Grow Your Own Food- A Three Part Series- Vegetable Gardens

Chapter One- The Best And Freshest Flavors Come From Your Garden

By The English Lady

There is nothing like picking a fresh tomato and some basil from the garden and eating it with a nice crusty piece of bread drizzled with olive oil accompanied by a piece of Piave cheese. I’ll bet I have your attention now. Why should we grow our own organic fruits and veggies when we can go out and buy them? The most important reason that comes to mind is that they are good for you, but besides that it is economical, very convenient, and by nourishing the earth organically it helps to heal our planet, mind, body, and soul. How often are you able to get fresh air and exercise and at the same time feed your belly and save money? In speaking with other vegetable gardeners we all agree that it’s also the anticipation, the excitement, and the romantic notion of balmy summer days and meals prepared with your own organically grown food.

The ideal spot for a vegetable garden is on the south or southwest side of the property in full sun. You can remove the sod from a lawn area but leave sod in place for paths between the beds if you so desire. A 16’x24’ area will feed a family of four. Before you begin make sure you think about where the water spigot is and be realistic about the amount of time you have to work on the garden. You may need to start with a smaller garden because of the time and energy it requires for the initial preparation; clearing, weeding, prepping of the soil, choosing and acquiring what vegetables to grow, and installation of a fence. You can always increase the size later but it is best to begin with correct size.

Get some help from friends and neighbors; offer some of the harvest in exchange for the labor and remind them that they are doing their part to heal the planet and themselves. I’ve used this argument myself for years, especially with my kids; not that they understood the larger concept of healing the planet but they were excited watching the fruits and vegetables grow and ripen and even enjoy the brussel sprouts and broccoli. I commandeered my kid’s friends to build the initial garden by coaxing them with pizza and cookies if they helped out. By the end of the day they were dirty, stuffed, and satisfied with what they helped create. This is a great thing to do with classroom children as well.

I also introduced the children to the “garden fairies.” I told them that fairies live in the wild patch in the garden. I had them draw a picture of a garden fairy and make a list of questions to ask the fairies. They got so excited and this excitement sparked their enthusiasm, transforming biology into magic. It seems nowadays that we’ve lost the magic and mystery, fairy tales and dreams; it’s time to reignite them. Just last summer I noticed my forty-year-old son Ian transplanting some nettles down by the wild patch; when I asked him what he was doing he told me, with a grin, that he was protecting the fairies home from any unwelcome guests. The child remains in all of us, if we just let it free.

When I ask at my ‘Garden Earth’ lectures why many people today are making a vegetable garden, it is not the belief that organic food always tastes better, but from a broader appreciation of the earth. I think it is absolutely senseless to upset the balance of what is a finely tuned food chain by promoting toxins in our food and bodies.

For a successful vegetable garden, the requirements are six to eight hours of sun per day and organic rich soil, enriched with compost and aged manure. If you don’t need the 16’x 24’ garden for the family of four, a smaller plot measuring 4’x6’ or some containers planted with produce will yield a good amount of summer fruits and vegetables and successive sowing of different mouth watering lettuces. No more trips to the store which adds to your carbon foot print, merely a walk into the garden for lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, radish, herbs and voila the most delicious salad that you have grown, sprinkled with a little salt, fresh lemon juice and olive oil. The only footprint now is the one in the earth when you walk out with basket in hand.

Make sure you have a water source close by. The 3’ wide paths are denoted by sod, fine bark mulch, gravel, or compacted earth (although that will be quite muddy to walk on when it rains, so have the Wellington boots handy). Do not work the soil if it is too wet and cold, this year that will be the beginning of May due to the long cold winter. The first step is weed control. The ground should be clean, which means digging out the weeds by hand as any small piece of weed root left in the soil will multiply, then with a clean palate, rototill to aerate and loosen the earth. Then add aged organic manure and compost to the soil as well. If you cannot rototill deeply as your garden location is close to your septic system or leaching field then make 2’ high raised beds framed with cedar. Don’t use pressure treated wood or railway ties as their chemicals will leach into the soil.

Once the area is cleared and well weeded, stake out the beds measuring 4’x6’; I prefer beds rather than rows with plants planted close together to provide a much larger yield. After digging the soil, water lightly; this helps the soil absorb nutrients. The nutrients are from the copious amounts of organic matter you already added to the loose soil, which enable the roots of the vegetables to penetrate downwards. The plants grown in these beds can be planted close together, forming a natural leaf canopy which results in fewer weeds and moderates the soil temperature. The organic rich soil encourages the return of earthworms, many of which were killed by inane chemical use in the garden.

Next comes the fence, which to be effective should reach 6’ in height. You should use chicken wire to covering the first twelve inches above ground and buried eight inches underground to keep out small four-footed marauders as well as the large ones such as deer. You can use drip irrigation or soaker hoses on a timer in the planting beds to ensure proper hydration or just plan some time to water during the week.

Two weeks before sowing or planting, add lime with two handfuls of blood, fish, or bone meal per square yard. Divide each bed into quarters with two crossing paths of compacted soil; this allows easy access for weeding and provides separate spaces for growing different cultivars. I suggest a three-year crop rotation plan, which means that every year you move the crops from one bed to another, which ensures better soil maintenance, mineral balance, and structure. Divide the garden into four plots and the crops you wish to grow into three groups. Only plant what you like to eat. The three plots are for the rotating vegetables and the fourth is for the permanent crops. TheEnglishLady.com has what you need to know about the crop rotation plan, plants to grow to deter insects, good insects to include in your garden. Also include a toad house in the garden as the toad that eats about 200 bad insects every night.

Mulch the garden with aged manure or compost to add vital nutrients that will be absorbed into the soil; this type of mulch also helps to prevent “capping”; the formation of a crust on the soil surface that stops rain from entering and restricts natural airflow. Never apply a thick layer if you use grass clippings to mulch, never apply a thick layer, as they will rot down to a slimy mess. Put straw under low vegetables and fruit like cucumbers and strawberries to prevent them laying on the soil, which causes rot. Check for disease or insects when buying transplants from a garden center. Don’t bring disease into the garden; a clean garden is a healthy garden.

The growing season and its longer days allow time in your patch before going to work in the morning. I find this is a magical time of day; a brief spell of near silence broken only by birdsong and sunrise while weeding. Harvesting and watering in the evening are a most satisfying ritual that I anticipate like a special dessert at the end of a meal. The hose is my umbilical cord to the earth and I find something tangible coming back to me through the plants. A focus on watering brings me closer to the earth and its rhythms bring quiet, simpler, pleasures back into our lives together with an abundant harvest. TheEnglishLady.com has more information you can use to keep your garden healthy, when to harvest, when to plant later crops and how to preserve your harvest through the winter. The next issue of Nutmeg magazine will have a continuation of this three part series on growing your own food. Happy gardening and thanks for your help ‘healing our planet one garden at a time.’TM

Editor’s Note: The English Lady Landscape, LLC is a located in Essex, CT. They work on affordable projects throughout Connecticut. Read her blog, eco-tips, photos… TheEnglishLady.com

Chapter Two- If You Want To Be Happy For A Lifetime – Plant A Garden

There is so much to do, sowing seeds of successive crops, transplanting seedlings, and keeping the weeds away. Never before have I experienced such a distortion of time, when what feels like a hour of methodical husbandry will almost certainly be three hours of what can only be called ‘working meditation.’ This activity in the vegetable patch attracts everyone and anyone of all ages. We are all just so happy to be breathing fresh air in a green retreat. The oldest and wisest of us experiencing years of delight from our neat robust beds and nary a weed in sight.

An old rabbit, which I’d seen casually disappearing into a bramble thicket, sensed no threat from Bingo, my son Ian’s laid back Great Dane/Boxer mix. I knew that rabbit wanted to make inroads into the sweet tasting carrots and given half a chance would burrow under the chicken wire at the bottom of the fence and claim its prize. I left decoy snacks of lettuce and carrot tops near his run, a gesture that seemed to work for now and was obviously appreciated.

The six foot high fence seemed to be doing a good job of keeping out not only the deer but also the small furry marauders with the chicken wire covering eight inches at the base of the fence and buried eight inches down also. I planted marigolds, nasturtium, lavender, nepeta, cosmos and honeysuckle on the fence to make sure that my plants were not devoured by ground insects and those on the wing; all of which emitted lovely fragrances, which thankfully insects do not like. I encouraged the lacewings that feed on aphids by planting more marigolds and sunflowers against another section of fence and hoped to attract ground beetles which feed on slugs. I always place a log or rock under which they can hide until ready to pounce on the slimy slugs.

Another slug elimination trick I have used for years is dry dog food. I buy an inexpensive, dry dog food (slugs are not gourmets) and add a little water to the dry food to make it into mushy piles. In the early evening just before the contingent of slugs arrive to begin munching on my precious leafy veggies I drop the mushy piles in the area of attack and slip inside for a while. An hour or so later out I go, armed with my trusty shovel and a garbage bag, with full knowledge that I will find a captive audience. The slugs have had their last meal, are full to bursting, unable to slide away. Triumphantly I scoop them up, depositing them in the garbage bag and know that at least for now, the crop is saved. Hopefully word will have gone back to the neighboring slug gangs to stay away from my patch if they wish to slime another day.

I also encourage ladybugs, many of which took up residence in my house over the winter and protected my houseplants by eating the aphids and whitefly and when in the garden they enjoy a wide variety of insects. In my wild patch of nettles and the dandelions the butterflies and bull finches gather to frolic and enjoy their meals. The young leaves of nettles make a good liquid fertilizer full of vitamins and minerals; put a bunch of the young leaves in a burlap sack and let it soak for a few weeks in a water barrel. Comfrey, rich in nitrogen, can also be used in the same way.

The dandelions grow yellow and thick in my field so I am able to enjoy the young foliage, which contains potassium, in salads or cooked like spinach. When I was a child, during World War II, my family used every part of the dandelion; roasting the roots for a coffee substitute, the petals to make Dandelion wine and also used petals in the Shropshire cheese we made every Friday to give the cheese its rich yellow color. Those memories bring back the salient words that my grandmother said to me,”you are gardening not to create a garden; you are gardening simply to garden. The gardener does not make the garden: the garden makes the gardener.”

In my lower field, the dandelions, buttercup, daisies and wild violets grow side by with the clover. Clover is a nitrogen-fixing plant that takes nitrogen from the air and fixes it in the soil for the plants.

I briefly touched on crop rotation in my previous article but I wanted to elaborate; a crop rotation is extremely important for the health of the soil and the production of a good crop. The following are some suggestions of vegetables that do well planted together to ensure continuity, but feel free to edit it so that you are planting what you like to eat:

Plot A – Potatoes, carrots, beets, parsnips, onions, shallots, leeks, garlic, tomatoes, zucchini, squash, eggplants, fennel, peppers, cucumber and annual herbs.

Plot B – Peas, bush beans, pole beans, broad beans, lima beans, sweet corn, swiss chard, lettuce.

Plot C – Cabbages, brussel sprouts, cauliflowers, broccoli, kale, turnips, radishes.

Plot D – For the permanent crops – rhubarb, asparagus, perennial herbs, strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries.

For a smaller garden, plant some of the permanent crops in the ornamental border and plant herbs, tomato, cucumber, radish and strawberry in containers.

Making sure you always have fresh vegetables in the garden is not as straightforward as it seems. Successful sowing and planting plans are all very well but variations in weather conditions can make crops late. As a first time vegetable gardener, keep a diary as a rough guide to note down when you should be sowing or planting to provide a succession of crops. Note when you actually got around to doing the task and the reason you were either delayed or early. Note when you harvested each crop and after two or three years a fairly accurate pattern will emerge.

Stick to your original rotation plan and when its time to sow or plant a particular vegetable, use whatever space is available in the correct plot. If you find there will be vacant soil for about a month during the growing season, sow a quick maturing green-manure crop like mustard. If you have the space, plan a four-year rotation and devote one plot each year to growing a crop which can be dug in to enrich the soil.

Above all have fun in the garden, enjoy leaning on the garden gate swapping information, plants and seeds with others; gardeners love to talk gardening. Ask any gardener what he or she loves about gardening and they will inevitably say, “Its how it makes me feel” and when pressed will often say “I forget all my cares and worries.”

By employing an inner perspective to gardening you can add a new dimension to seemingly mundane tasks. A gardener is always learning; discussing failures is an acceptable parlance among gardeners. Failure is part of the game; it is your education as much as the success. Once you see that the fun of gardening is doing, and then watching what happens, the pressure of goal-oriented gardening disappears.

The title of this column was written by Thomas More in 1536. The next issue of Nutmeg magazine will have the final chapter of this three part series on growing your own food. Happy gardening and thanks for your help ‘healing our planet one garden at a time.’TM

Chapter Three- Late Summer Is The Time To Stay Home

Grandma always said that late summer is the time to stay home. In July and August on an occasional Sunday we joined the lemmings on the narrow two-lane road to Llandudno on the coast of Wales, off the Irish Sea. The car crammed to the roof as well as on the roof, with all the accouterments needed for a day at the seaside. However, back home, in the county of Shropshire, we had a large nursery, which insisted on daily attention, the weeds continued to grow, along with the burgeoning flowers, fruits and vegetables. The insects and other garden marauders marched and munched. And despite rumors about the vagaries of rainy weather in England, there was always extra watering to be done.

My early childhood took place during World War II and my family considered themselves lucky to be able to cultivate our large country patch, which bountifully produced for ourselves and many of the folks in this northwestern county in England. And today, a number of people, in the United States are cultivating their vegetable patch for the first time and are thrilled with the results.

It is harvest time, in late summer. And in my garden Andrew Marvell would have felt at home ‘stumbling on melons as I pass, ensnared with flowers…’except that my melons are cucumbers and squash, the latter flinging out six-foot tentacles at the sight of a passing ankle. Where the surging jungle of squashes stops, it is more or less marked by a row of tall white and red dahlias; then sweet corn stands like infantry in the square, and the spreading grey rosettes of artichokes, always vaguely remind me of sea anemones as they reach out and hook.

The two sides of my kitchen vegetable garden are officially divided by a central path, which by August, has become an avenue of heavily seeding, swaying copper foliaged fennel and large leafed comfrey, and at their feet billow self-sowing nasturtiums and blue borage. By now the comfrey leaves are taking on more than a hint of autumn orange, the shoots of the squash (I did not mention its bright yellow upturned trumpets) are lunging across the path amid the fennel, nasturtiums (did I mention marigolds?) and juicy milk-thistles that appear overnight.

The right hand side of this potager garden is getting somewhat gappy now, as we eat the potatoes, the spinach, the Swiss chard with leaves almost approaching banana size, the carrots, leeks, cabbages and late lettuce. A patch of Montauk daisies heeled near the compost, and somehow overlooked, is flowering anyway. The golden rod and purple loosestrife is not supposed to be there either. But the row of roses, at the side of the greenhouse, has at least some official standing.

In the meantime its four o’clock and with a cup of early grey tea in hand I’m walking over to check the compost and give it a stir, and remember my mother, Baroness duCane and her friend the Duchess of Devonshire, talking about a favorite subject of theirs, which strange as it may seem is compost. Her Grace’s remark to mother was “Edna, I can see the day looming when I shall drive a van to Sainsbury’s (a large U.K. supermarket) and fill it with prime vegetables, just for the pleasure of watching it rot down into food for the next generation of the same. This is the sort of madness, that attacks old women like us, but at least it is harmless”. At this time in my life, I quite understand exactly what they were talking about; I feel the same passion about my compost pile.

There is no such thing in life as ‘throwaway’, everything can be reused in one form or another and the idea for the compost pile is to recycle the vegetable waste from the garden and kitchen. A good working compost pile needs to drain properly, with a scooped out saucer shape in the top to trap rain and should be no more than three feet high or deep to keep the material “cooking” or “on the boil”. For a “good pile” the mixture is roughly 25% high nitrogen material like early season grass clippings. In winter add extra nitrogen in the form of alfalfa meal, bone meal and kelp meal, plus vegetable waste and manure.

This is one occasion you can use fresh manure from the farm, as the ammonia compounds emitted in the decomposition aids the cooking process. Also add 30% of lower nitrogen such as late season grass clippings, coffee or tea grounds and 45% of woody material such as dry leaves, shrub or tree pruning. The internal temperature of the pile should be approximately 130 to 155 degrees. Add some earthworms, either regular worms or red earthworms (which will survive in the compost but not in the soil of the garden). A well-laid pile will continue to work through the winter.

In early fall when all that is edible has been harvested, turn any left over annual veggies into the ground as green manure, with manure and compost. The green manure (dug in veggies) rots down quickly leaving nutritious organic matter in the soil. When digging in the crops, don’t bury the material any deeper than six inches. If you have allowed the left over crops to become woody, add organic liquid fertilizer like liquid seaweed or liquid manure tea to assist the rotting process. If all your vegetables were harvested, plant a green manure crop, which will prevent the loss of nutrients during wet winter weather

I find ‘cover’ crops very useful to continue to rebuild the soil. I live on the shoreline, which has sandy soil, which is good for drainage but retains few nutrients. By planting alfalfa, buckwheat or clover together with manure and compost. The crops cover the ground, providing shade and competition for water and nutrients, which discourage all but the most tenacious of weeds. Turn the crop into the soil in the fall if you have clay and in the spring for other types of soil.

Today, there is just a slight nip in the air but the sun is shining so all is well in my world as I checked the kitchen garden, then walked into the field and saw the apple trees, are heavily laden with a bumper crop. Back inside I unearthed my large flat apple-drying basket and dusted my cool north facing spare room in readiness for the apples.

On our land in England, my grandparent’s thatched roofed cottage, had an attached thatched roofed building for storing fruits and vegetables, and the building had an earthen floor and small high windows on the walls. Grandpa opened the high windows on cold nights and closed them in the mornings, which trapped the cold air inside. And through the winter I knew that Grandma’s apple pie would be waiting for my brother and I on the kitchen table, sometimes with a small pitcher of cream from Uncle Ted’s cows to pour over it. My mouth is watering at the memory. Time to begin making my own pies.

Home gardeners like yourselves, do not have the luxury of an attached thatched roofed building for storage, but apples for example, can be stored in sheds or garages, ideally shaded by trees or buildings to keep the temperatures lower and more stable or in a cool, spare room. Check the fruit regularly because ‘one rotten apple can spoil the barrel’. When harvesting, simply cup your hand around the base of the fruit, then lift and twist and it should separate from the tree easily without bruising.

Place the apples on an open wooden box or in large baskets in single layers; stalk down, which prevents the apples rolling into one another. To stop any rot from spreading, do not let apples touch each other and dispose of any rotten fruit. Inspect the fruit weekly and remove any apples that are ready to eat. With careful handling and storage, homegrown apples can be yours for at least three to four months in winter.

I so enjoy being in my kitchen garden, where I find I completely relax and am at peace with the world. With this laissez-faire attitude I allow some good weeds to grow, I acknowledge the old rabbit munching on the decoy snacks I leave outside the fence. The gold finches and long tailed tits flit overhead as the lacewings; ladybugs and my resident toad consumes the bad insects. I watch my garden stretch and thrive and in a late afternoon I sit on my bench with my feet in the moss near the stream and breath in nature’s fragrance. I know this is the good life as I take the time to watch the bindweed buds unfurl, marvel at a millipede that knows which leg to move first, or even appreciate the comedy of a black bird furiously scattering my immaculate mulch. The garden happens in spite of my worthy efforts. I’ll see you next time in your garden.

Editor’s Note: The English Lady designs organically inspired landscapes throughout the U.S. that can be phased in while respecting your budget. Learn more online at TheEnglishLady.com and on Facebook.

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