Last week I told you that my first homesteading step at our new home was to put in a vegetable garden. This time I’d like to go into more detail regarding what I’m doing, as well as the usual assortment of how’s and why’s. We live in zone 9b in central Florida, which means that I’ve had to shake up my knowledge of gardening a little bit to make this work. The winters here are very mild, with only a slight chance of frost in December, January, and February. In the last two winters there had been no frost here at all, and we had only two frosts this winter. This means that most vegetables do great here all winter long, and others need only a little frost protection. On the other hand, the summers here are brutal. The temperatures don’t rise as high as some parts of the country, but from May to October the average high is above 88 degrees Fahrenheit, and in this period we we also switch from bone-dry to steam oven, with nothing in between. So, most folks here garden from September to April.
The other thing for me to get used to is the soil, or lack thereof. The ground here is sand, and dries out very quickly if I’m not careful. Both of these issues, along with the fact that I’m not home much to weed or water, have shaped the way I plan to do my gardening here. I’ve borrowed strategies from the organic and permaculture folks, as well as local conventional agricultural practices, to build my garden.
I set a few goals for myself, some borrowed from permaculture, others are just common sense to me:
- Anything I do in terms of producing a yield this year should be done in the way that will produce the best possible yield next year.
- Set things up to reduce, as much as possible, the time needed to care for the garden.
- Keep the price down, without cutting corners.
The first thing that needed to be done was to get rid of the lawn. I used glyphosate to do this, hopefully as a one-time deal. Before you begin throwing stones, let me explain my reasoning.
There are a few ways to remove a lawn. Lasagna gardening (layering with cardboard, and then adding compost on top to smother the grass) would take longer than I wanted to wait, since there is a season’s wait for the cover to break down unless you either build raised beds or add a large amount of soil on top of the cardboard. In addition, the grasses here have incredibly tough rhizomes, that could push their way back up regardless of any barrier. I briefly attempted to solarize the lawn by covering with clear plastic. The air and soil under the plastic heat up like a greenhouse to temperatures high enough to kill the grass, and you’re left with a clean slate to garden in. Unfortunately, we bought the property in September and the temperatures were too low to pull it off. Digging up the grass was a non-starter, for two reasons. Firstly, the creeping grasses we have here will regrow from the smallest bit left in the ground, and digging exposes a lot of weed seeds to the surface, where they will germinate, leaving me battling with weeds. In the end, I decided to go with a single controlled application of generic glyphosate to kill the grass. Since I already use glyphosate on the invasive species in my lot (air potato and Brazilian pepper), I have a good bit of experience using it safely and preventing wind drift. Glyphosate breaks down quickly in the soil, so it won’t affect my future plantings. As for health effects, the big concern is with agricultural spraying onto growing vegetables (think Roundup-Ready), which leads to herbicide on the plant itself. Treatment when there are no crops present avoids this.
Once the grass was dead, I ordered a delivery of topsoil to get started. I ordered four cubic yards, which gave me just over an inch of soil on top of the dead grass. I used our moving boxes to lay out and mulch paths between the beds, and put the soil just where the plants will go. A key point in no-till gardening is avoiding soil compaction, so I will avoid walking on the beds if at all possible.
I decided on a (mostly) no-till garden for many of the same reasons that I didn’t want to dig out the grass. Firstly, tilling allows more weed seeds to germinate. Secondly, it breaks up what little soil structure I have, increasing erosion and allowing water to drain nutrients through the sandy soil, out of reach of most annual vegetables. Thirdly, it damages or kills the soil organisms that are responsible for many soil processes. Lastly, rototillers are expensive and digging is a lot of work, and I’d rather avoid either if I can. With a no-dig system, plant roots and soil fauna (worms, insects, and such) work the soil for me, and I just add whatever amendments I need to the surface. Key to this process is mulching, which I’m doing with whatever leaves happen to be available to me. By mulching heavily, I can reduce leaching and erosion, and suppress any weeds that do come up despite not digging (there are always a few windblown seeds), thus reducing the amount of time I have to spend as well.
I do plan to make one exception to the no-till rule. Since I built the garden I have come to realize that some previous owner of this property loved to use pebbles for fill, so some regions in the yard are almost entirely composed of rocks. This poses a problem for root vegetables. In addition, there is a compacted layer about a foot down that is so dense it feels like hitting stone when I dig post-holes. If this is also present under the vegetable garden, that is going to pose a drainage issue. To fix these problems, I am going to dig each bed out once, probably incidental with the harvest of sweet potatoes, and screen the soil before placing it back. Since I will rotate the crops each year, I will have dug and sifted each bed by the end of the sixth year, after which I can continue with a true no-till.
One permaculture concept I’ve borrowed is the use of cover crops to improve the soil. This first season, to bring up deep nutrients, I planted daikon radish in as much of the garden as I could spare. Daikon put their roots down deep, bringing up nutrients from far below the surface. They then store these nutrients in large, carrot-shaped taproots. These roots act as a type of tillage, breaking up the soil slowly without chopping up the worms like a rototiller would. At the end of the season, you cut them down and let them decompose in the soil, concentrating the nutrients near the surface where other plants can use them. I will also be using sunn hemp (a legume that fixes large amounts of nitrogen, reducing my fertilizer needs, and sudangrass, which kills harmful nematodes and weeds, as well as adding biomass when you cut it down at the end of the summer. Both of these will provide mulch until they decompose and fertilize the soil. This will cut back on the amount of fertilizer I add around my plants. By adding these carefully to my crop rotation, I can build up my soil structure during the off season while also out-competing the weeds.
I was too late to put in tomatoes, peppers, or squashes this year, but I plan on growing all of these next year. For those of you who are curious, here’s a list of the varieties I put in this year:
Turnips – Purple Top White Globe
Beet – Cylindra
Mustard – Southern Giant
Kale – Nero di Toscana
Cabbage – Charleston Wakefield
Broccoli Raab – Rapini
Pole Beans – Rattlesnake and Old Homestead
Asian Beans – Thai Purple Yardlong and Winged bean
Peas – Sugar Snap
Peanut – White Spanish Pearl
Corn – Country Gentleman
Sweet Potato – Boniato
Okra – Burgundy
Cowpea – Blue Goose and Big Red Ripper
You’ll notice that these are all heirloom varieties. I chose these varieties for a variety of reasons, including climate of origin, yield, and ease of growth, and while I probably won’t save seed this year, I would like to do so in the future. By using heirloom vegetables, I can be confident that the seeds will be the same as their parents, something that I cannot do with hybrids.
Besides daikon radish, which yielded about 25 pounds, my best producers so far have been the mustard greens and kale. So far I’ve gotten about 8 pounds of mustard greens and 5 pounds of kale. On the other hand, cabbage and rapini barely yielded at all, and the beets and turnips were small. The corn is finally starting to grow well, as are the beans and peas. As the weather warms, I will be replacing the greens with okra and sweet potato.
Sometime in August, I’ll cut down the remaining plants and use them for mulch, and let the chickens range in the garden beds for a month or so before planting in September. The chickens will hopefully eat any pests that remain in the beds, while fertilizing the soil and turning the top layer as they scratch for insects. Then, I will remove the chickens, clean up the beds, and plant for the next season, rotating each crop by one bed to reduce diseases.
Keep watch for my next article, featuring cute chicks!