McGrew's Miscellanea

Organic Vegetable Gardening

My wife and I started gardening with no more information than was printed on the back of a few seed packets. We made all sorts of mistakes, such as placing our container garden in full shade, and starting squash and tomato plants in early autumn.

The next year, we read Mel Bartholomew's Square Foot Gardening, and we've read several gardening books since then. Using what we've learned, we've had much more productive gardens, and we've enjoyed them more.

Our current gardening style blends gardening techniques described in Square Foot Gardening and Jeff Ball's 60-Minute Vegetable Garden with regional planting information from Pam Peirce's Golden Gate Gardening. All of these books are included in my reviews of recommended gardening literature towards the end of this document.

Why Garden Organically?

Rather than restate the same thing less eloquently, I'll include the following excerpt from the introduction of Jeff Ball's 60-Minute Vegetable Garden. I highly recommend this book.

I am an organic gardener. I have not made that choice for philosophical reasons, although I do have a philosophy that is concerned with the relationship of man to nature. I am not an organic gardener because I am worried about additives and chemicals in my diet, although I am concerned about such things. I am an organic gardener because it makes good business sense. I am an organic gardener because the technique allows me to get excellent production from my garden with a decrease in my costs and my time requirements every year. For me, organic gardening is an investment in my future in terms of real dollars and cents. . . .

The first fact that I found significant was that most commercial chemical fertilizers kill a large portion of the microbiotic life in the top 6 inches of soil. They drive out the earthworms and most of the other creatures in the soil that normally live there. The soil becomes just a medium for holding up the plants, and the plants become totally dependent on man's continued application of fertilizer to keep them healthy.

I want the microbiotic life to remain in my soil. I know that in 200 square feet of healthy organically treated soil, the earthworms will produce over 150 pounds of manure every year all by themselves! I appreciate their saving me the trouble. I know that the microbiotic life in the top 6 inches of soil includes predators and parasites that help control the larvae of overwintering pest insects. If they are not there, I have more pest insects to cope with, which take up my valuable time. Finally, I don't want to spend the time having to provide all the nutrients my plants need throughout the seasons, year in and year out. I want to be able to encourage the soil to grow in fertility each year so I can spend less time each year, rather than more time, keeping my plants supplied with nutrients. I feed my soil and then let my soil feed my plants. It takes less time and in the long run it is cheaper.

The primary source of food for my garden is compost. My compost is free. Chemical fertilizers are not free, and their cost will rise significantly in the next decade. The time it takes me to make my compost and apply it once a year is about the same as the time it takes to go and buy the fertilizer and spread it appropriately throughout the growing season. However, the active organic soil enriched by the compost, with its millions of micro pals, helps me control my insects. It's reducing my plant's vulnerability to drought and disease. And in [my garden], the soil doesn't even have to be dug anymore. I save some time with no digging, with fewer problems from insect pests, less need to water so often, and less concern about dealing with diseases. I get as good or even better productivity in my crops; I save valuable time; and in the long run (over five years) I save money. That is a good business deal, and that is why I am an organic gardener.

My Reviews of Recommended Gardening Literature

GreenPrints Magazine

Subtitled "The Weeder's Digest"TM. P.O. Box 1355, Fairview, NC 28730. ISSN 1064-0118. Phone 704/628-3351.

This quarterly magazine is an anthology of stories, articles, and poetry that reflect "the human (not the how-to) side" of gardening. It's sometimes funny, sometimes touching, sometimes thought-provoking, and always a treat. I only wish it came out more frequently.

Ball, Jeff, Jeff Ball's 60-Minute Vegetable Garden

Subtitled Just One Hour a Week for the Most Productive Vegetable Garden Possible. New York, NY: Collier Books, 1992, 228 pages, photographs by Liz Ball, illustrations by Frank Rohrbach 1st Collier Books edition, ISBN 0-02-030376-9 (paperback). First published as Jeff Ball's 60-Minute Garden. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1985.

Presents numerous time-saving tools, devices, and techniques for organic, intensive, raised-bed gardening. Dispite the subtitle, his emphasis is on getting a good harvest with minimal effort, although he does point out ways that a few extra hours a week can help bring an excellent harvest.

Peirce, Pam, Golden Gate Gardening

Subtitled The Complete Guide to Year-Round Food Gardening in the San Francisco Bay Area & Coastal California. Davis, CA: agAccess, 1993, 397 pages, illustrations by Mimi Osborne, ISBN 0-932857-10-8 (paperback).

This is easily the most useful book we've found for gardening in the San Francisco Bay Area and Coastal California. While it isn't as comprehensive as other books when it comes to general gardening topics (e.g., soil amendments), it does thoroughly address the issues unique to our climate, with its mild winters and cool, foggy summers. Its illustrated compendium of vegetables covers an amazing variety of familiar and unfamiliar crops, although a few crops that just don't do well anywhere in this region receive a rather cursory treatment. I don't mind its lack of photographs, but there aren't enough sketches, so I need another book to help identify the pests and diseases described. Also, some readers may wish that the information on flowers (both edible and ornamental) were as comprehensive as that on vegetables and herbs; flowers recieve a sufficient, but extremely concise treatement.

Bartholomew, Mel, Square Foot Gardening

Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1981, 347 pages, photographs by John Hamel, illustrations by Erick Ingraham, ISBN 0-87857-340-2 (hardcover), ISBN 0-87857-341-0 (paperback).

Presents a simple, easily followed gardening style for organic, intensive, flat- or raised-bed gardening. The author's experience with traditional community gardens motivated the design of a system that avoids the most common mistakes of beginning gardeners.

Appelhof, Mary, Worms Eat My Garbage

Subtitled How to Set Up and Maintain a Worm Composting System. FlowerField Enterprises, 10332 Shaver Road, Kalamazoo, Michigan 49002, 616/327-0108, FAX 616/327-7009; 1982, 100 pages, illustrations by Mary Frances Fenton, ISBN 0-942256-03-4 (paperback).

If you want to use worms to compost kitchen scraps, this is the book to get. Vermicomposting (worm-based composting), as described in this book, can also handle small quantities of yard trimmings and the like, so if you don't have enough room and/or organic waste for a full size compost pile, give a worm bin a try.