Starting a Garden - Episode 1

June 2, 2020

Late last fall, we rolled out hay bales for the cattle to graze along the garden area. This served a few purposes - trampling the grass and forbs, adding extra mulch, and the gold: cow manure aged over the winter. We also had the sheep run through for their manure. 

This spring, we had the egg laying hens over the garden area before making beds, also for their trample and manure value. We broadforked the beds area to loosen up the soil, but not till it. Then, we cut the grass that had grown after the chickens had lived there for a bit. We realized our major blunder was not heavily covering the garden bed area after the cattle last fall - this would have prevented a lot of grass and weed seeds from germinating and thriving, which unfortunately they did in the quick weeks of spring before the beds were made.

After making three beds out of cardboard and wood chips, two without cardboard but with wood chips (which will keep my hands weeding all summer, thank you, lessons...), we realized the perennial grasses had taken too strong of a hold, and tilled one inch deep. Most "no till" gardeners still till an inch or two after turning beds between vegetables, but we hoped to till the land none at all, not even for the first season. We think that would have been more possible had we covered the ground last fall. Even so, broadforking would have been necessary. 

After tilling, we covered the ground immediately with natural paper rolls, and covered the edges of the paper and the rows between the beds with wood chips. Many farmers will use plastic, which of course is a bit stronger than paper, but we have been so far happy with the paper. It's saved thousands of feet of plastic that would have been thrown away and purchased every year. Besides the paper, the garden looked like one big wood chip mound. 

As we've planted, we rip away the paper around the plant, plant, and then cover the planted area with hay or wood chips. Though this may cause more weeding than plastic, or even tilling consistently (what most farmers do to remove weeds. This is why you see barren soil between most garden beds of even organic farms), we are hoping to find a balance with nature that will keep building soil. We've purchased compost from the local Midwest Bio (where we also purchase organic potting mix), and are adding that to the plants periodically. Compost bins are up to build our own for next year.

We've also acquired a 100 foot greenhouse from some local friends. Though we initially hoped that would be up by now (well laid plans...) to house tomatoes, we will be excited to plant fall vegetables in there and use it in the winter for greens production.

We now have 28, 30 inch by 100 foot beds, with 19 of them filled, two small greenhouses churning out greens and herbs, and will be laying out a squash patch this weekend.

Stay tuned for how it goes; our challenges and victories.

My Gardening History

My mom always had a garden. A little one, with barren soil and short rows next to a sprayed GMO cornfield...but a garden nonetheless. I remember picking green beans most, maybe because there were so many to pick, or because as a child, that's what I could pick reasonably well. Either way, thinking of those beans and the garden brings back memories of hot, quiet, summer childhood days. Even today, I hear people say "oh, your mother's garden..." The look on people's face as you present them with a tomato or bag of beans you've grown is enough for any gardener to work 12 hours in 80 degrees. 

So, as an adult, I have nearly always had a garden. When I lived in Wyoming, it involved a raised bed, trucked in soil, and drip lines daily because there is no natural green in Wyoming. I had some success, but nothing like watching anything grow in Illinois. I even built a little bean trellis from aspen limbs found in the Big Horn Mountains. Beautiful, but not green like Illinois. 

When I came back to Illinois, I was a single working mom. So, my garden grew along with the weeds. I saw how it was not always a problem, but definitely didn't look like a nice little garden. Some things grew in step with the weeds, while the weeds choked others (my little spinach!) out. I even saw a broccoli self plant from a previous year. I will always cherish the pictures of a 2-year old boy using his Tonka truck to carry zucchini twice his size.Ah yes, back into the Illinois green.

Danielle Olson Jones

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