Sunday, February 13, 2011

Soil before Seeds

Seed catalogs may be the focus for most gardeners this time of year, because who can resist the charms of colorful vegetables, fruit and flowers when the white snow provides the perfect canvas for fresh ideas. Yet underneath all that snow is a garden waiting to be planted, and soil that is yearning to be fed.

Soil is one of the most important components to a successful garden. It is a living, breathing organism and provides the nourishment that allows roots, shoots, and fruits to mature. Most soils contain the basic elements that plants need to grow, but not always in the right proportions. A lot happens in the soil that we can’t even see. Understanding how all the elements work together in the soil will help you build a natural blend of nutrients that will reward your plants—and you—with good health.

The first garden design in my new book, The Complete Kitchen Garden, embodies the fundamental principles of organic gardening through the four square organic rotation method. It is the oldest and most practical design ideal for first time gardeners, and a method I teach in my upcoming garden class. When plants are grown in the same location year after year, soil-borne diseases can weaken them and may tempt the gardener to find a short-term chemical solution to keep the plants alive.

When you combine this classic design with the principles of organic gardening, you can appreciate how the basics of organic rotation work, making it easy to follow a successful planting routine each year. The end result will be healthy soil, healthy plants, and a harvest that is vitamin-rich and packed with flavor.

Take a short course on the chemistry of plants to learn what they require in order to grow. Design your garden into four beds, and keep the plants grouped by what nutrients they need, then rotate the beds each year to keep the soil healthy. Here's how it works:

Bed One: High Nitrogen (N)—Leafy Greens: Lettuce, Kale, Mesclun, Arugula, Mustard, Cress, and Spinach
Bed Two: High Phosphorus (P)—Fruiting and Flowering Crops: Tomatoes, Summer and Winter Squash, Eggplant, Peppers, and Melons
Bed Three: High Potassium (K)—Root Crops: Onions, Garlic, Shallots, Radish, and Carrots
Bed Four: Cleansers and Builders (B)—Peas, Beans, Potatoes, and Corn
And always include flowers that attract beneficial pollinators to your garden, too.

By following the Organic Rotation Garden method, you are creating a garden that will be self-sustaining as well as self-improving every year. You are working with nature to constantly upgrade the natural balance in your vegetable garden. And it makes it easier to figure out what to order from the seed catalogs and how to plan your garden for the most successful harvest.

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