Meanwhile, I am sleep deprived from middle of the night barn/pasture rounds but on the bright side of the day and the current milkmaid situation, I am getting caught up in the gardens so at least that part of my life will be on autopilot for a bit.
ur garden spaces vary from intensive, water-sucking plantings (greenhouse) to extensive dryland water conserving spaces, with a little devoted to something in between those two extremes. One size doesn’t fit all here. In this post I’ll concentrate on the staple garden, because the methods we use here are a little different than what most folks think of when you mention vegetable gardening. This garden is almost completely devoted to storage crops that we expect to take us through the winter. The determining factors for what to plant here are all management related. The criteria are as follows:
1) no or minimal irrigation needed.
2) crops unpalatable to deer or easy to protect from deer (for instance, a bed of carrots as opposed to 6 beds of carrots).
3) plants that need to sprawl (winter squash) or that need a large block for pollination (corn).
Root crops like potatoes, carrots, rutabagas, winter beets, and parsnips along with a large plantings of potatoes and corn make up the bulk of the garden. Several rows are devoted to winter squash, dry beans and a little seed production too.
To conserve water, I utilize wide row spacing and a weed-free environment, well, almost weed-free.
Besides row spacing, plant spacing is important too for water conservation. These squash will be thinned to the two best plants per hill. The rows are 8 feet apart with 4 feet between hills. Come late summer these plants will have taken up all that space. While it may seem wasteful to use up so much space to grow winter squash, this row will produce approximately 500 pounds of squash and will store with no electricity or preserving on my part. While it is one of our staple crops, we also barter and sell it too.
What’s different about this method of gardening is that I use the dust mulch method, which means I maintain a loose dust cap by cultivating in my garden as opposed to bringing mulch materials. I have several reasons for doing so. It is an old, tried and true method for gardening and farming in Cascadia that I was taught as a child (this method is also touted by Steve Solomon), the soil is right there so it requires no handling of, or purchasing materials, and it helps maintain a weed-free garden. You might ask why not just grow my own mulching materials? Well, I am a grass farmer, with a veggie passion on the side, so for me to translocate carbon from my grass is about like making hay and not fertilizing the hay field. I don’t want to deplete my grazing areas, period. In the same materials handling/carbon vein, I apply a systems approach to this whole farmstead thing. This garden is conveniently located halfway between the house barn and the compost area, which makes this a perfect place for the milk cow’s stable cleanings come winter. Bale of hay in, gallons of milk and poop out. The milk goes directly to the house and the poop takes a roundabout fashion trip to the house via into the garden as sheet mulch, which then in turn will fertilize the veggies that eventually make their way to the house. So simple a caveman could do it. Oh wait, everyone thinks my hubby is a caveman:p
The loose soil works especially well for hilling potatoes, I do it by hand with a hoe, and with the wide row spacing I can make pretty short work of weeding and hilling the entire potato patch.
Hilling potatoes can be hard work, but with my method it goes pretty fast and isn’t physically taxing. I have approximately 600 row feet of potatoes and I hilled them in 1½ hours including daydreaming breaks this past Saturday afternoon. How can that be? With the wide spacing for dryland I can stand right at the potato hill, and with a long-handled (handle length is important) hoe I can move small amounts of soil fast while standing upright. My soil is loose and friable, partly because of the high organic matter (thanks cows!) and because I keep the crust loose with cultivation, in my case cultivating means hoeing. I prefer this outside hoeing/hilling to the hilling I have to do with my intensively planted row of potatoes in the greenhouse – because I spaced the plants close to save space I have to use a shovel alongside the row, and a shovelful of dirt is much heavier than a hoeful, and the stooping required to use a shovel is a back breaker.
Just for fun I set down the camera while I hilled one potato plant and it took me 21 seconds, so I had my daughter video (seen below) also to get a more accurate time, that hilling took 15 seconds. These figures are approximate, but figure 210 hills of potatoes, multiply by 20 seconds each, divide by 60 for minutes and this is what I came up with: 210 x 20 = 4200 ÷ 60 = 70 minutes. I guess I was daydreaming a lot, but by the time you watch a hawk carry a garter snake back to the nest, pet the dogs in the shade, and take water breaks you can really use up some time.
Obviously dryland gardening/farming isn’t for everyone due to the space requirements and it doesn’t work with all crops, but in my situation it works very well, allowing me to conserve water which is a very precious resource. By not relying so heavily on irrigation for part of our food supply, our staple garden is more resilient actually than our labor/resource intensive greenhouse garden. Food for thought though, and worth trying even on a small scale.
Whittling away at that list!
If kale is the darling green we eat all winter, bok choi with its tender succulent stems and mild mustardy leaves is a welcome sight come spring. I’m more than happy to leave kale behind this time of year. But no worries, like most brassicas the flowering stems and flower buds are delicious, and I succession plant bok choi for the entire growing season.
We’re just finishing up this first April planting right now. As we bear down on the Solstice it is showing signs of bolting.
Here is round two, showing a little signs of flea beetle damage, but nothing that can’t be ignored. We eat the bok choi mostly for breakfast, lightly sautéed, and served with eggs or maybe a beef sausage patty. Sometimes it makes it to dinner though in a stir-fry, and the thick stalks are also a good celery (read crunch) substitute in salads. One thing that makes it an easy sell here is that even though it’s a mustard, it is mild. Once the heat sets in, the mustards tend to get too strong for our palates, so the hotter mustards move into garnish territory and the bok choi really shines.
I’m seeding round four today and round three is pictured above just ready for transplanting. My theory being that I can always find someplace to stick a six-pack or two, if I have it available. (Urban gardeners, it’s pretty enough to plant in your ornamental beds too.) To make the plantings last, we plant close, and pick individual leaves (much like lettuce or other greens) from each plant. That process slows down the plant’s efforts to bolt and keeps us in succulent greens for a longer period of time. Harvesting in this manner is really economical for the home gardener since a packet of 250 seeds is less than $4.00, which is probably about the price of one head of bok choi at the farmers market or grocery store. Sure, I have my time involved growing the plant but the worst case germination scenario would be 200 plants from the that packet of seeds, so even at $2.00 per head that would be $400.00 worth of bok choi from one seed packet. Considering that the usual seed life is about 3 years for this type of seed, the price of the original packet of seeds is money well spent. Who says gardening doesn’t pay?