The Complete Guide to Country Living

Book Two
Plants

by
Gene GeRue
author of
How To Find Your Ideal Country Home
and many friends

ISSN: 1528-8056

Copyright 2008 Gene GeRue
Return to Ruralize your dreams

Go back to Book One: Designing and building the homestead
Go to Book Three: Animals
Return to Complete Guide index
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Overview and action sequence
1. Garden design and tools
2. Vegetables
3. Herbs
4. Grain
5. Pasture and hay
6. Lawn
7. Fruit
8. Nuts
9. Shade
10. Firewood and lumber
11. Ornamentals
Sources of additional plant information
Plant bibliography

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Overview and action sequence

To grow good food, create good soil. Soil is full of microorganisms such as bacteria and macroorganisms like earthworms. Your job is to feed all those microscopic mouths. Bacteria, actinomycetes, fungi, algae, protozoa, nematoda and earthworms eat the food you provide and poop out the food that plants absorb with their really tiny feeder roots. All these organisms are part of perhaps the most intricate biological cycle in the world. Feed the soil, provide ample water and drainage, and with enough sunlight and heat you can grow a lot of your food, food that is superior to anything in stores because you eat it when it is at its optimum flavor and nutrition levels.

Let's talk about open pollinated seeds versus hybrids. Sixty million American gardeners buy their seeds from mail order seed companies. In the period 1984-1987, 54 of the 230 seed companies in the U.S. and Canada went out of business, resulting in 943 non-hybrid varieties becoming unavailable. One answer to the extinction of food crop varieties is Seed Savers Exchange, the publisher of Seed to Seed. Begun in 1975, SSE maintains more than 18,000 rare vegetable varieties at Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa. (Call 319-382-5990 for catalog and membership information.)

Another answer is for individual gardeners to save their own seed from non-hybrid varieties. Varieties that grow and taste exceptionally well in specific areas can be planted year after year from home-grown seed. A further advantage is protection from seed price increases.

Hybrid seeds are in the control of large companies. You can be in control of heirloom varieties that do best in your garden.

Grow what you eat. Keep track of what you buy at the market for a couple months. Then decide what you want to grow. Salad fixings, potatoes, tomatoes and peppers are easy to grow.

Select varieties for flavor. Food should be delicious as well as nutritious. Supermarkets sell produce from commercial growers that is chosen because it is easy to raise and it ships well. You can raise what delights your palate.

Four plant protection methods are useful:

1. Companion planting, purposely seeding or setting plants in proximity because they have been observed to be beneficial to each other. Legumes--peas, beans, alfalfa--produce nitrogen, corn heavily feeds on nitrogen.

2. Mixed cropping, emulating nature, avoiding insect and disease plagues by fostering a healthful mix of insect life, so-called "good" insects and "bad" insects. Guy Ames, from whom I buy my fruit trees (Ames Nursery), leaves unmown swaths of weeds between rows of trees to nurture beneficial insect populations.

3. Repellent planting, for instance using odiferous plants next to susceptible plants to confuse insects looking for baby-food on which to lay their eggs or just looking for a free meal. Mexican bean beetles can't stand marigold, petunia, potato, rosemary, summer savory.

4. Trap cropping, which uses attractive plants to lure bugs from valued food plants. Dill attracts tomato hornworm--if there is enough dill amongst tomatoes, Brandywines and Romas suffer little and the fat worms are easily found on the slender dill.

Only if we insist on gardening the rigid straight-row, monocrop human way do we need to resort to biological controls such as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), lady beetles, parasitic wasps.

Each of these four methods is worthy of study and experimentation. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of gardening is that we can never know it all, we cannot control nature. Each spring we go back to school, into the garden. What a wonderful way to study life.

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1. Garden design and tools

Lehman's

Chinese, Japanese and Koreans have raised food for four thousand years in small, intensively planted plots using mostly humanure for fertilizer--see Farmers of Forty Centuries, by F.H. King. French Intensive methods were developed in the 1890s by market gardeners outside Paris, a time when horses provided more-than-ample fertilizer and the city provided a ready market for vegetables. Rudolf Steiner in 1924 created biodynamic farming, which used prepared potions to stimulate growth and planting during certain days of the moon cycle. Alan Chadwick studied under both Steiner and French gardeners and brought his knowledge to the U.S. where John Jeavons (The Sustainable Vegetable Garden) carries on research with biodynamic/French Intensive gardening, now simply called biointensive gardening. The biointensive method requires double-digging garden beds and adding compost or aged manure. Double-digging to two feet in depth provides loose soil that roots easily penetrate. Plants are seeded or transplanted very close together and form a living mulch, shading roots, causing greater water retention, denying sunlight to weeds. Other aspects of the method are planting and transplanting by the phases of the moon and daily sprinkling rather than periodical flooding. Other designs for gardening worth study are no-till gardening by Masanobu Fukuoka (One-Straw Revolution and The Natural Way of Farming) and permaculture by Bill Mollison (Permaculture: A Designers Manual). Ruth Stout ( Gardening Without Work: For the Aging, the Busy and the Indolent) popularized the heavy mulch method; Mel Bartholomew brought attention to intensive planting with his book on square-foot gardening. Author-gardener Dick Raymond (Garden Ways Joy of Gardening) combines most of the above, using wide-bed intensive plantings, raised beds, mulch, terraces as the plant or the soil dictate.

All of the various gardening methods have merit but each garden has unique conditions. Raised beds provide superior drainage but without high organic content may require more irrigation. Heavy mulch suppresses weeds and feeds the soil but keeps soil cool, ideal for potatoes but imperfect for tomatoes and potentially disastrous for many plants during prolonged cold, wet springs. Intensive planting creates a living mulch, the touching leaves shading the soil, but requires that soil be kept at optimal fertility or the plants will be stunted.

Factors to be considered for garden design include the condition of your back, the nature of soil including drainage, amount of rainfall, growing season temperatures, solar aspect. Soil can be improved but it is hard work. Collect all of the weed- and chemical-free organic materials you can get at reasonable cost: sawdust, wood chips, straw (hay nearly always has a lot of weed seeds, especially the first cutting), leaves, grass clippings, stable cleanings, manure. Compost everything or layer it on your future garden beds and let microorganisms convert it to humus, prime organic material for garden soil.

Do your level best

Lay out beds and rows on the level to maximize rainfall, minimize erosion, make the gardener's life easier. A homemade field level can be constructed with three pieces of one-by-two lumber fastened into the shape of a tall A, with the legs spread six to seven feet apart. Hang a string from a nail at the center-top of the A, fasten a stone or other weight to the bottom of the string below the crosspiece. Set the device on the ground, let the weight stop moving and mark the spot where it touches the crosspiece. Precisely reverse the legs' ground positions and do it again. The place between the two marks is the level spot. You can now "walk" your field level across the area where you wish to make a bed, marking the leg positions at the ground when the string is on the level mark. Use those marks as the bottom or top edge of your bed.

The kitchen garden

A fine example of a kitchen garden on limited space may be found at Journey to Forever organic garden.

The scattered garden

Hot peppers cross-pollinate and infuse sweet peppers with fire, egg-laying moths, various soil diseases can be thwarted by planting in small garden plots that are well away from each other. The butterfly that lays eggs that become foliage devouring monsters may find one patch but not another. So better to have several small gardens around your house area that putting all your veggies in one basket.

Raised bed versus traditional flat gardening.

To dig or not to dig garden beds that are heavily mulched?

Following is an exchange from the homestead mailing list:

Lee Flier asked:
Have you noticed any actual difference in yields between those beds that you turn over after several years of sheet mulching and those you don't?

James Skeen, who homesteads in eastern Tennessee, replied:
Yes, I've noticed several differences but only in certain crops.

BEANS planted right on hard clay or sod and covered with mulch (or on top of the decayed duff with hard soil only an inch or so below) will produce modest foliage and a huge crop of beans. The roots do a job on the hard soil beneath but only on a small area per plant. The roots seem to go straight down quite deep before branching. Planted on loosened soil (say, to 10 inches) and covered with mulch, the foliage is greener and heavier but the beans are not quite so abundant and take longer to mature. How some ever, the root branches profusely right where it sprouted and divides into a vast beard of rootlets that cover 12 inches across or more before they encounter the harder soil beneath. The organic mass produced is quite a bit larger.

POTATOES only set potatoes from the depth of the seed piece up (except that some fingerlings begin there and grow point down like sweet potatoes). I have concluded that it is counter-productive to dig a hole (or furrow) and put the potatoes there. So I have consistently been using my poorest ground for potatoes and making the bed an active compost factory to boot. But having some seed left and nothing but dug ground to put them on, I've found no difference in the production whether the ground underneath was hard clay or a mature bed dug deeply.

CABBAGE and broccoli-sprouts, kale and such grow much larger on the cultivated ground with a deep mulch than on uncultivated ground with mulch. The brassica seem to send down that huge taproot until it anchors on something solid and then fill the space from there up with a mass of rootlets. "Much larger" isn't always an advantage. Getting the cauliflower and broccoli to head in loose soil requires that transplants go in at a certain size with a frustratingly small tolerance.

CORN and the three sisters: my corn is planted four inches deep to frustrate the crows, which it does. The soil is very deep and loose beneath that. I've found that the corn will send down a taproot until it decides it is on a solid footing. Then it sends down the support roots to about the same depth. The corn I've grown on loose soil will have a crown of support roots 20 inches across at the bottom while the same type of corn grown on ground that has not been cultivated (both mulched) will have a crown of roots eight to ten inches across. While the former stands up to wind better, I've noticed no difference in the yields. Squash and pumpkin roots seem to be too shallow to care one way or the other.

CARROTS, PARSNIPS, SALSIFY grow far and away better in my experience on cultivated ground. My yields on the deep beds are many times what I've gotten on not-so-deep beds.

BEETS and TURNIPS don't actually grow very far under the soil surface do the loose soil is not so important as it is for carrots. But the roots of beets (and spinach and chard) begin to branch into a fine beard spreading a larger distance that those grown in not-so-loose soil. The yields are a little better in loose soil.

ONIONS and LEEKS get much bigger the deeper the soil is loose (for me). Quite the opposite of other plants, alliums seem to put long thick roots down through the loose soil (obliquely, not straight down) and then branch out when they encounter harder soil. I would have thought onions would do better on firmer soil, but they didn't. One bed of onions last year had been double dug, planted in potatoes with 12 inches of mulch, then planted in beans with six inches of mulch. I poked a hole in the whole mass and dropped in the slips. The onions were huge.

These are just my observations. There's no night and day difference for most things, but creating a ten inch bed of loose soil does seem to boost yields of some things. However, my mind has changed on a great many things in 30 years of gardens and I imagine that's not a habit I'll give up any time soon.

Intensive versus spacious.

Terraces

My main garden has evolved from rectangular raised beds aligned with compasss points to long raised beds on the natural contour of the land. Each bed has a retaining wall of oak planks on the downhill edge of the bed. The uphill bed edge is sloping, shaped by the rake. The plank walls are nine feet apart. This allows a grass path wide enough for easy mowing. The clippings are blown onto the downhill bed. The paths are sloped downhill, so that each bed gets extra water from each rainfall. I have limed the paths to encourage clover to grow there, for its nitrogen production. Intensive versus typical. Tractors and rototillers versus hand soil preparation. The value of perennials.

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2. Vegetables (seed sources at end of vegetable chapter)

To feed yourself, feed the soil microorganisms.

Potatoes thrive in a slightly acidic soil--pH less than six, ideally 4.8 to 5.5. Potato scab is most likely to occur in soil with a higher pH, so do not lime or put ashes on potato beds. Manure should be well-aged, preferably dug into the soil the previous fall. Compost, leaves and grass clippings are also good sources of food for soil microorganisms that will feed potato roots.

You can grow potatoes from certified disease-free seed potatoes, save potatoes from one year to the next and use the smallest ones for seed, or you can buy a sack at the grocery store, cut them into pieces and plant them. Unless purchased potatoes are certified organic you can be sure that they were grown using lots of chemicals. Supermarket potatoes are sometimes treated with anti-sprout chemicals. Put them in a single layer in a shallow cardboard box and place in a sunny window. In a couple or three weeks the anti-sprout chemicals will fail and the potatoes will begin to sprout. Cut them into pieces that each have at least two eyes and plant them.

Some gardeners simply place seed pieces on good ground, cover them with a foot or more of mulch and keep adding mulch until plants are mature. This method makes it easiest to harvest but requires lots of mulch to avoid exposure of new tubers to the sun late in the season. A danger is a very wet spring, which may cause rot. The failsafe way to grow potatoes is to fertilize and dig soil in a raised bed in the fall, then in spring make a trench by dragging a hoe through the loosened soil, toss in a small potato or a cut piece that contains two or more eyes every foot or so, then cover them with dirt. As foliage stretches above the soil keep pulling more dirt into the trench. After the trench is full be sure to tuck mulch under the growing parts. The mulch will help to keep the plants cool and moist, which is the condition they prefer. As the plants become large you can tuck more mulch around them. Do not let the developing tubers become exposed to the sun because they turn green and are said to be toxic. I have trimmed off green sections and eaten the rest of the potato with no ill effects.

A great pleasure of growing potatoes is eating new ones that are sweet, small and have tender skins. After the plants are full size, push your hands under the mulch and feel for the tubers. Pick enough for a meal, go rinse them off, steam and enjoy! New spuds are delicious. Don't peel them!

Potatoes are ready to be dug and stored when most of the tops have died. I sometimes leave them in the ground covered with straw over winter. They are still good the next spring, in fact lots of them sprout and make a good crop but this messes up a rotation schedule. If you want to keep potatoes over the winter, plant two crops, one early and the other a month or two later, depending on your climate. If you get a late drought most years you will need ample irrigation water. Late harvested potatoes keep better. If your root cellar or other storage place is not cold enough, early harvested spuds may sprout before cool weather arrives. If you have a spare refrigerator they will keep well there. Ideal potato storage conditions are 35-40 degrees, humid and dark. Don't let them freeze as they turn to mush.

Potatoes have many pests and diseases but most will not ruin the harvest. Inspect plants every morning and collect any egg clusters, beetles or slugs, put them in a jar, cap and leave it in the hot sun. Empty the jar of dead critters well away from the garden to avoid possible disease transmission.

Vegetable garden rotation.

Seeds Sources

I have this year put my money where my mouth has been and bought all of my seeds from Seed Savers Exchange. Seed Savers has since 1975 been collecting and preserving heritage varieties, non-hybrid fruits and veggies that were in danger of being lost forever. At their Preservation Gardens near Decorah, Iowa, they are growing 18,000 rare vegetable varieties. These people are worth supporting. And you would not believe how many wonderful taste treats await you. Get their catalog:
Seed Savers Exchange
3076 North Winn Road
Decorah, IA 52101
or call 319-382-5990.

Once you begin growing non-hybrid seeds you have the opportunity to save your own seeds each year and plant them the next--this is known as Freedom From Seed Company Tyranny. So to complement my decision this year to grow open-pollinated vegetables I have purchased the best book on the subject of collecting and preserving seeds: Seed to Seed, by Suzanne Ashworth.

The following list is from Holly Deiser, a feisty lady who is building Blackbird Ridge Homestead.

Another good and very reasonably priced seed source is Pinetree Garden Seeds. Normal size packets (and sometimes slightly larger than usual) for usually under a dollar, often 60 or 70 cents or so. Online catalog order.

General seeds, flowers, veggies, good prices on quantities larger than a packet (quantities of an oz, 1/4 lb, 1/2 lb, and 1 lb and up, often a pound of seed for say, beans or peas, costs less than a packet from some suppliers). The best price I've found on the Earthway Garden Seeder and its accessories (which I bought). They charge actual shipping but no handling fee. Also carry packing equipment for small to medium scale growers. They don't have a web presence but here's their address:
Morgan County Wholesale
18761 Kelsay Road
Barnett, MO 65011-3009

I USED to like Gardener's Supply Company but when I went to their web site recently they had gone yuppie. More than half their stuff now seems to be cutesy garden statues and expensive flower bowls. But they do still sell capillary matting and soil blockers. They're at

Mellinger's is a perennial favorite (and annuals and supplies too). They have the Automator for the best price I've ever found. The automator is a little plastic "well" you put around tomatoes and peppers. It has 4 "spikes" sticking down into the ground. You put water in the tray and it is dispensed through the spikes. Makes a huge difference in plant growth and health and yield. They carry other stuff, like 12" to 15" trees for very low prices, and tropical houseplants, orchids, jasmine, even edible ginger and stevia. They carry a pretty good pressure canner though I think Lehman's is actually cheaper for that. They carry some trellis netting with a lifetime warranty. Seed starting trays, peat pots, etc. for pretty good prices.

Gurney's, carries weird things like sugar beet and mangel seeds. Carries trees and shrubs, including 4 varieties of disease resistant apples: Jonafree, Goldrush, Carefree Liberty, and Freedom. They only have a catalog order form on their "website" but at least it saves you a stamp.

Gardens Alive sells just about any beneficial insect you can imagine, and loads of organic pesticides like BT and pyrethrum/rotenone, insecticidal soaps, etc. for not necessarily price-gouging prices. I don't know any other source for this stuff except I've seen lady bugs in Burpee's catalog, but given the fact that EACH and EVERY year they give me $20 or more off my order it looks pretty cheap to me. I don't know why they keep doing that but they do. This year, if I "buy" $35 worth of stuff I get a discount of $25. I don't know, I guess most people buy loads of stuff because every year there's more and more interesting stuff in their catalog. So I guess they're not losing money doing this. This year their catalog has 18 pages of color photos and thorough descriptions of common diseases and insect pests. That alone makes it worth your while to send for the catalog.
Garden's Alive
5100 Schenley Place
Lawerenceburg, IN 47025
(812) 537-8650

And finally, a newcomer to my list: Walt Nicke's Garden Talk. I don't know how I got on this guy's mailing list but the introduction alone (entitled Think Globally, Rest Frequently: The lazy mans' guide to saving the Earth) make me willing to buy something from the man. There are some very, very nice tools in this catalog, REAL tools. Felco pruners. The big ones. Well made, might I say, finely CRAFTED, garden spades and forks, not the stamped metal crap at the lumber yard that comes dull and won't hold an edge anyway. And there's a wee little bit of the obligatory cutesy stuff - a face made out of leaves to stick on your lapel, or a larger version to hang on your wall - but by and large this is a vendor of Quality Tools.
Walt Nicke Co.
36 McLeaod Lane
PO Box 433
Topsfield, Massachusetts 01983
(978) 887-3388

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3. Herbs

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4. Grain

From Logan VanLeigh:

My friend lives in Sevier County, Tennessee in the Smoky Mountain foothills. He's used this plan, or variants, for over 25 years. He adapted it from one he learned from some Amish folks in Pennsylvania.

Year 1--April: Plow under red clover
May: Disk and plant corn
September: Harvest corn
October-November: Split corn patch into two areas. Plant wheat in one and oats
in the other.
Year 2--May: Overseed wheat and oats with kobe lespedeza
July-August: Harvest wheat and oats.
September: Harvest lespedeza hay
October: Disk and plant red clover

My friend swears the land is richer now than when he started this rotation in its current location 18 years ago. The above doesn't reflect weed control and other normal practices. It shows only the elements of the rotation plan.

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5. Pasture and hay

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6. Lawn

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7. Fruit

Sources
http://ohioline.ag.ohio-state.edu/lines/fcrop.html

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8. Nuts

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9. Shade

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10. Firewood and lumber

felling, limbing, blocking, splitting, making timbers with a chainsaw, cutting logs to length for the sawmill, moving logs, stacking logs.

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11. Ornamentals

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Sources of additional plant information

Find publications of the Extension branch of your state university system. Go to http://www.rogerbrook.com/publications/web_surf/feb1998.html and click on your state or the state nearest you. Other information can be found at http://www.rogerbrook.com/vita/pubs.html

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Plant bibliography

Brady, Nyle C. The Nature and Properties of Soils, 8th Edition. MacMillan, 1974.
Seed Savers Exchange

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Go back to Book One: Designing and building the homestead
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Copyright 2008 Gene GeRue