Growing up in the desert southwest Grandma V always had some kind of a garden. Whether it was squash, beans, and corn in the summer, or lettuce and cabbage in the winter, there was something growing in the rocky soil. She also had a remarkable collection of aloes growing in old coffee cans around her little cottage on the ranch. It was a good time of learning from a gentle soul without feeling like being schooled. Fast forward twenty years and I’m married, living on a postage stamp size city lot and anxious to get off the industrial food merry-go-around; so I decide to plant a garden. This urge grows into a burning passion and within five years I’ve bought some land and started a small, part-time, organic farming business. Through twists, turns, and the ubiquitous government regulation of water I was forced out of business a few years later.
Frustrated and ready for a fresh start, I moved to the Pacific Northwest with the same goal of having a part-time farm. Things went well for a few years but the constant pull between work and a growing family wore thin. I retired from the farming business but not without learning many valuable skills I’ll share here.
First a little about organic farming, though some definitions have probably changed since I quit paying attention to the political discussions of it. Simply put, it is using no artificial or manmade products on the crops or land. Many are fooled into believing there are no poisons or chemicals used in organic farming; there are many. However, most of the pesticides used are not persistent in the environment and are made from plants, minerals, or natural oils so are deemed safer.
Organic fertilizers are going to come from a natural source such as manure, compost, fish byproducts, and mineral powders to name a few. These could be broken up further into categories that are acceptable or not under certain standards, but that is not my focus here. The key when looking at fertilizers is the N-P-K number which is always displayed on the package. Those letters represent nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium (K). The simplest key is that nitrogen gives green growth, phosphorous is roots and flowers/fruit, and potassium is for vigor and disease resistance. There is a whole host of other nutrients that plants need, but are required in smaller quantities so are generally not emphasized as much in a balanced fertilizer. It is also quite possible that there is an abundant supply of these minor nutrients already present in your soil. A soil test kit is inexpensive and useful for optimum fertilization and growth of the garden.
Calcium is the next important nutrient to have strong plants, minimize disease, and balance the Ph of the soil. Most vegetable crops will thrive in soil between 6-8 on the Ph scale and closer to seven being the ideal. In the Northwest, to raise the Ph it is best to apply lime in the early spring or in the fall and allow it to work through the winter months. Again, a soil test kit will come in handy for this.
A balanced fertilizer will contain percentages of the three most common nutrients in some ratio designed to meet a need. Common formulations may look like 10-10-10, 10-0-0, 16-16-16, or 0,15,0. For the vegetable gardener, the 10-10-10 is probably going to be the best choice for general fertilization and plant health.
In my experience tilling the fertilizer into the soil has yielded the best results. Even after crops have reached a decent size the fertilizer can be worked in around the base of the plant. This brings it much closer faster to those soil microbes that are anxious to digest it. Depending on what it is, tilling it in can reduce unpleasant odors and keep cats and other wildlife at bay.
Commercially produced organic fertilizers like fish meal or fish emulsion will generally have the highest nitrogen content and the highest price. You simply have to have a good supply of this nutrient to get active growth that is healthy. This is especially true where there is a short growing season. Most of these will have traces of other nutrients as well and some may be balanced to meet all of your plants’ needs. Pelleted fertilizers offer convenience in ease of handling but also carry a higher price.
Animal manure is a good source of plant nutrients but it often has unpredictable results in the garden due to salts, weed seeds, and bacterial action in the soil. Some manure, such as chicken manure can be harmful to plants due to its high nitrogen content if it is not first composted or aged (more on composting to follow). This damage is called “burning” when the plants absorb too much nitrogen and the leaves whither and dry looking scorched.
All raw fertilizers rely on bacteria to break down the bulk product into plant available forms. This includes fish meal, fish emulsion, manures, and mineral powders. The reason ammonium nitrate makes the grass grow so fast is that it is the form of N that plants can utilize immediately; it doesn’t need to be converted. On the other hand, bovine exhaust byproducts need bacteria to break them down into these plant available forms and it takes a little time. In cold weather this takes longer as the bacteria are less active in the soil than when it is warm. Composting manure for a few months or a year shortens conversion time in the soil, homogenizes the nutrient levels, and gets the nutrients to the plants quicker.
A green manure is a crop grown for the express purpose of turning back into the soil. These will usually, but not always, have a crop that will be a nitrogen fixer. That is, some plants such as beans, peas, vetch, clover, and alfalfa “fix” nitrogen out of the atmosphere and leave it in the soil as a plant available source. Some green manures are grown for the bulk matter they produce to lighten soil and build humus. It is not uncommon to find a blend of nitrogen ‘fixers’ and some kind of a grain for bulk matter. Here in the Pacific Northwest where winters are very rainy and little grows in the garden, a cover crop is ideal to build next year’s soil when nothing else is in the ground. Another alternative to tilling the green manure before planting the garden is that livestock could be allowed to graze on it. This would give them some fresh green food and reduce the bulk before tilling.
Compost is another key to sound organic practices and I compost pretty much everything; dog dung, cooking oils, and meat scraps when there are some. I can’t count the number of times I’ve driven down the road, and day after day watched a raccoon or deer simply melt back into the soil after encountering a fast moving vehicle. I do not say this as a practical method of fertilization, just as an observation of God’s creation at work. A compost pile has potentially billions of microbes working around the clock to digest whatever they encounter and breaking it down to its basic form to be reused. When I pick up after the dogs, I either throw it into the wildflower patch or put it in a separate compost pile I use for the grass and flowers. It cycles through the flowers life cycle and then they go into the kitchen compost pile in the Fall ready for Spring. Same with the few meat scraps. Old, used cooking oil goes straight to the kitchen’s pile.
Applying compost has for me been most effective when worked into the soil prior to planting. All of the nutrients in good finished compost are plant available and can be utilized immediately by the crops. It tends to be fairly low in overall nutrients, around the 3-5% range, but greatly improves soil structure and plant health. Side-dressing throughout the season can be effective and helps reduce weeds around the plants and conserves moisture. Many swear by compost “tea” and use it regularly. Simply place some finished compost in a burlap sack and submerge in a barrel of water for a few days and let it brew. The water can then be poured on or around the plants to provide the nutrients that have been leached out of the compost. The compost in the sack can be returned to the pile or added to the garden.
The backbone of good organic gardening is a crop rotation plan. Crop rotation reduces the pest and disease infestations by moving the food source to a new location and disrupting pest life cycles. Some crops like potatoes should be on a long cycle of at least three years, while others as little as three months. Setting up a crop rotation is pretty simple as most crops will occupy their space for an entire season. The exception is with the quick growing crops like lettuce, spinach, and radishes or those that will be planted successively like broccoli, carrots, and beets.
A crop rotation should be planned over a three to five year cycle. Divide the garden in blocks and sub-divide these blocks as necessary to achieve optimal use of soil. Separate crops by family, i.e. broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and kale, or by type such as garlic, onions, and leeks. Then there are leafy plants like lettuce, spinach, and chard. In my experience potatoes and cauliflower suffered the most from growing in the same soil in too short a time. The potatoes got scab, looked terrible making them unable to sell and the cauliflower was infested with worms. A crop rotation is also important based on the nutrient use of the previous or succeeding crop. Broccoli, cauliflower and the like use a lot of nitrogen, so planting carrots after may work well. A fall crop of broccoli could be interspersed with zucchini making use of the space.
Bottom line from my experience and what professional say, potatoes are the most at risk when planted in the same soil year after year. This is reported to be the cause of the Irish Potato Famine where the country lost a huge percentage of the crop to disease. In a grid down eat what you can situation, potatoes will be on my list of crops to have. Worms in broccoli or cauliflower don’t look good, but they are still edible; a disease that destroys all the spuds is another story altogether.
For pest control, a healthy plant is the best defense. Keep weeds pulled and not allowed to re-seed. Keeping plants actively growing will keep most from suffering too much damage, whether its weeds or bugs. Natural oils, pepper extracts, and plant compounds are very reliable but last a short time. A powder called rotenone made from a root is a good broad spectrum insecticide, but must be applied every few days to be effective in heavy infestations. Hand picking worms and other bugs is time consuming but effective. Natural predators such as Lady Bugs can be purchased, but are generally present anyway. If all else fails, pull a few plants out and bury in the compost to save the rest from being infested.
Lastly, though not only an organic practice, using transplants in the garden can alleviate a number of concerns and ensure a bountiful harvest. With for example, planning some fall harvested broccoli, early potatoes could be dug in mid-July, the soil tilled, and transplants immediately put out the same day. A three inch tall broccoli has a huge head start on any weeds, can take advantage of any residual nutrients, and keeps the garden fully productive throughout the growing season. Transplants are also a more efficient use of seeds in some cases. Continuing with the broccoli example, rather than use a whole packet of seed in a row and then need to thin, starting seeds and placing them as plants at the appropriate spacing saves time and resources. If your seed supply is limited, this becomes even more important.
So when starting to plan your garden space consider what crops you want to grow, a rough idea of the quantity you will want, and work backwards from harvest time to estimate your planting date. Most seed packs will display a “days to maturity” table and may even list them according to the USDA regions. My experience has been that under the best conditions add about fifteen percent to the time on the packets, especially if using organic or slow release fertilizers. Remember the cold soil in early spring is not going to break down those amendments as quickly as in the heat of summer.
While I strive to follow these guidelines in my garden space, I have lost some crops to bugs and slow growth. I store some commercial fertilizers and pesticides for a SHTF situation to help ensure my ability to succeed when it is crucial. There are too many variables to not take prudent precautions when they are readily available to us.
JWR Replies: It is noble to strive for an organic approach, and I presently do in my own garden. But if it comes down to a true Crunch, where my family’s very survival is at stake, then I won’t hesitate to use chemical fertilizers and pesticides, if they are available. In time like those, practicality will trump principle and peak health benefits.