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My Need-to-Know List


know of literally dozens of great books on gardening that go to enormous lengths to cover the fascinating subject of growing your own food. They appear to leave nothing out, and there—especially for the novice gardener—lies the problem. For me, all the available information was overkill. To settle down to read a book on improving soil that had at least 50,000 words (the size of this entire book) was more than I could do in year one. Although I do intend to read it later, what I wanted in the short term was sufficient guidance to keep me out of trouble and bring me enough reward to fuel a lasting enthusiasm to know more and to keep on digging! I reduced my need-to-know list to a baker’s dozen of topics, which I believe most novice gardeners—and not a few more experienced ones—will find of primary interest: 1. Soil: how to sample, test for pH, adjust for rainfall runoff 2. Turf: preparation and removal

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3. Soil Improvement: fertilizer, soil-less mixes, manure, stones 4. Raised Beds: layout, pathways, crop plan, critter control 5. EarthBox: containers, operation, location 6. Seed Germination and Vegetable Starts: how-to, care 7. Transplanting: when, how 8. Watering: how much, how often 9. Feeding: how much, when 10. Pest Control and Plant Diseases: organic-related, main concerns,

evidence 11. Composting: using leftovers, preparing for next season 12. Seasonal Replanting: getting a second crop 13. The Greenhouse: size, location, layout, operation These subjects became my game plan, and my local knowledge gardeners guided me in their practical application. Nothing was theoretical; it was all hands-on practical. So, this is where I record what I did and provide you with references and recommendations to get you started on your own quest. You may even want to take my topic checklist to your own local knowledge kitchen gardeners, who will have had experience with your particular microclimate.

1. Soil Scott Titus, my neighborhood soil expert, arrived at our soggy site in early March carrying what looked like a giant apple corer. He proceeded to plunge it into several parts of our lawn and deposited these earthen cores into a plastic bag, to be sent away for analysis. On our property, the soil depth, before reaching substantial stones, was less than 10 inches. There was also green plastic netting, used by sod farmers to hold together the instant lawn, that had been there for eight years. We’ve got clay and some silt, so the ground’s wet, and our driveway slopes, 18


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dumping all the surface water directly onto our sunny gardening site. Our first task was to redirect the surface water by digging out an 8-inch-deep trench to intercept the runoff. We  buried a 4-inch perforated drainage pipe and then covered it in ½-inch gravel. All this is what I was told is called a French drain. Exactly why it’s French I’ve been unable to discover. Everyone with an English background usually questions why things are dubbed “French”! Our lawn/soil turned out to be pH 5.77, quite possibly because of the leaching effect of rain over the concrete driveway. (For more on pH, see “Feeding” on page 35.) At this stage I wanted a sustainable garden in which I’d do my best naturally, but I also didn’t want to fail by immediately pursuing an organic-only project and risking my already fragile expectations of success. I began with the thought that I might have to use some chemical intervention to avoid yet another failure in my hitherto history of gardening misdeeds. As it turned out, going organic was less of a problem and more of a benefit. Healthy soil begets healthy plants. I have now read enough about soil to be better informed and yet still relatively clueless. I know enough to be awestruck at the complexity of nature and convinced that I need to do much more to leave it alone! I have neither the space nor the expertise (yet) to give you specific guidance on how to adjust your own share of the 7 inches of topsoil that wrap our world in the raw material of life itself, because without it all life would fail. What I can do is share my enthusiasm to know more and then do more to preserve the soil . . . the way it was designed to function. The word natural has, like all good, simple words, been abused until almost unrecognizable. The natural world is, to my mind, that which is left entirely on its own. We have an island close to our home called Camano. The First Nation peoples of the Northwest used to call it the Island of the Berries. They would come MY NEED-TO-KNOW LIST

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by canoe to harvest natural berries that had survived, even flourished, without the slightest intervention by humankind. The moment that we clear that kind of land and even scratch the surface, it ceases to be natural. We have disturbed the natural habitat of a whole ecosystem of truly abundant, vigorous, and sustainable life. Now I’m also a realist, and I understand that the growing population needs to be fed and sheltered and must therefore displace the natural order to some degree. I’ve been told that if the present 1–2 percent of organically farmed produce were to become the norm, then we would need about 40 million people to return to the soil as a full-time way of life. Neither is even a remote possibility, but we can still move in that direction as we become convinced of its basic good sense. As a result of my personal research, I’ve become convinced enough to find out what I need to know in order to do what I need to do to return my own small garden space, as near as possible, to a natural habitat, where healthy plants grow without necessarily growing faster or larger than those of my neighbors. Surely we can admire each other’s gardens without entering into yet another commercially inspired competition? What I now know and am endeavoring to apply in my second year is quite basic, but it has allowed me to undertake a bold experiment. I really want to have an abundant garden that owes its vitality to very few inputs that have been contrived by man. In a real sense, I want it to mimic what Treena and I try to do with our pharmaceuticals. There are medications that we understand are necessary for Treena (so far no prescription drugs for me). That means it’s on an individual basis, in the same way your soil is quite likely to be different from mine—and even different from one side of your property to the other! Notwithstanding those often quite sharp differences, there are some similarities; just as both Treena and I need protein, carbohydrates, and fats, so do our soils need nitrogen, potassium, and phosphate. On a much smaller scale, there are also micronutrients that play as important a part as do vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. 20


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The plants that grow in our increasingly rich soil will draw energy and health from this abundant goodness. The same plants will eventually become our nutrition. It must therefore be obvious that a best-practices, “deep” organic garden will be the best possible choice for our daily food. So now, may I encourage you to explore what your soil needs in order to be well suited to growing nourishing vegetables!

So what if there are more than 5,000 chemicals added to our food that are generally regarded as safe (GRAS) until occasionally proven unsafe? What if they gradually accumulate in certain tissues throughout my body? How does this affect my enjoyment of food? Answer: If I grew my own with minimal input, as in low-input sustainable agriculture (LISA), I could eat with a smile on my face.

2. Turf The first challenge in preparing for our garden was to deal with the grass, or rather the dandelion patch that passed for a lawn. I began to kill it with an organic preparation, but that showed no apparent effect. Scott suggested Roundup. At this stage it felt like every good intention to go organic had just evaporated. How could I use that stuff on a kitchen garden? I was given to understand that there was no risk because Roundup’s active ingredients have a relatively short half-life, and I had no living edible plant even close to the patch. Ironically, I had to fertilize the grass first to get it to grow vigorously before adding Roundup, so that it would more effectively kill the grass, roots and all. (As a Scot, I found the additional cost for fertilizer hard to take, but I did what I was told.) Within a week, my lawn was dead. I had succeeded in my very first task of  killing everything on site in a very inorganic way. Not exactly what I had imagined! I need to add, at this point, that I didn’t know that I could have achieved the same result by covering the area with large sheets of cardboard, the kind that protect mattresses in transit. I’ve since experimented with that method, and it does work over time. Allow 2–3 months to effectively smother an area. The cardboard will decompose, adding another layer of organic material. MY NEED-TO-KNOW LIST

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When the entire grass area was certified as truly dead, the next step was to churn up the whole mess. Our soil was wet clay with a dense dead topping—sounds almost like a commercially packaged carrot cake!—and needed at least an 8-inch scoop. My pal at  the rent-all place recommended a 9-horsepower rototiller that weighed in at about 200 pounds! It arrived on a flatbed truck, and after a very brief demonstration, the rental man left with the encouraging words, “My wife used it last week, and she’s only five feet four. She found it easy.” And he was gone. The machine sat there solidly, and I imagined that it was growling at me, but then I have a rather active imagination when it comes to machinery, with which I have had some issues in the past. I managed to get this monster started and engaged the forward gear. As the tiller blades flashed down, my rental beast leaped forward, pawing at the ground like a bull in search of a matador. As this massive, self-willed machine dug in, it started to gather speed, heading down our steeply sloping land, coming perilously close to the edge. My feet sank into the slippery, freshly turned clay as I reached wildly for the kill button, within only a foot or so of the point of no return. The monster died among the dead grass. I breathed deeply; the monster steamed silently. I had obviously taken on more than the machine could chew. Always the optimist—and forever in search of my local knowledge experts when my own intelligence fails me—I remembered my neighbor Kurt, a tall, broad-backed guy who also happened to drive a backhoe. So together we manhandled the beast around and around the lawn, which now looked like a scene from a World War I movie: dead grass garnished with bright green plastic netting set against a slick mud gray background relieved only by the odd startled worm. We had begun to prepare the soil!



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I was left wondering how anything that wet gets to be dry enough to even look like plantable soil. “Cover it with plastic sheeting. The sun will warm the earth and evaporate the moisture,” suggested Scott. And so I draped the whole thing and dumped stray timbers on it to hold the plastic down. The sun disappeared—it does that for months on end in the Pacific Northwest—and it rained hard, which it also does, and then it blew a gale. The plastic blew off, and the rain saturated the ground. I eventually found and replaced the plastic and nailed it down with wooden stakes. It rained for days; a weak sun got the soil temperature just over 60ºF. At least the runoff was redirected through the French drain. I learned later on in the year that the drying out of such soggy soil is hastened by removing the plastic in the early afternoon to let the steam roll off and then replacing it just before sunset.

3. Soil Improvement We ordered 2 yards of steer manure and six bags of Coco-Coir; sprinkled it liberally over the clay; rented a small, almost feminine rototiller; and proceeded to mix it all up into what looked like a wild rice pilaf that had been left on the stove way too long! We bounced the clumped clay up and down using a six-pronged composting fork, removing stones and bits of green netting, gradually reducing the clumps to a rough granular texture. Finally, we nailed the plastic sheeting back in place with long wooden pegs and prayed for the sun. In a real sense, this was an emergency action designed to move from sod to kitchen-garden-ready in one fell swoop. There would be more to come, as discussed under “Feeding” on page 35.


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4. Raised Beds When I first heard the term raised beds, my mind raced to multiple berths in World War II troop ships and then straight on to wooden-sided grow beds made with railroad ties (so popular in urban landscaping in the 1970s) or even adobe bricks. But my friend Scott Titus isn’t at all shy about any of his choices. “I won’t have a  piece of stone in my garden, and I also avoid large lumps of wood,” he declared. “Keep it as natural as possible. Build the beds with earth. It’s much easier to manage.” And so out went the Better Homes and Gardens–inspired brick or crazy paver pathways; the 2-foot-wide pathways between the beds would be covered in 2–3 inches of cedar sawdust. The beds would be a reachable width, which to my stretch (with a moderately poor back) was 3 feet. Our plot of land enjoys mostly all-day sun, except a small shed casts some shade— perhaps the right place for peas and lettuce? Around this neck of the woods (why do we say neck?), folks try to get their vegetable starts in the soil around Memorial Day (in late May), and this became our goal. We drew out a plan (see the illustration on page 25), drove in some stakes at carefully measured intervals, strung some line, and began to fork the somewhat dried-out earth into heaps, which began to take on the shape of raised beds. It was at this stage that I fully understood Charles Dudley Warner’s 1870 dictum: “What a man needs in gardening is a cast-iron back, with a hinge on it.” Scott Titus brought the saying up-to-date with his take on the labor of digging: “I take three Tylenol before I begin!” My efforts paled alongside those of Scott, who appeared to be tireless and at 24


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the same time fully engaged in bringing some form out of chaos. The most physical effort I’ve undertaken over the past many years has been wielding a pen and a whisk. Mid bend I wondered if I was, in fact, digging my own grave. (Later, the effort lessened as my body adapted and gained both flexibility and strength. For both, I am amazed and grateful!) When all the beds were mildly raised, we covered them again with plastic to rid the soil mix of its additional wetness, since it had rained solidly during the entire exercise. Then we got the 3 yards of cedar sawdust for filling in the pathways. My but it looked good when dry and yellow, but then, this too would pass! We determined the locations of the plants we’d try and stepped out the fence line we’d need to keep the critters out. Enter my next new friend: Richard Mattreus, a local expert at excluding deer, rabbits, and other charming wildlife that were well MY NEED-TO-KNOW LIST

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used to our property. For them it was like an African wild game park without boundaries—a place to eat every one of Treena’s roses and rub their antlers on our new apple trees, having first snacked on the fruit. We strung 8-foot-wide plastic netting on 12-foot-high posts. “Deer have bad eyesight,” explained Richard. “They see the posts and assume the net goes that high.” We buried 12 inches of net (for the critters that like to burrow) and put in a solid pair of gates. Now we could plant!

5. EarthBox For several years I’ve served as a member on a United Nations advisory board called the Growing Connection. Our focus has been on equipping villagers and  their schools with devices that grow abundant food with very low water use. Clearly sub-Saharan Africa was central to our concern, but so were other drought-stricken areas around the globe. The sturdy plastic box (28×14×10 inches) has a perforated floor above a water reservoir, a filler tube, an overflow, and a plastic shower cap. 26


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Growing at the Speed of Life, by Graham Kerr