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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.