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Achieving Food Independence

Table of Contents

1: Industrial Food and the Homestead Alternatives2: Soil Fertility3: Organic Matter4: Minimizing Tillage5: Garden Year--Spring6: Garden Year--Summer7: Garden Year--Fall8: Garden Year--Winter9: Orchard and Woodlot10: Forest Garden11: The Lawn12: Livestock13: Poultry14: Ruminants15: Closing Thoughts on Livestock16: Local Foods17: Bringing It All Together

6. The Garden Year: Summer

The heat and dry soil of summer can be quite inimical to life in the top of the soil profile, as well as limit crop production. Heavy mulching keeps soil cool and moist, boosting the activities of all sorts of soil life, and reducing stress to crop plants. Another way to achieve the same result—ensuring the soil is well covered at all times—is to plant in wide beds instead of rows, and set plants such as lettuce, cabbages, cooking greens, carrots, beets, etc. close enough to keep the ground well protected from the drying effects of wind and sun. We can even interplant faster growing with slower growing crops to ensure a close cover of the soil before the plants reach their mature size. E.g., lettuces can be interplanted with cabbages or other brassicas; radishes, with beets or carrots; etc. We can harvest the last of the lettuces or radishes by the time the longer season crops start to merge to cover the beds.

A strategy for starting direct-sown crops in summer

If it is difficult starting direct-seeded crops during your summer, remember the following strategy. Carrots, for example, are almost impossible to germinate in the hot, dry soil of mid-summer where I live. Therefore, after sowing the fall carrot crop in mid-July, I water thoroughly, then cover the bed with a layer of heavy cardboard (with a bit of ventilation space between soil and cover). The carrots germinate easily in the moist, cool soil under the cover. Just remember this: The literature says that germination time for carrots is three weeks. Under close, dense shade cover, however, I find eleven days typical for germination time. Indeed, I have seen germination in less than a week. It is therefore imperative after the first few days to pull back the cover every day to check on progress. Once you see the first carrot seedling, take off the cover immediately. (The first seedlings aboveground are evidence that the other seeds have already broken dormancy, even if they have not yet broken the surface.) If the seedlings continue growing in the light-starved conditions under the cover, they will become weak and “leggy,” and will never make good plants. Continue watering often enough to keep the soil surface slightly moist, until the plants have made a number of true leaves and are growing well—then they can better take up water deeper down in the soil on their own.

Habitat-planting

Habitat Plantings

Dealing with “the competition”

We also think of summer as the time when the garden is overrun with “the competition”—herbivorous insects who like our garden crops as much as we do, and disease organisms that weaken or destroy garden plants. The temptation to “go nuclear”—to spray with toxic chemicals—is sometimes hard to resist. Remember, however, that almost all insecticides are broad-spectrum in their effect. That is, they kill insect populations indiscriminately, disrupting the complex predator-prey balances of the natural world, of which your garden can be a part (if you let it). It seems to me always the wiser course to boost the diversity of life under, in, above, and around the garden—rather than engage in a “war” against its “invaders.” The best way to encourage the natural balances is the establishment of permanent habitat plots for beneficial insects in and around the garden. The goal should be a diversity of flowering species in bloom during all parts of the growing season. Please note that we are talking about the dedication of a fair amount of space for beneficials, and that the habitat plantings should be close to crop plants. As for the amount of space to allow for the habitat plantings? I’ve seen suggestions from devoting 5 to 10 percent of cultivated area to habitat—all the way up to a ratio of 1:1! Apparently we have a good deal of leeway, and plenty of opportunity for experimentation with what works best in our own gardens. In any case, the total “loss” of space for harvest plants need not be inordinate. If you were planning a herb garden and a flower garden anyway, just be sure to incorporate them into the harvest garden rather than sticking them off to themselves.

Please believe that this is not a fairy tale—the notion that boosting the health and diversity of local insect populations will keep “the bad guys” in check. It actually works. In my garden, for example, I was astounded at how readily Colorado potato beetle ceased being a problem in my potato crops, the first season I stopped using rotenone and encouraged flowering insect habitat instead. That was seventeen years ago, and most years now the total number of potato beetles I find can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

As for diseases, one approach I’m interested in at the moment is the use of “activated compost teas.” It is possible to greatly increase the numbers of microbes present in good compost or vermicompost by adding to water, stirring in something to “feed” the microbes (such as a bit of molasses), and aerating the mix constantly a couple of days. One then strains the brew through a filter (such as an old sheet) and sprays it on garden and orchard plants early in the season. The beneficial microorganisms establish on the surfaces of the plants, thus excluding pathogenic organisms from growing.

Cowpeas

Cowpeas

Summer cover crops

Cover crops are not as easy to start in summer. There are several possibilities, however, that will make a good start despite the warmer, drier soil. Cowpeas, soybeans, and buckwheat would all be excellent choices. Buckwheat is especially valuable as a “filler” between the harvest of a spring crop and planting of a fall crop. Buckwheat is the “instant cover crop”—from seed to flower in thirty days!—and can be used any time in the growing season when you want to avoid bare ground baking in the sun.