When spring is in full swing, it’s almost as if being indoors is engaging in inappropriate behavior. Hiding inside is to live in exile, to squander precious sunlight. Fortunately, you know better than that. It’s barely May and you already have a tan line. This season’s ridiculously early warm weather has given us all plenty of time to prep our gardens and reconnect with the soil and, with the last frost date rapidly approaching, we can finally throw off the shackles of restraint and plug in those warm weather crops!
May is like Christmas to your local garden center. This season sparks a need in people to connect with the planet and get involved with the process of growing, sending gardeners in droves to overload their vehicles with soil amendments and trays of starts. Before you head out to transform the wasteland of winter’s afterparty into a lush, blooming Eden, I’d like to turn you on to a few tips and tricks to help you take it to the next level.
Stop tilling already
Unless you are specifically trying to alter the composition of your soil, tilling is not only counterproductive, it is actually quite harmful to the biology in your soil. I till only when developing a new garden in heavy clay or sandy soil. After the first two years of bringing the soil to a good composition, I stop tilling and a machine will never again brutalize that soil.
Growing organically means fostering a robust, dynamic biology of living organisms in the soil: bacteria, protozoa, archaea, nematodes and earthworms. Plants rely on this life in the soil to deliver nutrients. For example, certain bacteria make carbonic acids that dissolve rock, making the nutrients available to plants.
Each bacteria variety prefers a specific stratum in the soil. As soon as the tiller ravages the soil, all of these strata are scrambled, resulting in a massive die off of beneficial bacteria. Earthworms are chopped up, and while the soil temporarily fluffs, it actually collapses to a lower height than before over time, all of which compromises long-term fertility.
Use a broadfork
This old garden tool resembles a giant pitchfork, but with two handles on either side. The gardener presses the tines into the soil, leans back, and gently aerates and fluffs the soil without scrambling the layers and compromising the vitality of the living soil. Left alone to do its magic, the life in the soil will develop a far superior structure than you will ever achieve with your tiller, and this is an easy area of your life to get rid of fossil fuels and superfluous tools.
Feed the soil
As an organic grower, the vigor of the living soil is my priority. Fertility is achieved by providing materials to be digested by the life in the soil, which in turn convert them into compounds that plants can utilize. Water-soluble chemical fertilizers provide a small amount of nutrients to the plants, but the majority rinse away with water. To make matters worse, they often degrade the living soil, making the garden more dependent on chemical fertilizers.
The gold standard of lasting fertility in the organic garden is compost. Compost is the mostly broken down remains of organic materials, full of long carbon chains that are the primo raw material for life in the soil. A two-inch layer of high quality compost will provide enough nutrients to sustain your garden for the year. A second application halfway through the season is known as side dressing, and is a 100% “boss move” to keep things growing full throttle. When applying compost, leave it on the surface just as nature would. As materials break down on the surface, they form a protective layer for the soil.
If you don’t have access to quality compost, good organic fertilizer is a close second and is easy and inexpensive to make.
Illoominated all-purpose fertilizer
(Makes enough to cover 100 sq ft)
Alfalfa meal 2.5 lbs.
Rock phosphate 1 lb.
Kelp meal 1/2 lb.
Granulated humates 2.5 lb.
Azomite 1/2 lb.
Avoid the boom-&-bust cycle
All too often, the entire planning process of the garden revolves around the timing of planting tomatoes. The gardener patiently waits until last frost date (the average date of the last freeze for your area) and then plants the entire garden. The result? A waiting period of months followed by a deluge of produce.
Avoid this by first recognizing that the majority of vegetable crops actually prefer cool weather. Lettuce, spinach, peas, beets, kale and many others not only thrive in cool weather, they are far more tasty and prolific. Take advantage of these crops and you can be easily harvesting from March through November, without cold frames.
The second strategy is succession planting. Simply put, this is the process of repeatedly planting the same crop, with the goal of having multiple, successive harvests. Plants like cabbages, broccoli or head lettuces will produce only once. You’re better off with a whole series of dates, yes? I tend to plant every single week to guarantee a lot of action.
Soil temperature is the best gauge for correct planting time. Different plants prefer different temperatures, so look it up. I monitor the soil temps with my compost thermometer. Proper temperatures increase the germination rate and the vigor of seedlings. Transplanting at the proper temperature ensures we don’t shock our young starts and interrupt their vigor. Remember, annual vegetables grow very quickly, or at least they should if we keep them vigorous. Shock them once and they’ll slow down. Shock them a few times and they may cease growing altogether (especially tomatoes, which really don’t enjoy cold feet at all; when transplanting, try digging a shallow trench in warmer soil and laying the seedling sideways, burying part of the stem to encourage those roots; the plant will right itself in no time).
Peas and beans are a class of plant with the ability to form a symbiotic relationship with the nitrogen-fixing bacteria Rhizobia. When seeds are coated with these bacteria at planting time, they can make the most of this relationship. They’ll form colonies on the roots of the legumes, leaving visible nodes of nitrogen. You’ll be left with more nitrogen than the plants consumed or, in other words, you’ll be growing your own fertility.
Harness the power of Mycorrhizae
We can bump other plants’ performance up a notch by utilizing mycorrhizae, a symbiotic relationship between fungi and plants. While bacteria have limited mobility, mycelium (think of it as fungi’s roots) can conquer huge expanses and absorb a greater amount of moisture and nutrients, which it then shares with its host plant. This turbo-charges plants, increasing access to raw materials, enabling it to grow larger root systems, and increasing resistance to drought and other stressors.
Myco is readily available commercially. To be effective, the spores need to be located near plants’ roots. The easiest time to accomplish this is at planting time. I dip the roots of my plant starts directly into the mycorrhizae powder, or I sprinkle it onto my seeds in the trenches of my planting rows. The spores remain dormant until they receive a signal from the plant’s roots. Like a homing beacon, the myco alerts the fungi of its presence, inviting the mycorrhizal mycelium to begin growing. Boss and a half move right there.
When purchasing mycorrhizae for vegetable gardens, look for Endomycorrhizae, as opposed to Ectomycorrhizae. Endo works with annuals, Ecto works with perennials. Also note Brassica (kale, broccoli, cabbage, etc.) and Chenopodiacae (beets, spinach, chard, etc.) do not form mychorrhizal relationships at all, so don’t waste your loot or your spores on them. Avoid any products containing Trichoderma, which will initially outcompete the mycorrhizae and limit its effectiveness.
Install drip irrigation and plant supports
Doing this right at the beginning of the season will make your life much easier in a couple of months. Trust me. I neglect to do this almost every year and always wish I hadn’t. Few things are more frustrating than breaking plants as you try to move them out of pathways and back into place, lashing them clumsily to support stakes. Trying to weave your irrigation lines through rows of young plants is equally frustrating. If we put our support stakes in at planting, it’s much easier to guide a plant gracefully and we can avoid damaging root structures. Planning ahead, the hallmark of a Boss.
James Loomis runs Onsen Farm, a geothermal powered winter farm in southern Idaho. With a knack for merging biology and mechanics, he also teaches regularly, focusing on aquaponics, deep organic technique, and various urban permaculture disciplines. By night, he can be found making crowds wiggle and bounce performing as dj illoom.