Do you dream of raising most of your own vegetables? Are visions of canned goodies dancing in your head? Yet do you find the thought of all that work to be daunting? Follow along in the couple of Lazy Farmer posts to learn how you can develop a nearly year ‘round garden with low input techniques.
Our journey to a 10-month garden started when my husband laid down the law that I was NOT allowed more garden space until I could figure out how to garden without the back-breaking amount of rototilling and hoeing that I’d been doing.
Rushing to the library I found a book entitled Gardening without Work by an octogenarian named Ruth Stout. Go to Ruth Stout’s System for Gardening for more information on her mulching method.
It turns out that this wonderful method of weed prevention has limitations when used on clay soil and requires about 25 bales of spoiled hay annually for a 50 by 50 foot garden. Our soil is comprised primarily of clay and rocks. Strike One. $150-$175 per year of hay quickly eats away at our financial advantages in gardening. Strike Two. We’re over 50 years old and that’s a lot of bales to lift and divide. Strike Three. We needed to modify.
Enter Lee Reich’s No Till Gardening method at Maintain a Weedless Organic Garden. Again there were limitations. Lee takes the time to create perfect, weed-seed free, compost which allows him to use a shorter layer of mulch than Ms. Stout. We’re lazy farmers so we needed to compromise. The no-till method is based on disturbing the soil as little as possible so as not to introduce light and air to dormant weed seeds. We grow many root crops which naturally disturb the soil when harvested. We needed to develop our own method using ideas from both these knowledgeable experts but based on our specific land and growth requirements.
What has developed over the past few years in our no-till, heavily mulched garden is based on 1) disturbing the soil as little as possible, 2) avoiding compaction of planting beds, 3) mulching with home-grown lazy compost, and 4) placing a 4-6 inch layer of straw on the beds each winter, followed by additional straw as needed when planting seedlings during the year. At current prices, we spend about $60 on straw per year.
Using a metal rake and shovels we scraped the dirt in the existing vegetable garden into a series of 3-foot wide beds separated by 18 inch walkways. We never walk anywhere but on these paths which keeps the dirt in the growing beds fluffy. Walkways are kept weed free through a several inch layer of straw and the constant compaction created by walking on them. When harvesting root crops we try to lift each tuber or clump carefully, shaking the loose dirt back into the hole it came from.
Because of the large amount of compost created on the farm — see Lazy Composting — we top all beds with a couple of inches of compost each year. Some gets added as side dressing to rows of corn, some as finished compost at the beginning of the growing season around transplanted seedlings, and some in the late fall/early winter as rough compost that will finish in place before the next spring. We make sure to remember where rough compost went as it is important not to plant root crops there the first year since the resulting sow bugs will ruin the harvest.
Weed Deterrent Topping
Following the late fall/early winter final harvest we top each bed with 4-6 inches of fluffed straw. Straw is the bottom half of grain stalks and contains few seeds. Straw stalks are hollow and don’t compact, while they do retain air providing for good winter insulation of the soil. Come spring, straw is slow to decompose and doesn’t tie up nitrogen or other soil nutrients. It does cause more even soil moisture and so is an excellent drought defense in deep summer. When planting seedlings in the summer and fall we surround them with additional straw to stop the spread of diseases that can be caused by rain splashing soil onto plants.
Now that you know to have a productive garden with less work, join us in a couple of weeks for Part Two: Growing Almost Year-Round Without Cover.