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Gardening for the Long Term

A basic law of physics states that matter cannot be created or destroyed. From the perspective of your vegetable garden, think of all of the vitamin C and lycopene in those fresh tomatoes, the sight-enhancing vitamin A in carrots, and the folate and iron in green leafy vegetables and broccoli. Where did it all come from? Of course they came from the soil.

Now think about next year and what will be left to supply the fruits (or vegetables) of your labors? There are several easy ways to ensure your garden grows, and grows healthy produce chock full of the stuff you need. If you simply replant the same way year after year, a few things will happen: your seeds won’t germinate well, the seedlings that do germinate will grow into smaller plants, the plants will fruit less, and the produce will be smaller.  The actual colors of the leaves and fruits won’t be as vivid as they once were. And the produce won’t taste as full, as sweet, as pungent—in fact, won’t taste the same at all after a while.

Issues like this and many others can prevent you from getting the maximum yield from your home garden. Here are some suggestions to ensure your hard work pays off well for many years to come.

Rotate Crops

Different plants consume different nutrients from the soil. Where the tomatoes grew last year, try planting onions instead. Don’t plant eggplant though; it’s in the same family as the tomato. Keep the row markers in place after the harvest to remind yourself what was there before, or keep a chart to refer to next year. In the early spring, have a family contest to see who can come up with the best plan. If the kids are involved in the planning, they will enjoy working in the garden more after it’s planted.

Compost

Don’t throw away all the good stuff that’s left over from food preparation or not eaten. A lot, if not most, of the vitamins and nutrients reside in the peels and rinds you didn’t eat. An old fifty-five gallon drum or piece of chicken wire makes a great compost container, or just throw it in a pile on the property down wind. By next spring it will look more like soil and less like rotted food; it should also smell considerably better. You can avoid a step if you want and just throw the waste directly on the garden. It will degrade directly into the soil, and you won’t have to shovel it later.  This method isn’t quite as effective, but it will work, if you don’t have animal problems.

Fertilize

There are many commercial fertilizers available, but organic solutions are abundant and easily. Find a neighbor with horses, chickens, or cattle.  Few farmers exist that would refuse anyone willing to help muck the barn. Raise rabbits and/or chickens: in addition to providing a family project, they also can provide a good meal and their little pellet droppings are excellent for the plants. Integrate the pellets into a bigger batch of manure/compost/fertilizer to avoid pH issues in your soil from the phosphates and acids in urine that can mix with the pellets.

Cover Crops

If time permits in your area, replant your garden with any number of quick-growing plants that will replenish the nitrogen stores in the soil. Common cover crops include ryegrass, barley, oats, wheat, vetch, fava bean, and clover.

Selection

You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You are not the first person to garden in your area. Contact your local cooperative extension and see what they recommend. Many varieties of plants have been developed to thrive in every geographic environment. Find out what does well in your area and go with it.

Trial and Error

Plant several varieties of each vegetable and see what does well and what doesn’t. Next year limit your planting to what you know does well. Don’t be afraid to experiment with new varieties each year. Try a few exotic or unusual plants each year, as you might find something that does exceedingly well.

Move Perennial Beds

Asparagus, rhubarb, and the like return year after year. If you find your perennials failing despite fertilization, go ahead and move the bed to another location. You can do this slowly by thinning the crowded plant beds into a new area. It’s a lot of work, but worth it with the first bite of strawberry-rhubarb pie.

Keep the Soil Loose

Simple considerations such as not walking on or working wet soil, as it can pack down and keep too much moisture in one spot, will greatly improve your garden. Healthy plants require well-drained soil to thrive.

Protect Your Garden from Intruders

Many critters and even larger animals can prevent your hard work from paying off. If you’re having trouble with larger animals and your garden’s too big to fence, run a string around the garden and tie pieces of human hair to the string. Save your own hair when you cut it or go to a barber or hair dresser. Deer will smell human scent and avoid it. You can also tie reflective aluminum pans or used microwave-type containers onto the string. The movement and sound will scare off some hungry animals. As strange as it sounds, if little animals are bothering, you could consider collecting urine and pouring it around the perimeter of the garden at timely intervals. Mothballs seeded amongst the plantings detract burrowing creatures as well and are not harmful. While some of these old techniques can seem awkward, in a pinch they can serve you well.  If the above methods are too unconventional, you would be surprised how much protection you can derive from some fine chicken wire and a little creativity.

Protect Your Garden from Insects

This is no easy feat, as many insects can attack the leaves of your plants and kill them as before they have had the chance to fruit. Hand picking the bugs is arduous but effective (think caterpillars and squash bugs). Of course there are commercially available insecticides and fungicides available. If used, be certain to wash the produce extremely well before ingesting. There is a commercially available organic powder called Rotenone that occurs naturally in the roots of certain plants and is relatively safe to use. For some scenarios it can prove a useful alternative.

Protect Your Garden from Birds

Netting can be used to prevent birds from devouring your hard won garden gifts. Another (less effective) method is to place an artificial bird statue or rubber snake in close proximity to the crops you want to protect. Again, the sounds made by tying objects that collide in the wind can be effective as well.  If you are in a high-population area, a makeshift greenhouse can serve multiple purposes, including deterring birds.

Protect Your Garden from Frost

Unpredictable cold snaps are common in northern territories but can also surprise gardeners in warmer climates. Have a supply of old sheets, blankest, tarps, or other coverings to use in an emergency. You can build a simple frame covered with plastic to cover seedlings in the spring when frost is most likely. They are easily removed and stored when the weather stabilizes and the seedlings grow.

Maintaining a garden for personal use can be quite an undertaking: it involves consistent attention, surveillance, and planning for potential offenders that limit or steal the results of your hard work.  The rewards of maintaining a healthy garden are vast: stress reduction, better nutrition, reduced cost of providing fresh produce, and variety of sustenance. However, the real benefit is in the satisfaction your fruits and vegetables will give you through the flavor, texture, and abundance coming out of your garden—and the knowledge that you grew them yourself.

©2011 Off the Grid News

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