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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Market Gardener by Jean-Martin Fortier (Book Review)

Recently I purchased a copy of The Market Gardener written by the Canadian organic farmer Jean-Martin Fortier. As soon as I read the description I was immediately interested in its contents. The Market Gardener explains how to raise enough crops on just 1.5 acres of land to make a full time income and support one's family.

With my love for growing the garden, farmers market experiences, and a hope to always be able to continue to do what I enjoy for a living The Market Gardener sounded like a great book.  I was not disappointed! I learned a lot from the pages of The Market Gardener. Jean-Martin Fortier has 10 years of experience in growing vegetables which he then sells through a thriving CSA program, to grocery stores, and at farmers markets. He and his partner Maise-Helene Desroches have created a unique business plan for small scale farming using biointensive techniques that can be transferred over and scaled to any small garden.

What is The Market Gardener About?

In the first pages of The Market Gardener, Jean-Martin explains some of the fundamentals of how their small organic farm is so productive. Biointensive farming involves techniques that nourish the soil and the land to get the maximum output possible from the crops. By enriching the soil, plants can be spaced closer together and the rich soil contributes to a better harvest. There is a great deal of planning to grow a program as successful as Les Jardins de la Grelinette (the name of their farm).

Throughout the book Jean-Martin shares biointensive techniques on weed control, growing crops, and most importantly: planning the whole small farm operation. In order to make the farm as profitable as possible it requires extensive planning, detailed note taking, and organization which enables their small 1.5 acre farm earn over 120k per year. What they have done is very impressive, especially when you consider the lack of mechanization. As a small scale farming operation they have minimized the use of tillers and mechanical equipment to help preserve soil structure. It's a farm, but its spirit is a garden.

The Market Gardener is a great roadmap for anyone interested in pursuing a similar farming operation. The book doesn't sugar coat the process but instead gives you guide in how to think, how to plan, and how to implement successful techniques for small scale farming. What I found particularly interesting were the statistics that he shared about Les Jardins de la Grelinette. There were charts with a list of profitable vegetable plants and the income they produced, proper plant spacing, when to start the crops from seed, fertilization, crop rotation, and much more. The Market Garden really is a treasure trove of information on biointensive gardening for the market gardener!

It's an inspiring read for any gardener who dreams of running his or her own farm. Every farm situation is different and success will vary significantly between techniques used and the discipline of the farmer. Jean-Martin does a great job of explaining the process in a realistic and detailed fashion. Farming is extremely hard work and The Market Gardener explains how to be successful at it on a local scale.

I highly recommend The Market Gardener: A Successful Grower's Handbook for Small-scale Organic Farming for anyone who has aspirations of making an income off of the land!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Planning Your Next Garden: Evaluate the Garden

The calendar hasn't said so yet officially, but winter weather is already here. As I write this post sleet is spitting through the air outside. Fortunately I have a pot of hot coffee available to offset the cold. What should a gardener be doing on these cold "winter" days when the garden isn't suitable for enjoyment? Cold winter days mean that it is time to plan the next garden. It's time to take what you learned from this year and plan how you want to do next year's garden better, bigger, and more efficient. Today I thought I would tell you about my thought processes for planning the next round of gardens. I'm mainly talking about the vegetable garden but you can adapt the thoughts in this post to herb gardens, cutting gardens, native gardens, or any other type of garden.

Planning a garden begins with evaluating the current and past gardens 

Evaluate your garden problems.

Every year you garden you will learn things. Maybe a plant did fantastic and you figured out exactly how to grow it, what conditions it enjoys, how productive it can be, or the right site for it, but maybe it didn't do so well. Maybe that plant failed miserably. (Don't worry about it I've screwed up quite a few plants over the years!) The experience can be turned from a failure into a positive learning experience simply by evaluating what went wrong. It's time to ask yourself some questions:

  • Did I have a pest problem? 
  • Was there a watering issue? Was there too much rain or too little rain?
  • Was enough fertilizer used? Did I use too much?
  • Did I time the fertilizer correctly?
  • Does the soil have enough organic matter?
  • Did I space my plantings properly?
  • Did I mulch my plants?
  • Did I stake the plants properly?
  • Did I spend enough time in my garden?

Those are just a few of the many questions you could ask yourself about your garden. It's not important that you micro-evaluate every little thing about your garden but rather that you get a general idea of what may have caused the problems your garden experienced. If you can identify the problem you can find a way to fix it!

how to grow great summer squash
5 Tips to Grow Great Summer Squash!

How Did Your Garden Produce?

Evaluating your garden isn't just about the figuring out the problems but also find out what you need to grow. Maybe you were giving your neighbors a daily dose of zucchini. In which case your neighbors may have mysteriously stopped answering the door...or moved...

Designing a garden: Things to Think AboutIt's also possible that you grew 4 tomato plants and you didn't have enough leftover to can some for the winter. Maybe you realized that you really don't like broccoli after all and the 25 heads you brought in from the garden was too much. It could be that you noticed that you used all the onions from the garden in your cooking too fast and need to grow more. There are many situations where you need to evaluate what you grew and how your garden produced.

Make a list of the vegetables you grew then make a few notes about their production. Keep it all related to what your needs are. If your family needs more peppers next year then make a note of it. If you need fewer zucchini plants (or need to successively plan them better) then take note of that too. Also include anything you didn't grow but might want to next year. Just keep the list simple.

Evaluate the garden space

There are efficient methods of laying out your garden design and then there are aesthetic methods to layout your garden design. Sometimes they overlap but often they don't! Ask yourself:
What could make the garden more efficient? The proximity of garden areas can greatly increase your efficiency. Your garden probably has a few critical elements for efficiency in its design:
  • Garden Beds
  • Compost Bins
  • Storage Areas
  • Water Sources
If your garden is small then this won't matter nearly as much, but having these areas close to one another can reduce a significant amount of wasted time in hauling hoses around, moving compost, and getting equipment. Ideally your garden will be centralized in relation to all the other elements but unfortunately sometimes the best situation for our gardens is not the best one for efficiency! In all things do the best you can!

Evaluate your garden tools

Do you have the best tools for the job? Is there something else that might work better? Are they cleaned and sharpened? If you take a few minutes to maintain your tools that may be all you need to significantly increase their efficiency!

Evaluate your garden's ultimate goal

Every year I set out to try something new in the garden. My goal is often simply to learn more about the plants I am growing and to figure out the mystery of growing a vegetable or a plant. It could be your goal is similar, but maybe your goal is grow enough food to donate to a local food bank. Maybe your goal is to sell produce at a farmers market and make a small profit. Whatever your goal was for this year try to figure out how well you met your goal and what was the difference between what you accomplished and what you hoped to accomplish.

Evaluating your garden shouldn't be something that is a tedious chore. Take some pleasure in thinking and reminiscing about your successes and even your failures. When you evaluate the garden you learn from it. When you learn something you'll know how to do it better when you plan your next garden.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Enjoying the Fall Garden

Fall is a great time of the year. It's always been my favorite season because of the fall colors, the cooler weather, and there are always events to enjoy. The vegetable garden is enjoys the cooler weather too. Gone now are the peppers and tomatoes, which both succumbed to frost, but instead we have kale, pak choi, mustard, and Brussels sprouts. All of those fall grown plantings enjoy the cooler temperatures and in fact have improved flavor due to the frosty temperatures. Growing greens in the fall in a Tennessee garden is a fairly simple thing to do.

The Challenge of a Fall Garden

The greatest challenge to growing a fall garden is pests. Until the frosts come many insects are trying to gather as much nutrition as possible to help them overwinter. Caterpillars are all over the place. Cabbage loopers are happy to eat anything green, not just cabbage.

The other challenge of a fall garden is simply getting it started early enough. Fall garden plants tend to need started in August or September when it is still very warm. I did a combination of direct sowing and indoor germination to get some of my fall vegetables to grow.

Frosts in the Fall can Improve the Vegetables

Once the frosts come the fall garden becomes almost magical. After the frosts the insect population is greatly reduced. Frost tolerant plants continue to grow until it is just way to cold for them. You can extend their growing time by providing a little more protection through row covers once the temperatures get really cold. If you are lucky enough to have a greenhouse in your garden you can grow in there indefinitely.

Frosts tend to improve the flavor of fall vegetables. Frosts increases the sugar production in the vegetables which maximizes their flavor. Eventually without enough warm the greens will slow down and stop growing. They become dormant and will resume growing when warmer weather comes along. Even if the garden isn't actively growing, frost tolerant plants tend to make it through our mild Tennessee winters. Temperatures below 0 degrees F are rare here. Our snow falls are few and far between. When we do get snow it tends to disappear within the same day.

Mustard greens are tolerant of frosts and
have great flavor when grown in a fall garden.

A Short List of Frost Tolerant Vegetables

  • Kale
  • Spinach
  • Parsley
  • Pak Choi
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Lettuce (light frost tolerance)
  • Radishes
  • Beets

I was working in the garden yesterday and couldn't stop myself from sampling the various greens in the garden. It doesn't get fresher than that! I enjoyed the sweet flavor of the kale, the tangy taste of the mustard greens, and I even sampled a bit of the parsley. Did you know that parsley is packed full of nutrition? It has high amounts of Vitamins K and C along with a lot of other great nutrients. If you make smoothies, throw in some parsley - it's not just something to dress up a fancy dinner plate. Parsley is great in salads and soups and can make it through our Tennessee winters just fine. Parsley is a biennial and will taste best from the first year until it sends up flowers in its second year. Go ahead and let it flower so it can self-sow new parsley plants in your garden. Plant parsley every year to ensure a consistent crop that tastes great!

Spearmint with a light covering of frost.

Fall gardening in Tennessee is a very special thing. I hope wherever you garden that your fall garden season is a least as enjoyable as mine!

Friday, November 7, 2014

Decorating Through the Holidays with Live Potted Plants

The holidays are an extremely busy time of the year. We go from Halloween with spooky decorations, to Thanksgiving with autumn harvest styles, then to finally to Christmas. For those who enjoy decorating (and have the storage space for all that stuff) it can be a great deal of fun, but for others who may enjoy the holidays much more than decorating for them there are options - especially if you are a gardener! This week I potted up some live plants that will be decorating our front entryway all the way through Christmas. Once Christmas is over they can be planted in the garden to add to the landscape as evergreen plantings. (All the materials for this planting project were provided by Lowe's for Lowe's Creative Ideas)

I selected several different types of plants. The main plants are evergreen trees and shrubs that can serve as privacy screens and winter color in the future: Arborvitae and Blue Spruce. I also selected a couple heucheras because they retain their foliage throughout the winter. After buying a couple 9 packs of ornamental kale I was all done with selecting the plants.

ornamental kale

Heuchera 'Paris'
I needed a few pots for the plants to go in so I bought 4 larger ones for the arborvitae and 4 smaller ones for the spruce trees. I paired the heucheras with two of the arborvitae pots and some kale. The other two pots of arborvitae have kale. The spruce trees would go solo in each pot.

loosen the roots when planting shrubs and treesWhen planting shrubs, trees, and perennials always check the root systems. Often the root systems have been inside their pots for a while and need to be loosened to encourage good growth. If you don't loosen them the roots can circle the pot and become girdled. Usually the roots are easy to loosen by rubbing around the root system but you may need to cut them with a sharp knife if they are too pot bound.

LED Christmas lights
After planting I mixed the pots up with pumpkins from our Halloween decorations. When the pumpkins begin to fade (or rot) and Thanksgiving passes we'll remove them and add Christmas lights to the trees and a few little decorations that my kids will enjoy setting up!

live plants for fall decoratinglive plants for fall decorating
live plants for fall decorating

As long as the ground can be dug this winter we'll be able to plant the trees in the ground. If you have fall berries, like holly, you could add a little more color to the design that will last all the way through the winter!