Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Carol Ekarius: Living Soil is the Key to Organic Farming and Gardening

As I write this it is the last weekend of April, and in our part of the country, it is the first weekend for any springlike weather. Punxsutawney Phil must be having a hearty belly laugh this year!

Carol Ekarius farms and gardens in the Colorado mountains —
9,000 feet above sea level!

Around our place the first nice weekend of the year means getting out in the garden and prepping things for the coming season. I started the day by turning the garden beds. We keep three beds right behind the backdoor to the kitchen. Although we have other pockets of growing area for perennials, these three 4-foot-by-8-foot beds are the workhorses of the annual kitchen production, where we grow a variety of greens, potatoes, garlic, onions, tomatoes, peppers, beets, turnips, carrots, radishes, beans, peas, and annual herbs. It surprises some people to learn just how much you can produce from a small area, but using successional plantings, our beds yield a good portion of our seasonal food supply.

When you live at 9,000 feet above sea level, cold frames are a must-have item, but I’d recommend them to gardeners anywhere. They help extend the season and can easily be adapted to use as shade frames in overly warm areas. I purchased these frames from a mail-order garden supply house well over a decade ago, so their amortized cost is now down to less than ten dollars per year. We couldn’t grow tomatoes and peppers without them at our elevation.

Around here chemicals need not apply. Ken and I have farmed and gardened organically for over 30 years now, so we know that we don’t need to use store-bought chemicals to grow things. Even though we get to forgo a trip to the garden center to pick up bags and jars of fertilizer, our gardens still require fertilization, so our livestock earn at least part of their keep by being our fertilizer factories. Hauling and incorporating well-composted manure into the beds and around all my pockets of perennials is one of the primary chores for this weekend!

I recently read an interesting book by Storey’s sister publisher, Timber Press, called Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web. I'm somewhat of a science nerd, so this is my idea of an action-adventure, bodice-ripper title! But seriously, what I loved about this book is the wealth of information it supplied on the soil food web, and this is what chemical gardening can never foster. The life in your soil is crucial to helping feed your plants and helping them to be strong in the face of predators and diseases that affect your garden. According to the authors, Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis, “A mere teaspoon of good garden soil, as measured by microbial geneticists, contains a billion invisible bacteria, several yards of equally invisible fungal hyphae, several thousand protozoa, and a few dozen nematodes.”

Our manure is like manna from heaven for these hardworking critters that live underfoot. If you don’t have access to livestock manure, you can also compost kitchen scraps, garden waste, yard clippings, and the like to feed your army or underground workers. My favorite book on this topic is my buddy Barbara Pleasant’s title, The Complete Compost Gardening Guide.

Another chore for this time of the year is pruning the woody perennials, so I spent Sunday trimming the raspberry canes and apple trees. Dormant pruning of these woody plants ultimately leads to greater fruit production, with each fruit being larger than it would be on a crowded plant. Pruning trees in particular is an art, and if you don’t do it in mass quantity, it is easy to butcher the job, so I turn to Lewis Hill’s Pruning Made Easy each spring to refresh my brain on which branches, spurs, and canes I should take and which I should keep. If you want a broader guide to growing fruits, I loved Lewis Hill’s original title, The Fruit Gardener’s Bible, which was recently updated in 2011 by Leonard Perry following Lewis’s death.

Carol Ekarius
Freelance Writer & Author


Carol Ekarius has been surrounded by critters since 1983, when she and her husband first started farming and ranching. She is the author of several books, including Storey’s Guide to Raising Sheep (with Paula Simmons), Small-Scale Livestock Farming, Storey’s Illustrated Guide to Poultry Breeds, and Storey’s Illustrated Breed Guide to Sheep, Goats, Cattle, and Pigs. She lives in the mountains of Colorado, where her four-legged and winged family keeps her busy. In addition to ranching, Ekarius writes on agriculture and the environment for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including Hobby Farms, Mother Earth News, and Green Builder. She is active in the sustainable agriculture movement and has served on the boards of the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota and the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture. 

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