I’ve always wanted a garden that produced so many vegetables I’d have to give them away. I got a vision of that kind of garden when I attended Steve Walach’s talk at the Northeast Organic Farming Association conference in Amherst this past weekend.
Walach, who supervises the garden at Friends Academy in Dartmouth, south of Boston, keeps meticulous records. Last year, with help from students and their parents, this organic garden’s 2,150 square feet of growing beds brought forth an amazing 1,320 pounds of lettuce, 583 pounds of summer squash, 422 pounds of kale, 273 pounds of carrots — 5,921 pounds in all. This is more vegetables than the students can eat, so he gives most of them to soup kitchens and food pantries.
How does he do it? Most organic gardens are under-fertilized, Walach said, so he pays close attention to putting nutrients into the soil before he takes vegetables out of it. First, he mixes soil from 12 beds for a test to determine the average pH and what nutrients are needed. Last year he put in one cubic feet of screened compost for every 30 to 40 square feet of garden bed, and supplemented weekly by spraying the foliage with diluted fish emulsion and kelp “when the humidity is high and the sun is low.”
He pays attention to the nutrient needs of each plant. Tomatoes like extra phosphorous, root crops like extra phosphorous and potassium, and carrots like less nitrogen than other plants, he said. His goal is to have two to three crops per bed per year, planted in succession.
Walach believes in minimal disruption of the soil, using only hand tools. Row covers and plastic keep insects out and warm the soil. He starts the process while there’s snow on the ground , usually January or February, when he starts seeds inside for onions and greens. He grows sturdy seedlings for transplant using fluorescent lights and makes sure to water the seedlings thoroughly. (see his method in photo).
Here are some Walach’s tips that I found particularly useful:
- Brassicas like broccoli and kale should have a four-year bed rotation, but tomatoes don’t mind being in the same bed as last year.
- Seaweed is an excellent fertilizer and is free at the coast. He spreads it on his beds in December.
- He uses pheremone traps to foil the squash vine borer moth.
- With seedlings, he looks for stems that are thick, not tall.
- He used to plant winter rye as a cover crop but now thinks it’s too difficult to incorporate into the soil in the spring, so he now uses oats and hairy vetch.
- He favors Vermont Compost seed starting mix.
- The air temperature doesn’t matter; the soil temperature is crucial.
- He gets two pounds of potatoes per square foot, and puts greensand in the trenches.
- He plants in 4-foot-wide beds, spacing crop plants on a diagonal grid to maximize how many he can fit in the bed. Simple homemade templates help keep the vegetables evenly spaced (as shown in photo.
This is the third in a series of posts on topics raised at the Northeast Organic Farming Association conference Aug. 14-16. For readers new to this blog, check out this quick overview of more than 120 past posts on simple living, radical frugality, living without, fruits & vegetables, and climate change