Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Vegetables the Quick, Dirty Way

The following is a reprint from a great article published Sunday April 26 by the Maine Sunday Telegram (found regularly at http://www.mainetoday.com/) . The writer of the article is Tom Atwell who writes a weekly column in the Sunday Telegram called "Maine Gardener". Tom does a great job every week and is a true friend of gardeners and garden centers in Maine.

David Buchanan is a major contributor to the article and he and David Mahaney recently taught a wildly successful vegetable gardening class at Skillin's Falmouth. I think his advice is terrific. Good gardening friend David Kuchta (lots of Davids here) has a different take on David B's take about raised beds and I have included his take at the tail end of this post. David Kuchta blogs daily about gardening at http://gardenmaine.blogspot.com/ and I recommend that you check out his blog frequently. Thanks to all the Davids and to Tom Atwell for all you do for us gardeners in Maine.

"Everybody seems to be talking about vegetable gardening this year. Michelle Obama planted a vegetable garden at the White House. The demand for community-gardening plots is strong. Seed companies are reporting big increases in sales of vegetable seeds.

With all of this new interest, new gardeners need enough information to do the job right. I write a lot about Nancy and me growing vegetables in our garden, and sometimes about growing specific vegetables at home.

But after some reflection, I realized that I had never written a basic column on how to create a vegetable garden.

Instead of writing off the top of my head, I decided to attend a "Grow Your Own Organic Garden" class sponsored by Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. About 40 classes were held statewide on April 1, and they proved highly popular.

The class, held at Turkey Hill Farm in Cape Elizabeth, was taught by David Buchanan. Buchanan managed Turkey Hill Farm last year, is one of the organizers of Slow Food Portland, and is a designer with Stillman Land Restoration and Design.

"Light is the key to any new garden," Buchanan said. "Light and soil."

Your garden plot should receive seven to eight hours of sunlight every day, especially to grow tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, Buchanan said. For greens, such as lettuce and beets, you can cut it back to five or six hours. Root crops are somewhere in the middle.

"But as you lessen the light, you weaken the vigor of the plant," he said.

If you have several places with enough light, Buchanan suggests picking the one that is most convenient to the kitchen. "You want to get from your kitchen to your garden with minimal time, effort and clothing," he said.

If you are a new gardener, start small. Buchanan suggests a beginner's garden should be 10 feet by 10 feet. If you try to do more the first year, you can become overwhelmed and give up. And by planting closely together, you can get a lot of food from a 10-by-10 garden. If you do a good job with that garden, next year you can expand.

Removing sod is one of the first steps in creating a garden. Don't just till in the sod, because a tiller goes only 3 or 4 inches deep and the grass will keep resprouting through the year. The best method of getting rid of grass is starting a year earlier, covering the grass with a layer of newspaper six sheets deep, and putting mulch on top of that. If you didn't think to kill the sod last year, you are going to have to lift it this year.

Buchanan does not like raised beds. He said pressure-treated wood should not be used near vegetables, and creating raised beds is a lot of work.

The layout of the garden is up to you. You don't have to use the typical rows favored by commercial gardeners. Buchanan favors planting zones about 30 inches wide. You can plant several rows in that 30-inch space or put in groups of plants without any thoughts of rows. The 30-inch width is easy to reach from both sides for planting, weeding and harvesting.
You can companion plant in the garden. Buchanan suggests putting basil and tomatoes together because you can keep cutting the basil throughout the season and it does not get in the way of the tomatoes.

When you start a garden, sandy soil is better than clay. Clay is really difficult to break down, and it prevents the roots of plants from getting needed oxygen and moisture. Also, it's difficult to mix in compost with the clay. If all you have is clay, bring in a lot of compost – so you have a layer about 6 inches deep – and plant in that.

"Sand is a much better place to start," Buchanan said. "You just keep on adding organic material."

Buchanan believes in working the soil as little as possible. He uses a spading fork and a broad fork, which is similar to the U-bar that we use on our garden, to loosen the soil for planting and mixing in compost. If you work the soil too much, it breaks down the structure. Although it looks fluffy after it has been worked, it will get too compact when the rain and foot traffic come.
Buchanan said the theory of organic gardens is that healthy plants will be able to fight off pests with little assistance. He noted that soil is a living thing, and that the living organisms in the soil feed the plants. That is one of the reasons organic gardeners do not use chemical pesticides, although they do use organic products such soaps and oils.

Buchanan also believes that you should weed often and quickly, just running a hoe around your vegetables to disrupt the weeds when they are small.

That does less harm to the soil and plants than weeding when the weeds get larger, and it takes a lot less time.

Watering should be done only when the soil has gone dry, and then it should be done for a long time, so the water goes deeply into the soil, promoting deeper root growth."

From Daivd Kuchta:

"Another very good article that I enjoyed reading. As a Skillin's Greenhouse employee, I've often referred our customers to your columns. I
especially appreciate your promotion of organic options in the garden.
But I should note the ease and benefits of raised beds: I built mine in about half a day, at very low cost and minimal tools. The benefits of raised beds are: they allow you to control the soil, which is especially good for areas with poor or contaminated soil; there is no digging and less stooping, which makes them great for kids and those with limited mobility; there are fewer pests; and raised beds warm up more quickly in the Spring, so you can begin planting a little earlier.
There are many online tips on how to build a raised bed, but I wrote one on the Skillins Greenhouse blog at:

Mike Skillin
Skillin's Greenhouses
April 28, 2009

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