Visitors to our Santa Fe farm often commented not only on the delicious flavor and prolific yield of our fruit and veggie gardens, but also on the enduring freshness of the items they yielded: most things stayed fresh looooong after similar store-bought items would turn or wither. We had a few tricks up our sleeve to set our gardens up for both high-yield AND high-quality. We’re sharing a few tips here to help you plan your garden for its most abundant, flavorful, and naturally thriving year yet…
Go Organic and Heirloom
Given the fact that I am on the speaker’s bureau of the Institute for Responsible Technology (which serves to educate about the dangers of genetically modified organisms or GMOs), it should come as no surprise that our garden features only organic, heirloom, and/or biodynamic seeds and starts–you won’t find GMO foods growing in our back yard and we encourage you to keep them out of your garden, too.
GMO seeds have been altered at the genetic level, often in genuinely horrifying ways. GMO seeds and plants are designed to be grown in conjunction with the heavy use of neonicotinoid pesticides like RoundUp, which includes glyphosate.
These pesticides don’t just destroy “weeds“…. they upset the natural balance of beneficial microorganisms in the soil.
While the makers and marketers behind RoundUp would like you to believe that GMO seeds and plants are the shortest distance between you and a thriving, weedless garden, the fact is heirloom plant varieties that have been thoughtfully curated to yield big, beautiful fruit are likely to deliver more delicious and viable fruits without the use of pesticides. The pesticides created to work with GMO seeds and plants actually deplete and weaken the soil and ecosystem; they also threaten key garden friends like butterflies, birds, and bees.
If you don’t want to incorporate pesticides and poisons, stay away from GMO seeds–and the pesticides and business they support. Look for organic and biodynamic (preferably heirloom) seeds instead.
Look to Nature to Nurture
Mother Nature has been at this whole growing thing a lot longer than we have. By design, she offers a host of solutions that aren’t synthetically derived, heavily processed, and otherwise unsustainable. Those aggressive, poisonous pesticides don’t just kill pests, they threaten the entire eco-system of the garden–including beneficial insects from bees to butterflies. (We love pollinators! You need them for your fruit plants, friends….)
Seek out organic solutions to your garden challenges: invite ladybugs, mantids, and other beneficial insects to help control pests. Use neem oil to control severe, problem areas. Plant marigolds (they’re natural pest repellents!) around your vegetables. Incorporate pollinator-friendly plants throughout your garden, like those outlined below for the bees…
Get In the Rhythm with Biodynamics
To honor the natural rhythms of nature and the alignments of individual seeds and starts, we employ biodynamic gardening principles in setting, tending, and harvesting plants. According to the Biodynamic Association, “Biodynamics is a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture, food production and nutrition.” Based on the teachings and findings of Rudolf Steiner, biodynamics recognizes a farm as a whole organism requiring balance, harmony, and sustainability in its care, planning, and use.
While we haven’t yet extended all biodynamic farming principles in our gardens, we are careful to follow the biodynamic planting calendar which recognizes four plant groups: root, leaf, flower, and fruit. By way of example, roots include carrots, beets, potatoes, and radishes; leaf incorporates lettuce, cauliflower, and celery; flower includes marigolds and the like; fruit includes tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, beans, and berries.
While seeds can for the most part be set out at any time, seeds–and transplants especially–will do best when planted in accordance with their biodynamic planting time which is informed by the moon and sky.
Seeds, starts, transplants, and established plants alike will also do best when they are tended on their respective group days (as in suckering a tomato plant on a fruit day, for example).
You don’t have to take an astronomy class to master biodynamic planting. Matthias Thun, an eminent German biodynamic farmer (son of the late Maria Thun, a biodynamic pioneer), produces and sells a printed annual biodynamic calendar that not only outlines planting days but also informs best days for weeding, pest control, harvesting honey, and putting foods by. Simpler still is the online biodynamic calendar produced by the wonderful folks over at Rhythm of Nature; they provide convenient symbols for each day to alert you to its most advantageous garden efforts.
Use the cues from the biodynamic planting calendar to plan and plant your garden and you’ll likely find your plants are heartier and more resistant to disease, your food is more nutritious and delicious, and your yields are through the roof.
Rotation, Rotation, Rotation
Since we typically plant according to a biodynamic calendar, we already have our seeds organized according to their biodynamic family: leaf, fruit, root, or flower. (This also happens to be the order in which they typically cascade in the biodynamic planting calendar.)
For purposes of rotating crops, particularly in beds, the flower family doesn’t come into play and legumes (normally in the fruit family) get their own category, thanks to their soil-enriching nitrogen work. That leaves you with leaf, fruit, root, and legumes in the rotation. Conveniently, they should be rotated in that order, which is to say you should plant leaf after legumes, fruit after leaf, root after fruit, and so on:
Leaf ← Fruit ← Root ← Legumes
To reset your garden for the coming season, just identify what was planted last year in a given garden area and then plan to plant the same space this year with the item to the right of last year’s plantings. By way of example, peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes (fruits) would go where leafy herbs (leaves) were last year. Carrots, beets, and radishes (roots) would go where the peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes were; beans and legumes would follow where last year’s carrots, beets, and radishes were planted.
Reduce Waste and Increase Viability with Compost
To keep your soil rich, alive, and thriving, incorporate compost into your beds and soil. Organic compost adds invaluable nutrients to your garden and prevents organic material from cluttering landfills (where it’s doing absolutely no good whatsoever!). You don’t have to have different types of enormous compost piles everywhere (though we admittedly have about seven…)–a simple bin or bucket will do. You can make it as simple or as complicated as you like. Mother Earth News has a lovely, comprehensive article on composting that can be of great help.
Not sure what should go in your compost bin? Don’t think you have what it takes to make those delicious microbes to nourish your soil? I’ll bet you’ve got at least some of the following materials headed for the dump–why not deploy them to elevate your garden and improve your soil? (Even dryer lint can benefit your bucket!! What are you waiting for?!)
Look to include the following items at a ratio of about 50% wet to 50% dry to get a good balance in your compost bin…
Wet (Green) Items:
- Egg shells
- Tea leaves
- Tea bags
- Fruit scraps
- Veggie scraps
- Pesticide-free green grass clippings and garden trimmings
Dry (Brown) Materials:
- Coffee grounds (and filters!)
- Dried leaves
- Dried weeds
- Dried plant trimmings
- Cold wood ashes from the fireplace or wood stove
- Sawdust and wood shavings
- Pine needles
- Shredded egg cartons (the paper kind)
- Shredded newspaper
- Peanut shells
- Dryer lint
Location, Location, Location
Of course, individual plants want more than just the right soil and rotation, they need the appropriate sun exposure, too. While individual seed packets and starts are often labeled with preferred sun exposure details, this handy-dandy little visual is an easy go-to for broader planning purposes:
Be Responsible, Consistent, and Judicious
Responsible gardening starts with knowing your agricultural zone, your garden, and your climate well enough to be able to make thoughtful, informed purchases of seeds and starts. Buying the right plants can save you lots of water and woe. Don’t buy drought intolerant plants for a drought-riddled area.
With the right information, you can source seeds and starts that will thrive in your unique climate without your having to weep, pray, or coddle them.
Let It Go
If you are just beginning to explore a more natural approach to your garden’s thriving, you might actually want to let it lie fallow for a season. (What? Horrors, I know, but hear me out…) An exhausted garden would likely appreciate time to recover. Why not give it time to breathe? You might plant a cover crop to turn into the soil or cover the space with weed cloth to help it reset and plant in containers for this season instead. You can spend the time you save learning how to use beneficial “weeds” like dandelions and spend the money you save at the farmer’s market instead.
Create a Relationship With Your Garden
For us, efforts in the garden and greenhouse offer time for contemplative, reverent meditation and joyful, playful release. I regularly sing to my plants, dance on our garden pathways, and talk to seedlings and sprouts. (For real. I do. I blow kisses, too.) I’m not the least bit bothered by the people who think I’m silly: they haven’t seen my stuffed pantry or known my joy at not having to buy a single fruit or vegetable from the grocery store or market for six months…
If you nourish your garden with your best energy, your garden–and all of its delights–will nourish you.
Bless and blessed be!