Friday, January 3, 2014

The Garlic Patch - no till gardening

Have you ever looked at a patch of weeds and thought, "I'm going to turn this into a garden?" This was the situation we faced when we first rented our community garden.  A local Missoula nonprofit, Garden City Harvest, rents out 15ft by 15ft garden plots at various locations throughout our community.  Garden plots run about $55/year and returning gardeners are given the first opportunity to re-rent their plot.  This is a key factor, for the primary reason, that conscientious farmers improve their soils from one year to the next, adding value and nutrients each consecutive growing season. That being said, our plot was fairly weed ridden when it came into our hands. Some may see this as a curse, but we saw it as a blessing as it meant our plot had laid fallow for at least a season.  By laying fallow with a cover crop of weeds, the soil organic content, and soil structure of our plot was had likely become higher than plots which are tilled twice per year every     year.

          Our first order of business was to remove the unwanted plants. The disciplines of permaculture (Mollison/Lawton/Holmgren/Holzer), natural farming (Fukuoka), and also basic soil texbooks suggest that tilling or plowing a field damages the availability of soil nutrients and soil structure.  When we stir up the soil, we increase the amount of oxygen, which in turn increases microbial activity.  This increased microbial activity and the physical breakup of soil aggregates during tilling leads to the break down of organic matter, which is essential to the water holding and nutrient holding capacity of the soil.  Once the organic matter is gone, microbial activity decreases and microbes begin to die, surrendering their bodily nutrients to the soil strata.  When plants are present, these nutrients can be utilized; however, when plants are not present, many nutrients will wash down and out of the soil strata.  Consider this - by increasing soil organic matter by 1%, we increase soil water holding capacity by 3.7%!

          Bearing this in mind, we utilized soil forks to remove unwanted grasses and weeds, taking care to disrupt the soil as little as possible.  Our main goal at this stage was to remove roots that would continue to grow - i.e., quackgrass rhizome growth.  Once the unwanted plants were removed, we added 2 bags (6 cubic feet) of Happy Frog soil conditioner and rough raked the whole plot.  We then mixed sand and approximately 2000 seeds of various edible species together to help evenly hand-sow our plot.  We chose this planting method in an attempt to out compete and weeds.

Our plot after 9 days
Our plot after ~ 39 days
In what seemed like no time at all, we had a raging garden of edibles. Sunchokes sprang from the ground and reached toward the sky as kale, radish, and mustard took the middle ground.

By late July, our garden was an oasis of green between gardens with neatly rowed crops and paths.  When we visited the plot, we saw little to no weeds.  We noticed weeds encroaching on the sides of the gardens, but very few within the garden itself.  In fact, the few weeds we did see inside the garden were spindly at best, desperately trying to gain hold amongst the edibles.  We made another discovery during this time - the ground was always moist and never dry, even during the hottest of summer days.  Granted, we were fortunate enough to have rented an irrigated plot, but this ran only once per week.  Turns out, having a crowded garden allows for greater soil coverage by plants, thus decreasing the amount of evaporation of soil water to the atmosphere!

 It was fantastic to visit the garden at this point - there was never much 'work' to do, rather, we admired the now flowering edibles, the insects they drew, and of course, the endless bounty of harvest!  During one visit, we harvested about 2/3 of the garden - flowers, tender seed pods, and stems, which in turn became 10 gallons of delicious green kim chi.  The yellow, white, and purple flowers added great aesthetics to the batch!

Our plot after ~ 140 days
By removing 2/3 of the plant matter from the garden, we allowed plants that were struggling with competition to fill in.  While we worried that this would allow for weed growth, we were pleasantly surprised to see tall, lanky kale begin to fill out and take over.  By the end of the growing season, we had about 1/3 of the plot in seed and the rest in purple leaf kale!

Seed harvest with Lia and J.B.
After a successful season, it was time to close the plot for winter. Sunchokes were dug up - some for eating, some for replanting elsewhere - and about 1/2 of the remaining seed stock was harvested.  Harvested seed stock was removed from the stem in complete pods and stored in brown paper bags over winter in a cool dark space.

Next, we employed a weed wacker to make light work of the above ground biomass.  This was raked to the side so that we could assess the plot and prepare for our next planting.

Thus began our garlic patch.  At this point, we made straight rows by pounding a stake into the ground, attaching string and then stretching it straight and securing it to another pounded post.  We were then able to dig a small trench for the garlic. Rows
Removing above ground biomass, while leaving root structure intact
were spaced roughly 12 inches apart and garlic cloves were spaced about 6 inches apart.  The cloves were placed about an inch under the soil surface and the trench filled back in.  Once the garlic was planted, we pulled the removed biomass back onto the plot and spread it around.  We then spread one bale of straw over the entire plot and whalla, the garden was prepared for the winter!

Now I wish we could show you pictures from the following growing season, but alas, no one in our group thought of taking any!?!
Making rows and planting garlic
What I can tell you is this - we visited the plot only a handful of times.  In our visits, we noticed that nearly all of the garlic had sprouted and in the rows between, seeds left over from the successful kale, mustard, and radishes had sprouted. We were again able to out compete the weeds with edibles, even though we used no herbicides and we planted no new seed.  At the end of the season, we counted 480 heads of garlic harvested from our little 15 ft by 15 ft plot!

We closed the plot this past growing season in a way quite
Closed for winter
similar to that noted above, albeit, this season we filled the garlic trenches back up with compost, then raked the soil, then added the biomass and straw.  I'll be sure to add pictures from 2014!

Side note - we will put a crop other than garlic in for 2015, as it is suggested that Alliums should only be planted in the same place for two consecutive years before rotation.  More on that later though!  Happy planting!!!