This year is a big year when it comes to our vegetable garden. It may seem early to start planning, but January is the perfect time to make changes and order seeds. While we’re not expanding our approximately 1,100 square foot (about 24′ x 48′) garden this year (future plans perhaps), we have a lot of new ideas under our belt for how to increase productivity in the short and long term by:
- reducing pests and pest damage with minimal use of organic sprays
- helping the soils remain productive over the long haul through a four year crop rotation plan
- start some of our own seeds using the winter sowing method and possibly a homemade interior lighting system
- using the space more efficiently through vertical squash and cucumber growing
- plant/soil testing to figure out if chronic disease is soil related, seed stock related, or both
Each of these topics can easily be their own blog post, so let’s get right to it! Let’s just go right down the line and start at the top.
Reduce Pests and Pest Damage with Minimal Use of Organic Sprays
One of the biggest ways we’ll be combating early bugs this year, as well as help our plants while they’re young, is through low row tunnel covers. A low row tunnel cover is essentially a series of half hoops covered in a specific fabric. We’ll be using these not only for pest damage, but to help keep our kale and lettuce from bolting so early which causes it to become very very bitter and inedible. Thankfully the 2012 kale which bolted is still useful since we let it winter over to grow for seed stock to harvest this year. Seed saving is a whole different topic so let’s discuss what caused the final push into deciding to use low row tunnel covers.
In the 2012 growing season we had a horrific squash bug and cucumber beetle infestation, and our kale and lettuce bolted unexpectedly thanks to a few scorching hot days. Despite growing up with a garden, I’m still fairly new at this and it’s all a learning process. I’ve realized there are two ways you learn, through education and organization and when something screws up – like lettuce and kale so big and beautiful but so bitter you can’t eat it, or a total lack of cucumbers and a sad realization you won’t have any pickles. The squash were hard hit with only a few of the hardier species surviving including one of each butternut squash, hubbard and acorn, which didn’t produce like they should have.
When it comes down to it row tunnel covers will allow us to cover our plants with different weight fabrics, dependent on the environmental needs of the plant, throughout the growing season. We will likely start with a heavier fabric as here in Maine it can turn unexpectedly very cold, even if it’s past the last frost date. After we’re past when it might dip unexpectedly cold at night I’ll likely switch to a light weight fabric to help keep the bugs out and allow the max sun and rain in. Once the plants are hearty enough, and are flowering (squash, etc.) I’ll uncover those rows to allow pollination to take place.
The current plan is to try both vertical squash/cucumbers (another post on this later) as well as traditional mounds. The traditional mounds will be covered with low tunnel covers. Once these plants are hearty enough I will move the covers to the greens and switch the cover to a shade fabric to help keep them from bolting. We’ll see how it goes.
All of this chatter brings us to the semantics – how to build a low row tunnel. I want to be clear that I am by no means an authority on how this needs or should be done. There are so many wonderful websites all about this if you just search around. This is simply what we’ve decided to do here on our little farm. There are so many options when it comes to these tunnel covers. You can buy ones that are already put together, but you can’t change the fabric on. You can build them out of rebar and PVC, you can build them out of EMT (an electrical conduit that’s fairly easy to bend) as well as a plethora of other options. If you go with something like EMT, you can either buy a bender from somewhere like Johnny’s, or with a few simple things around the house you can build your own albeit it’s a little more work.
I did a wicked amount of research and decided the best option for us was the EMT / Home-built bender route. I decided to go this route for one reason: affordability. EMT is very affordable and long lasting where as PVC is more expensive and breaks down in the sunlight over time. I’m hesitant to spent a lot of money on something I might decide isn’t worth it. That aside, why buy something I can build? Building my own bender will help off-set the cost of the cover fabric, so I consider it worth it. Maybe if we expand a lot in the future I’ll buy a bender, but for this year a handmade bender is where I’m at.
I’ll do another post explaining how I built my bender, but here’s a preview.
That’s pretty much it, screws, plywood, a pencil, a ruler, and some string.
I’d say this post is quite long enough at this point, and I have a dog on my lap who has simply decided snuggling is far more important than me typing, so before my arm goes entirely to sleep I’ll wrap it up with this – here’s to the beginning of a big 2013 garden season, hopefully big in both testing results and production!