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Rancho Gatito Diaries: Encouraging Biology in the Garden

As I write this, we finally, FINALLY got some rain. The temperatures this June, and July (so far) have soared into record-making territory. I guess that is what we should come to expect.

We prepared here at Rancho Gatito, however. And as a consequence, we were pretty successful, even though we were too busy to plant things on time, and have done so little in the way of maintenance.

While many focus on watering strategies (and this is important), what is often forgotten is biology. If you have followed my writing over the years, you have heard me say this before: stop thinking about fertilizing plants. Think about encouraging biology in the soil.

One of our garden beds functioned as a compost bed this winter.

During the cool season, one of our sunken garden beds was used as a giant compost pile. We get lots of spent grain from Borderlands Brewery to feed our chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys with. But there is always extra left over and that went into the compost bed, along with all the manure that the fowl produce, garden clippings, kitchen refuse, sawdust, lots of coffee grounds (from Presta Coffee Roasters), uncoated paper and cardboard, and pretty much anything organic that would otherwise end up in the landfill. We even had our neighbors leaving unsolicited bags of decomposing vegetables in our front yard!

As these materials decomposed, they fed the various, mostly beneficial organisms in the soil that make nutrients available to plants. The dirt we started out with was mostly part of a lifeless plot of land. Only the occasional flush of weeds occurred whenever there was enough rain. Part of the garden bed was under a concrete slab, so almost no biological activity occurred there.

We didn’t start off with pretty soil. This is a picture from when we dug and graded the garden beds.

When we composted all that material, the soil that we mixed it into changed color. It smells different, feels different. Essentially, it is the same material as we started with, if you look closely: basically, broken down rock in various grades–the “sandy” part is made up from the larger, grittier rocks while the clay is composed of rock broken down into even finer particles. All of this is due to the erosion of nearby parent rock (in our case, A Mountain and Tumomac Hill).

But there is new material in there now, and while it makes up a small percentage of what is actually in the dirt, it has changed the very nature of my soil profile. These are organic materials which make up colonies of biological creatures that provide hubs of existence in the soil. And these hubs of activity feed plants.

In the spring (rather late in the spring) we spread the compost to the other beds and planted out our warm season garden. Normally I have already planted everything out. But this year, we were really, really busy. I mean, we are trying to boot up this magazine!

We had gotten as far as planting seeds for tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and the like in January. But the plants have been in small containers all spring, sometimes watered too late and wilted. But finally we found the time to harvest the last of the cool season crops and plant out all the warm season plants. Even some of the plants that looked beat up responded to planting with immediate growth. In the compost bed, we direct-seeded corn, beans, squash, cucumbers, and various melons.

We had so many large tomatoes that we had to use a box to gather them up in, and there were still many left in the garden.

It is now mid July and we have more produce than we know what to do with, forcing us into the kitchen to do some canning. This year we’ve had the largest, continuing crop of large tomatoes we’ve ever had. Normally, only the small tomatoes are still producing in this heat. But I believe because of the enriched biology of the soil, all our tomatoes have been able to continue producing. And remember, our garden is in full sun, all day.

The hardest decision we have ahead of us is deciding what to make space for as we go into the fall season, what plants will we be pulling up? And what bed will contain the compost heap this year?

If we can find this kind of success in the garden, we know any of you can. We, probably like you, are extremely busy people. We don’t have a lot of free time these days. We work night jobs that have us home very late, so we aren’t up early in the garden most days. But we had a very successful garden because of a few key habits.

  • Direct composting into garden beds, and otherwise enriching the soil with our own compost.
  • Mulching the base of plants to keep the soil temperature lower, and reduce evaporation. Use straw or more coarse compost.
  • Automatic watering: we use “drip tape” — tubes with holes that emit a controlled amount of water through, fairly evenly throughout the garden, on a timer.
  • We never use pesticides, ever.
  • We never use synthetic fertilizers, ever. While they may give your plants a flush of growth and nutrition, synthetic fertilizers kill microorganisms. This is because fertilizers are composed of unnatural, and extreme concentrations of chemical compounds, which dehydrate and kill the tiny organisms that exist in the soil.
  • Our beds are graded lower, so when it rains, the water all goes into garden and landscape beds, rather than sheeting off of the property. This lowered bed also helps keep evaporation down.
  • If you cannot compost in your yard due to a lack of space or ability, at least consider investing in a good amount of locally made compost (we get ours from Tank’s Green Stuff), and feed your soil with truly organic foods (make sure your “organic” fertilizer is not blended with synthetic fertilizers).
  • We plant more than we can possibly eat. That way, if some plants fail, or crops are eaten by birds and insects, it doesn’t matter because there is plenty to go around.

Not everything we did this year was ideal. Because of our lack of time, there was no staking, caging, or control of any sort for the summer crops, which tend to sprawl and vine all over. As I write this, there are many tomato and squash plants that we can’t reach without trampling on other plants.

Next year we plan on building structures for the cucurbits (squash, cucumbers, melons, gourds, etc) and beans. We will also tie up and cage tomatoes, so we can save space by encouraging growth to go vertical rather than sprawling about unpredictably.

Next year you will see more of this in our garden.

But overall, our garden produced more food than we could possibly eat, and we will need to make some time in our busy schedules to do some canning. And that success was due to just a little bit of biological encouragement.

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Jared "Kitty Katt" McKinley

Publisher, botanist, explorer, and proud desert dweller.