Thursday, April 25, 2013

Transitioning crops in the vegetable garden........

      Nature is naturally transitional, easing into each new condition as time and the seasons pass, your vegetable garden should mimic this rhythm.   I am seeing a lot of gardeners changing the species in their plots down at the community garden of which I am a member and a common pattern emerges.  They usually rip-out the entire plant in order to create a 'clean slate' in which to install their new, warm-season varieties and this in no way mimics Nature nor is it healthy to an organic garden ecosystem...... that's the key word right there: 'ecosystem'.   A vegetable garden is nothing more than creating habitat for insects using primarily food crops, think of it this way and it will become clear that 'clear-cutting' your garden every time the seasons change is not the way to go.
     One lady had an absolutely gorgeous stand of bolting broccoli and Arugula in her plot,  the plants were loaded with aphids and the associated myriad species of beneficial insects, numerous genera of pollinators swarmed the blossoms and tons of biomass in the form of roots which will enrich the soil after the plants are 'crowned'.   'Crowning' is a term (I think I just created) and it refers to the practice of  cutting a plant off below it's point of above ground growth leaving the root system in-place.  These roots will be consumed by the resident soil biology and soil structure will be enhanced as their 'shadow spaces' become conduits for movement of everything from the biology to water and air.  Valuable stuff.
    So, what to do.  If I were her I would have selectively removed some plants to create a mosaic pattern and then installed SOME of my summer crops.  As these mature and start to flower they create the habitat for pollinators and beneficials, they take-on the role of the fading species.   As her winter crops continue to fade she can collect the seed and then crown them and install her remaining summer stuff;   transition in this manner at every seasonal change.   This way your garden is never without something blooming or mature structure for the native fauna.  Install the new plants as close to the 'crowned' plants as possible and when the biology finishes consuming that old root system they will naturally migrate to the newly installed plants roots.  Living plants attract soil biology to the rhizosphere, the root zone, the area of nutrient uptake with root exudates.  These exudates are composed of carbs and proteins and are a major by-product of photosynthesis, soil biology chow.  They eat it and poop and the plants 'eat' the poop.  Poop is good stuff,  soil biology poop is the best poop on Earth.
    A clean and tidy garden, neat rows spaced evenly apart rarely provide the quality habitat that a natural, 'messy' garden does.  Throw-in some herbs and even flowers to create diversity, after all, vegetable species are for the most part simply annuals that produce big, tasty fruit.  This is just a mechanism for seed dispersal, a way to distribute genetics and increase range.   Another good idea is to plant several varieties of the same species, this way you can see what produces best for your soil and climate types.
    Be conservative and deliberate as you transition your garden and I think you will work less and produce more and I know your garden fauna will be much happier..........

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Beware: The 'Green Industry' is after your green........

     With the advent of the organic movement came 'product'.   When I am out on a prairie or in a forest, any wild area really I often shake my head at what is offered as 'vital' to maintaining a healthy landscape.  Just south of downtown Dallas is the largest urban forest in the nation and I never see anyone running down there to feed that system, Mother Nature takes care of her children just fine.
    Think about this when you are attending a seminar listening to someone tell you about organic horticulture or in your garden center shopping.  In almost every instance you are suggested to buy this product and that for various conditions that may or may not exist.  How can a salesman know what your landscape needs or does not need without actually laying eyes on it?  And bringing them plant samples for evaluation is rarely effective,  most samples are worthless once removed from the plant, these things need to be viewed in situ.  The environment in which the plant exists has a huge impact on what affects it both negatively and positively, the approach must be holistic.
    Assessing true need is something that I approach deliberately.  A great example of this is the wonderful aphid.  Aphids are usually one of the very first 'pest' species we see in early spring.  These are piercing/sucking insects and new, lush, tender tissue is perfect for them which is exactly what spring growth represents.  They quickly multiply and will seemingly overwhelm your plants but there is a natural control that will soon appear and tip the scale in the other direction.  Beneficial insects.  Lady beetles usually come first followed by Syrphid flies and Brachonid wasps, green and brown lacewings too;  there a numerous beneficial species that prey directly on aphids.   Once these species find a food source they hang around and aphids rarely get so numerous that they do actual harm.
     This brings me to practical application of my theme...... don't buy lady beetles.  Number one, if you are organic and you have aphids they will find them, it's what they evolved to do.  I like free, my lady beetles cost me nada except a few hundred or thousand aphids.   Numero dos is that most lady beetles sold are native California species, unfairly harvested at their over-wintering sites (numbers and species are declining directly because of this) then shipped and bagged across the country.   These belong west of The Rockies;  it is estimated that the majority of lady beetle species east of the Rocky mountains are non-native.  Brutal.
     Nematodes.  These can actually be very effective BUT there are many, many species of nematodes and not all are beneficial.  Predatory nematodes are what you will usually need for fleas, grubs, ticks, thrips..... any 'pest' species whose life-cycle involves living underground.  So, you have to trust that whoever is packaging these microscopic worms can identify their species and is not selling you root-knot nematodes instead.  If you decide to take a chance on these always inspect the contents of the package, these guys have a shelf-life.  A simple 10X hand loupe will spot them, they are thin glass-like worms and will be moving after they warm-up a bit if they are living.
   In a future post I will address compost, compost teas and the industry associated with those products.  Companies that produce and apply these products will also be discussed, the first thing I will say about that is NEVER sign any annual contracts FOR REGULATED OR REGULARLY SCHEDULED APPLICATIONS.  This is where they hook and scam you BIG time........
    The list of products sold as organic, necessary or essential is long and I barely touched on the subject but I want you to think slowly when shopping or being pitched-to,  do you really need it and is the person telling you that you do really qualified to do so?  A consultation by a qualified professional is a great investment to assess genuine need and to help you save your hard earned green.........

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Are raised beds really necessary?

Raised-bed gardening is not necessary and it seems to be all-the-rage these days.  I wonder why folks think they need to move away from our native soil, it is some of the most fertile on Earth.  My grandparents were farmer/ranchers in Kaufman County and they were on our wonderfully rich black clay, they always had a very productive garden without raised beds.  I can see some benefit to them: if you can't get down that low, if you are on VERY thin soils or if you just love the aesthetic but the farther away from the Earth you get the more complications you will have.  I have touched on this subject before but I want to reiterate that the so-called 'custom bedding mixes' that I have seen are a carboniferous load of crap.  Way too much high-carbon 'brown' material mixed with a little expanded shale, this stuff can cause you major problems.  Nitrogen sequestration is almost assured with these mixes and most of the time plants installed in them just sit there and do nothing.  This situation is unnatural and the plants tell you that loud and clear not to mention the enormous cost involved;  some companies are charging as much as $700.00+ for these contraptions.  Over time, as the soil biology has a chance to break-down the material, this will change and the system will work just fine but why not take advantage of what you already have and save all the time, expense and money?  If you garden organically you can't use treated lumber and your boards will last about two seasons and then it will be time to replace them..... cha-ching.  Plus I hate the abrupt edge to these beds, zero transition zone.  'Edge Effect' is a powerful, dynamic situation and this is completely lost with the design of most raised bed gardens.  'Edge' is created when two ecotypes converge and merge, it is a transition zone and it is the zone of highest biological activity (think faunal activity here) and will reflect this in high biodiversity.  Martha Stewart would describe this as a "good thing".
    Clay can indeed be challenging but the most that is required is to amend your clay soil with some good, finished compost and if you like  some expanded shale, this will create an environment in which you will be able to grow most any food crop....... but my grandparents never saw expanded shale and only used compost.  They went to town occasionally to supplement their pantry but most of what they ate came right out of the ground, not from a raised-bed.  I guarantee you this:  Nothing engineered by man can compete with what Mother Nature has already provided.......