Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Muriel's Garden

I am honored to have Muriel write this guest blog post for itsnotthedestination.  her quest to become a successful organic gardener is her journey... She has learned along the way and has much to share in the way of gardening knowlege... Thank you, Muriel, for this contribution:

Managing an organic garden is much like managing life. It requires balance in all its phases from soil prep to harvest. The foundation of a stable and prosperous life is developing a belief system that will encourage good choices. One that is too rigid stifles spontaneity and one that is too loose can lead to missed opportunities. The foundation of a prosperous garden is the soil.
I started my garden with clay soil that was rigid like adobe in the summer and loose as quick sand in the winter. I have since amended the soil with a dump load of sandy loam (best $300 I ever spent) and organics such as compost and grass clippings. Here’s how it works. I lay out the vegetable beds in different directions each year, sometimes horizontally, sometimes vertically and sometimes diagonally. This assures that the crops and amendments will be rotated throughout the entire garden. When I mow the lawn, I spread the clippings on the paths between the vegetables. I keep them about 2” deep. It not only looks neat and tidy, but it retains moisture, keeps the mud from collecting on shoes and chokes out the weeds. The weeds that do get through are easy to pull. The grass decomposes and adds nitrogen to the soil. I till it in at the end of the season and the organic matter loosens and enriches the soil. Every season brings a little improvement in quality. Giving back to the foundation and distributing the burden of nurturing growth over the entire growing area is of benefit to the productiveness of the whole garden.

I think everyone has the same basic goal in that we all want to get the most out of life. Whether our motivation is emotional, spiritual or material, we all strive for the most bountiful harvest we can coax out of our world. Organic gardeners share that same philosophy, but the challenge is to conquer the evil and foster the good in our vegetable beds without harming ourselves or others. That takes patience, vigilance and hard work. It is easy to vanquish the agricultural enemy with a giant dose of malathion, but, just as in war, to win by force is to accept the resultant collateral damage. The aphids, cabbage worms, cucumber beetles and leaf borers will most certainly be gone, but so will the lady bugs, praying mantises and lacewings that feast on them, not to mention the honey bees. The impatient and heavy handed gardener merely realizes a temporary victory in that the pests will return, and this time with a clear playing field. Ecological diplomacy and patience solve perceived garden crises more permanently than drastic measures.

One afternoon, I went out to water my cucumbers and noticed they were looking rather sad and wilted. I turned over a leaf and was horrified to find it was literally solid with aphids. My first reaction was, “Dang! I’m going to have to spray to get rid of this many aphids.” I had seen a few ladybugs around and a mantis though, and really was reluctant to kill them as well. (Besides, my hairdresser trades me haircuts for organic veggies, and the guilt of passing off pesticide laden cucumbers would have haunted me forever.) I immediately ran down to Orchard Supply and purchased a carton of ladybugs. Ladybugs do not fly after dusk, so if they are deposited in the garden in the evening and they locate food (aphids, scale, mites etc.) they settle in and start eating pests and laying eggs. Patience is a virtue. It has taken three weeks, but my cucumbers and melons are now a veritable ladybug nursery and the aphids are well under control. Knee jerk reactions create temporary fixes.

Snails and slugs present another interesting challenge. There is a product called Sluggo that is iron phosphate and safe for organic gardens. Apparently, they eat it and lose their appetites and die of starvation, but with the wet spring we had, our population was out of control. To stay ahead of the game, constant vigilance is required. I use several methods to keep the numbers down. The first rule on our property is: if you see a snail or slug, it’s mandated that you kill it. Beer traps catch a few, but the most effective weapons are timing, location and the foot. I never let a rain pass without a snail hunt. It brings them out in force and they are easy prey for a stomp. I netted over 300 in 15 minutes the last rain we had. Early morning is optimum for the hunt. I invert pots in corners of the garden and catch them where they hide. Deterrence is another strategy to keep the slimy critters away from tender plants. I noticed they were really going after the beans more than anything, so I chose those as my target area. Slugs have tender bellies and don’t like to crawl across sharp surfaces. I save all my egg shells, crush them and lay a barrier around the plants that are most vulnerable. Walnut shells or cocoa husks will also work. Making it unpleasant to attack slows the enemy down and averts conflict.

In life, it is important to choose our friends carefully. We’ve all seen the successful teen who chooses the wrong friends and ends up “tanking.” The same is true for vegetables. Some combinations create symbiotic relationships that benefit both plants and others end in poor harvest. I once bought plants that were labeled as broccoli from our local high school and they turned out to be broccoflower. It is the Voldemort of vegetables. Nothing will grow next to it. It thrived and everything else withered and died. Ironically, it tasted like cauliflower and no one in my family would eat it. Epic fail! The next year I planted fennel and peppers together. Neither did well. Then I discovered a website called Gardens Ablaze which has a companion plant chart. Now I plant basil with tomatoes, oregano with peppers, pole beans with corn (they use the stalk for a pole . . . no staking required and put nitrogen into the soil for the corn), and, with the right choice of allies get a much better yield.

There is much to learn from organic gardening that could benefit the world. It’s all about balance, patience, integrity and respect. It’s about managing our enemies without destroying ourselves and our allies. It’s about remaining open to accepting whatever harvest gift the day might bring and savoring the joy of the first tomato, melon or cucumber. It’s about conserving resources and giving back to the earth and making choices that carry the most benefit and least harm. It’s about recognizing that nature has provided us with solutions that eliminate the need for us to forcefully control our environment. Perhaps it should be a requirement for the world leaders to spend an hour a day managing an organic garden. Maybe, then they would understand how to maintain self-sustaining, peaceful and productive nations.

Monday, August 1, 2011

August Harvest

I just got back from Muriel's Garden...

Each time I revisit, I learn something new.  Upon entering the gate, I was taken with the sight of bean plants climbing up the tall cornstalks.  Now if this is not just the best example of sustainable gardening!

Muriel came around the back way and explained that the beans and corn are companion plantings.  The beans use the cornstalks for support, while the weight of the bean plants actually strengthens the corn stalks.  Everything with it's purpose... and a higher plan in action.

The garden represents what I find out more and more about life in general:
  • Things have a way of working in unison.
  • There is a higher plan of action than I will ever know completely.
  • wonderful things happen for those of us that stick around long enough to observe.
Muriel and I struck an agreement as she embarked on the massive task of organic vegetable gardening some years ago.  She would share and I would trade for the food on my table with my own business services.  The barter has been appreciated both ways.

The garden has become a Taj Mahall of vegetables, at least in my own observation.  As Muriel learns and implements her research findings, the yield becomes more efficient with each coming season.

The growing, harvesting and using food that is "in season" is something that was taught to me as i was growing up in the Santa Clara valley of Northern California.  in those days, the "Bay Area" was mostly orchards; plums, cherries and various fruits and nuts.  My Dad would plant the vegetable garden and food was provided during the long California growing season.

"What's for dinner" was decided by what was growing and ripe, not by which restaurant you felt like trying...

It is so easy to put together a meal with what is available.  A little creativity and inspiration is that "love" that everyone refers to when a meal is planned with a little care and consideration.

If there is something I could pass on to my kids, it would be for them to know this and pass it on to their own kids....

One of my sons has a vegetable garden of his own this year.  The learn as you go process has it's frustrations, but the rewards are there for the taking.  You have to start somewhere!

Mealtimes will bring true meaning to the term "fast food".  What might be easier than slicing some tomatoes and cucumbers and placing them on a dinner plate for the side dish.

Now add my own special sauce + sesame seeds:
  2 teaspoonsbalsamic vinegar
  1/2 teaspoon sugar
  1 teaspoon olive oil
Shake in a jar and drizzle over the vegtables. Sprinkle with the seeds.

Tonight's "fast food' became the white corn I had in my fridge from the fruit stand combined with some of the vegetables I had picked:

I steamed my chosen ingredients, then used butter with a slotted spoon to melt over the this entire "medley of flavors" while still hot. 

Honestly, going "out" to eat would have taken more time....