Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Good Life Project: falling into winter

Some more writing I did last year for consideration for Isuni's "Living the Good Life" book project. A version of this appeared in our "Island Tides" newspaper last February. Here's a link to the paper:

My Garden Year: Falling into Winter (2nd week of November to Winter Solstice)

Next year, I'm going to have my best garden yet!

This is such an inspiring time of year for me. As winter solstice approaches, I'm feeling the beginnings of a new garden season, full of new ideas, promise and hope. I love new beginnings. I think I must really have it bad - the gardening bug - because in the fall, as I'm still cleaning up the past summer's garden, I get that familiar feeling of creative anxiety welling up in my belly. I start getting excited about planting and growing things in the summer sunshine again!

Visions of beautiful concentric circles of different coloured baby lettuces dance in my head. Tidy groupings of carrots and broccoli that grow big and wonderful with no wireworm or cabbage moth damage. All the weeds under control. Cabbages that look like giant flowers. Sunflowers standing tall and shining bright and sweet pea flowers that smell divine. I can't wait!

Enough of all this fanciful dreaming, there's a lot of serious planning that has to happen now. A wise woman once told me, "Walk the mystical path with practical feet." So let's start planning next summer's garden!

Crop rotation and companion planting are the first things I think about when I'm beginning to plan my garden year. When we garden year after year with the intention of growing our own food it's really important to rotate the crops. This is because if we don't, we'll deplete the soil of important nutrient balances and encourage plant and soil diseases and pests that are attracted to the area if we've planted the same thing in the same place year after year.

A happy garden that's grown naturally without synthetic chemicals is a garden where plants that are good for each other are planted together and plants that aren't compatible are kept at a distance. So in my mind, crop rotation goes hand in hand with thoughtful companion planting.

To garden with a crop rotation plan, we need to start with a basic understanding of the different plant families. This is a big topic and feels a little too much like biology class to me which really gets in the way of my more enjoyable and creative gardening thoughts so I'll just share how I try to keep it simple at my place:

In my garden, I focus on organizing my food crops into these groups:
1. the cabbage family which includes broccoli and cauliflower, and the lovely brussels sprouts too,
2. the allium family, garlic, onions, leeks and chives,
3. the legume family which in my garden is beans and peas,
4. the tomato family which includes potatoes, peppers and eggplant too,
5. the carrot family which includes dill, fennel, parsley and celery,
6. the squash family, cucumbers, melons and pumpkins too,
7. spinach, beets and chard,
8. lettuce and some other salad greens,
9. and corn stands alone.

The idea is that every year I'll plant each family in a different spot. After 4 years the families can return to the same bed they grew in 4 years ago. And around and around it goes.

I like to draw a simple map of my garden every year where I write in what grew where. At this time of year, in the late fall and winter when I'm dreaming of next summer's best garden ever, I take out my drawings from the past 3 years and get out my row markers that are labelled things like "carrots" and "green bush beans" and "garlic". I begin to place them in the new year's beds, making sure they don't go into a bed they were in on my last 3 years of drawings. Even though it's kind of like a puzzle, it works surprisingly well for me. There are many ways of doing this and probably the best way for each of us to figure it out is by doing it.

While I'm deciding on the different plant families I'll grow and how I'll organize the rotation I get to figure out which plants will grow side by side and which ones I'll keep away from each other. Companion Planting! Now this gets really fun. So many creative possibilities. Dream. Plan. Create. Herbs. Vegetables. Flowers.

There are some things I always grow together like cabbages and lemon gem marigolds. Not only do the marigolds discourage the cabbage moth from laying it's eggs on my cabbages, it makes my heart sing every time I look at it because the little yellow flowers peeking out from around the cabbages are just so beautiful.

One of the best known examples of efficient and beautiful companion planting is The Three Sisters plant combination, originally a Native American approach to growing maize, beans and squash. This combination is now found in modern home gardens everywhere. I love planting The Three Sisters in my garden! When I lived in the city I grew this combo in big half barrel containers. Last year in my Mayne Island garden, I grew my Three Sisters in a round bed about six feet in diameter. I planted 16 sweet corn plants in the center, a whole bunch of bush bean seeds all around the corn plants (3 of these were pole beans so they could climb the corn to show off their lovely red flowers but didn't smother it) and six winter squash plants around the edge of the bed, mingling with the beans and circling the corn forest in the center. This little garden produced a load of green beans for many of our summertime dinners, most of the corn plants produced 2 ears of sweet corn each (what a summertime delicacy!) and my squash plants yielded 9 orange beauties for winter storage. All from a teeny tiny piece of earth. One of my gardening successes!

The reason this companion combination works so well is because beans and other legumes have the miraculous ability to draw nitrogen from the air and bring it to the soil through their roots. Since corn needs a lot of nitrogen to do well, it loves growing together with the beans that supply it with the nitrogen. The corn in return, gives the beans something to hold onto and climb. Squash loves the nitrogen from the beans too. As the vines grow and spread over the ground, the squash serves as a living mulch, keeping the soil moist and keeping weeds from growing. Symbiotic relationship, the beauty of companion planting.

For some winter reading and learning, the classic and well known companion planting guide "Carrots Love Tomatoes" by Louise Riotte is a nice place to start.

Happy Winter Solstice! May your dreams of the best garden yet come true!

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