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Convenience is expensive. Drive down to the supermarket any time of year, even the dead of winter, and you can find fresh vegetables and fruits. Aisles of produce from all over the world are there for purchase.
The obvious solution: Grow food in your own garden, where it will be just a short walk away from your kitchen table. But unless you grow and preserve food as efficiently as possible, you might not end up saving money or energy at all.
The best way to conserve energy in the garden is to provide optimum growing conditions for the crops you produce. This may seem obvious, but it isn’t. Many of the things people do in their gardens not only waste energy, they lower the yield and quality of the crops they produce. A garden that provides optimum growing conditions requires less effort and energy to maintain than a garden that is grown in some of the old-fashioned ways.
Great Soil Can Be Dirt Cheap
The secret to saving energy is efficiency. and when it comes to growing fruits and vegetables, efficiency begins with the soil. Healthy, dynamic soil rarely needs to be tilled because nature tills it for us. Worms and other beneficial soil creatures constantly turn the soil, creating the conditions where plants thrive. Air and water penetrate easily, and nutrients are sup plied as the plants need them. What many people don’t know is that average garden soil is far from being healthy garden soil. For the best yields with the least effort you need a garden with healthy soil.
Soil is really not much more than sand, silt, or clay mixed with humus, which is decomposed plant and animal material. Average garden soil has plenty of sand, silt, or clay but is almost always lacking in humus. Growing a garden without enough humus in the soil is like playing golf with just one club: You can do it, but it isn’t much fun. The easiest way to supply humus to the soil is to feed it compost.
Compost is the name for partially decomposed plant material, like leaves and grass clippings. It looks like rich, dark soil and smells pleasantly earthy. Compost can be purchased if you need a lot of it quickly, or you can make it yourself with little effort. To make your own compost set aside a small section of the yard for the compost pile. Heap grass clippings, fallen leaves, and kitchen scraps into a pile and mix in some manure from grazing animals, like horses or cows. Every few weeks, turn the pile with a garden fork until the compost looks crumbly and dark. When the compost is finished turn it into the garden soil before and after the planting season. During the growing season spread compost beneath your plants for nutrient-rich mulch.
Raising Expectations with Raised Beds
A raised bed is a frame, often of timbers, set on the ground and filled with soil. Raised beds improve soil drainage, allow the soil to warm up faster in the spring, increase soil depth, make the garden more accessible, and encourage higher yields. A raised bed should be wide enough so you can comfortably reach halfway across its width from one side. They can be as long as you want, but most gardeners prefer beds about 8 to 12 feet long. Make the beds from planks of naturally rot-resistant lumber such as cedar or cypress, or from plastic wood. Naturally rot-resistant woods can last for many years before they need replacing, while plastic woods — made from wood fiber and recycled plastics — last for decades but don’t leach hazardous chemicals into the soil. Plants grown in raised beds are often healthier and of higher quality than those grown in conventional ways.
FYI: Pressure lumber can resist rotting for decades and is a tempting material to use when building raised beds. But most pressure-treated lumber contains chromated copper arsenate (CCA), a compound that is toxic to fungi, insects and lots of other creatures as well. The of CCA stays in the wood but a small amount can leach into the surrounding soil. For this reason wood treated with CCA is generally not recommended for use in raised beds.
Wide Beds Produce More Food
Crops have been planted in single rows for so long that people never ask whether it is the best way to grow vegetables. It isn’t. Planting in wide rows is a technique that maximizes growing space while increasing yield and quality. A garden planted in wide rows has space for up to three times as many plants as the same garden planted in single rows. To plant in wide rows, plant a single row following the spacing directions on the seed packet. Now set the second row as far apart as the plants in the first row. For example if the plants in the first row are 6 inches apart, set the second row 6 inches from the first. Be sure to stagger the rows to give each plant the most efficient use of the allotted space.
Depending on the crop each wide row can accommodate three to six rows of plants. Reduce weeds in walkways between the beds by covering the aisles with a layer of news paper that is in turn covered with straw. Raised, wide- bed gardens not only produce more food but are also more attractive.
No Till Means No Bill
The combination of healthy deep soil, raised beds, and wide rows not only means higher yields and better quality. It also means you can say good-bye to that old gas-guzzling tiller. These expensive machines are not only unnecessary they often do more harm than good. Frequent use of tillers dam ages soil structure and discourages beneficial organisms like worms.
The best gardens use a tiller about twice a year: once in the spring to loosen the soil and once in the fall to turn organic matter into the soil. This means that tillers are best rented or borrowed rather than purchased and this can save you hundreds of dollars. You will find that the more compost you add to the soil the less tilling it needs to stay loose and easy to work. After a few seasons, many gardeners using raised beds and wide rows find they never use a tiller at all.
Extending the Growing Season
It seems obvious that the longer the growing season the more food you can grow. Short of moving south it isn’t so obvious how to easily make the growing season substantially longer. The answer can be found in some old-fashioned ideas updated with a bit of new technology.
Cold frames are simple rectangular structures topped with a glazed lid to let in the sun and hold in the resulting warmth. They used to be made from old windows and planks, but old windows frequently used lead putty to hold the glazing and plank sides blocked the sun. Today’s cold frames often have sides and tops made of translucent double- pane acrylic panels that let in the light and insulate much more efficiently than traditional materials. You can even get thermal ventilators that raise and lower the lid as the interior temperature rises or falls.
Hot beds are cold frames that have a contained heat source to warm the soil around the root zone of the plants. You can use electric cables, but they will cost money to purchase and add even more to your electric bill. To make an old-fashioned hot bed, excavate the bed of your cold frame to a depth of 18 inches. Add a 12-inch-deep layer of fresh horse manure to the hole and top with 6 inches of sand. Use a soil thermometer to track the temperature of the sand — it can easily reach 100°F. Set plants in the hot bed when temperature falls below 90°F.
Row covers are thin, lightweight blankets of synthetic, highly insulating materials. They are used to protect crops from cold spells by modifying the air temperature around the plants while keeping frost from forming on the leaves, fruit, and stems. Row covers are usually used with wire hoops that are set into the ground along the perimeter of the garden bed.
The row cover is then draped over the hoops, forming a tunnel. The synthetic fabric of a row cover can be purchased in a variety of weights designed for different conditions. Lightweight blankets protect from light frosts while heavier blankets can protect many plants from even hard frosts.
Greenhouses are expensive additions to the house or yard, but they can make gardening a year-round affair regardless of where you live. Greenhouses can be freestanding structures or can be attached to the house. Freestanding greenhouses come in a wide variety of sizes and are constructed from many different materials. Many are small enough to be set up in a weekend. A small, unheated greenhouse can produce cool- weather crops such as claytonia and winter lettuce even in the middle of a cold northern winter. It also provides a warm, bright environment that can produce transplants of tomatoes, peppers, and other warm weather crops that are as good as or better than anything at the local garden center.
Sunrooms are greenhouses that are attached to the house. They can be used as a greenhouse to grow food and ornamental plants, as well as a passive solar heat source to help warm the house during chill winter days.
Making the Harvest Last
The garden produces food for just a few short months, but people have to eat year-round. One of the secrets to efficient gardening is knowing how to store vegetables so they stay fresh and delicious months after harvest. Some vegetables store perfectly well in a root cellar or similar dark, dry cool location. Root crops such as beets, carrots, and turnips can be stored in damp sand in a cool, dry spot in the basement. Potatoes and onions store best in baskets in a cool, dry place. Some people believe that braiding onions shortens their storage life. With winter squash and pumpkins, harvest when the stem begins to shrivel. Set the fruit in the sun for a week or so to harden the skins, then place in a cool, dark spot. You can store many types of fruit, such as apples, pears, and quince, under the same conditions as winter squash. They will last for months.
Some vegetables that do not store well, such as beans and corn, can be dried. Beans, peas, and corn can be harvested and dried for a few days, then stored in glass jars. To dry corn, peel back the husks and tie into bunches of about three ears each. Hang the ears in a dry place with good air circulation, such as an attic. The dried kernels can be ground into corn meal or soaked in water and cooked like fresh corn.
To dry beans and peas, spread the pods on a screen in a sunny spot. Once the pods are dried, remove the seeds and place in a dry glass container. Seal tightly until ready to use.
Herbs can also be dried and stored for up to a year after harvest. There are many ways to dry herbs. The old-fashioned method is to harvest the herb, stems and all; tie them into bunches; and hang the bunches from the rafters. This does dry the herbs, but it also allows much of the herb’s volatile oils — and flavor — to escape into the air. There are two excellent ways to dry herbs and also retain their fresh taste. The first technique is refrigerator drying. Harvest the herb and place it in a fine-mesh onion bag. Place a refrigerator magnet equipped with a hook on the inside of the refrigerator. Hang the bag of herbs in the fridge and leave it for about a week or until the herbs are dry and slightly crumbly.
A faster method is microwave drying. Set a single layer of herbs on three sheets of paper towels. Place the towels and herbs in the oven and microwave on high for about 30 seconds. Check the herbs to see whether they are dry. Continue to microwave for 15-second intervals until herbs are dry.
Microwave drying works very well for many herbs, but the drying process must be monitored closely as the herbs can easily scorch if zapped too much.
Canning in glass jars can preserve most vegetables that can’t be stored or dried. Tomatoes, pickle cucumbers, and string beans are just some of the foods that can be canned. Canning is also a great way to preserve processed foods, such as jellies, jams, tomato sauce, and maple syrup. Store canned foods on shelves in a cool, dry, slightly dark location. Be sure to date each jar so you can use the oldest stock first.
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