Sunday, October 17, 2010

Vegetable Garden Journal - First Entry

I promised myself when I started the garden this year that I would keep a journal to keep track of what works and doesn't work for us.  Of course that didn't happen as I'd hoped now that it's mid October I'm just sitting down to my first entry.  Hopefully I can remember enough to apply a lot of what we learned this year to next year.  I hate repeating mistakes.  In this entry I'll focus on the infrastructure of the garden.

Bed Preparation
Last Fall I rotated the pigs and goats into the garden area and a number of chickens moved in with them of their own accord.  They did an amazing job of cleaning out the previous garden and the pigs tilled the entire area.  I did leave them in too long and the space ended up getting very packed, which made it hard to get a tiller very deep.  I also suspect that the worms had their work cut out for them in the spring.  After three passes with the tiller there were spots that were clumpy, but most of the garden ended up nice and fluffy.  Next year I think I'll rotate the pigs around smaller sections of the garden more frequently so they aren't in one spot too long to pack down the dirt.

We also had the pigs till up a patch of lawn to extend the garden size and then fenced in the entire area (Thanks Jim).  It's really amazing to see them go to work.  This about doubled the garden size and the fencing did a good job keeping the chickens out during the year.   One issue with the new area is that the grass came back with a vengeance and made for some difficult weeding throughout the year.   Hopefully this will be easier to manage next year. 

New Garden Thanks to the Pigs
Garden Zones & Companion Planting
I'm a big fan of companion planting - in theory.  This is the practice of grouping plants together to create complementary growth characteristics from a physical or biological perspective.  For example, growing corn, squash and beans together is a powerful combination because the corn provides a stalk for the beans to grow on, the beans free up minerals in the soil for the corn and squash to use and the squash blocks out the sunlight and resulting weeds.  I personally haven't had much success with this however and the close spacing of the plants ends up meaning a more difficult weeding job, which means more work and less help from the family.  I've also noticed that the squash did much better in full sunlight rather than shaded by the corn stalks.

The setup I'd like to try next year is to group the garden into zones based on management techniques.  Rather than mix the peas and turnips together or plant the pumpkins between the rows of corn, I'll setup distinct areas for each type of crop.  The basic areas would be Corn Field(s), Potatoes,  Root Vegetables, Cabbage & Greens, Tomatoes & Peppers, etc.  This approach should also allow for better management of secondary crops in certain areas, such as a second planting over the turnip area.  I can also space out the rows a bit more to make weeding easier and get a tiller through when the area is done.

Last year I got a couple truckloads full of mulch from the county and covered a good portion of the garden.  This did wonders for controlling the weeds.  In the back of my mind I had concerns about what was in the mulch, particularly after pulling out Christmas ornaments, tinsel, shredded clothing, plastic and other unknown trash (not to mention the likelihood of chemicals).  This year I skipped the mulch because I couldn't get past the garbage aspect of free mulch and didn't want to spend the money on several truckloads of commercial mulch, but ended up with a weeding nightmare. 

For next year, I've decided to make as much mulch as I possibly can from our property.  We harvest our own firewood and have been clearing out the brush in the woods, so there's plenty of material, but it is a time intensive project.  If I can figure out a more efficient system for this I'll be sure to post about it.

I started a lot of seedlings in the garage workshop this year.  As a matter of fact, the majority of the garden was planted from seed rather than starter plants from the nursery, which is a real money saver.  Many of them did well, but it turns out the cold concrete floor stunted the germination on a number of plants.  Next year I'll move back up to the sunny hallway over the breezeway, which has recently been freed up from being the homeschooling hub.

The other tweak is to adjust the timing of the starter plants.  The peppers take forever to get started, so I think I'll start them on the Holiday break.  Then would come the cold hardy plants like Kohlrabi and spinach. Late March would be the time to start the warm weather plants.  The squashes and melons were nice to get going in flats, but I didn't notice much of a difference when it came to productivity.  The plants that were sown outside caught up and did just as well as the ones started inside.

It was also a funny year timing wise as we had our last frost on May 15 and by June 15 a we had a heat wave into the 100s and a drought was settling in.  This was a double whammy with our seedling flats.  I like to have the plants out to harden by April and a surprise May freeze was enough to kill off a lot of the starter plants.  I lost more when the 100 degree days dried out the flats.  This weather swing also had a negative impact on the cabbages and lettuces which ended up bitter and unproductive.

We had the worst drought this year since we started doing the garden.  We're also on a well, which means that at the time the plants need the water the most, we need to be the most conservative with our drinking water.  Because I travel a lot I need a relatively hands off way to water the plants.  I setup a water timer and hooked it up to impact sprinklers, which was great for the early growth in the summer.  The impact sprinklers had a difficult time delivering water as time progressed because the plants grew into the way.  I also noticed that they had a tendency to shoot most of the water over a center ring, creating a bulls eye effect where the middle and edge got wet but the zone in the middle didn't get much.  I much prefer the coverage of an oscillating sprinkler, but our garden is too big to get adequate coverage without more zones on the timer.  Setting up the garden zones differently should help with targeting areas that require more intense irrigation and then I can water drought tolerant crops sporadically.  Maybe next year will be the one to try out a drip irrigation system.


  1. Hi John--re. your water woes during drought, have you considered building a gray water system?

  2. Retrofitting the house for grey water is a pretty big deal. The easier thing would probably to install gutters on the house and collect rainwater, but both options are investments we're not ready for.