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Vegetable Gardening: A Step Up? Or a Step Down!
by Fred Davis, MG, Hill Gardens of  Maine
(To view other articles, click: Archives)


Welcome through Fred's Garden Gate! A tour through neighboring residential areas – or a drive in the country – brings sights and sounds of spring gardening! Rototillers humming; small piles of manure or compost; freshly-tilled earth; and row upon row of young seedlings or transplants headed by small wooden stakes topped by now-empty seed packets.

All too often, however, such tours bring other – less favorable – sights. Freshly-tilled garden plots reveal some interesting things about gardeners. Soil color, for example, has always been something of an "indicator" for me. Dark, chocolaty-brown soil generally reflects annual additions of organic matter in the form of compost, well-rotted manure, or the tilling-in of cover crops – also called "green manures". Dark, rich soils literally shout health and productivity!

This organic material loosens soil, provides nearly vast storehouses of nutrition for maturing plants and, in the bargain, sets up ideal environmental conditions for beneficial soil insects like earthworms and slug-and-cutworm-devouring ground beetles. Organic materials like compost or manures also help retain moisture and prevent erosion. The presence of ample nutrition, moisture and beneficial soil biology naturally and inevitably translates into highly nutritious crops, abundant harvests and, by extension, healthy consumers.

A note about the word "organic" -- A great many people automatically associate the word "organic" with almost (in more than a few cases, total...) fanatical fervor and focus on the utter and total disdain and avoidance of anything which even hints at the slightest trace of unnatural, human-devised, artificial substance -- particularly chemicals of any sort. Oddly enough, that view is commonly shared with totally disparate groups: those with leanings in the direction of total "organic"...and those who rely heavily on "chemical". I've chosen -- as much as possible -- to align myself and my methods with middle-ground.

When "organic" is used in my writing, it is mostly used to refer to naturally-occurring materials -- such as compost, rotted (and hopefully, sterilized) animal wastes, leaves, grass clippings, "clean" kitchen waste and other materials produced in the earth (ideally, without the use of chemicals) that, instead of being wasted, destroyed or hauled away to the local or regional land fill, are returned to the earth from which they came. That, combined with resisting the human tendency to seek the simplest, least expensive, fastest solution when nutritional, disease, or insect problems arise, is the basis of my "organic" philosophy.

Yes, on rare occasion, I use some man-manipulated fertilizers in my flower garden; yes, I've even been known to resort to something a bit stronger than pyrethrin, rotenone and diatomaceous earth....not as a matter of habit or routine, but when its use becomes absolutely necessary to save an important crop from certain loss or rampant insect-invasion disaster. I am ready and willing to accept a few chewed leaves....but when an entire crop is well on its way to total defoliation or annihilation, that's a different story. 

A greatly-admired and deeply-respected mentor of mine once told me to "focus on the head and heart...not the wallet." He had a well-rooted reverence for "Mother" Earth and stood in absolute awe of Her remarkable endurance, diversity and the ability to heal Herself -- but, while he avoided "unnatural" controls if it were within his power to do so, there were recognized times when She needed a helping hand. "After all," he once said to a group of budding young horticulturists, "we're the ones who set up conditions that make even Mother Nature's job's only right that we may be called upon to help Her out of a tight spot once in a great while." 

A Step-Up

It’s easy to spot such a healthy, highly-productive garden. They are almost universally what I’ve termed, "step-up" gardens. Frequent additions of composted or well-decayed organic matter not only replaces what harvesting removes, garden height – and therefore soil depth – increases. Healthy, well-maintained garden soils are very nearly always higher than surrounding unimproved soils, therefore one must step-up to enter this improved section. Step-up gardens are almost always heavily mulched and, after fall harvesting, planted with nutrient-binding and soil-protecting/enriching cover crops like annual clovers, wheat or buckwheat.

The Step-Down

Unimproved, neglected or generally abused garden plots are almost always "step-down" gardens. One must take a step down to enter the area. Such "garden" soils are also much lighter in color – evidence of gross lack of organic matter – and are littered with sometimes large quantities of stones of varying sizes. They routinely possess very little organic matter and are therefore unable to retain vital nutritional elements and moisture, have few – if any – earthworms or other beneficial biological life forms and, because they dry out rapidly, must be artificially watered on a regular basis.

Crops grown in step-down gardens – unless supplemental nutrition in the form of artificial chemical fertilizer is added – are almost always shorter and paler in color – some appearing bleached to a pale tan. Harvests (usually reduced in size) are, often to a large degree, lacking in the nutritional value vital to vibrant family health.

Soils in these generally-unproductive garden plots can be restored. During our family’s many moves over the past few decades, we’ve reclaimed more than a few of these neglected and abused patches of earth. The process – while sometimes slow and labor-intensive – is really quite simple. Here are the basics:

Immediately remove and compost (for later return to the soil) – or plow in – weeds and any accumulated vegetative waste. Don’t burn it off or haul it away…till it in!

Locate a source of organic matter like aged barnyard manure or compost – preferably sterilized so it won’t contain hayfield weed seeds.

Resolve to add significant amounts (at least three or four inches) of decayed organic matter every year from this point on.

Resolve to avoid the use of chemical fertilizers as a substitute for plant health and nutrition.

Consider sowing low-growing cover crops like annual clover in the paths between rows, or mulching those between-the-rows spaces with shredded leaves or garden scraps – to be tilled in later in the season.

Compost every scrap of leftover garden and household organic material and return it to your garden the following season.

Be a part of the solution…not a factor in the problem: encourage others to improve their vegetable garden soils at every opportunity.

Hey!….We’re talking about more than soil health here. This is about personal health, disease resistance and a good feeling about conserving critical resources and improving the quality of our soils for the next generation of gardeners.'s a mental drill for you during the long, cold and dormant season: in your mind's eye, stroll out - and into - your vegetable garden; as you bridge the gap between its perimeter path (or mowed lawn) and growing area, do you stub your toes as you step-up...or do you stumble and fall as you step-down?


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