Thursday, February 21, 2013

Getting maximum yield in your garden

A friend recently asked for Jay's thoughts on how to get maximum yield in her newly-built raised garden beds. Jay crafted a pretty in-depth response which I thought I'd share here, given that many of us are turning our attention to our yards as a way to get through the last few dreary weeks of winter.

Topics I’m going to cover are:

Layering & Stacking
Companion planting
Succession planting

All of which will be seen through the lens of permaculture.

Yield is conventionally thought of 2-dimensionally (Length X Width), by adding a 3rd dimension we can add significant volume to your garden. This can be referred to as “Layering”, a picture is worth a thousand words:
In your raised bed, you can start at the Shrub or Low Tree layer and work down. Just as an example,  you could start with a Currant bush, or  Siberian Pea Shrub (which fixes nitrogen in the air and enriches the soil) over Kale over bush beans (N fixer), lettuce and garlic (confuses predators) and then mix in some low Nasturtiums or Strawberries to cover the soil. A more classic example is the 4 sisters planting with Sunflowers acting as a scaffold for vining beans which fertilize the soil for squash and a native flowering plant to enhance pollination (anything with small flowers i.e. Yarrow, Dill or Coriander works well). You could also add radish to that to deter the squash borer

An approach to selecting your veggies is this companion planting chart , it isn’t complete but covers a lot of common choices. In simple terms, companion planting groups plants together that support each other as well as beneficial insectary plants.  

Perennials are a great option to incorporate into your garden as you only plant them once, they require less care once established and they help keep the soil food web in business from leaf-out to frost. Examples of edible perennials could be berry or flowering shrubs, Tree spinach, Sea Kale, Strawberries or Bush Cherries.

So we’ve explored 3D planting, now to really complicate it lets add another dimension and garden through time. This won’t require going Warp 10 around the sun or any Rocky Horror Picture Show nonsense, just a little organization. Lee Valley sells a handy chart you can adjust to your region  or you can look up something like this one, this will give you an idea of when things can go in and when they’ll be done. Now that you have that, it’s clear that there will be times, usually Spring and late Summer/Fall, where holes (opportunities) will exist in your garden. If you keep your leafy green or radish seeds handy it’s easy to just seed those in where they’ll fit. This can be taken much further but I’d like to avoid fire-hosing you with information…

Now that your gardening can go through space and time you need to know about mulch. Wood chips are great (not pine or cedar as they will inhibit growth), I use straw because it’s easy to get my hands on bales. If you’re really good, you can grow your own mulch, youtube “chop and drop” for more. What you are doing by mulching your soil is collecting dew, reducing evaporation, preventing the soil from blowing away, and keeping the soil protected from the sun which keeps worms happier and prevents your soil from getting bleached by solar irradiation. The result of all this is happier plants and less watering, not a bad deal.  

Something you may have noticed is that a number of the things I’ve mentioned have multiple uses, in permaculture lingo this is known as “stacking functions”. If you can keep that in mind when approaching gardening you’ll be surprised the number of clever ideas you can implement to save yourself time, space and money. Go back to that Currant bush, it gives you berries (awesome), photosynthesizes the whole season feeding the soil food web, grows deep roots which mine minerals and bring up water that adjacent plants will benefit from, and you can plant lettuce in its shade through the heat of the summer.

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