Gardening & Banjos
The garden is well planted for summer now and he can lounge in the shade of a tomato plant (he’s not a big dog). And as the finishing touch, I’ve put down a layer of 2″ of mulch all over the place which is as soft as any doggie bed a fellow can buy. I went to the local not-so-friendly big box hardware store and bought bags of whatever they had on sale – sometimes it’s called ‘mulch,’ sometimes it’s called ‘planters mix’ or ‘planting mix’ but it’s all the same thing: Some kind of organic matter that has been shredded or chopped. It is sold as a ‘mulch’ or as ‘amendment,’ but they are the same thing. (‘Mulch’ is spread on top of the ground and left there; ‘amendment’ is mixed with the top layer of soil, what we call it is based in how we use it, there is no difference in substance.) Mulch is very much like the leaves we all paid to rake up and haul away – in fact, if might actually be those leaves! But at least it’s chopped up and in a much more easily handled form.
This will be easier for a busy gardener to answer than learning the banjo! Mulch, especially in the Los Angeles climate is really the most important additive you can make to your garden. Even more than fertilizer! It helps you save on water by preventing evaporation of the water you put down; mulch keeps the plant roots cool on even the hottest of days; but the most important thing it does is to shelter and feed the microbes that live in the soil. If you take care of those critters, they will handily take care of your plants and you.
Well-fed soil critters do marvelous things in a garden. The worms come to the surface in the dark of night and tirelessly bring this organic material down into the soil of the garden, eating it as they go. The millions of holes they bore in the soil, create spaces for water to be held between waterings and allow vital air to the plants’ roots. In the moist and protected soil under the mulch, fungi, bacteria and other busy microbes, interact with plant roots bringing more water and nutrients to the plant in exchange for some of the products of photosynthesis. This interaction between the plant and these unseen soil dwellers basically can eliminate the need for any fertilizer in all but the worst soils – none of which I believe exist in the Los Angeles Basin.
The problem with fertilizers is that even the gentlest of them wreck havoc in the populations of these invisible life forms. Chemical fertilizers, especially the ones that promise the most ‘bang for your buck,’ invariably flatten entire colonies of the soil dwellers insuring that you’ll have to continue to use more fertilizers in order to maintain any fertility in your soil. The best answer? Skip all but the mildest fertilizers. I suggest alfalfa meal for early in the growing season because as the ground warms up, alfalfa meal will provide a nice addition of a little nitrogen. It does so very mildly and, unlike other forms of nitrogen, stimulates instead of kills soil flora and fauna. Later on in the season, I like to use cottonseed meal as a good slow release of nitrogen – it’s just hard to find organic cottonseed meal locally (online it’s available from Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, www.groworganic.com).
But let’s do a reality check first. My vegetable garden is in its third year at its current location. I have not fertilized a single portion of it in all that time and yet I’m getting top notch yields. One of the main reasons lies in the addition of organic matter and a healthy soil ecosystem that helps the plants get what they need from the soil. One year I grew lots of corn, and corn is one of the hardest plants on the soil because of its nutrient demands. Still, my garden is doing just fine.
Another factor mitigating the depletion of my soil’s fertility is the interplanting I do – I don’t just fill one area up with one plant and another area with one of something else. I mix it all up – just like planting a flower garden in a way that’s pleasing to the eye. The same is true with my vegetable garden where tomatoes, basil, beans, onions, lentils and peppers all live happily together. Garlic and corn are the only ones planted in blocks (corn because it needs other corn flowers close at hand for the best pollination and garlic because at the end of its season, garlic isn’t watered for the last month and that could be hard on nearby plants).
I think I hear Casey snoring from out there. Somewhere around here, I’ve got a hammock that ought to be pulled out just about now so I can go join him. That garden has got to be good for more than just vegetable growing, hot sweaty exercise and a banjo rehearsal And I’ll catch up with Earl Scruggs some other day.
Grandson of a Great Plains farmer, David King is the Garden Master at the Learning Garden, on the campus of Venice High School. He shares his love of the land and music through teaching, writing and playing in a folk/country band.