Preparing The Vegetable Garden

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Gardening time has arrived, along with the swarms of blackflies.  A perfect combination.  Here in central Maine we can get frost right through late May, so it doesn’t pay to plant vegetable seeds too soon.  I no longer grow the cool weather plants like peas, radishes, chard, lettuce or spinach.  They are too much work, especially the peas, since I’m the only one who eats them.  So I can wait until late in the month to start.

The garden lies fallow for the winter, although we do spread wood ashes in the area.  Any vegetative garden waste such as vines, stalks and roots are removed in the fall so insect pests can’t winter on them. When the soil dries and is no longer a mud pie, I use my manure fork to pull any large weeds that established last year.  Then I spread composted hen manure and wood ash on the area.  I once used horse manure, but hen contains much less weed seed.  It is also a very potent manure so less is required.

Our trusty old Troy Bilt 8 hp Horse rototiller makes short work of tilling the soil to an 8″ depth.  The photo above was taken after the initial 5″ deep pass.  The next pass with the tiller will dig 8″ or more down, breaking up and spreading the manure and giving the soil a uniform fine texture.a3

One year I tried no-till gardening and it was a disaster.  I mulched everything heavily with old hay and planted all the rows and hills of seed without breaking up the soil except right where the seeds were planted.  Sprouting and growth were slow.  Many of the plantings failed, including the indian corn which is nearly impossible to kill. I harvested a few pumpkins and beans.  Only the tomatoes did well, to be expected from mulch-loving plants.

The concept of no-till gardening is that the network of mycelia of essential fungi and the beneficial bacterial colonies within the soil are not destroyed.  By maintaining the structure of the natural flora and fauna in the soil, the vegetables are supposed to benefit.  My experience is that tilling somehow gives the seeds a necessary advantage.  The fungi and bacteria seem able to re-establish themselves very quickly after the soil is broken.  My vegetables perform much better with tilling. I mulch, water and weed and never have an entire garden fail.

Following the final tilling, it’s time to install the fence to keep hungry, digging chickens and rampaging dogs out of the garden.  For years I used chicken wire and stakes.  The set-up was difficult to work with.  It took hours to erect every year, and in the fall was a nightmare to remove.  Weeds grew through the wire, binding it.  Pulling it loose caused tears in the wire weave.  Then the wire had to be cleaned of weeds and re-rolled for next year.  Baby chickens were small enough to squeeze through the wire and scratch in my seed beds.  Finally, I decided to find a better way.

After much thought I developed a simple system that takes a lot less time to install and remove, stores well, is more attractive than wire and doesn’t develop holes for chickens to exploit.  At the garden center, I bought several 4′ x 8′ white plastic lattice-work panels and sawed them in half length-wise.  Also, I found pressure treated wood balusters for deck stairs.  These are the perfect length and are pre-sharpened on one end.a2  The panels are supported by one baluster stake at each end and one in the center.  Baling twine holds the panels to the stakes.  I also run a line of baling twine along the top of the stakes to add height and dissuade athletic dogs from leaping over.a4

This system has been working for, I believe, four years now. I’m still using the original parts, they appear strong and ready to go several more years.  There have been no problems with animals getting in the garden.  The lattic hides the tempting open soil and juicy vegetables from the chickens’ view, so they don’t even bother to get inside.  I imagine pressure treated wood lattice would work as well as the plastic, but I was looking at cost and longevity when I made the purchases.

Now, the garden is tilled, the fence is in place and I’ve planted the long season vegetables:  indian corn, decorative sunflowers, gourds and carrots.  Today I’m setting out the tomato seedlings and planting wax beans, winter squash, pumpkins and a decorative top border of bachelor buttons.  The Jerusalem artichokes are a perennial and have already sent up shoots in their corner of the garden.

We have had exceptionally chilly, damp weather, slowing the warming of the soil.  Many seeds, like beans and squash, require warm soil to sprout.  Today there is supposed to be some sun, that will be nice.  Then rain is predicted for the weekend.  A good time to plant, nature will do the watering for me.

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