Thursday, February 23, 2017

26 Vegetable Gardening "DOs and DON'Ts"

In no particular order:

1.  DON’T use chemicals in your yard or garden, as much as possible.  I believe that chemicals hurt the environment, the insects, the animals that eat the insects, the crops, and they ruin your yard for the future families that will live there.  We all share this world, this space.  And we all need to do our part to keep this place healthy and going strong.  Over-use of chemicals affects the environment.  It might not seem like much for you to do it, but multiply that little bit by every home in your neighborhood and it really adds up.  It affects our water quality, the air we breathe, our country’s bees and crop pollination, and the quality of your soil. 
            There’s a garden around here where the gardener has always used chemical fertilizers.  For years and years.  And after working in his garden, I can tell you that it’s dead soil.  There is virtually no life in it at all.  His soil is not even soil . . . it’s just dirt.  And it’s compacted, hard, and dry to the touch.  It’s not the fluffy, squishy, life-filled soil that we have in our garden.  I planted 80-90 seedlings in his garden and found only about 2-3 worms, whereas I can find dozens and dozens in each of my garden beds.  And not only are there no worms, but there are basically no weeds, even when the garden has rested for months.  And when weeds won’t even grow in your dirt then you know it’s not healthy and can’t sustain life.

This is what my garden soil looks like:
This is what his looks like:
(Okay, technically that's the back of a toaster pastry.  But that's what his soil would look like if it was lighter in color.) 


2.  DON’T believe the companies that tell you that pesticides are not what’s killing off the bees.  I believe that’s a load of crap, that they are deliberately ignoring what’s going on in order to keep selling their liquid poison to a trusting public.  Save the toxic stuff for the extreme crop emergencies, not for casual use.  And find as many organic, natural, safe alternatives as possible.

3.  DO listen to your yard and your garden.  If your plants are unhappy where you put them, they will tell you.  They will seem sad and weak.  But don’t just reach for more chemical fertilizer.  It may be that they need to be moved to a different spot.  Or maybe they are not meant to thrive in your area.  Sometimes, it’s best to move a plant or to “let it go,” instead of trying to limp it along with more and more chemicals. 
            And if you need it, find natural or homemade alternatives to chemical products.  Do not learn to rely on chemicals.  People get themselves caught in a vicious cycle of chemical use.  They use weed killer or chemical pesticides or chemical fertilizers . . . which affects the quality and life of their soil . . . which leads to weaker plants . . . which causes them to use more chemicals to make the plants grow well . . . which leads to more damaged soil . . . which leads to, well, you see where this is going.  Break the cycle and begin working with nature, not against it.

You know what happens if you rely on chemicals?


4.  DO build up your garden soil with compost.  We set a small, plastic fence around a different raised bed every year and throw the compost right on top all year.  By doing this – instead of having a compost pile outside of the garden somewhere – all those nutrients go right down into the soil where a future crop will go.  It’s amazing how many worms are drawn right into the garden beds by doing it this way.  And then the next year, we move the compost fence to the next bed and spread the finished compost out in the beds that need it. 
Moving the compost and fencing from one bed to the next:
This is the compost, rich in natural material,
which leads to great soil:
 This is what your soil will look like without compost:

5.  DO give your tomatoes and peppers a good boost at planting time by putting a banana peel and a sprinkle of Epsom salt right into the planting hole.  Epsom salt helps with root growth and the banana peel adds nutrients and moisture to help the plant get a good start.  And it draws the worms right to the plant.   

6.  DON’T compost store-bought tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes.  This is just what I do to try to keep blight out of the garden as much as possible.  Store-bought tomatoes can import blight spores (and peppers and potatoes are in the same family).  After dealing with blight two years in a row, I don’t want to chance it.  And another thing, don’t compost processed things like newspaper and cardboard, which contain harmful bleaches and inks and glues.  Only compost things right from nature.

7.  DO garden in raised beds, if you can.  It gives you the most growing space because you don’t have to put paths between individual rows of plants.  We have 4x8 beds that can be reached from both sides.  And if you put down some sort of cover in the paths between the beds, you don’t have to walk on mud.  Just make sure that a wheelbarrow (or lawnmower) fits between the beds when you are first situating them so that you don’t run into problems later when you try to get these things between the rows.   

8.  DON’T walk in your raised beds or you will compact the soil. 

9.  DON’T dig more than you have to.  I don’t like to till the soil.  I think it breaks up the soil structure and all those beautiful worm-holes.  And it leads to more compacted soil when the rain packs the dirt down more.  Those worm-holes help aerate the soil and help the nutrients and water get deep down into the ground.  The gardener I referred to in #1 also tills his dead dirt every year.  And it literally hurts my hands to dig in his garden because it is so compacted and dry and hard, like the cracked, dry ground you see in photos of the desert. 
            I figure that when I rotate the root crops into a new bed in my garden, that’s my chance to dig the whole bed down to about six inches or so to pull out any weedy root masses that have spread through it.  Even after 6 years or so of gardening, I still find these strong, web-like masses of roots that have entangled themselves all through the bed.  And the root-planting year is my chance to clean them out.
Weedy roots that drive me nuts:

10.  DO rotate your crops.  Even if it’s just in a small bed.  Do what you can to confuse the pests and to make your garden less “homey” to them.

11.  DO let your garden rest from any kind of production every 7th year (at least).  A concept that God Himself came up with in the Bible.  (I rotate my beds so that a different bed rests every 7th year.)  And I think if He said it, then it must be good advice because He always knows what He’s talking about and there are always reasons for why He says what He does.

12.  DON’T use chemicals in your yard or garden!   (Hey, don’t get all mad at me for this.  As long as we share this planet and our water and our environment and the bees and the future, I get to have an opinion on other people’s use of chemicals.  I’m doing my part to ensure a safe, healthy, productive land and future.  And I wish others would do theirs.)   

13.  DO water them with a drip hose or with a watering can at the soil line.  Do not water the leaves or use a sprinkler method that just shoots a ton of water into the air where it will evaporate without even getting down into the soil.  Watering the air is a poor use of this natural resource.

14.  DO be careful about extra soil you take from around the yard to put in your garden beds.  I am still picking out tons of tiny pebbles from a bunch of dirt my husband took from one part of the yard and threw in the garden.  And it can also introduce more weed seeds.

15.  DO where gloves when you work because you might occasionally run into sharp rocks, bristly plants, or bits of glass in the soil.  (Thank you so much to the previous owners of our house who threw glass bottles all over the yard!  Seven summers later and I am still finding glass pieces in the garden beds!)

16.  DON’T wear gloves when you work because there is nothing quite like the feel of digging down into the dirt with your bare hands.  And your sense of touch and your ability to handle tiny, delicate things works much better when it’s not dulled by gloves.  (This is really your call.  Sometimes I wear them and sometimes I don’t, depending on how I feel that day and what task I’m doing.  But I really do love having my hands right in the dirt.)

17.  DO grow enough to share with other people.  One of the true joys of gardening is sharing the harvest with those who will appreciate it.  If everyone grew something and shared it, the world would be a better place! 
            As I said in a previous post, this will be the second year that I let a neighbor grow a garden in some of our raised beds.  I love seeing her and her kids enjoying this wonderful hobby and delighting in basketfuls of homegrown produce.  And then last week, an elderly neighbor came over and asked if I would raise tomato plants for her in my garden.  I would love to!  So now I am refiguring my plan a bit to incorporate more tomatoes.  And I will have to clearly mark the beds so that she can easily see which beds are mine and which are the co-gardener’s beds.  This elderly neighbor has been such a good neighbor that I am honored and delighted to allow her to come into the garden anytime she wants and pick whatever she wants.  I love knowing that other people are enjoying the bountiful blessings of God’s creation found in my garden.  Sharing is truly one of the biggest delights of gardening.       

18.  DO grow enough to save some for winter.  Learn to dehydrate or can or freeze the things you get from your garden.  There is nothing quite like using your own preserved tomatoes or oregano or raspberries or green beans in the middle of winter. 
            Everyone can at least grow some herbs.  There is no reason to pay $4-$5 for a small bottle of an organic herb when you grow ten times that amount for way less.  And it just tastes fresher, too.  Having homegrown herbs on hand revitalizes your cooking and your desire to cook.
The left one is homegrown parsley.  The middle one is homegrown oregano.  And the right one is expensive, store-bought, organic oregano.  Notice the inferior, brown color of the store-bought oregano.  And I paid over $4 for that!

19.  DO become a producer, not just a consumer.  Too many yards sit empty - wide green spaces that only contain grass (and the chemicals to keep that grass green and lush).  What a waste of space and natural resources! 
Pathetic waste:
Ahh!  Much better:
(Hello there, Tommy Zombie Scarecrow!)
            And we all run out to the stores to buy food that comes neatly packed in small servings.  We and the future generations are losing touch with where our food comes from.  We don’t know how to grow things to feed ourselves.  We don’t know how to put the hard work in or to be patient while waiting for the rewards.  We are at the mercy of food companies and the fewer and fewer farmers who have more and more demands placed on them every year. 
            And we cannot complain about the shortcuts that they take to meet this huge, unreasonable, demanding burden if we are not willing to chip in and become a producer, too.  Even if it’s just growing a few herbs in a container or having a couple chickens or planting a berry bush, do something for yourself and your neighbors.  I think our future food production and food quality will depend on it. 
            Pass a love of this land and a knowledge of tending the earth and a respect for God’s creation onto the next generation.  [And, for goodness’ sake, don’t use chemicals!  That will just ruin the important, healthy steps we are trying to take.  And it will kill our bees.  And we desperately need those bees!  Any child’s science textbook will tell you that.]

20.  DON’T put too much pressure on yourself to get everything perfect and just right.  There will be mistakes and problems every year.  And that’s okay.  It’s part of the process.  Part of learning.  Keep notes of all you do so that you can learn from these mistakes to make improvements on next year’s plans.

21.  DON’T plant tomatoes next to cucumbers.  Didn’t work.  Or beans next to onions/garlic.  Or bush beans next to anything that it can smother.  They seem to swallow up any smaller or more delicate plant that's next to them.

22.  DON’T start seedlings in those expandable peat pellets.  Years later, you will still be finding the mesh covers of those pellets in your garden, fully intact and un-decomposed.

23.  DON’T sacrifice seeds to squirrels and chipmunks.  Sprinkle some cinnamon or chili powder or black pepper around your newly-planted seedlings or seeds to confuse the pests.  (But don't get it on the stems of baby plants, just to be safe.)  I figure that if they are going to try to steal my seeds, the least I can do is give them a good burn that might make them think twice about taking anymore seeds.  I began doing this the year that a critter dug down into each precise spot where I planted a pea . . . every 3 inches . . . taking every single pea . . . and no other ground was disturbed.  It was actually quite impressive.

24.  DON’T start cucumbers, squash, or melon seeds inside.  Last year, the ones that were sowed in the ground at the right time grew strong, but the ones that I started early and transplanted were demolished by bugs. 

25.  DON’T start radishes, peas, carrots or other “as soon as the soil can be worked” crops too early (I’m in zone 5).  They do not sprout as well or grow as well.  And they will be an “easy feast” for the bugs that come out early and are looking for something to eat.  Wait till just a bit later than “as early as the ground can be worked in the spring.”  This is based on a side-by-side comparison between my “started too early” plants and my co-gardener’s “started just a bit later” plants.  Hers did much better than mine.  (But they do get more sun, too.  So I’m sure that’s another factor.)

26.  DO learn what you can from the experts, but feel free to experiment a little.  Try a new plant.  Break some rules.  Mix things up.  You never know what might work well.  And you might stumble across a bit of wisdom that no one else seems to know yet.  Enjoy the process.  It’s as much about the journey as it is about the end result, the harvest.  So don’t get too discouraged when things go wrong.  “Failure” is never a waste if you learned something from it.  Keep what works, toss what doesn’t, and try again next year!
This year, I am planting these tiny left-over onions that I grew last year.  And I am doing it in February (zone 5) because we've had such a mild month.  They might bolt.  They might fail to bulb up.  They might freeze and die.  But I thought, Why not try!?!  Just for fun.
And I’m throwing in #27 for free: Don’t use chemicals in your yard or garden!  Or else . . .
(May this image haunt you in your sleep!  And every time you look at a Pop Tart may you hear these words in your head:
"No chemicals in my yard or garden! 
No chemicals in my yard or garden!")

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