My home vegetable garden system is the product of excessive and obsessive planning. I currently use a four-field, organic, no-till gardening system. I have four small garden beds, each not much more than 100 square feet. I developed all of them new out of sod, and some are only now coming to maturity. My beds are divided into four crop groups, which are are lettered A-D. Bed 1 and 2 is a single, larger bed which is split in half with two crop groups. They rotate in a clockwise fashion.
The basic premise of this system is to build soil health and fertility by practicing crop rotation, utilizing mulch and cover crops, and reducing tillage. My current field system is potatoes/root crops, brassicas/salad greens, three sisters, and solanacea and melons. There are several advantages to this system, including allowing diverse cover crops which serve different
purposes, discouraging disease, and building biomass. This system was born out of relentless planning and research about companion planting, cover crops, rotations, etc. It has been simplified over time, with more preference being given to the neighbor’s goat muck over cover crops due to its essentially infinite availability. However, on a larger scale or with less manure fertility from cover crops is much more essential.
One big downside of this system is it makes you more of a slave to weather and the calendar to accomplish everything in a year. It becomes a very tight schedule once one is accounting for the season and hoping the cover crops will start growing in the Spring. Further, one cannot plant perennial or overwinter vegetables (though I suppose one can overwinter onions for the root bed). This is one of the reasons I am so enthusiastic about my large hugelkultur bed- it is permanent and I can do whatever I want!
These plantings are separated into 4 groupings, which move clockwise through the garden beds which are outlined below. If I had a 5th garden it would be a cover garden that started with an overwinter cover mix which was followed by buckwheat.
A) Root Crops
B) Brassica, Peas, & Salad Greens
C) Solanacea & Melons
D) 3 Sisters
E) Fallow (Optional)
A) Root Crops
Spring: This bed is managed with the Ruth Stout permanent mulch method. Corn stalks have been left on overwinter with a layer of mulch around them mostly of goat muck and leaves. In the early spring the cornstalks are knocked down and a very thick
layer of mulch is applied When it is time to plant the mulch is separated with a hoe and potatoes and onion sets are laid directly on the ground. For the carrots the soil will be finely cultivated (I have had a horrible time getting carrots to grow from just throwing them on the ground as I’m wont to do.)
This year (2017) is my first year using this method and the potatoes and onions loved it, even with the weird weather!
Summer: The mulch holds a lot of water, limiting water consumption. In this method more mulch is generally just thrown on top of other weeds as they grow, though I’ve been pulling it. Buckwheat can be added in late summer as the potatoes are harvested. I realized a mistake I made here was in the exact timing of laying the mulch compared to planting. It is ideal that the lower seeds have time to germinate and then die from the mulch.
Fall: The challenge for this has been finding a cover crop that will grow in the Fall and reliably winter kills. Since this is followed by a Spring field overwinter cover crops do not have time to produce good biomass in the Spring. After much research, I tried Berseem Clover, an Egyptian clover that will winter kill in some regions. However, the Palouse is in a blank spot on the map where it isn’t appropriate as an annual or perenniel! Suffice to say, it just didn’t take. I also love the idea of planting Groundhog Daikon radishes in this garden. However, it puts them right before another brassica, and the flea beetles have become brutal, both on the daikons and the following year’s crop. They can be reasonably well controlled by frequent sprayings of neem and pyrethrin, but I think if it is necessary to spray regularly it’s a sign something is wrong with your management practices!
For the time being, this bed just gets another good layer of organic matter in the Fall. If you have chickens (or guinea hens!) this is a great time to run them in this garden bed to control insects and increase fertility. This is especially helpful for flea beetle control in a no-till garden, as Fall tillage is the major method of mechanical control for flea beetles.
B) Brassica, Peas, & Salad Greens
Spring: This bed will either have mulch from the last season or winter killed cover crops. Most years I grow lettuce, spinach, peas, broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage. Due to the climate here bolting is a big problem, and I often baby them by giving them cold water in the morning on days when it is over 85. A nice mulch also helps! I like to plant the peas and spinach as early as possible, but I wait to plant the brassicas until a bit later so the flea beetles find a different garden if possible.
Summer: This bed will begin to thin out as the weather gets warmer in June and early July. I remove things as they bolt and either feed them to the goats or put them in the compost (it’s hard to resist the goats adorable faces, and if the old plants are contaminated it gets them away from my field.) I plant buckwheat in all of the open areas to reduce weeds, add calcium to the soil, and provide food for late summer pollinators.
Fall: This is the only part of the rotation where there is a proper Fall and Spring time to grow cover crops. I like the idea of using daikon radishes in late Summer and then using a straw mulch that will grow wheat grass will which last over winter and produce good biomass by the time tomatoes are planted in late Spring. If that is the plan I would recommend also throwing in some vetch, which shows rapid Spring growth. However, if flea beetles have been a problem it is not viable or wise to follow brassicas with a brassica cover, and it can easily create the problem if you did not have it previously.
The more straightforward solution is to plant with a Fall cover mix, which should have time to develop very thick biomass by the Spring. This is the best time for cover crops in this rotation, so it doesn’t make sense to manure the field at this time in a mature bed, though laying down some finished compost before planting cover crops has never hurt anything! However, in an immature bed a thick layer of manure will still work better than anything.
If you want to incorporate animals, chickens can be used to clean up your buckwheat and loosen the seedbed before planting your cover crop. On a larger scale you can let your pigs run in the fields- contrary to popular belief it does not generally create a disease problem in cold climates if the manure is mixed with soil and able to overwinter and deep freeze.
C) Solanacea & Melons
Winter: I have had consistent problems with blossom end rot, so I throw all of our eggshells on this bed over the winter to increase calcium.
This bed should be thick with your cover mix. Don’t incorporate animals that will eat the cover at this point, but you can let ducks or guinea hens hunt the field for insect control. You will want to take this down two weeks or so before planting, and make sure the field is well watered so nutrients can enter the soil. I personally believe if you are not incorporating it into the soil you can go closer than two weeks, but two weeks is the rule of thumb for incorporating a cover crop.
I cover this bed in black plastic. I’ve never particularly liked black plastic mulch, but it has a place. Since I do not till or spray herbicide, I need a way to kill the weeds which have developed through the rotation and keep the gardens clear of grass roots. I put the black plastic down around a week before planting.
Another major benefit of black plastic is that it keeps the soil warmer, which makes it viable to grow small melons in this short season climate. Plus, all the heat loving solanaceas can start earlier and will live longer.
One problem with this is that does not make as much sense on a larger scale, a problem for which I have not found a solution. I aspire to set up a drip system for this to save labor, but am thus far hand watering.
Usually I plant a variety of tomatoes from cherries to beefsteak (beefsteaks rarely turn out) as well as hot and bell peppers. The bell peppers almost never turn out (this year it’s the deer). I decided to plant more of my favorite kind of peppers, Hungarian Wax Peppers, because they grow readily and can be more easily stored in a proper quantity. I also plant eggplants and small melons.
All of the plants in this bed should be watered deeply and infrequently. I rarely have pest problems in this bed. I sometimes water with fish fertilizer but I don’t like to because it’s a pain, and because I don’t believe it should be necessary with proper soil fertility.
Fall: I use a sheet over this bed to extend the growing season. Usually, unless I make a mistake, I can get these beds to survive until mid to late October with just a sheet to protect them on cold nights.
Once this bed has died I remove the plastic and then remove all of the dead plants. The reasons for this are twofold: tomatoes can carry diseases over winter when left in the field, and their thick stems a resistant to breaking down. At this point I give the field a good mulch of whatever is readily available and put the garden to bed for the winter.
D) Three Sisters
Spring: I practice a pretty classic Three Sisters method in this garden. For those who don’t know, Three Sisters is a traditional American Indian garden method where corn, beans, and squash are companion planted. This is an excellent system for a permanent field as it controls weeds and insects and increases fertility. The basic premise is that polebeans grow up the corn while squash shades out the weeds. The corn and beans are planted together, with the squash on separate mounds. This is a crucial system for growing large volumes of survival food, as it requires little care, has few disease problems, and is a near complete nutrient cycle which does not require rotation (especially if you clean the field with chickens.)
I have been using a Mighty Mustard cover as early in the
Spring as I can. Plant it into a layer of finished compost, if you have it. Mustard is especially important if you have been having nematode or other insect problems. It absolutely has to go
down three weeks before planting, because it is hot with glucosinates and extremely allellopathic. This does leave you with the sad prospect of cutting it down right as it is flowering and full of pollinators, but I still think it is worth it for the other benefits. And this is on the opposite side of the rotation as the brassica crop, so it is really the best time for it in terms of pest and disease resistant.. I have been mowing it as short as I can and then lightly hoeing it out to kill it. A person could try spraying it with an organic herbicide, if so inclined.
Once the mustard has been down for three weeks, hopefully around the last frost date, it is time to dig out shallow and loose furrows to plant corn. Once the corn is 4 inches, beans should be planted on the same mound and squash in the mounds that do not have corn and beans. This delay is to stop the beans and squash from pulling down your tiny corn.
Be mindful of your baby beans, which area prized food of slugs and other insects. Besides this, just watch it grow. Weeding should be minimal as squash will shade out everything. Remember in this region the corn expression is “Knee-high by the 4th of July!”
Fall: Hopefully you have a good harvest! I leave the corn stalks up all winter to hold soil, and so I can watch the birds use them for nests in the Spring etc. Plus, they can feed on half pollinated ears during the Winter. If I am using my four field system and this is followed by potatoes I put down a heavy mulch of goal muck and leaves in between the corn stalks. If you have chickens you can let them scratch around at the dead plant matter before putting down muck!
If you have a 5th “fallow” field plant an overwinter cover mix.
E) Fallow (Optional)
Spring: Let the cover mix grow! This would also be a good time to let goats or chickens graze the garden lightly.
Summer: Plant buckwheat as the cover mix dies back from the heat. You should be able to get two courses of buckwheat in, if not three. It can generally go to seed in around 4 weeks and will reseed readily. Plant thickly, because buckwheat is a smother crop! (Interestingly, in England new fields would traditionally be developed by burning the forests and then running three courses of buckwheat.) Chickens can be brought in to clear out the cover mix before planting buckwheat.
Fall: When the buckwheat dies from frost mulch heavily in preparation for Ruth Stout potatoes next season.
The Garden Beds
This bed was built the first Spring we were here in this house in 2013. This bed is East of the house, and tends to get partial shade until around 9 in the morning, depending on the season. The lawn had not received any care the previous year and was full of long, dead grass. This was built at the last minute in and I had not gardened in many years. The first year, I tried to make the garden out of a somewhat higher point in the yard that had longer grass. Being out of practice and still relatively inexperienced, this garden was made with more than one mistake. For one, I tried to kill it with clear plastic in the Spring, and only had a few weeks. Then, I tilled the remaining grass straight in, stupidly thinking the grass, including roots, could constitute decent organic matter. I threw some chicken manure, but not enough to work well. I imagined the ground as rich from having been wild, but that only works if the organic matter has a chance to mix in.
My primary result was a ton of weeds, brick hard soil (it’s almost as if bricks are made from earth and straw.). Further, there was low fertility. What’s more, I gave into my urge to do things in a wild and “natural” fashion, and few things had enough room, and weeding was near impossible. Some things did grow, potatoes did alright, but certainly not a garden year to be too proud of.
The field was Fall planted with a Fall cover mix from Territorial Seed Company, which includes Austrian Winter Peas, Hairy Vetch, Crimson Clover, and Annual and Winter Rye. Unfortunately, since my garden had both Spring and Summer crops, there just was not the time for it to get large enough to make a big difference.
The second year I made another grave mistake, back when I was still tilling. Down at my parents property there was a huge pile of woody compost from tree removal. I filled up my little pickup and hauled home what looked like good and near finished compost. However, it was much woodier and broken down than I imagined once it got water on it.
All would have been fine if it was left on top as a mulch, but instead I decided one more tilling would make things better. Unfortunately, I forgot to think about the relationship between nitrogen and carbon- where high carbon organic matter uses high volumes of nitrogen as it breaks down- and did not put any high nitrogen material in it to allow the wood to break down. Severely nitrogen robbed soil. Even worse results than year one, though the bed was a bit more mature. There was a severely hard soil pan which nothing could break through that was not many inches down. This year side 1 was mulched in the Fall, while side 2 was planted again with TSC fall mix.
This year the solanacea plants were separated from this garden, and put under black plastic in a new bed.
In 2015 this garden bed was starting to mature. This was the first year I tried a Mighty Mustard cover crop, which was developed at the University of Idaho and produces a good volume of biomass while working as a biofumigant. It grew beautifully, in part due to the extremely early Spring (I ended up planting it in late January due to the garden already being workable.) This was an overall good year for the bed, and the perennial grass problem had began to become less bad. Further, bed 2 was covered in plastic, getting rid of the last residual grass roots. Bed 1 had wonderful vegetative growth in squash, which was planted to early, and the corn and beans
suffered from smothering. Even so, it was hesitant to fruit properly.
The thick growth in 2015 demonstrated maturity in the bed even if the year did not go perfect, and from this point the field has existed within the current rotation hosting potatoes and three sisters in 2016 and brassica and potatoes in 2017. Unfortunately, there has been weird weather every year, making it hard to know what to take from my experiments. In 2017 I mulched this garden with the Ruth Stout method hoping to add important long term fertility, after which it will be used in rotation. The brassica garden had trouble with weather and should have been planted somewhat differently, but the potatoes and onions have loved it!
The third bed, which began to be built in 2013, is on a mound to the Northeast of the house. It gets near full sun with some afternoon shade. The bed was covered in plastic in the summer, and the bed was properly done when the Fall started. The bed was given a cover of Groundhog Daikon Radish in the fall to break up the soil and mine nutrients. The radishes did ok, but did not build biomass like I had hoped.
This garden bed’s first year with vegetables. It was planted with solanacea under black plastic and did surprisingly well for a new bed, though as usual my beefsteak tomatoes failed to produce.
In the Fall the solanaceas were taken down to cover the field in mulch. I decided to double dig the soil, which brought up clay from hell. I believe some of it was fill dirt from placing the house. After this I put down fall cover mix and then mulched heavily. Unfortunately, the cover mixed was mulched too heavily from leaves, and barely grew. Due to lack of growth even in a warm fall I turned the upper compost of straw, goat muck, and leaves again in December.
Spring crops were put in the bed and struggled due to clay, especially small seeded plants like lettuce and carrots. Some things like potatoes, cauliflower, and broccoli did pretty well in this bed. The bed was planted with buckwheat later in the summer, and then mulched heavily again in the fall.
The bed went back to tomatoes, which do not seem to have any struggle with the clay. The solanaceas were very thirsty, and struggled to hold water. Watermelon was grown successfully for the first time receiving a handful of Minnesota midgets. The bed was mulched with straw which was left on top, and wheat was able to grow as a cover crop.
In the Spring this bed was planted with Mighty Mustard, which showed slow growth due to a very cold and wet spring, which led to late planting. However, the weat grass grew well so there was somewhat of a cover crop. The cover was lightly hoed in this year, instead of being left on the surface. The bed has done well planted with three sisters, though the beans have struggled from every pest and the corn is too thick. Unfortunately, I didn’t harvest at the right time due to the late August/early September heatwave I accidentally let the corn get starchy, on a year I finally I finally had good corn!
Bed four is in a lovely spot under the apple tree, where there was lush grass and a vetch stand from the natural flow of water. The bed was covered with plastic in Fall of 2014 and left until the late Spring. The field was planted with buckwheat, then I decided to do a small potato crop, which turned out fine. This field is the only one in truly full sun, though since it is near the hugel bed now there will be some afternoon shade.
For the bed’s first full year it was planted with the brassica bed. Again, I struggled with lettuce, but got peas in early which did well. There was a decent cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage harvest. This has been a promising bed in a good location. The bed was given a Daikon Radish cover in the fall which did not manage to grow very much.
This year is this beds first time doing solanacea covered with plastic. It was mulched well with goat muck in the fall and the grass that grew was hoed down before plastic. It is doing well and has great water retention. As always, no large fruit on beefsteaks or successful bell peppers. I may need to find a good way to incorporate magnesium, which is not something I have focused on.
This system was hell to come up with, but I think it is well worth it for long term soil health! It is pretty much the only organic, no-till, crop rotation system that I have seen. Just try to avoid letting it make you a slave to the system, it is improved by modification as necessary.
Try it out and let me know what you think!
Check out my other garden related posts in the gardening category.