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The Take It Easy Handbook for a Great Garden 

Walk through the ďgardenĒ department in the local home store, and you see shelf after shelf lined with killing products Ė pesticides, fungicides, herbicides. The smell alone is enough to make you swoon. If you didnít know anything about gardening, it would seem clear that gardening is war, nature is the enemy, and the gardener must be prepared to fight! That idea serves the makers of toxic products, but is anathema to successful gardeners.

Nature grows a garden, not chemicals. Lush growth in wild areas all across the land, where they are still allowed to exist, shows that nature does right well with no help from gardeners, and definitely no help from toxic products. The same natural processes that create forests and prairies work as well in our home gardens. We gardeners have our own ideas about what we want to grow at home, but as long as we observe some unchangeable rules of climate and soil science in making our choices, we can be good partners with nature. With really not much work, compared with the energy the garden itself supplies, we can have a beautiful, productive garden.

Your Home Garden is a Huge Bargain

Compare a vegetable garden to a factory. Both produce useful goods, but the factory requires a building and machinery, and a labor force. The manufacturer must purchase raw materials, ship them in, keep an inventory, devise a manufacturing process, provide tools, supply energy to operate machines, supply heat and cooling as necessary to the process, hire and pay employees to work with the raw materials, to combine them, trim them and put them together in the finished product, dispose of the waste generated by manufacturing, and only then package, ship, advertise and sell the product, with the end goal of making a profit, money, to be used to acquire the products the manufacturer wants for personal use.

The gardener, on the other hand, supplies land, not buildings, maybe some simple machinery but usually just a few hand tools, and some labor, but little enough to leave plenty of time for other pursuits. By far the greatest portion of the energy necessary to have a successful garden comes from sunlight, so-called ďpassiveĒ solar power, and itís free, including delivery. Home gardeners need no employees. The waste products from the garden they turn into an asset - compost to feed the next garden. All the processing, packaging shipping, advertising and marketing the manufacturer needs to get products to consumers, the gardener doesnít need at all. Produce from the garden is precisely the product the gardener wants, and it goes directly from the garden to the kitchen. Gardening is so easy!

Like Spinning a Top, Set it Up, Sit Back and Watch

Now a weary gardener will surely tell you that a garden requires a lot of work, and it is true that many gardeners are pleased to take on gardens that require quite a bit of their time and energy. However, the gardenerís role is more like that of a chief executive/janitor. Further staff is not required, because natural processes do the rest of the work. The energy for growing comes from the sun, soil microorganisms and worms, gravity, and the life force in the seeds. The gardener doesnít design and manufacture the plants. They grow themselves according to their genetic plan. The gardener doesnít purchase the raw materials for the plants, except for the seeds, nor the fuel for the manufacturing process. The gardener must deliver water to the soil when rain is insufficient, using gravity whenever possible (saves work), and adds amendments judiciously to create the best soil conditions. Then the plants gather their own building materials from the air, water, and minerals in the soil. The sun drives the processes that turn those materials into plants. The garden itself does the actual manufacturing.

There is often a lot of work involved in setting up a garden, and many gardeners continue to do a lot of work while their gardens are growing, but thatís because they have big gardens. Quite a lot of the ongoing work of gardening can be eliminated by using ingenuity in devising the gardening system. This is the Take It Easy approach.

Fundamentals

Wherever there is sun, soil, warmth and water there can be a garden. Sunlight is distributed pretty democratically all over the surface of the earth. Soil used to be also, before pavement and buildings. Water is far more stingy in some places and lavish in others, but still accessible to all and manageable. Warmth depends a great deal on geography, but generally, where there is enough warmth for people to live, there is enough warmth to support some kind of garden. The putative gardener needs to evaluate his or her situation and assess the fundamentals before planning the garden.

Sunlight patterns remain pretty constant and equal throughout the year in the tropics, but the closer one is to the poles, the greater the variation in the daily amount of sunlight from none in the winter to round the clock in the summer in the highest latitudes. Temperature is another variable, closely but not completely related to sunlight, which also has great bearing on the garden. Of course itís generally warmer when there is more sunlight, but just how warm it gets depends a lot on geography. Gardens exist just about everywhere, as testament to the fact that gardeners can learn to cope with the full range of permutations of sunlight and temperature. They canít, however, change them.

For the garden, more light is almost always better than less, so what the gardener can do to work with available light conditions is choose the sunniest locations for the main garden, and find less light demanding plants for the shadier areas. It helps to dispense with conventional assumptions about garden placement. The front yard might be much better than the back yard for a vegetable garden because of light availability. In some settings, the roof might be the ideal garden location, with full sun from morning to night. A few plants, such as lettuces, do better with less sunlight, so they can be placed close to a building, for example, where they will be in shade during part of the day.
In planning the garden, the gardener must observe the garden site, think about where sunlight will fall during different seasons of the year, and plan accordingly. Where light is truly limited, the choice of garden plants must be also.

Trees create shade, but they are such important assets to the earth that only rarely should one even consider cutting a tree to gain access to more sunlight. If more garden space is needed, creating a roof garden might be a better choice.

The Temperature Corollary can be manipulated with relative ease compared to the sunlight factor. Far north latitudes, for example, receive far more summer sunlight than the where daylength changes little from season to season, but they fail to develop enough heat to grow some crops, such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and melons, which many gardeners are loath to do without. A greenhouse may be the most important addition to cope with this problem. It can concentrate the warmth of sunlight while cold soil and spring winds keep the outdoors garden from thriving.

In general, the temperate zone gardener most wants extra warmth and light in early spring, to facilitate early seed planting so as to get an early start on the growing season. The house is warm but not light enough. The garden has sunlight but isnít warm enough. A solar greenhouse, one with a slanted south wall, strikes a good balance. The transparent or translucent south wall, made of glass, greenhouse plastic film or polycarbonate, is slanted to be perpendicular to the rays of the sun at the time of year one wants to maximize the light and warmth to be collected inside. The angle of slant differs according to the latitude of the greenhouse. The solid walls and roof may be insulated, if necessary, to help to retain heat. Sometimes, this kind of greenhouse can be build on to the south side of the house.

This is a solar greenhouse, different from the simple heat trapping structures described below for warming crops throughout the season. Itís specially adapted for starting plants in early spring. Inside the greenhouse, the gardener can use heat mats to warm soil in seed flats to enhance germination. Early tomatoes, successful pepper and eggplant crops and strong, early starts on more cold tolerant crops can easily be achieved with access to a solar greenhouse. Bedding plants, sold in retail nurseries, are readily available, but these are costly and the sellers choose varieties rather than the gardener. Besides, time spent in the greenhouse in early spring is very enjoyable. Investing in a greenhouse up front pays off for years.

Other tricks for adding warmth in the garden arenít much use for speeding germination in the spring, and they may not be effective enough for the heat loving plants. They include fabric row cover, which doesnít increase temperature much but works much better as a barrier to exclude pests, and hoop houses, cold frames, and plastic mulch. Hoop houses are temporary structures of greenhouse film skin spread over bent poly pipe hoops.

Early in the season, when nighttime temperatures still drop pretty low, these structures will lose most of their additional heat as soon as the sun goes down, and arenít much protection for tender plants, but they work very well to concentrate heat during the day, as long as the sun is shining.

Cloches made from plastic jugs to fit over individual plants are of similar effect. Cold frames are low boxes with a glass or plastic lid. Both exclude rain water and make watering somewhat difficult. Rain penetrates fabric row cover, but it only adds a few degrees of warmth at best.
Red plastic mulch laid on the ground beneath heat loving crops like tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, is said by the sellers to increase yields. This may or may not be so. Black plastic mulch does retain warmth in the soil, and suppresses weeds, but can make watering difficult. Soaker hoses laid beneath the plastic can solve the watering problem, and holes punched in the plastic can help.

Soil might be the toughest test of the gardenerís skill, because rich, healthy soil is so complex. To make a good garden, it must be not too acid or alkaline, it must be well drained but must hold moisture, it must be a friendly home to earthworms and microorganisms necessary for successful plant growth, and it must contain sufficient mineral nutrients in available form. There is a whole branch of study called soil science, and the average gardener canít hope to be expert in all that it entails, and so the less knowledgeable gardenerís best bet is to follow traditional organic guidelines of soil management. Thankfully, we can trust natural systems with organic components to build the necessary structure and to contain most of the necessary minerals in healthy balance. Natureís wisdom compensates for the average gardenerís ignorance.

The term ďorganicĒ applied to gardens has taken on new meaning since the federal government approved ďorganic certificationĒ rules. See Is Start Now Produce Organic? Now a garden technically canít be called organic, for commercial purposes, unless it is certified as such according to those rules. Luckily, the home gardener doesnít need organic certification and remains free to have an organic garden under the traditional, former meaning, which focuses on care and husbandry for the soil.

It means building fertility and healthy conditions by adding organic material to the soil, usually in the form of compost, and controlling pests by non-toxic means, adjusting the acid/alkaline balance in the soil with appropriate minerals, avoiding soil compaction, and designing garden beds so as to maintain healthy soil texture, prevent erosion and runoff, and create a salubrious environment for all the microorganisms, earthworms, birds, frogs and other wildlife that populate the garden.

ďOrganicĒ by any definition means avoiding the use of poisons and chemical fertilizers because they would destroy the precious balance and texture of the soil, and kill the all-important micro-organisms, worms and beneficial insects that are the real geniuses in creating and maintaining a healthy garden. We insist on making our Quick and Easy gardens organic.

Starting a new garden takes careful attention, and often a bit more work than would qualify as taking it easy (thatís for when it isnít a new garden any more), but itís worth it, because that care is the basis for reaping benefits far into the future.

A Win Win Win Situation
Grow Your Own Food!  

A Home Gardening Polemic

Food tastes best, nourishes best, when it is absolutely fresh, and it canít get any fresher than vegetables and fruit picked in your own garden. Flavor is fullest, vitamins are at their peak. No store can match the quality of fresh picked produce at any price. (cont.)

Contact our Urban Farming School
for detailed gardening instructions

There is far more to say about home gardening. Our StartNow Urban Farming School will offer classes and on site assistance for raised bed construction, composting, starting seeds for bedding plants, season extension, garden timing and succession planting, etc.

Contact info@startnow.org to receive more information the school.