This post was most recently updated on May 18th, 2015
At our place, it’s once again time to get the garden prepped and planted. Several years ago, we established a permanent garden spot, complete with raised beds that we built from reclaimed lumber and pallet boxes. We hauled in soil and fertilizer (read: manure from the corral), drew up detailed planting charts and diagrams and vowed that from that point on, our garden was going to produce enough to feed our growing family and provide preserved food for winter. We were confident that it would also produce in such abundance that we would be able to sell our overflow of vegetables at the local farmer’s market and come away with a tidy sum of cash for our efforts. That was the first year in a cycle of drought and record-setting heatwaves that have since lingered on in our part of the country for 6 years straight.
After the third year of busting our tails, only to watch our crops either wither and die from the scorching heat, or be eaten by desperate wildlife – so hungry from the lack of vegetation across the land that they were willing to brave the dangers of getting close to our house for a morsel of something green … we almost gave up completely. Without any rain to help things grow, we were relying solely on water from our rural water district for our garden, already severely taxed because of all the cattle producers who were also depending on commercial water for their livestock. Not to mention every other member of the district trying to scratch out a garden, keep their lawn alive or just keep up with their basic household water needs. It was incredibly expensive and when the garden failed to produce more than a handful of a few vegetables, there was no way we could justify continuing to pour money, labor and water into the project.
In the end, we did persevere (mostly because we couldn’t imagine the drought lasting for so long) and found the secret to successful gardening, even in the face of blistering heat and ridiculously arid weather patterns. Chicken poop. That’s the secret. You see, all along, we’d been fertilizing our beds with composted manure from our cattle pen. It made the soil rich and fertile and was helping boost the growing power of our struggling plants. But it wasn’t until we brought in some chicken manure, left over from fertilizing our feed and Bermuda fields, that we saw amazing results. Just a small amount worked into each of the beds made the plants grow to astonishing proportions. We still had some problems with the extreme heat keeping some of the plants from flowering. And because the temperatures didn’t drop below 90°, even at night, our tomatoes refused to turn from green to ripe, delicious red. But the chicken poop was the key, we found, to making the plants strong and healthy enough to withstand the hot, dry conditions. From that point on, we began to make other small changes in our gardening practices, tweaking our strategy on water, pest control, wind (we have a tremendous amount of wind here), and sun protection – everything coalescing around the all-important foundation of chicken poop.
This is our second year of (mostly) successful gardening under extremely challenging conditions. And these are some of the strategies we’ve put into practice to give us maximum produce with minimum effort.
Raised beds – they don’t have to be fancy or expensive, but raised beds make gardening much simpler. We built our beds from 2 x 6’s of varying lengths and reclaimed shipping crates. Most of them are rectangular, no more than 3 feet wide. We have a few small square beds, but the truth is that it’s much easier to reach from either side of the rectangular beds than to teeter on the border of a large square bed, trying to reach a weed in the middle while not stepping (or falling) into the bed itself. So keep your beds narrow enough that you can reach across them with no trouble. Also, make sure you leave a path between your beds so you can walk easily around them, mow or weed-eat between them or even use mulch of some type to discourage weed or grass growth. This cuts down on the pests and prevents surprise visits from snakes. Raised beds are easier to weed, if you remember to lay down a layer of landscape fabric, thick newspaper, cardboard or other barrier before adding your soil. They are easier to harvest, too, especially if you employ some of the other tips I’m going to share with you.
Trellises are your friend. Anyone who has had to wade around, ankle deep in cucumber, cantaloupe or summer squash vines will tell you it’s not fun. The plants themselves make you itchy and can often leave tiny, hairlike stickers in your skin. Also, things like to hide in those messy vines … things like snakes. Or those really gross and scary looking garden spiders that make me shriek and smoosh them before I remember they’re beneficial to the garden. Putting a braced trellis in the bed with vine or climbing plants will make your life in the garden safer and less surprising. It will be easier to spot all the cucumbers when you pick instead of being shocked by a monster cucumber that you’ve missed for several days in row. Depending on the strength of your trellis material, this plan will work for larger fruits and vegetables, too, like pumpkins, cantaloupe or watermelons (not the gi-normous State Fair prizewinners, but smaller varieties). We use metal cattle panels for our trellises, mostly because we sometimes have bent or broken ones around the farm and it’s a good way to get something for nothing. But you can also use pallets, lattice material, chain link fencing stretched between poles or old gates. Use your imagination.
Water wisely. Using a sprinkler system is one of the most frustrating ways to water a garden. It’s trumped only by the ‘stand with the hose pipe and water each bed individually’ method. Both take a long time and require quite a bit of monitoring. Plus, you always seem to get a lot of water where you don’t need it and not enough where you do. Investing in some soaker hoses is a good idea. Stringing them throughout your beds will make sure the water is getting to the plants and not being blown all over the place by the wind, and, you won’t be watering the pathways between your beds and encouraging weeds and grass to grow there. Rain collection systems can be expensive, but there are a multitude of DIY plans that illustrate how easy it is to put one together from inexpensive or even free materials. Do what you can to collect rainwater for use in your garden. Fortunately for us, there is a water well at the other place which will allow us to haul water (free of charge) in shuttles to our cattle and … our garden. We’ll be spending a little cash to get it up and running but it’s a fraction of the cost of trying to drill a new well or paying for rural water. This year, we’re implementing a watering system that uses the shuttles, hoses and gravity to provide our garden with moisture. We’re very excited about it. Whatever you can do to get water to your garden without endangering your household budget will pay off.
I won’t go too much into pest control here. I think it’s a deeply personal choice and I don’t judge anyone for the products or methods they use to keep critters out of their garden. I will say that building a fence out of reclaimed pallets and lining it with snow fence has kept most of the rabbits out of our vegetables. Stringing hot wire – one at 6 feet and another at 8 feet off the ground – keeps curious deer away, too. And raccoons, opossums and skunks don’t much like getting shocked when they try to crawl over, either. Just remember not to touch the top of the fence with the hoe or rake – that zap when metal touches metal isn’t pleasant. The combination of fencing helps protect our garden from the wind, also. And because we put the garden near a wind break, it receives a moderate amount of shade during the hottest part of the day. Since I consider both excessive wind and excessive sun to be pests … I feel both issues needed to be addressed.
Last year, I started companion planting – planting certain plants together in the same bed because they grow well together – and it worked great. I found a very comprehensive list on the Internet that matches up practically every garden plant you can imagine and also says which plants to keep far from each other. I know several other local gardeners who’ve started to use this method and they have also reported good results. I like this system because it promotes healthy plants with good production, reduces weeding because the beds are more densely planted and encourages us to experiment with new garden items.
In the great scheme of gardening, I make no claims at being a master. I am frequently frustrated and sometimes just plain lazy. But over the past few years, we’ve consistently improved our production and decreased our workload, which has made us very happy. Especially considering the horrible weather circumstances we’ve been dealing with since we moved here! I hope I’ve offered some helpful advice that will make your gardening experience more satisfying and less frustrating. In these times of skyrocketing grocery prices and other economic terrors, gardening can be an important way to boost your family’s budget and provide high quality nourishment. Gardening can also be full of lessons on work ethic, self-sufficiency, biology, agriculture, and other life-improving ideas for you and your kids. We’ve been inspired by gardening to find more ways to save money, make ourselves more self-sufficient and less dependent on others, too. Whether you’re planting a 2 acre truck farm or a small container garden on your apartment balcony, I wish you happy growing!