How am I going to improve my impossibly stony soil?
There are two approaches you could take. I have tried both, and each have their rewards.
First, you could commit to a long term project, improving the soil in your garden area. Each year, you can add compost, remove some stones, plant something that will tolerate the conditions to bring more humic material into the root zone, and just make the progress you are able to make. My garlic patch began as an extremely stony, mineral subsoil six years ago. I could not even get a shovel or fork more than a half an inch into the ground. My strong, patient, beloved is the one who dug a grave-sized pile of large and small stones out of the 10' by 10' plot so that I could start adding organic materials to it. It is now dark, fertile, crumbly, "this is what garden soil should be" quality. I add some compost and cottonseed meal and ashes each year, and let the worms do most of the work. The garlic gets bigger and more robust each year.
Second, you could decide that you don't want to wait, and don't want to exert the kind of physical effort required. That means you grow in containers or raised beds (which are just large containers, sometimes without bottoms). You make the soil by combining compost with other materials to obtain the characteristics you want. It needs to drain well but hold moisture and nutrients. Peat can be added (I want us to get away from unsustainable materials, but it can be useful - some are trying coconut fiber). Coarse vermiculite helps with keeping good air spaces in the soil. Of course, compost is probably the most wonderful gift you can give your plants. Mel Bartholomew, the engineer who developed Square Foot Gardening, has a recipe for raised bed growing media that works very well. Advantages to this method include the ability to put hardware cloth across the bottom of the container to discourage burrowing pests, and the lack of weed seeds in properly produced compost.
How can I grow food, when I have so little time at home?
One option is to find food plants that pretty much grow themselves. That's what I have done for many years. It doesn't look like typical 20th century American vegetable gardening, but it produces some wonderfully tasty, nutritious and out-of-the-ordinary results! (You may be able to trade with other gardeners for more typical vegetables, like tomatoes and squash.)
I began looking for perennial plants, including native plants, that haven't been bred strictly for mass production of food.
Some of the plants I found are:
daylily hazelnut ground nut sunchokes berries beech trees violets purslane sorrel good king henry stinging nettle (doesn't sting when cooked or dried)
I also found some more typical plants that are easy to manage, once established:
rhubarb asparagus garlic
Asparagus is the most demanding plant to get started, in my experience. It isn't really a fussy plant, but to give it a good, healthy start, young plants must be planted on little hills in a trench - much digging! But these beauties will produce food for you for twenty to thirty years. How about that?!!
Bushes take some site prep, but not that much (a few hours at most, based on my experience). Again, once they are in the ground and established, there is not too much to do. I have a soaker hose laid around the bases of the blueberries and raspberries. Because I was too timid with the mulch on the blueberries, I have had to weed them a bit. Again, I have learned a lesson, and this year I will spend the time heavily mulching around the blueberries (cardboard with several inches of mulch on top, right over the soaker hose), and the raspberries while I am at it.
Garlic takes about two or three days of my time each year, now that the bed is established. It takes less than half a day to harvest, seed the green manure crop (buckwheat - also edible (seeds)), and hang the garlic. I love it when the house reeks of garlic! That only lasts a few days, though. It takes a half a day to clean off and trim the cured garlic and tie it up or place it in mesh bags. It takes less than half a day to chop the green manure in and add compost the week before planting in the fall. It takes half a day to sort through the best bulbs and select the best cloves for replanting. It takes an hour or so to replant and mulch. This is for an approximately 140 square foot bed, that produces over three hundred bulbs of garlic. We grow six varieties, plus some greens.
You may have heard that raspberries will spread if you allow them. What a happy problem! Consider it free garden expansion. Plant them where they will have room to spread out. If they go in a direction you disagree with, clip them or, better, find someone who could use some berry bushes and transplant them.
I have had no pests on rhubarb or garlic or blueberries. I have had a few pests on the hazelnuts (leaf rollers) and raspberries (unidentified leaf-snackers). Mice nibble some of the sunchoke tubers, but leave me more than plenty. Squirrels share beech nuts with me (but some years the worms eat most of them). The violets have no apparent predators other than me, and I enjoy all the nettle tea I desire, with no competition.
This year I plan to taste-test the daylilies (some people are allergic) and next year should have some good king henry and ground nuts ready for harvest. I used to have purslane, chickweed and sorrel in the garden, but in my ignorance, treated them like weeds. They will probably show up again, and this time I know better. I will still remove them if they are crowding other plants, but instead of sending them all to the compost, I can add them to salad.
Remember, anyone may be allergic to some plant or another. The first time you try something, even if it's something you've bought at the market, try a little and wait a few hours or overnight, just to make sure.
How Do I Start Composting?
There are thousands of ways to compost successfully. What varies is the speed at which the feedstocks break down, and the nutrient composition. But compost is good for the garden in any case. Certainly, compost progresses most quickly when the carbon to nitrogen ratio is 25:1, some say 30:1, soil moisture is about 50%, air about 5%, pH between 6 and 7.5.
I spend very little time managing my compost pile, and I get two wheelbarrows full of good compost every spring, just by tossing in the kitchen scraps as they accumulate (no animal products except eggshells), leaves, weedings and grass clippings as they become available, and checking on the pile to see if it needs to be turned or watered.
If the pile starts smelling a little vinegary, that indicates either too much water or too much acid. Solution: put on a nylon glove, grab a handful from below the surface, and squeeze. If more than a drop or two of water comes out, the pile is too wet and needs some dry stuff added and needs to be turned.
If the water looks good, then it's too much acid, and I put in some wood ash from the fireplace and turn it. Without wood ash, I would use lime. Just several tablespoons, not that much. A little goes a long way.
If the pile smells like ammonia, there is too little acid. More coffee grounds, or some sulphur (sold in bags at the garden store). We are coffee drinkers, so we have not had this problem!
Since I can't rotate my asparagus and alpine strawberries, how can I prevent pest infestations?
Perennial plantings require a different strategy for pest management.
One such strategy is the use of aromatic pest confusers. This is an edible forest gardening (permaculture) term for plants that have an aroma that masks the aroma of the plants around it. For example, agastache (anise hyssop) planted around asparagus makes it more difficult for pests to find it.
Jacke and Toensmeier, in Edible Forest Gardens Volume 2 list a number of aromatic pest confusers. Included in the list are anise hyssop, horseradish, bee balm and mountain mint.
Prevention is the best way, and another preventive measure is to encourage beneficial insects that eat garden pests. Praying mantis, ladybug nymphs, and some wasps take care of garden pests. They just need a safe place to live. That is why I don't use poisons. Poisons are broad-spectrum. They are designed to kill insects, the helpful and the problematic. They kill monarch butterflies as well as cabbage loopers.
Another strategy, once pests arrive, is the use of diatomaceous earth, also called DE. It is a powder, and is composed of the tiny skeletons of living organisms called diatoms. These diatoms make their skeletons out of calcium compounds, and they have many tiny spines on them. These spines tear the soft tissues of insect pests, killing them. Soft-bodied pests, like slugs, are especially susceptible.
Be careful handling DE. It does the same thing to our soft tissues (eyes, nasal passages) as it does to insects' soft tissues. Wear eye coverings, pay attention to which way the wind is blowing.
Insecticidal soaps are something you could try, should an infestation appear.
An ancient method that I use for asparagus beetles is hand-picking. It is a character-building chore. That is my code phrase for something that is good to do, and is boring, and you can't make it go any faster, and you have to do it every day for it to make a difference. But it is effective, it leaves no residue, and gives one an excuse to stand outside in the garden for a while without having to weed.
What if my neighbors don't like the appearance of a vegetable garden?
Aesthetics are a concern in some neighborhoods. If you cannot develop a good rapport with neighbors, you may just have to make adjustments.
One option, with plenty of drawbacks, is to place the vegetable garden in an area difficult to see or behind a privacy fence.
Other more creative ideas are to use artistic trellises and other structures. As one performer once said, "If you can't hide it, decorate it!"
Select plants that are interesting and beautiful as well as tasty. Okra has fascinating flowers, and many peas are also used as ornamentals.
Potatoes can be grown in wire towers, where they form a lovely column of leaves. Garlic chives, an herb, can dress up the perimeter of garden beds.
Some of the most beautiful vegetable and herb gardens I have seen are raised beds in symmetrical patterns - circles, stars, sunbursts. How about training vines over a geodesic dome?
A gardening friend built a raised bed in a three-dimensional snail-shell pattern, with the outer portion at the lowest level, and each level rising progressively to a top layer.
Row cropping has been around for many years, and there were reasons for planting all one kind of plant in a long straight row. But we know that planting a polyculture (different kinds of plants) discourages pests and can look more interesting. We know that tomatoes will grow just fine in a circular pattern.
Squash and melons can be trained up on a trellis. For a rustic but neat and orderly look, you could set up teepee trellises in a circle or a row.
Freecycle and other sources can provide materials for your creative garden. So can tag sales and antique shops, even your neighbor's attic.
What is a green manure?
Green manure is plants that have been grown so that they can be chopped up and incorporated into the soil for the benefit of the food crop that you plan to grow in that area.
Clover and buckwheat are two popular green manures, but there are many.
Clover roots host nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Chopping the clover into the soil releases nitrogen in a form that plants can take up. Buckwheat is said to make phosphorus more plant-available.
Using green manures gets the best results when you can take some time, like a year or two, growing the green manure crop in the garden plot before planting the food crop.
I use buckwheat (which is not wheat) as a green manure in the garlic patch. Right after harvest, I loosen the soil, add compost and cottonseed meal, and sow buckwheat seeds. They germinate within a few days, and rapidly grow to about a foot and a half, or two feet tall. They have precious little white flowers that the bees seem to love.
I have read warnings that you should not let the buckwheat produce seed (this happens soon after flowering), because they will become a weed in the garden bed. That has not happened to me. I think it is because I have enough little seed predators in the area, that they scarf up most of the seeds. The ones left sprout, and are easy to knock over and turn in to the soil again.
Why do some gardeners recommend crop rotation?
Crop rotation is a way to prevent or minimize pest infestations. The principle is to avoid putting plants from the same family in the same soil two plantings in a row. Rather, one rotates plants from three or four families through one section of the garden.
This requires knowing which families your plants are in, and keeping some records.
Eliot Coleman has a nice list in Four Season Harvest that gives examples of some frequently grown plants and their families.
The reason to rotate crops is to keep the pests and diseases that affect the crop from building up in the soil and becoming worse each year until the crop is decimated. It takes time (usually) for the pests to find their favorite foods. It slows them down when the food is a moving target.
Beneficial organisms in the soil take time to find and eat bacteria that infect susceptible plants. Crop rotation gives healthy soil the time to balance out the population of microoorganisms.
Different crops take up different amounts of nutrients from the soil. In a well fed, healthy soil, this is not a big problem. But rotating plants evens out the uptake of nutrients, to an extent.
Some crops, like legumes, actually leave the soil more rich in certain nutrients which is beneficial to the crop that follows. Grains following legumes is a common rotational practice.