love to eat the beautiful, tasty blue flowers. The grandchildren, friends’ children, and neighbor’s children call them my “candy flowers”. I don’t think they taste like candy, but they do have a kind of nutty sweet flavor, and it is a great deal of fun to collect and eat them, plus they are beautiful additions to salads, rice, and pasta dishes or to float in some lemonade. Not only are they beautiful, but they are very healthful. They are a source of Omega and GLA, with anti-inflammatory effects. WebMD has a long list of benefits of the seed, flower, leaf, and/or oil, including: treatment for eczema, dermatitis, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, PMS, ADHD, alcoholism, stroke, cough, depression, blood purification, to increase urine flow, prevent inflammation of the lungs, as a sedative, promote sweating, increase breast milk, treat bronchitis and colds, and to treat infantile seborrheic dermatitis.

Well, not only is borage healthy and tasty and fun to use, but when you plant this little (or actually big, bushy plant) next to your tomato plants, you will produce better tasting, more prolific tomatoes. I’ve tested it year after year. My green beans that grow next to my borage were almost twice as productive, too, two years in a row! I also understand that strawberries taste better grown with borage, though I have not grown borage in my strawberry beds, but I just might this year. Note that borage doesn’t transplant very well, so plant it by seed where you want it and keep the seed moist in well-draining soil. I have successfully transplanted it but only when very young and I took a lot of soil with it so that I didn’t disturb the roots one little bit.

In addition to borage helping tomato plants produce better tomatoes, dill weed and marigolds assist in deterring pests. (You just must manage dill’s rapid seeding/spread by pulling the flowers off its stem before they go to seed, except what you want to collect for the next year’s use, as it is named dill weed for a reason!) I have used a few dill plants on the border of my tomato bed, and two marigold plus a half dozen borage throughout. With this combination, I have only seen a tomato worm one year in all the years I’ve gardened, and while my neighbors and extended family have lost their entire crops to these pests more years than not I made many gallons of tomato sauce every year, plus in recent years have added quarts of freeze-dried cubed tomatoes, too. (All of this is in spite of not spraying with those nasty, toxic sprays either! We grow ALL organic and rarely spray with anything at all, and if we do it is an organic Neem Oil product.)

I believe that the combination of hearty, heirloom tomato plants grown year after year from my own seeds, companion planting with dill, marigolds, and borage, plus crop rotation has been the key to tremendous tomato production. I have fertilized once or twice in some years with Sea Magic, which I believe helps when the plants are small and then again possibly when the plants are just beginning to bloom. However, if I fertilize tomato plants that have blossoms on them, I pour fertilizer water on the roots and don’t get it on the plant blossoms, so as not to wash off pollen that might be on the blossoms at this point.

The concept of companion planting also deals with plants that do not get along, too. Some plants both attract the same pests, so being together puts them both at greater risk of bringing in a swarm of perpetrators upon them. If you are growing melons, then putting a companion plant (like Nasturtium or Marigolds), which are detestable to vine borers/squash bugs, next to or among your melons makes a lot of sense! My favorite companion planting guide is no longer available online; however, there are some other good resources for companion planting information, too, though not as detailed. A one-page .pdf spreadsheet with additional insect repellent planting tips may be a useful quick companion planting reference.

Heirloom Seeds

If you’ve been gardening awhile, I hope you have moved to heirloom plants and are gathering seeds from your own homegrown fruits, herbs, spices, and vegetables to grow year after year. What a great sense of accomplishment and self-sufficiency to be able to grow your own food, gather seeds, and then grow more food again from the seeds you’ve gathered off of your own plants to see cycles of food repeatedly produced year after year without an injection of material from outside parties! I must warn you that this low-cost, healthy, sustainable lifestyle is addictive! It disturbs me to remember the days when I was wholly dependent upon a grocery store for my family’s food supplies. It also disturbs me that so many of my loved ones still are wholly dependent!

As a result, I collect seeds and always have more than I need. Then, when one of my loved ones says something along the lines of, “I’m thinking about putting in a garden”, I readily have seeds available to give to them to help them get started. I believe in helping people, but I also believe it is so much greater to teach someone how to help themselves. (Hence, Hugh and I are dedicated to SurvivalBlog.)

I can remember the years where I spent $600 or more on seeds for our gardens. That was a lot of money, but it was still economical, considering the large quantity of healthy and nutritious food we grew. For some, the cost of getting started is difficult, but if you buy heirloom seeds it can be a one-time investment. Over time, I have decreased our garden plant/seed budget to about $150/year now but could go to a $0 budget if for whatever reason I needed to do so. I’d simply have to give up the annual expansion purchases of a new fruit/nut tree and vine each year, plus the few hybrids I still have a hard time parting with.It seems I haven’t been able to remove the budget item altogether, as I find new varieties or plants I want to try, and there are a few hybrid, hot, and thick-walled anaheim-type peppers for which I have not found an heirloom equivalent. I also like to buy onion sets to give me a head start, though I do plant some onion seeds from my collection and grow at least a few onions year round. However, these expenses are not necessary. I keep the heirloom seeds that aren’t my preference so I’ll have something available if I can no longer get the peppers I prefer. For details on gathering and storing seed from your homegrown vegetables, fruit, nuts, herbs, and spices, consider reading Seed to Seed, which I’ve thumbed through and found every page I looked to be “right on the nose”.

In our typical “try it and learn until it works” style, seeds are cleaned and thoroughly dried and then placed in paper towels inside small plastic ziploc bags, which are labeled with the type of seed and date collected. Those bags are placed with others inside canning jars that have about a half inch of powdered milk in the bottom (to absorb any remote possibility of moisture within the jar), and then the jar is vacuum sealed and stored in a small refrigerator that is kept running at near its warmest temperature, which is approximately 55 degrees Fahrenheit. In this manner, I’ve successfully used three year old seed for many plants, though corn is more temperamental and only had a 50% success rate at three years of age, I found. Still, that’s pretty good, I believe. Our family wouldn’t go hungry, even if we lost an entire year or two of crops, though it might be tough going through that third year and building our food and seed supply up. The temptation would be to eat all of the corn, wheat, and other grains as well as lagumes, rather than save any for seed, as these are the foods where the seed is the food. However, in this situation, it is critical to apply delayed gratification, as one corn cob can produce more than a hundred if left to become seed for another year.

We have some great seed suppliers among the SurvivalBlog advertisers– Heirloom Organics and Seed for Security LLC, who readers tell us provide excellent seeds and service, but I began buying my non-GMO, heirloom seeds from Victory Seed Company years ago. I’ve never been the least bit disappointed in any of their seeds or service. In fact, I’m been exceedingly pleased with the quality of their seeds in the selection and high germination rate, and though their packaging is basic their prices and always-increasing heirloom variety are excellent, and shipping is quick and accurate. I like that I’m dealing with a family business with a good work ethic and values of sustainable farming and community support. They seem to be involved in researching, maintaining, and increasing quantities of the old varieties that were becoming rare. Check out SurvivalBlog seed advertisers. If you don’t find what you need from them, then look at Victory Seed.

Soil and Zones

Soil and zones are mentioned in the other garden articles, but they are key parts of planning and preparation, so I will briefly mention them here, too. With the best seed and best planning, you still won’t produce much unless you have proper soil. So, though it is still early in the year in most parts of the country, I encourage you to invest in your soil now. It is the foundation of your garden and vitally important, as it is the food for your food and without it being healthy you are prone to have a lot of problems that will become costly and most likely a hardship to rectify. Unless your soil has nutrients; an appropriate pH; humus that will retain water and allow the roots of your seedlings to spread and push through the soil to reach nutrients; and the rocks, weeds, and competing plants removed, your seeds may sprout but will not grow much larger or produce. I encourage you to not only begin planning and purchasing seeds and supplies but also to get your soil ready for a productive growing season!

There are many factors involved in planning a garden, including what to grow. Only you know what you and your family will eat and enjoy. You may also be constrained by what planting zone you live in. For example, you will not be able to grow a lemon tree in your yard if you live in Minnesota; it just won’t happen! Nor will you grow blueberries in the desert of Arizona, unless you grow them in a container on a hot summer afternoon-shaded patio. (I still wouldn’t hold my breath that there will be much of a crop.) So, you need to pay attention to plant hardiness zones and also soil pH requirements when looking at various vegetables and fruits for your garden. The online garden planning guide I referenced earlier asks what zone you are in and then loads plants based upon your planting zone so that you can use this list to place plants in your garden plan appropriately. It is just loads of help! However, when the grid goes down it won’t be available any longer, so we all need to learn how to plot graph paper also. I recommend that you use this online garden planner for awhile and get used to using it and planning your garden and then shift to drawing it manually on graph paper so that when TEOTWAWKI happens you aren’t left in the dark with no garden plan available. (Worst case, you should have old plans printed and handy to pull out and reuse.)

Now, review those SurvivalBlog articles on gardening and then let your garden adventure with self-sustaining food procurement begin!