July Learnings from the Garden

So we are about half way through the gardening year. Early and Mid spring crops like Spinach, peas and lettuce are gone, early summer crops like potatoes, beets, and carrots (as well as Hoop House peppers!) are harvestable. Tomatoes are heavy on the vine but still green, corn is 4-5′ tall and starting to tassle, fall squash are sending their unruly vines through the paths, and onions are bulbing. Fall crops are being planted in flats -kale, spinach, and lettuce #4 to refill holes in the potato patch and other areas. With a breif respite from chores, its time to document some of my reflections.

Seeded Crops

To a row, our direct seeded crops have failed. Our market garden plot is a 9 mile drive from our house. That means that I am really only up there once a week for any appreciable time. While the main culprit for this was the 15 inches of rain we got in a 10 day period in June, but even in a “normal” year (haven’t seen one yet) I know the weeding would have gotten away from us. In freshly plowed ground like we started with, carrots, beets, bush beans, onions, and direct seeded lettuce will all be out competed by weeds without almost daily attention the first several weeks. Some rows have been inundated with a perrenial, rhizomatous sedge, but our main problem is super vigorous annual weeds: amaranth, lambs quater, button weed, and thistle mostly. Left unattended these will all crest at over 5′ tall, and in a week they easily get bigger than any growth carrots can put on. My biggest learnings here are that I will simply not even try these on fresh soil again. With more frequent attention mulching and/or wider row spacing would either smother many of the weeds or allow a wheel or scuffle hoe between the plants. I planted them in “wide” rows and the weeds took care of every gap I left.  I was planting based on maximizing yield per row ft like I do at home, but at the farm I have all the land I need -I need to focus on ease of maintenance, to maximize yields.  I am retrying carrots in the compost beds which have a fraction of the weed pressure to see if that might help.

The B.V.V. (Big Vigorous Veggies)

That last section was depressing… this one will be more triumphant.  The same insane fertility that makes the lambsquater put on a foot a week in height does the same for equally vigorous veggies.   Our potatoes, corn, fall squash, tomatoes, and cucumbers are unbelievably lush -deep green leaves, great height, and from the harvests on the potatoes at least -very productive.  Even at baby stage I am seeing 1# per linear row foot of Carolas, and at full size should see 2-3#.  These plants are either very aggressive in and of themselves (potatoes, squash, corn) or transplanted in at decent height (cukes, and tomatoes).   In the seeded crops I have weeded about twice 2 weeks in, and  again at week 4.  After that they  are so robust that nothing else stands a chance of causing any significant harm and I only weed to prevent them dropping seed.  In the tomatoes/cukes I planted into freshly tilled soil, and the mulched.  Again, they put on so much mass that little can cause them harm.  This amount of work better matches the amount of effort I am able to put in.

Drip Irrigation

Its fabulous.  I bought mine from Fed-Co and love it.  Thus far I water about once a week (in the 2 times we haven’t had an inch of weekly rain).  Routine is to pull into the farm, turn on the water, unload, weed, harvest, transplant, whatever for 3-4 hours, pack up, and then turn the water off.  Done.  Its pricey, but will last for several seasons and it has already paid for itself in time savings.  I also have 2 auto timers for when the dry season gets here, I just haven’t needed them yet.

In addition to providing some food for local folks and restaurants, the main goal of this project is to make my mistakes and take my learnings on land that doesn’t have a mortgage riding on it.  It is easier to be Zen about mistakes when you have no debt!  So here is the sum of them:

  • Start with Big Vigorous Veggies (BVV) on fresh land if you can’t smother the weeds out first.  I will never try carrots, etc on freshly tilled soil again.
  • Match your plants to your time constraints.  Potatoes are great crops for periodic spurts of energy in the garden.  1 Day planting.  2-3 half days weeding.  1 Day pulling beetles/spraying Bt (if needed!).   Lots of little 1 hour days harvesting -and harvesting potatoes is  not even remotely considered work by me!  Yields will be well north of 1000#’s, with 180#’s already in the hopper in July Wk 2.  Corn and Squash are about the same, with less time harvesting.  Tomatoes get alot more time harvesting, but the harvest is much easier.
  • Consider weed pressure in your rotational planting.  In years 1 and 2 of my garden I will plan on growing the BVV almost exclusively and then trading the surplus for beets, beans, and carrots.  The BVV will be on the leading edge as my gardens expand and will always follow any freshly tilled in green manures -the tilling will have brought up more weed seeds.  Carrots etc will only go in favored beds that allow for extra attention and will get wider spacing to allow better cultivation
  • When considering a truly Sustainable Garden -time needs to be factored as an input just as much as water and nutrients.   Time will make a garden economically unsustainable if poorly managed, and the entire garden could fail if the time inputs for various crops are not considered wisely.

I am a long way off of using the Sustainable Market Garden Plan, but the idea is still sound.  Incorporating these learnings will only make it better.  While there have certainly been some disappointments this year, being able to pull out bushels and bushels of potatoes with so little input is making up for it in a BIG way!  Other things still to work out -these gardens are not “permacultured” yet, and are still very “problem” intensive when compared to Fukuoka’s Natural Farming (the problem of weeds, the problem of plowing, the problem of fertilizer).  In other words the design is messy.  Need to work on that!


10 Responses

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. Must be a bad year for carrots, I have a patch of danvers that are stumpy. I’m optimistic about the potatoes which are due soon, and I definitely concur with BVV’s knocking out weeds. One bed which is potatoes and tomatoes (and a couple cuke vines in the corner) required about 15 minutes of weeding all season. Once the spuds broke through the ground and got a couple inches, no weeding was necessary. There is little more than a few clover trying to survive on the soil at the bottom of the forest. And this is a bed that had a serious problem in past years.

    The only thing that seems to be able to compete is borage, which in small numbers is beneficial, but in subsequent years will never be in small numbers.

  2. I have a lot of respect for your work- it is a little comforting to see that one of your gardens failed too.

    Have you considered landscape fabric? It isn’t made from renewable resources, and I don’t think that its impact on earthworms would be good, but man does it ever work.

    A friend of mine put in a huge garden with fabric and soaker hoses and only had to weed once. The veggies were huge and had zero insect problems. It is his first year with that technique, he plans to rotate with a cover crop so the soil should do fine.

    As far as the unsustainability of the fabric, in my view, if you can produce organic vegetables at home, that will make it possible for a farmer to retire a bit of land from industrial agriculture and have a positive impact.

    As far as the unsustainability of the fabric, in my view, if you can produce organic vegetables at home, that will make it possible for a farmer to retire a bit of land from industrial agriculture and have a positive impact.

  3. Thanks for the praise guys -it helps!

    There are several paths to take on weeds. Roger Wilde of harmony Valley farms -the largest organic produce farm I know of in the Midwest (80 acres) weeds to the point of obsession and after about 5 years the fields are virtually weed free long term. I simply can’t do that 9 miles away from my home while working full time. There are lots of plastic mulch sheeting, etc. that will also work, but they are nasty to deal with post harvest and add complexity that I am not willing to work with. I don’t even like row covers and they are unbelievably useful.

    Ruth Stout, Fukuoka, and Lee Reich promote deep mulch gardening -like 6-8″ – but I am still working on how that works with teeny seeds like lettuce and carrots.

    Flame weeding is getting rave reviews and is some Roger uses extensively. I am not real comfortable with scorching the soil, but nature does it regularly with grass fires so I should get over my bad self.

    A likely system will be deep mulching the transplant beds and flaming the seed beds. But until I have land, I will likely stick to the BVV and work on my rotation schemes. The home beds will likely house the small crops in years to come. After the spring tilling i just scuffle hoed the lettuce beds and transplanted right into that. Scuffle hoeing barely disturbs the surface -I will keep you posted on how that worked.

  4. Oh, thanks for all the information. I love to hear how it’s going for you!

  5. My limited understanding of flame weeding is that it does not scorch tje soil, but cooks the first leaves of weeds, its quick and shouldn’t heat the soil. If the weeds are left to get big then a flame thrower would be needed.

  6. I finally took pictures of that market garden and fruit stand. Here is the link: http://s26.photobucket.com/albums/c105/rgreen144/Market%20garden/

    Basically the use the 3 foot wide plastic as mulch up against the plants. They use wide rows – and even allow a row of weeds. I’ll have to ask, but it is probably so they can run a truck to a central point as they harvest. But it is also allowing a row to go fallow. I’m convinced they don’t worry about the weeds. And mabe knock them down with a mower when they get a bit too high.

  7. EJ – that sounds about right to the ittle bit I’ve learned about flame weeding. It still seems overly intrusive. As I don’t have mortgages riding on this (yet) I have the luxury to try to find “a better way”. I can’t grow propane on a farm… That said, the results speak for themselves and this is likely something I will have to get over if I ever want to grow carrots on a large scale if I can’t find some other way.

    RobG. That looks like a productive garden and the veggies look great! My only criticisms are that it is alot of bare ground -the cukes will cover much of it in their rows but it would be better to have it covered in straw to foster ground beetles. The ground in the tomato runs will just bake in the sun killing soil life in the top several inches and then turn into a quagmire in the rain that will compact significantly if you walk/drive in it. I’d cover it with clover or straw mulch if for no other reason than to make the fields accessible in the wet. Arm chair gardening is easy, and it looks like they have a system that is working fine for them -they have a stand and I don’t!


  8. Forgive my ignorance as I am a new gardener, but what would you classify as B.V.V.?

  9. Craig,

    BVV is a term I coined, but it basically represents anything big enough to out muscle common weeds enough that periodic weeding every few weeks is enough once they are established. Here is a non exclusive list:
    Corn, melons, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, large brassicas (broccolis, etc), potatoes, and the like. They are all, well, Big Vigorous Veggies.

    Things that will get obliterated under this lackadaisical gardening would be : carrots, lettuce, beets, onions, chard, and anything else started from small seeds. Some of these, like lettuce, can be transplanted to give them a jump on the weeds, but as they all crest out under 18″ tall they will get smothered without routine TLC.

    BVV are also great plants to start gardening with -they grow well and put up with alot of abuse -surviving ignorance and neglect well.


  10. Thanks for the tutorial Rob. I have been reading your blog for a while now and find it inspiring and educational! One day when I grow up I’d love to be a farmer🙂

    Now, if I can just remember to close the garden gate, I left it open a couple days ago and the deer came in and munched the tops off of my towering pea and tomato plants and they totally ate some squash and pumpkins plants. Thankful they didn’t do more damage!

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