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Increase crop yield, veggie health with raised beds, organic gardening methods

4/10/2014 - West Side Leader
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By Dayle Davis

Raised bed gardens are long, narrow boxes that sit atop the ground and can be gardened from both long sides. Shown above, Schumacher Community Learning Center Principal Brandi Davis and then-third-grader Margia Ball work at one of the beds in the new raised bed Teaching Garden created at the school last spring.
Photo: Dale Dong
GREATER AKRON — If you: (a) want to grow lots of veggies for your family but have limited garden space; and/or (b) dislike using synthetic chemicals on the food you grow and eat, you may be the perfect candidate for concentrated or intensive organic gardening — a great gardening practice for anyone but especially for folks who have limited garden space, such as condominium and city dwellers.

Specifically, concentrated organic gardening is the practice of growing large quantities of fresh vegetables in a small area using no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. It involves raised beds, spacing plants closely, crop rotation, adding organic soil amendments yearly and integrated pest management.

The first crucial component for high yield intensive organic gardens is raised bed gardening. Raised beds are basically long, narrow boxes that sit atop the ground and can be gardened from both long sides. Narrow is a relative term meaning the box should be only about 4 feet wide to accommodate the gardener’s reach into the middle of the box from either side. The raised beds are constructed using nontreated landscape timbers, bricks, boards or other materials sturdy enough to contain a loose rich soil that comprises the growing conditions for most vegetables. Raised beds also can be constructed simply by mounding soil in the desired location. The sides of the bed should be at least 1 foot tall, with 2 to 3 feet preferred.

Since hard-sided raised beds are self-contained, it makes the task of preparing the soil for each growing season a relatively easy one. Before planting, simply turn the soil with a spade while incorporating organic soil amendments such as compost and manure.

The best way to create raised beds by only mounding the soil is to double dig the space. Here’s an overview from The Ohio State University (OSU) Extension website on how to do that: Basically, double-digging means digging off, amending and preserving the top 1-foot layer of soil in a 1-foot wide trench, then loosening the underlying exposed soil to a depth of another 1 foot. Then start an identical trench next to the first trench, first amending the top layer of soil and then tossing it on top of the first trench, as follows:

1. Spread a layer of compost and other soil amendments on the surface of the area to be dug.

2. Use a spade or short-handled shovel to remove a trench of soil approximately 1-foot deep and 1-foot wide along the narrow end of the bed.

3. Loosen the soil at the bottom of the trench with the shovel or a spading fork. Don’t mix the soil layers any more than absolutely necessary.

4. Dig a 1-by-1-foot trench next to your existing one and place the soil removed on top of the loosened soil in your first trench.

5. Repeat steps three and four along the length of the bed.

Once this process is complete, you will have a raised bed that simply needs to be rounded over with a rake. Make sure the soil is not overmoist and crumbles easily before you start.

The next component in concentrated organic gardening is setting plants closely together. Plants situated this way will shade the soil that will keep it cool and moist to promote good root growth and discourage weeds. Avoid planting in rows. Use a grid layout to maximize the number of plants that can be fit into the bed. Also, consider crop integration where different vegetables are planted within the spaces between another crop, i.e. carrots, radishes and lettuce. The lettuce, for example, will shade the soil and keep it moist, which aids germination of the carrot and radish seedlings. Then, when the lettuce crop is depleted, the growing carrots and radishes will fill the space. With this particular example, three crops will grow in the same area of bed in a single season.

Use crop rotation and organic soil amendments to maintain the fertility of the soil and to reduce the buildup of certain insect pests. Crop rotation means alternating plantings each year among heavy feeders (most veggies), soil-building crops (such as nitrogen-fixing legumes) and light feeders (root crops).

Practice Integrated Pest Management (IPM), a systems approach that combines a wide array of pest management practices with careful monitoring of pests and their natural enemies.

IPM begins with the soil. Healthy soil grows stronger, healthier plants that are better able to tolerate pest and rodent damage. But plant choices are also important. Avoid plants that are more susceptible than others to insect damage. Also add in plants such as marigolds, sunflowers and dill that attract beneficial insects that feed on insect pests.

Practice tolerance when pests are present. Don’t reach instantly for a spray bottle of something or other. First pick unwelcome insects off the plants. Trap rodents or fence the garden. Net the garden to discourage birds. Knock aphids off plants with water spray from the garden hose. Use horticultural oils to smother pests such as scales and yellow sticky traps to capture large numbers of white flies.

Make a garlic or hot pepper water solution to spray on plant foliage to make it distasteful to nibbling marauders.

If you feel you absolutely must use stronger controls, start with the least damaging control — insecticidal soap. Commercial insecticidal soaps contain pyrethrin, which is derived from a daisy. Or, make your own spray made with water and a small amount of liquid dish detergent. Both can be equally effective against soft-bodied pests. Be sure to spray the insects themselves and seek out evasive insects residing on the undersides of plant leaves while you are at it.

For more complete information, call the OSU Summit County hotline Tuesdays from 9 a.m. to noon at 330-928-4769, ext. 3, and request FactSheet HYG-2205-94, “Integrated Pest Management for the Home Vegetable Garden” and FactSheet HYG-1257-02, “Intensive Organic Gardening.”

 

Dayle Davis is a freelance writer and avid perennial gardener, with a B.A. in communications and course work in botany, geology and wildflowers. Davis is a master gardener emeritus under The Ohio State University’s Horticultural Extension.

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