Sunday, October 02, 2005

A Synopsis of Gardening Knowledge I Have Accumulated During a Lifetime of Digging It

Oct/Nov 2005 Grassroots Press column:

For the next few columns I’ll be writing about what we can do to live more sanely in an insane world. Gardening is a key element of any sane lifestyle package, so that’s where I’ll begin. As a onetime survivalist, I have grown a garden every year since 1968. I always do my best to grow a serious amount of food. During my years of gardening I have made a lot of mistakes, and have learned a few things. Here’s a brief synopsis of a few points of interest:

Gardening is excellent outdoor exercise which connects us to our ancient roots. Modern consumer society has lost its connection... not only to the Earth, but, in many cases, to reality itself. A disconcerting number of Americans believe that their personal beliefs are more important than physical reality. America has become trapped within a lethal fantasy of limitless consumption in which there is no truth (only spin), never any accountability, never any consequences. It’s no wonder Bubble Nation has a Bubble Boy president! Gardening, which forces us to slow down, to plan ahead, to become givers and not just takers, to become aware of the limitations as well as the bounty of the magical triad of sunlight-water-photosynthesis, can serve as an antidote to our American insanity.

Another key benefit of gardening is enhanced physical health. The physical exercise that gardening provides is good for us, of course. In addition, research shows that, statistically, the more fruits and vegetables we eat, the healthier we’ll be. So, obviously, we want to eat lots of fruits and vegetables if we want to achieve optimal health, and the best place to grow them is right in our own back yards, where they are guaranteed pure and fresh.

In our toxic world, it makes sense to flood our bodies with the highest-quality nutrients we can find, and this is where the freshness factor comes in: the veggies we eat right out of the garden don’t even know they’ve been picked. Vegetables from California – even the ones that have been organically grown – are at least a week or two old when you buy them from the store, and they have already lost their subtle flavors, and their more subtle nutrients. Try a store-bought organic cucumber or bell pepper in the middle of the winter, and marvel at the lack of quality. Profit, to the corporations that provide such products, is all that matters.

Nutrition is much more than what a chemical analysis can reveal. Nutrition, at the highest level, includes synergetic effects which cannot be measured in a laboratory. Go out in the garden, pick a bell pepper and eat it... there are factors involved of which modern science isn’t even aware. Let us be grateful for the factors we will never understand.

Almost everybody can grow a garden. Find a few square feet of dirt that receives several hours of sunlight a day, add some fertilizer, water, and seeds, and you’re in business.

The basic tools include a shovel for digging up the dirt, a rake for smoothing it, and a hoe for chopping weeds (though with a small garden, it’s easy to pull the weeds up by hand).
Compost (such as it is) and manure are available at any discount or garden supply store. Personally, I crumble bales of rich, leafy alfalfa hay onto my garden, and till it in with my rototiller. Ideally, any organic matter would be added to the soil several months before planting, in order to give it a chance to break down, but I usually skip this step, and usually get away with it.

Considering the benefits, it’s hard to overspend on a garden. For example, growing a garden and seriously eating out of it can prevent a lot of trips to the doctor... we are talking about saving big bucks for a small investment.

Fall is the perfect time of year to plant a winter garden -- lettuce, spinach, beets, collards, kale, chard, broccoli, etc. Planting in late August or early September is best in the Las Cruces area, but even if you plant late, your plants will overwinter and will start producing by early spring. Leaf lettuce, in particular, sprouts quickly and grows rapidly. In Las Cruces, no coldframe is necessary. Give your garden a good southern exposure for maximum sunlight. Cover with blankets on the coldest nights. Winter-hardy plants aren't damaged till temperatures get down to 15º or so, but plants that are covered at night produce better because they don't have to thaw out every morning. A 4x4-foot bed will produce enough greens for 1-2 people. Greens are high in protein, vitamins and minerals. And they’ll last all winter – just pick the outer leaves as you need them, and the plants will keep on growing until they bolt to seed in the spring (and even then, you can eat the flowering tops).

When growing frost-sensitive plants (tomatoes, peppers, melons, squash, etc.) it pays to extend the growing season. You can add a month or more onto each end of the growing season, which will greatly increase your harvest.

The wall-o-water is a water-filled plastic teepee that can protect plants down to 15º. I plant squash and melon seeds directly into the ground, and transplant my tomato and pepper seedlings into my garden by March 15 (some people do this even earlier), when it is still freezing every night in my area. Then I cover them with wall-o-waters. The womb-like environment inside the wall-o-water protects the young plants from wind as well as frost, and they grow rapidly. I leave my wall-o-waters on until mid-May, long after danger of frost is past, since they keep the plants warmer at night (frost-sensitive plants prefer warm nights). In my frost pocket, I start harvesting tomatoes by late May or early June, which gains me an entire month of extra production.

In the fall, before it gets seriously cold, we usually get a series light frosts interspersed with beautiful growing weather. I have accumulated a collection of ratty old blankets, and whenever frost is predicted, I cover my frost-sensitive plants with blankets. This adds several weeks, and sometimes an entire month or more, onto the end of the growing season.

I don’t use shade cloth, except for growing lettuce in the middle of the summer, but then again I have plenty of water. For people who want to minimize the amount of irrigation water necessary, shade cloth can prove beneficial, and many gardeners use shade cloth to modify an otherwise-harsh environment. Shade cloth is worthy of serious research. Here’s an excellent research project: compare how well different crops grow, with different amounts of water, under direct sun, 30% shade, and 50% shade.

Thanks to global warming, the weather is becoming more extreme... which means, among other things, more hail. Late last winter we had a hail storm, which is highly unusual for wintertime, but no doubt a portent of things to come. Usually we get the worst hail during the early summer, when the nights are still cool. The contrast between hot days and cool nights provides an ideal breeding ground for extreme weather (this is when tornadoes in the Midwest are most likely).

After a devastating hail storm in early June 2004, I determined to give my plants at least a modicum of hail protection. I grow my tomato plants in 5-foot-high cylinders of 6"x6" reinforcing mesh, so it was easy to wire a 2x2-foot piece of ½" hardware cloth onto the top of each cylinder. I grow my peppers in 3-foot-high wire cylinders, to keep the fruit-laden plants from blowing over, so once again it was easy to protect them with hardware cloth. This will at least protect from hail falling straight down. I still haven’t figured out how to protect my sprawling melon and squash vines. It would be very expensive to cover an entire garden with hardware cloth.

I know one gardener on East Mesa who has problems with mice, hail, and wind. He surrounds each bed with closely-fitting cinderblocks to keep out the mice and protect from wind. He lays a 4-foot x 15-foot livestock panel on top of each bed, which supports hardware cloth for hail protection. Shade cloth could also be used. Add some drip irrigation, and you have a total systems approach to gardening. This might be necessary as conditions become more extreme.

The limiting factor for most gardens is water. It doesn’t matter how much land you have if you don’t have enough water. Water is becoming more scarce, and therefore more expensive. Drip irrigation, which applies the water directly to the roots with minimal evaporation, allows for optimal plant growth with the least amount of water. You can precisely control how much water your plants receive. Also, you can add an automatic timer to your drip system, which allows you to go on trips without having to find somebody to water your garden for you. Drip systems are inexpensive, and one of the most valuable gardening investments you can make. Most gardening and building supply stores sell basic drip supplies, but if you want the full spectrum of drip possibilities, try Dripworks, .

Rainwater is the highest quality irrigation water available. Well water contains salts which build up in the soil. Rainwater helps to leach the accumulated salts below the root zone.
The most feasible source of rainwater, for most people, is the roof of your house. Assuming 8" of rain a year, 1000 square feet of roof will collect nearly 5000 gallons of water each year. Also, a roof can concentrate an otherwise-insignificant amount of rain – a ¼" shower on a 1000-square-foot roof will yield nearly 156 gallons of high quality water.

Rainfall in the Southwest tends to be spotty. We can go months without a drop, and then will be flooded by an inch or more in half an hour. Deep-rooted plants -- trees, shrubs or deep-rooted annuals such as tomatoes -- are best suited to the occasional deep irrigations provided by direct runoff irrigation from a roof. The water penetrates deeply into the soil, and the excess water will be stored in the soil until the plants can use it.

A water harvesting system can be as simple as a gutter, a downspout, and a pipe to convey the water to your garden. The most elegant way is to store the rainwater in a storage tank. That way, you can irrigate when you want to rather than depending on the vagaries of the weather. We have an excellent source of UV-resistant, plastic water tanks in the Las Cruces area – Western Tank, 526-5946. Their tanks range from 305 gallons, $287, to 5000 gal., $2969. Their most cost-effective tank (cheapest cost per gallon) is the 2500 gallon tank, $1137. They offer free delivery in the Las Cruces area.

Water from sinks and bathtubs can be used for irrigation. This requires making some plumbing connections, and perhaps drilling a hole though an outside wall. It makes sense to reuse your "waste" water. Speaking of waste, Americans persist in the curious habit of defecating into perfectly good drinking water, then flushing it "away." The point is, there is no "away." We are all right here, sharing the same little planet. "Away" for you, might be my backyard... and vice versa.

Salads and steamed veggies are great, but in my family we find that one way to enhance our daily dose of veggies is to juice them. A glass of veggie juice contains the concentrated essence of more vegetables than we are likely to sit down and eat. During summer, our juice is a tasty blend of carrot, pepper, tomato, cucumber, and a bit of beet. In the winter, our juice is much more medicinal – carrot, beet (including the tops), weeds including grass, and whatever greens we have growing. Winter juice can be foul stuff, so we go heavy on the carrots and add just as many green leaves as we can stand. Green leaves provide excellent nutrition, but a few go a long way. Our rule of thumb for winter juice: the worse it tastes, the better it is for you.

We are serious juicers, so we bought a Green Power juicer about ten years ago and use it almost every day. If you are just starting out, try an inexpensive juicer and see if juicing becomes a habit for you.

Gardening can be enjoyable, creative, and beneficial on many levels. The Long Emergency ( has already begun. Global warming has passed the point of no return ( The previous era of taken-for-granted prosperity is coming to an end, and an unprecedented era of eco-catastrophes is now upon us. Government ruled by Republicans has proven embarrassingly inept at everything except for subsidizing the rich. It’s up to us -- as individuals, families, and small groups -- to find our own way through the morass. But rather than despairing, we can view this as a unique opportunity to finally live in harmony with our planet. Just because it’s never been done before doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Gardening is a great place to start.