Monday, April 4, 2011

It All Starts With Dirt

Jay Leshinsky
by Jay Leshinsky- NE Trial Garden Manager

Getting Started:
From the time I was very young I've loved eating from the garden. I can remember sitting along side of my grandparent's raspberry patch on a hot summer day, eating my way from one end of the rows to the other and loving the taste of those slightly warm berries. However until I graduated from college I wasn't the least bit interested in working in a garden. Then my roommates and I rented a house, and we decided to start a vegetable garden so we could grow our own food. Only one of us had ever gardened before and he had been taught by his father to grow vegetables organically. So since that first garden, I've been an organic gardener, just because it suits me and has always made the most sense.

Planting a Seedling
Why Organic?
I started gardening organically because I didn't want to eat crops that were raised using synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. So originally, my main gardening technique was not to use synthetics. But the more I studied organic methods and talked with organic farmers, I learned it was not only what I didn't use that mattered, it was also what I did to care for the soil that mattered because I heard from those organic farmers was that I should feed the soil and the soil would feed the plants.

Building the Soil:

Both in my own home garden and at the Middlebury College Organic Garden that I manage and where we trial Renee's Garden varieties, I use different techniques for building soil that will feed my plants. In our cold winter climate, we begin our soil building cycle in the fall by making sure our soil is covered during the winter to protect it from erosion by wind and water. We do this by planting cover crops like oats or cover some areas with straw or leaves. By the time spring weather finally arrives here in New England and it's time to get the soil ready for planting, these mulches will have begun to really break down and the students and I will incorporate them into the soil.
Student volunteer spreading compost on the beds.  In the background is a cover crop of yellow sweet clover.
Other cover crops like clover, rye or winter wheat are planted in fall, go dormant in the winter and start regrowth in spring. After they get some new green growth, these living mulches can be turned into the soil to add lots of green organic matter. Fully or partially decayed organic matter helps feed earthworms as well as the microscopic soil life that work to turn organic matter into slow release food for plants.
Preparing soil for planting
I have found that this organic matter really improves the tilth and structure of the soil, helping break up tight clay soils and making sandy soil less porous. Plants can more easily establish vigorous root systems in these soils. It helps soils retain water and hold it for use by plants. You can work huge changes in your garden soil by using this "green manure" cover crop method. And if you can't turn your cover crop directly into the soil, you can cut it down, compost it and incorporated in the garden that way – that's what Lindsay does at the trial garden in Northern California.

Good Bugs:
Even with our soil building program, numerous pesky insects can affect our crops in our Vermont climate. We do some hand picking of potato bugs and Japanese beetles, but for most of our insect defenses we are constantly experimenting with different plantings of flowers and flowering herbs that attract beneficial insects to our garden. (I described some our flower and herb planting to attract beneficials in my blog post of September 21, 2010.)
So we feed the soil, the soil feeds the plants and our plants feed us.

Alyssum "Summer Romance"
attracts beneficial insects


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