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Gardening - from row, to bed, to hay: increase your gardening efficiency.

As we listen to the daily news reports from around the world, the wars, droughts, famine, disasters of every kind, we have to wonder: What does the future hold for all of us? What should be uppermost in our minds now? What does gardening matter right now with so many urgent events taking place on our beautiful earth?

I have to tell myself it is more important than ever now as events and tensions around the world escalate, for us, each individual and family, to become more self-sufficient and less dependent on distant sources for our food and daily needs. What better way to become self-sufficient than gaining the knowledge of how to feed our families. A small plot of ground can be made to produce a year-around supply of healthful, chemical-free food.

To change from row gardening to bed gardening is a big step toward efficient use of time and space. And to go further, to hay gardening, is an even bigger step.

Raised beds

My vegetable garden has been converted to beds for about five years and has been under hay for three full years. By doing this, its over-all size has decreased by one-third and production has increased by one-third, and overall effort has been cut in half. I realize these gardening methods are not for everyone. By the same reasoning, many small gardeners will find the answers to some of their problems.

If your garden is subject to drowning in heavy rains or to burning up during the heat of the summer, beds and hay are equalizers. The water is dispersed away from plant roots and saved under the hay for the days of drought.

How to begin a bed garden depends on where you are starting from. If you have an overgrown area that was planted back in the spring and was drowned in the heavy rains or produced its crop, it is probably by now waist-high in rank grass and weeds. Of course this will have to be cut down enough that the whole area can be tilled.

If you are breaking new ground, that is, a spot that is sod and has never been broken up, just till over it several times. In either event, till as deeply as possible until all the grass is chopped fine and you have a solid expanse of loose dirt six to eight inches deep.

My total garden area is about seventy feet wide and forty feet deep. This includes a path wide enough for tractor mowing and for hauling hay in my small truck, and a footpath which divides the beds into three blocks, each about 20 feet wide and 40 feet deep. This allows for 11 beds in each block, each about 24-30 inches wide with comfortable walking paths between. Once your beds are established, you never step on them. This is a comfortable width for me to work with, and it will support two rows of beans or corn or tomatoes, and three rows of smaller vegetables.

Your plot is tilled -- nice loose dirt and lots of chopped up grass. Don't worry about the grass and don't try to take it out unless you have an abundance of Bermuda or nut grass. Then just casually rake out what you can. The bulk of it will go into making rich, nutrient-filled humus for your vegetables.

The next step is to fit your hands around a shovel handle and, starting on one edge, dig a shovel width of dirt as deep as it is, loose. Toss it either right or left onto the tilled side. Make a straight trench all the way across the shorter, or in my case, the 20 foot width. This is your outside path.

Now you may need a string and stakes to get a straight line. Move over about 30 inches and this time you will take out two shovel widths. Toss one shovelful in each direction. This will give height to the bed and leave a good, firm walking path about eighteen inches wide. Continue until you have run out of tilled space.

Before you begin this project, there are two things you should have on hand. One is mulch. This can be anything that will completely cover the tops of the bed areas deep enough to keep out the light and enough for the middles to at least hold down the plastic that is to cover the paths. This can be pine straw or leaves if you have an abundance of them to start with.

But it should be hay if at all possible. Old hay, moldy, weedy, weathered is best. If you are serious about getting into this gardening method for maximum production with minimum effort and expense, it is a good investment to buy hay, if necessary, and stack it out to weather at least four to six months if possible. For my size garden, I use about fifty square bales each year or seven or eight round bales. I ask around and usually can find trash hay, bales that are cut and baled just to get weedy grass off the field. Ranchers are usually glad to have a place to dispose of it so they don't have to burn it. Grass and weed seeds are not very viable and will lose their life if left to set in the bale 8-12 months, even in a barn.

The reasons hay is preferable over straw or leaves are twofold. With time, it packs into a mat that keeps all that cut-up grass from sprouting again. And it immediately begins to rot and go into the soil. You will need to plan on adding a little year-round to keep bare spots covered.

Pine straw is good for the middles. It doesn't deteriorate nearly as fast as the hay and makes a nice cushion for walking and kneeling. But it also lets through too much light to keep grass and weeds from sprouting.

The second thing you will need is a material for covering the middles to keep the grass from growing back. Mulch alone can't do this. I have tried many different things. Some were satisfactory and some were useless. Old carpet would seem ideal, but my advice is don't use it. It gets water-sogged and will be so heavy you can't move it. And every few years, your middles will have to be cleaned out and repaired because dirt will gradually fall down off the beds.

I have found four-mil black plastic to be the most efficient and the easiest to handle. A 20' by 25' roll from the hardware store costs about $14 and will last several years. Cut strips wide enough to cover the bottom and go up the sides of the path and be sure to have mulch ready to anchor it down as you go so the wind won't blow it out of place.

After the middles are covered, place hay on the tops that have been slightly leveled and squared off with a light touch of a leaf rake. Try to make it at least three inches deep. If you do this in late summer for a fall garden, leave until the middle of September to give the grass time to die and begin to decay. If the soil is dry, after the beds are made, soak well with a sprinkler before covering with hay.

If the hay is dry and the humidity is low, it is a good idea to wet your beds good after the hay is spread. This will speed the decomposition of the cut-up grass and will attract earthworms to this nice cool dampness to help with the job.

Your garden bed area should by now be completely covered with a mulch of some kind, with no dirt at all showing. On the outside edges of the first and last beds, I usually just lean a good covering of hay against the sides. Summer grass and weeds are usually by now pretty well spent and will not aggressively grow through the mulch. If a few nutgrass spears or Bermuda runners come through, they are easy to pull out.

Now that your new beds are ready and waiting for the fall planting, the time should be getting toward the last part of September. Lift the hay in a few places and look underneath. The cut grass should have either a brown, rotted look or at least a sickly yellow. If it is still green, your hay mulch is too thin.

This process of bed building can be done any time through January or February if you want to plant in the spring. But the sooner you get the beds done, the more time they will have to be fallow through the winter with all the hay nutrients seeping into the soil and the grass roots and worms doing their jobs.

The worst is over

The initial hard work is done. Maintenance is minimal: a little grass pulling occasionally and forking wheelbarrows of hay on bare spots when they show through. And they will as the hay begins to compost. You can till the tops of these beds if necessary as your plantings change, but after the first year of hay coverage, tilling will not be necessary again. You pull out the spent vegetation, replace the hay used up, and you are ready to replant.

Okay. It is time to buy the strong, healthy cole crop plants if you haven't raised your own. Decide how many of each you will want and where they will go. Cabbage, broccoli, and collards make wide-spread plants and should be set at least 18 inches apart, but on the wide beds, they can be staggered from side to side, so that a 20-foot bed will support about two dozen plants.

How do you plant with all this hay in the way? Just make a small hole, about 6-8 inches across, and scoop down into the still-soft dirt a hole big enough to set the new plant to a depth of about half its stem length. Water gently with a cup or hose and pack the soil back, then pull the hay back closely to cover the dirt again. When you finish, you have rows of little green plant tops glowing against the brown hay.

For planting seeds such as carrots, lettuce, turnips, mustard or beets, the process is a little different. You need to pull the hay back from the middle to each edge of the bed to expose the soil. If you want to plant in rows, use the corner of a hoe to make two very shallow furrows down each side of the bed and sprinkle the seeds, the tiny ones mixed with sand, into the furrow. Very lightly rake the dirt over the seeds. The beets need to be covered a bit deeper. If this is your first garden by this method, you might want to sprinkle the top of the bed lightly with 12-12-12 fertilizer. After the hay begins to compost, this will be less and less necessary.

When the plants are up big enough, pull the hay back to the row on each side and carefully layer hay down the middle so the tiny new plants are green lines in the brown hay. If the humidity turns dry at this stage, run the water hose on the middle hay and it will wet the tiny new roots. Usually by this time, though, we are having fairly regular rains.

Fall gardens have fewer bugs

You should not have any problem with insects or worms in your fall garden except maybe in a new garden setting. There may be a few cutworms. If these are bad you may have to protect your cole plants with collars of foil folded stiff enough to circle the tiny stems into the soil and about two inches high. A cutworm cuts the stems by circling them with its body and sawing off at the ground line. After the stem grows a little and toughens, the worm cannot encircle it or cut it. A cutworm ordinarily is dirt-colored and about three-fourths to one inch long. Always look for them anytime you are working the soil.

Good garden hygiene is the best protection from all garden pests. This means removing all spent vegetation as soon as it is finished so it will not be host to the next generation of pests. Contrary to what it may seem, the hay does not breed these garden pests. I have not used insecticides, except fire ant poison, for about 10 years.

The other protection against insect damage is healthy plants. As your beds gain fertility, your problems will decrease. Strong, well-nourished plants have a built-in radar-like guard against insect invasion.

I am not a non-chemical fertilizer or pesticide purist, but why spend money and take health chances on either, when it can be so easily avoided by working with nature, using knowledge and care.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Countryside Publications Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Ferguson, Mary C.
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:May 1, 1993
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