Try sustainable gardening this season
By Sue Davis
A sustainable garden is a garden that works in harmony with nature.
The primary focus is on greater production from fertile soil, less fertilizer, less pesticides and less water.
There are five techniques in sustainable gardening: composting, intensive planting in well prepared beds, continuous companion planting, cover planting and water conservation.
Improving the soil health is the most important component. Including compost in garden beds improves plant health by supplying nutrients to the soil. A number of composting techniques can be performed in even a small yard. Plants grown in rich soil are able to fight pests and diseases. By adding compost to the soil, the produce has a greater nutrient content.
The area you have set aside for the garden should contain soil that is easily worked and full of nutrients. To obtain this, hand-dig at least 8 inches deep, lifting the soil out of the bed as you dig. Hand-digging allows you to remove weeds and rocks and reduces emissions from tillers.
Once the entire area is dug, layer the bottom with rich compost, then add a layer of original soil, mix the compost and soil, and repeat this process until the area is refilled. This effort is well spent; once done, it should not need repeating for three to five years, depending on the amount of compost added each year.This process adds air deep in the soil to enable roots to grow and microbes to create good soil structure where plants flourish.
Intensive planting is placing plants as closely as possible in triangular patterns covering an entire bed. When the plants are mature, their leaves should barely touch each other. Such spacing encourages improved growth, conserves moisture and greatly helps to control weeds.
This requires you to think about the basic needs of plants, including water, organic matter, sunlight and air. The best spacing is an equal distance in all directions between compatible plants, the entire surface of the ground shaded by leaves as early in the season as possible, and keeps plants with like requirements together.
Another component of sustainable gardening is companion planting.
Companion planting is based on the idea that certain plants can benefit others when planted in near proximity. A companion planting chart for common herbs, vegetables, and flowers is provided on several Web sites, including www.attra.ncat.org.
Common companions include bush beans and cucumbers; corn, pumpkins and squash; tomatoes and onions.
Incompatible plantings will yield less produce and plants may be less healthy and pest resistant. Incompatible plants include bush beans, onions and sunflowers; corn and tomatoes; tomatoes, potatoes and the cabbage family.
Cover crops like grains, grasses and legumes planted in the late fall help reduce soil compactions and prevent erosion. When you turn the cover crop under, nutrients return to the soil and enrich your next planting.
Organic matter is quickly used in the food chain of earthworms and other soil organisms, so you will need a continuous supply. In addition to cover crops, manures, sawdust, bark dust and composts also supply organic matter.
The last component of sustainable gardening is to reduce water usage in the home garden. This can be attained by intensive planting, selecting plants that are require a climate similar to the one you are growing in and that are drought tolerant when possible.
Gardens should be mulched to reduce evaporation and reduce weeds which increase water usage. Capture rain close to the garden in a rain barrel, so that rain water can be used to water the garden.
By applying sustainable garden techniques in your garden, you increase the harvest of produce, reduce the amount of labor needed to keep your garden healthy and increase the pleasure you get from growing some of your own produce.
Sue Davis is a Master Gardener volunteer with the Cooperative Extension Service in Rowan County.