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Down-in-the-dirt, high-efficiency gardening

Tom Carey

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Our backyard gardens, scaled to be efficiently managed by the size and shape of our bodies, should rarely mimic the iconic farm. Vast acreage rows of mono-cropped monotony do not provide the satisfaction we seek when endeavoring into a little of our own food procurement. Industrial farming methods espoused by the University Land Grant Extension Service rarely translate to the growing fun enlivened when our kids get to explore some natural food gardening at our homes. On the other hand, snake-oil gimmicks and trends quickly fill the void when all we want to do is grow a few salad fixings and savory herbs.

“Square Foot Gardening,” written by Mel Bartholomew, was published shortly before my family moved to our homestead in 1983. Working square areas instead of long, skinny rows proved to be efficiently popular enough for the book to remain a best seller to this day. Preceded by Ruth Stout’s deep mulch, no-till lasagna methods, the move away from the mini-farm Victory Garden template quickly caught on. I glommed on to “How to Grow More Vegetables” by John Jeavons, and the rest is history. Employing just enough motive force using double digging, roto-tilling, or broad fork soil engagement tools, I kept my family garden at a sane level of a hobbyist. Using these same basic methods, my community-based farming operation remains practically productive.

Many gimmicks advertised for home production usually result in multi-dollar per strawberry extravagance or downright disaster. Plug-in grow chambers utilizing space age lighting, ventilation, timers, and pumps could only remain profitable growing a crop of marijuana. I have seen numerous, lightly used contraptions cluttering the back corners of garages. Craigslist prices seem exorbitant even compared to their original retail cost. Agricultural and environmental systems that were designed for vast acreage, from no-till and contour farming, terracing, or Permaculture, do not ‘scale down’ to our backyards.

In-the-dirt digging can be improved upon, especially when intensive attention is lovingly applied to the food we grow for our families. Raised or framed growing beds quickly come to mind. A 3- to 4-foot-wide multi-foot-long growing bed 6- to 12-inches deep, filled with highly enriched soil, strategically placed in an appropriately sunny location, can produce wonderful quantities of food for years to come. Big-box lumber departments offer any number of framing options, from real lumber to recycled plastic composites. The volume of dirt and compost required, determined by simple math, can be daunting at first. Once established, seasonal soil replenishment is easily compared to the volume of harvest produced.

Tom Carey is the owner of Sundew Gardens, a you-pick gardening business in Oviedo. Visit the Sundew Gardens Facebook page and email him at sundewgardens@gmail.com