Saturday, 22 June 2013

more than one way to skin the cat

Maybe I have a bit of gardening ADD. Or perhaps it's trouble committing. Or it could be I'm just a dilettante, a born dabbler. There are so many different approaches to gardening organically; biodynamically, Ruth Stout's no-dig, straw mulch philosophy, permaculture. Both of the latter promise less work - and there's no argument with the attraction of that. But I seem to experiment with a bit of all the methods - and anything else that seems worth a try.

Biodynamic agriculture encompasses philosophy and ethics in its approach to sustainable agriculture. Soil, livestock and crops are seen as interconnected and symbiotic. Ideally a biodynamic farm would be a closed, totally localized ecosystem. Manure from the livestock would feed the soil which would provide enhanced nutrients to the crops. Weeds and unused or unwanted produce would go into the compost which would provide additional nutrients to the soil. And the cycle would continue round and round.

The phases of the moon are used to dictate ideal planting times. A waxing moon has increasing light and promotes balanced leaf and and root development. This would be a good time to plant above ground crops that produce seeds outside the fruit - like lettuce. During the second quarter moonlight is strong so vegetables whose seeds are inside the fruit, like tomatoes or beans, benefit from planting at this time. The third quarter, the waning moon, has decreasing light but increased gravitational pull which helps to draw moisture up from the soil so this is the ideal time to plant root crops - like beets.

All this actually does make sense and is pretty time honoured, way before Rudolph Steiner ventured along and came up with a fancy name like "biodynamic" farming. But for me there are obvious difficulties since I don't live here full time. And when I am here it always seems my to-do list is endless and my time finite. So the luxury of timing plantings with the waxing and waning of the moon is beyond my time limitations. Not being here full time also precludes having livestock. But I do get my annual dump of manure from my tenant farmer, who raises beef sustainably.

Ruth Stout, who was born in 1884 and lived to be 96, practised gardening using a thick layer of mulch for years before she wrote her book, How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back; A New Method of Mulch Gardening. She advocates using at least an 8 inch layer of any rotting vegetable matter. Many people use straw but she says anything will work as long as the mulch is thick enough to suppress the weeds. The decaying matter also breaks down, enriching the soil and making it friable and rich in microbial life. When I weed I generally lay the pulled weeds at the base of the vegetables to conserve moisture. I have started buying straw bales from Charlie and have used it the past few years to mulch my tomatoes. I have always used grass clippings to mulch my lettuce. And this year Alex and I cut up a fallen cedar tree so I collected all the cedar leaves to use as mulch for my beets. Since I use essential cedar oil as a bug juice for blackflies I thought just maybe the cedar would be a bit of a natural insecticide for the vegetables. Each fall I collect bags of leaves from Rosedale sidewalks or the from the dump here in Madoc and store them over the winter to use to mulch my potatoes the next summer.
Winter squash seedlings in a hill of manure surrounded by a straw mulch
Heirloom shelling beans planted last week nestled in a bed of straw

Potatoes under a thick mulch of autumn leaves 

I can attest to all of these mulches as great soil enrichers but they aren't all that great at suppressing the weeds - but I'm sure it is simply a matter of not enough matter.
Tomatoes struggling with the weeds coming through the too thin straw mulch

Ruth Stout leads naturally to permaculture since she is considered a towering inspiration to its practitioners. The idea behind permaculture is that as many features of the garden are permanent or perennial. The permaculture garden has full size trees at the extremity to provide shade and shelter from strong winds, next there is an understory of perhaps fruit or nut trees and then shrubs, probably fruiting (currants or raspberries, for example). Within the garden itself there are vertical features (like kiwi plants or pole beans) and the beds are often laid in tear drop shapes radiating from a centre. There are as many perennial crops as possible, Jerusalem artichokes for example. Paths are mulched to suppress weeds and ultimately become permanent features.

I love my rhubarb, a perennial, one of the few plants we inherited with the property. Egyptian onions, a gift from my mother's garden, are truly self perpetuating. This time of year, the ones that have escaped being pulled for scallions, send up a stalk with a flower at the top. That flower contains little onion bulbils that are broken off, ready to plant for a fall crop.
Egyptian onions about to flower

We have planted an heirloom apple orchard and quite a few years ago, a double row of butternuts. Last year I planted three red currants and three black currants and 20 raspberries. This spring I added 3 haskaps and 3 shrub cherries plus 25 table grapes. So I am all for the diversity of the permaculture garden. But in the deep freeze of January I can't seem to let go of the fun of redesigning the beds for the next summer's crop rotations - the whole new garden each new rotation creates.

I always like the duo of spinach seeded at the base of peas, two crops that like to be planted as soon as the soil can be worked.
Spinach growing at the base of climbing peas

This year I've also tried a couple of new things. My farmer friend from Haystrom Farms told me last fall that I shouldn't even consider growing arugula without a floating row cover - a total waste of time. Well them's strong words. So since I had a lot of trouble with arugula last year, every thing from poor germination to quick bolting and terrible insect problems, I figured if a floating row cover was my magic bullet I would come out shooting.
Arugula tucked in under a floating row cover 

The other big experiment is sweet potatoes. I've come to love sweet potato fries.  Like potatoes, when grow conventionally with pesticides and herbicides, sweet potatoes take in all the chemicals and concentrate them in the flesh. So these are two of the vegetables that are really a good idea to buy organically grown. But growing them is a work in progress to say the least. Earlier than any other vegetable, I started them in January. I've been documenting the various stages ever since figuring sweet potatoes deserved a blog to themselves - that is if I have any to harvest. Time, and more time, will tell.
Sweet potatoes in a raised bed under black biodegradable cloth to warm the soil

I love vegetable gardens with paths but I prefer to take my inspiration from the French potager rather than the weird teardrops of the permaculture garden.
The original vegetable bed with greens on the left, potatoes on the right and tomatoes at the base of the teepees
Paths mulched in straw in the new bed in the field, this one with peas and spinach

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