February 2008

This is a good time to get out your previous garden maps, some fresh paper and a pencil to plan for your 2008 food garden. OK, some of you do this in a computer, but I go for the old fashioned way. My maps are weather worn from carrying them around the garden and accidentally getting water on them. But my file of maps goes back years. I can’t rely on my memory for remembering which crops I grew where in previous seasons.

What factors should you keep in mind as you sketch out your future garden? First of all, what were your favorite foods that you and your family ate from your garden last year and how much of them do you want this year? How you can you best use your limited space for growing? Which crops will have different light, water and soil needs? Some soil drains more quickly than other soil and requires more watering. The sun has a different path in April than it does in July. All of these factors can be overwhelming. Let me recommend ideas that will make your garden planning easier.

Peas are usually the first crop to plant outdoors in the spring. It is most important that you plant them in a different area than last year, so you will have to move that trellis structure. Pea pests, especially the weevil, are too difficult to control, except by moving the crop to a whole different site. Pea vines are great because they take little room, growing compactly and up a trellis, rather than sprawling. I offered a full description of pea cultivation last Feb. so I won’t repeat it all here. But, after your pea harvest in July, the soil has been improved by the nitrogen fixing bacteria and you can use the same trellis structure for your summer crop of perhaps lemon cucumbers, baby boo pumpkins or tromboncino summer squash.

Crop rotation makes the organic gardener’s job much easier. Moving your crops to different parts of your garden will slow or eliminate many of your pest problems. Our food crops have particular pests that harm them but won’t be a problem for plants from a different “family”. Pea weevils won’t bother broccoli. Club root (the fungus that attacks brassicas like broccoli) won’t bother lettuce or carrots. Besides confusing plant pests, crop rotations can help provide the right soil nutrients to your plants without adding a lot of fertilizers. Some basic crop rotation concepts will help you plan your garden map for 2008 growing season.

Legumes (including peas and beans) are a family of plants that actually put more nitrogen into the soil than they use. They have colonies of bacteria that live on their roots that take nitrogen out of the air and excrete it into the soil, in a very useable form. Legumes such as peas, green beans, pole beans, fava beans, and edamame are common in NW vegetable gardens. Not only is it unnecessary to add nitrogen rich fertilizers for them to grow well, they will improve your soil for the crops you grow after them. Follow peas with cucumbers or follow a bean crop with broccoli or spinach (requiring more nitrogen) the next growing season. Salad greens (lettuce, arugula, green onions, etc.) will benefit from having that extra nitrogen from a previous legume crop. Or you may try planting a corn crop, which requires lots of nitrogen too. The Native American tradition on the east coast would plan for planting pole beans in amongst the corn, using the corn as the trellis and feeding the corn the nitrogen. Though an interesting, ornamental design, I find harvesting the beans very difficult in this plan. Perhaps it works better for dried beans, allowing them to stay on the stalk till fall. I don’t recommend growing dried bean varieties because of our wet September weather.

Remember that fruiting crops (tomatoes, peppers, squashes) don’t need as much nitrogen. If you add nitrogen rich fertilizers (blood meal or cottonseed meal), you will have problems growing tomatoes, because they get too much leaf growth and not enough fruits. The excess nitrogen in the leaves can cause severe problems with leaf spot and blight as well. Grow these fruiting vegetables after a crop of brassicas or leafy greens because the soil will have less nitrogen in it. Consider your onion crop as a “greens” crop since they also require extra nitrogen, usually following a legume crop. Carrots and beets (root crops) have less nitrogen requirements, so you can plant these after a leafy green or fruiting crop.

The simplest rotation to use when planning your garden: legumes then greens then fruiting crops then root crops and then back to legumes. Keep in mind the light requirements and water needs and this rotation will help increase your garden performance without as many added fertilizers.

Enjoy the lengthening days and we’ll get serious about getting the garden planted next month.

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