Joseph Cherichello, PLA
It is springtime in New Jersey, the Garden State, and there are nearly fifty seedlings growing in pots on our kitchen table. Soon we will gradually introduce them to the outdoors to harden off, and give us full access to our table again.
We have been growing a vegetable (technically, mostly fruit I suppose) garden every year for the past seven years. At first we had a modest 10×10 area with a temporary fence, and as many plants as we could reasonably fit: mainly tomatoes, peppers, and lettuce. Then, as we began expanding our garden, I started looking for ways to improve it. I would think back to the days when my grandfather had his garden, and try to remember how he did things. I remember he grew tomatoes, hot peppers, lettuce and cucuzza; an Italian squash the size of baseball bats, but what were his methods? At the time he was around, I honestly wasn’t really that interested in how he did things. I just knew, that was his garden, and if you weren’t in there helping, it was time for you to leave. Thinking back, I can understand why he didn’t want anyone messing around in his garden, and I now appreciate how successful and tidy it was. The one thing I do remember about his process was that he used pigeon manure from his neighbor’s pigeon coop as fertilizer. Any grandkid that heard this was sure to be grossed out.
A Permaculture-type Method
So, without my grandfather’s advice on hand to guide me (or a stash of pigeon poop nearby) I needed to research and learn by doing. Being a Landscape Architect, and having a great interest in ecological design, I began sketching designs for my garden structure and plant layout, and planning how I can be environmentally conscious about it. To me this meant no herbicides, no pesticides, no chemical fertilizers, sowing seeds from a local source, and reducing water usage.
My first goal was to find a source for compost. I didn’t have time to make my own (which we eventually started doing) because I needed a lot. I found a source for quality mushroom compost the next town over, which I learned, is not easy to come by. I ended up building a 13×24’ fenced in garden area with trellises for climbers, and a sitting area to relax in the anticipated shade of grape leaves. I removed the top six inches of the sandy ‘native soil’ (a mix of native soil, construction sand and debris) to reduce the seed bank of weed species. I laid four layers of newspaper down (in an attempt to prevent other plants from popping up), and covered it with 6” of compost. I refrain from tilling or turning over the soil to keep the soil structure intact. This process was my attempt at eliminating the use of herbicides. Inevitably, weeds find their way growing where you don’t want them (the definition of a weed), but this process seemed to reduce the amount, and the ones that I did have were easily pulled by hand.
Another advantage to using the mushroom compost (I lay two to three inches down each year) is it is a natural fertilizer. This eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers, which can leach past the roots, becoming unavailable to the plants and possibly contaminating the groundwater. The plants seem to be happy with it.
Minimizing Water Usage
After setting up the soil layer, I installed a drip irrigation system. It attaches to a typical spigot and in combination with a timer, gives many options for regulating the amount of water used each day. The lines of ¼ inch hoses have emitters every 6 or 12 inches, which are laid along the rows of plants and disperse a specified gallons per hour (typically 0.5). Usually after the plants are established, watering for 45 minutes every other day seems sufficient in my region. Emitters up to 2.0 gallons per hour can be attached to the ends of lines for blueberries, grapes, or plants that require more water.
This not only reduces wasteful watering by concentrating the application to the root zone, but it also reduces mold and fungus on susceptible plants like tomatoes and zucchini, since the drip does not splash up spores from the soil to land the lower leaves. The only time the irrigation system would need attention is to shut if off when it rains (and to turn it back on of course). There are timers with rain sensors that will turn the water on and off depending on the weather, but they are quite expensive.
As I mentioned earlier, much thought goes into the layout of the plants. Not only do you need to think about how big each plant will get, you also need to think about how you will be able to access them to say, string up your tomatoes or comfortably harvest the crop. Spacing is very important. I have spent the past 10+ years as a Landscape Architect determining the proper spacing of various plant material, but it takes great strength to refrain from overcrowding my vegetable garden. I always want more! (Solution: I am taking down a section of fence and adding another 80 square-feet.)
To complicate matters a bit further, some crops should be rotated each year. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and potatoes are members of the nightshade family (Solanaceae), and should not be planted in the same location as the previous year (this includes other plants in the nightshade family as well). This helps prevent the build-up of microbes in the soil harmful to those specific plants.
Eliminating the Use of Pesticides
To eliminate the use of pesticides, we incorporate companion plants and use cultivars that are less susceptible to disease. (Cultivars are a hybrid of cross-pollinated similar species. Very different from GMOs (genetically modified organisms), but that is a blog for another time).Having species that are less susceptible to disease can reduce the number of pests, since pests typically will be attracted to and attack stressed plants. But, for the pests that will likely come to feast on any plant, planning for and planting companion plants can help. For example, bush beans will not only fix nitrogen (take nitrogen from the air and convert it to a form in the soil available for plant use), but if planted among eggplant, can also protect eggplant from the Colorado potato beetle. Similarly, planting garlic under a peach tree can repel peach tree borers. Or, planting marigolds in and around the garden discourages many harmful insects and nematodes. One can see how this can take a lot of planning, but really, you have all winter to do it.
Finally, to attract pollinators, we surrounded our garden with perennials native to the region;
Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower), Liatris spicata (dense blazing star), Rudbeckia hirta (black-eyed Susan), Solidago sempervirens (seaside goldenrod), Eupatorium coelestinum (blue mistflower), and Monarda fistulosa (wild bergamot) to name a few. This not only attracts pollinators and enhances the aesthetics of the garden, but it also ties the garden space into the rest of the landscape.
New for us this season, we will be making compost tea. This is a process where compost is placed in a burlap sack, and soaked in water in the sun for a couple of days (same way you would make sun-tea I’d imagine, but less refreshing). Then we’ll use that tea to fertilize the plants. This is supposedly another great alternative to chemical fertilizers. Seems like it will be, but again, this garden is and has been a learn-by-doing process. So, we will see.
Reaping the Rewards
There is great satisfaction in having a successful garden; producing enough food to last for months, canning tomatoes to make gravy (yes, gravy), sharing our crop with family and neighbors, and knowing that it is done in an environmentally conscious way. However, the most rewarding aspect of all this is that is a family garden. Together we sow seeds, plant plants, and harvest our crop (my son is worse than the birds, eating every blueberry or strawberry he can pick). Though my grandfather has never seen my garden, and knowing how much he was a family man, I can be sure that he would be proud.
About the Author
Joseph Cherichello is a Certified Professional Landscape Architect with over ten years of experience in land development, emphasizing ecological design, urban forestry and stormwater management. He currently provides construction oversight and public access design for a 185-acre brownfield redevelopment and wetland restoration project.