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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Alternative Gardening

With the beginning of the growing season already here in most of the country, I thought I'd take a few minutes and share a couple methods of alternative gardening with you guys. One is super easy and highly productive and the other is a "full circle" complementary technique. Either of these works well, and will produce a "garden" but each strives to achieve a completely different goal.

The first I want to tell you about is the "Straw Bale" technique in which one plants their garden in straw bales. Make sure you get straw bales if at all possible, hay bales still have the seeds in them and you will grow some nice grass with these, but if that is all you have, use hay bales. Growing a garden in great soil is tough work, but in soil like my 100% clay is next to impossible. I can't even get what is basically a weed (raspberries) to grow here. Other people run them over with a mower to try to get rid of them... I have been nursing mine for three years now and have YET to see a single berry! Alas, I digress. Using straw bales, you can grow anything you want with little effort.

Straw bale gardening is about as easy as it comes. The hardest part is getting the bales! You can have the worst soil ever and grow a perfect small garden. It is also very "bad back" friendly as it makes for an elevated platform and you don't have to work the "soil" with hoes and rakes like you do with a dirt garden. Harvest time is also a breeze for things like potatoes where you just cut the sisal twine and break the bale open. Trust me when I say anyone can grow a nice vegetable garden using this method.

The first thing to do is get your bales and get them conditioning. This process takes about two weeks. Simply put the bales where you want them (pokey side up, strings visible all the way around) and fertilize them with a good slathering of cow manure an inch or two deep. Now water them thoroughly. Keep them good and damp for two weeks. After that, they are ready for planting.

Okay, okay... you can also use fertilizer. Sprinkle one quarter cup of ammonium nitrate on top daily and then soak with water. Stop adding ammonium nitrate on day ten and add one half cup of fertilizer for the next two days. The last two days you simply water the bales.

Contrary to some internet chatter, this method is FANTASTIC for potatoes! Plant your potatoes three inches from the BOTTOM of the bale. The loose straw will let your potato stems shoot up and out and the potatoes will grow all through the bale. This mimics the "hilling" that potatoes require. They require this because unlike the common belief that they grow as roots, they actually grow on the stem of the plant. The more you hill the dirt around a stem the more potatoes you get. Planting at the bottom of the bale is just starting with pre-hilled plants. Why don't they plant potatoes in dirt 18 inches deep? Well, because farmers have common sense and it's easier to hill the plant as it grows than to dig an 18 inch deep hole every six inches long the row to plant them that deep.

Most every other plant is planted just like using dirt... well, to be truthful, you will use some dirt. For planting seeds, you will add a layer of 50/50 potting soil and compost on top of the bale. For planting potted (started) plants, such as the ones on trays for the garden center, simply use a hand trowel and spread the straw (no added dirt here). Drop the potted plant into the straw to where the bottom set of leaves rests on the top of the straw and then push the straw closed. Easy right?

A few pointers for you here:

  • You must water these daily! Because the straw bales have a huge surface area they dry out quickly! Water them good every day in the evening. 
  • Water them twice a day if it is really hot and dry for a couple days. 
  • Once a month you need to add a drizzling of fertilizer to the top of the bale when you water. 
  • Also if you place your bales with the long sides touching, you won't need to use as much water. 
  • On each end of the "garden" at the end of each row with climbing plants you need to add a trellis. Simply drive a "T" post and add a 2x4 between the tops of the two posts. String baling wire between the posts every eight to ten inches going up the posts. If it is a long row (longer than eight feet) you will need to add more posts. 
  • Last year's bales make this year's compost! 
  • Use the bales with synthetic twine to extend the life of your bales. 
  • If planting corn or sunflowers or any top-heavy plant, make sure to stake the plant to keep the wind from toppling the bale over. 
  • Move the bales before the twine rots... unless you plan to make this spot a compost pile for next year, or you will be using a pitchfork. 

The next one I want to tell you about is the "Three Sisters" technique in which one plants a trio of plant that complement each other nutritionally. This method is a native American method used in the Iroquois tribes of the east. This is simply conventional gardening in dirt, but you plant groupings of sympathetic plants that help each other out.

The basic gist of the story is that the three sisters watch over each other and help each other out. The corn helps the beans by providing a pole for them to climb, the squash helps the beans by sheltering the roots from the scorching sun using her leaves. The beans help the corn by supporting the stalk during the high winds using her vines. Something like that... the Three Sisters story and ceremonies eventually became Thanksgiving.

The typical group called the three sisters and consists of corn, squash, and beans as stated above. They are all grown in the exact same hole. Space your plantings based on the diameter of the squash plant. Generally, about ten feet apart is adequate. One thing to keep in mind is that you cannot plant corn in one long row. It needs to be a group of corn for the sake of pollination. This can be overcome with the three sisters method by planting six corn stalks about a foot apart on the points of a six pointed star. Next plant six climbing beans between the corn plants, different varieties if you like. Lastly, plant three squash in the middle of the circle. There you have it!  After everything sprouts and is growing well, thin it down to  three corn, three beans, and one squash plant.

There is also the "patch method" for planting the three sisters.  This is simply planting a ten foot square area with a checkerboard pattern of the three plants. and letting it do its thing.  The reason I don't care for this method is that it's like trying to harvest a jungle.  I'd rather do several spot plantings using the method above.

Let me talk for just a second about fertilizers too. Cow manure and chicken litter may sound gross to the average person, but these are God's fertilizers. I tend to advocate for DAIRY cow manure as opposed to steer manure. Often it is easier to get the steer manure because you are basically asking a farmer if you can go muck his feedlot. What farmer in his right mind is going to turn that down? A dairy farmer on the other hand would be letting you go into his FDA monitored milking facility, or he'd have to much it up for you beforehand. You might even be asked to pay for it at a dairy.

So why dairy cow manure you ask? Well, a full HALF of every vitamin and mineral (nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus) that the cow eats goes out the south end a couple days later. They are also standing still and peeing and pooping on a concrete floor. It then gets all mixed together when it gets mucked out. The urine ensures that your fertilizer contains enough potassium, since that is primarily excreted in the pee rather than the poop. Cow manure also adds decomposing plant matter (compost) to the soil whereas chicken litter does not. It is rather low in value overall (like a 2-2-2 commercial fertilizer).

Chicken litter (all the junk on the bottom of the chicken house) in VERY rich and should be used sparingly! Put too much on and you'll burn your plants to death. It contains three to five times the amount of nutrients as cow manure, except for potassium. Think of it as organic 7-7-2 fertilizer.

Use the cow manure as a top dressing by lightly spreading it over the planted field, or adding a small amount to each plant hill. If you load it on and turn it into the soil in the fall when you plow your crops under it will be more efficient as this will give it time to leach into the soil a bit better. Using the direct application method you are only going to fertilize that tiny spot of dirt in that vast field. Using the loading method you are treating the entire field and it makes for a much more productive garden! It also makes for a lot more manure being needed!) I suggest the direct application method for a small garden plot of even potted gardens... use the field loading method for larger gardens where mechanical field turning will be used. One last note on cow manure; if you can you should compost your manure pile for a year before use and add grass clippings and shredded leaves to help boost the carbon and nitrogen content. Be sure to turn the pile every once in awhile as well.

Use the chicken litter in the same manner as the cow manure, but much more sparingly. Chicken litter MUST be composted for a year prior to use to kill off the pathogens that are naturally found in it. Keep your pile moist and turned regularly. It is ready to use once it resembles crumbly soil. You can also mix it into other composted material to speed it along a bit.

Enjoy your garden and share your rewards with those around you!