Sunday, May 8, 2011

Organic gardening

Just the words 'organic gardening' make me think of lush patches of dark green lettuce and the most beautiful bright red tomatoes one could dream of. Why doesn't it turn out this way for me? For the past two years my husband and I have tended to a medium sized garden in our backyard. Neither of us really know anything about gardening, soil, PH, what the word 'heirloom' means or compost. So trial and error have gotten us by. Our tomatoes however are far from something to be desired.

watermelon plant that never actually produced
any ripe watermelons the first year
We have a somewhat dense clay type soil where we live. Not ideal for gardening. The first year we had not yet even invested in a tiller and opted to just call over a relative and ask kindly for him to bring his tractor and till us a nice 10 x 10 patch of soil for us to begin our great adventure. I went in the house for a while, came back, and there was a 35 x 25 patch of soil tilled. I guess the husband was feeling overly ambitious.

We didn't think about compost that first year. We actually didn't know what/where/when to get it, so just skipped it and hoped for the best. We started a few plants indoors in early May just to let the seeds get a jump start on life. They looked so radiant poking through the soil in the little pete pots under our living room window that I was sure our garden would be a huge success. And then we returned home one day to find that our dog tore most of them out of their pots, managed to throw the dirt everywhere including under the couch cushions which was sort of impressive since he doesn't have opposable thumbs, and also managed to rip each and every one of the pot markers out of all of them. It was a little too late in May to start them over and I was afraid he would just tear them up again, so we went straight to seeds in soil at the end of May and planted the few remaining indoor plants we started even though we weren't quite sure what they were due to lack of marker.

The first gardening year was somewhat successful considering our lack of knowledge and the stunt from the dog. We had a lot of very delicious lettuce. The husband was very persistent about planting corn and potatoes, the corn however was a complete failure. Not even one ear of corn.  The potatoes were a success. We had a lovely watermelon plant that never actually produced any ripe watermelons. Carrots failed. Tomatoes failed, they all had blight and rotted before they were even ripe. Cucumbers, zuchinini, summer squash and green beans were all a success. And pumpkins were a success. Come to find out all of the 'vined' plants that survived the massacure of the Boston Terrier were all pumpkin plants. Not knowing one vined plant from the next we assumed it was maybe a mix of squash and cucumbers. Nope. All pumpkins. Six pumpkin plants grew that year. We ate a lot of pumpkin pie that fall, and my poor newborn must be sick to death of eating pureed pumpkin to this day. I attempted to torture the dog by making him eat pumpkin in his food on several occasions but he seemed to love it so much it was really defeating the purpose of the exercise. Boston Terrier: 2, Me: 0.

We didn't use any pesticides, or fertilizers. Just water and hand picked off any worms or bugs we saw on the plants. Nothing fancy the first year. You could say it was a success, but it wasn't the organic garden I dreamed of. All of the plants were small in size and produced only a minimal amount of produce. But it still felt rewarding every time I put dinner on the table that consisted of something provided by our garden, and I was determined to try harder the next year.

Brussels Sprouts in year two
Year two my husband had a big idea; he helped his buddy clean about 100 fish for a fish fry, he saved the carcasses and without my knowledge mixed them into the garden. To say the least I knew something was 'fishy' per-say after the first day. The smell was gross. And my dogs looked incredibly guilty every time they came in the house smelling like fish. It was impossible to completely mix the carcass in the ground so you could see fish tails and bones in the garden for about a month until the local animals ate them or they began composting down. When they say fish makes a great fertilizer, I can't say I would interpret that as throwing a pile of fish guts and bones right onto the soil. I raised a fit for about 10 minutes, but the deed had been done, there was no removing this stank from my backyard.
Apparently this method did have some benefit - though I will not recommend it. Year 2 of gardening went a lot better. We were successful with Brussels Sprouts (ohhhh so tasty!) and cabbage, both things that did not fair well in year one. Our lettuce was bigger and more productive and our zucchini was non-stop! Everything in the garden seemed darker green and much larger this time around. I think part of the success of the Brussels Sprouts had also to do with my diligence of worm picking. Those suckers will kill a plant within a week if you don't get to them. I'm really against pesticides, especially on a garden of this small size. I have found with some effort and dedication you can just use an all natural dish soap and water to spray the plants and remove any visible bugs. I have also had success spraying plants with neem oil to ward off insects.
Lettuce in year two

The fish smell eventually faded early in the summer and though I initially questioned his sanity and mine for marrying him, 'Grandads farming method' as he called it, seemed to do the soil some good and year two was considered a success.

This year, year three, we plan on being a huge success. And we have already put a plan in place for year four; 'the year of the profitable garden.' This year I read up on compost - the good the bad and the ugly. Words like 'blood meal' freak me out but 'green manure' sounds lovely. What I did learn is that I'm too late in the year to start some of these compost methods, hence, year four being the 'year of the profitable garden' and not this year.

This years garden plot, tilled and ready to add compost
This year my husband met with our neighbor who raises 2-4 free range cattle every year for meat. They are completely grass fed and naturally raised. They have about 6 piles of cow crap from the past 3 years composting down in the back of their yard. Every organic gardeners dream is a hot steamy pile of composting cow shit. I'm quite excited. They need a hand cleaning out some stalls for the spring and are willing to trade a few hours of labor for compost. Does this seem strange? Actually doing backbreaking work for piles of shit? Seems like someone is getting the short end of the stick in this deal...

Since the cow crap it's already composted down we should be able to add it right into the garden in the next few weeks with plans of planting at the end of May. I'm hoping this will make a pretty dramatic difference in the quality of our soil. We are also planning on using raised beds for our tomatoes this year since we have had so much trouble getting tomatoes to grow in the past two years. Ideally I would like to use raised beds for all of our garden, they are easier to maintain and also look really classy, but time and money are not on our side at this moment. Since our tomatoes have been plagued with blight the past two years I am hoping that by bringing in new top soil and compost for the raised beds and rotating where our tomatoes have been in the past will give us some better luck.

already busy eating bugs with their butts in the air
Year four I hope to be more self sufficient when it comes to fertilizer. Though I am incredibly excited about finding piles of pretty near organic cow crap available just across the road, there are a few other methods I'm eager to try. First and foremost: chickens. I have 7 now. They are 6 weeks old and moving to their coop this week, I hope they will be little bug eating, egg laying, poop making machines. I have read over and over how great chicken poop is for fertilizer. My chickens started on a medicated feed but I have now switched them over to a regular laying feed and will soon switch to the organic laying feed (not available anywhere convenient for me.. ugh). Once they are on the new feed I can start placing their pine shavings from their coop in the compost to use on the garden next year. Chicken fertilizer is very hot, meaning there is a lot of nitrogen and needs to be composted down before you can add it to your garden.

organic pest control
The second part to the year four fertilizer plan is what is called green manure. The simplistic explanation of green manure is planting a quick growing, nutrient dense crop in your garden at the end of the season. Alfalfa, mustard, rye and clover are all examples of crops that will work for green manure. Simply throw seed down and let the crop grow. In early spring turn the crop down into the soil while it is still too cold to plant, yet the soil is fairly dry. This is an excellent and very easy way to add nutrients to your organic garden.

This year and next year the chickens will be put to work eating those damn worms off of my plants. Tomato worms are just freaky, what I wouldn't give to have a chicken eat it instead of me having to pull its spiny little worm hands off my plant. From what I understand, a chicken is the best organic pest control available.

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