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Victory through guano

Endure the economy, benefit your budget and help your health by growing an organic Victory Garden

Posted: April 17, 2009 10:18 p.m.
Updated: April 18, 2009 4:55 a.m.
 
They say talking to your house plants is good for them. Maybe that works in your vegetable garden as well. And, why not take it even further? Maybe you could try being a garden cheerleader:

"V, V, V-I-C...T, T, T-O-R-Y! Victory! Victory! Goooo Spuds!"

I mean, if you are going to have a Victory Garden, you might as well get in the spirit of winning, right? And, beyond that, your cheers might scare off a few thieving birds or rabbits or something.

And if you're going to eat healthy by growing your own food, why not go all the way and do it organically.

So that would make it "Goooo guano!"

(Many organic fertilizers or soil conditioners contain bat guano.)

So what is a Victory Garden?
According to a recent article in The Economist, in 1943 Eleanor Roosevelt encouraged a return to the "Victory Gardens" that had become popular during the first World War, when the country faced food shortages. Mrs. Roosevelt planted a garden at the White House and some 20 million Americans followed her lead. By the end of WW II they grew 40 percent of the nation's vegetables.

Now a grass roots movement is building where Victory Gardens are becoming more popular with Americans. The Obamas have even joined the movement, planting a 1,100 square foot vegetable garden in the south lawn of the White House.

Why is this happening?
While your vegetable garden probably isn't going to speed up things in Iraq or Afghanistan, Margaret Lloyd, a researcher on victory gardens at the University of California at Davis, finds many reasons for this new national trend. The recession is one; but people are also worried about food safety, want to eat more healthily, and are bothered about climate change. Gardening may be a way to make a difference.

Now you mega-farmers, don't send letters. We'll probably get nowhere near that old 40 percent veggie mark here in the SCV. And I doubt we'll dent your income from produce production. But for someone who is out of a job and home a lot, gardening might not only be of benefit to the pocketbook, but the soul as well.

This is the time to start your organic Victory Garden, and Richard Green, of Green Landscape Nursery in Saugus, can help you avoid mistakes. He also points out that an organic garden can be a great family project, and one that will educate your children and condition them for eating healthy the rest of their lives.

It's a victory over the economy and a victory for you as a parent.

Plan your garden
Green said that your garden should go where the veggies will get a lot of sunlight. "The sun sweetens and helps them develop more rapidly."

The location should also be well-drained. "Where the water will go away from. You want the vegetables to dry out between waterings," he said.

If the location is not well drained, Green said you can elevate your garden. We've all seen this type of garden, where 2 x 6 boards or some other frame enclose several inches of rich soil above the level of the surrounding ground.

Green also explained that proper spacing of your garden rows, and the positioning of the various vegetables in them, is important. "Think about your pattern."

"You want the taller plants, like corn and tomatoes, on the north side," he said. That's because, even in summer, the sun's path is more to the south. Tall plants on the south side of the garden would shade-out those to the north.

He also noted that corn should be grown in at least three rows, side-by-side. This ensures good cross-pollination.

Plants such as strawberries, which like things a bit dry, should be planted on raised humps of soil - "on little gopher mounds."

Prepare the soil
Whether your garden is at ground level or elevated, you want to be sure the soil is right. If your soil has a lot of clay, as is the case in many SCV locations, you can add gypsum to help break it up and keep it loose. "If your clay soil is like adobe, add sand for more porosity, and more permanent porosity," Green said.

Beyond that, you can add soil amendments. "Add mulch or an all-organic vegetable conditioner, such as Soil Booster," Green said, "up to, but not more than 50 percent." If you go beyond 50 percent, Green said the soil becomes like a sponge and holds too much moisture.

When/what to plant
Green explained that we are not out of the woods yet, as far as cold weather. And that, on any given year, there could be freezing temperatures in April. "There's a strong likelihood of receiving a substantial frost or freeze as late as April 22 or 23." Take this past week for example, when temperatures dropped below freezing at least twice.

"The sun bakes, but the cold sucks the moisture out," Green said.

If you are planting seeds, you must be sure they don't sprout before the danger of freezing is past. Radishes may sprout in only three days. And, as far as plants already growing in containers, you shouldn't put them in the garden until the danger is over.

While you can plant "winter" veggies, such as Brussels sprouts, kale, lettuce and broccoli, in the fall, ahead of cold weather, your spring garden should be composed of plants that like it warm. These include tomatoes, peppers, basil cucumbers, beans and corn.

Check with your nurseryman about what to plant and when.

Green said you should limit the amount of any particular vegetable you plant. "Don't over-plant the varieties," he said. You can also stagger your planting so crops ripen at different times. Try to gauge how much of any vegetable you can eat or give away readily.
When it comes to tomatoes, Green said four to five plants should be plenty. "Six if you are a tomato-holic."

He said artichoke plants may last five to seven years. Cucumbers are a good garden plant, but don't over do it with them. "Try some acorn, butternut or summer squash."

"We find white corn is easy to grow," Green said, but he noted that purchasing your corn at the supermarket, when it is low-priced as a loss leader, might be more economical (though not organic).

Seedless watermelons are great for children, as are pumpkins - but plant the pumpkins early so they will be ready by Halloween.
You and your children will enjoy popping cherry tomatoes into your mouth while you work the garden, so that is a good choice - especially the really sweet ones, such as Sweet 100.

Green added that you might consider planting fruit trees to the side of your garden, and don't forget the berries or even pomegranates.

Watering
Green is a big fan of hand-watering your garden. "Hand watering allows you to accommodate the needs of the different vegetables," he said. And water with a bubbler at the head of rows. In a slightly sloped garden, you can adjust the soaking-in of any particular type of plant by making and removing little soil dams in the water channels between rows.

Green emphasized that you don't want to overwater. "When the weather is hot, water more at a time, but not more frequently," he said. "As a general rule, water once a day when it is hot. If it is foggy or the soil looks wet, don't water." He said that if the soil looks dry or the plants seem to be reacting to a lack of water, "give it a good hit, then let the soil re-oxygenate.

Fertilizing
Naturally, with an organic garden, you only want to use organic fertilizer. There are two reasons for this. First, non-organic fertilizers may contain lead or antibiotics or other harmful chemicals (they are usually petroleum-based). Second, organic fertilizers are "slow-release," which prevents over fertilizing, and allows your plants to receive nutrients continuously. "Organics are like an IV drip," he said.

Green noted that, while manure is organic, it can be "too hot" for plants in hot weather. He suggested E.B. Stone organic fertilizer, instead.

Use a starter fertilizer right after planting, and fertilize bi-weekly after that.

Weeding
Green said you should hand-pick weeds in your garden when you first see them. "If there are large numbers, turn the soil," he said.

And he added that "roughing up" the soil bi-weekly is a good thing, anyway, so air gets into it. But don't disturb the root balls of the plants.

Pests and diseases
Because you will not be using any insecticides in your organic garden, you must use other methods to reduce garden pests, such as aphids. You can introduce ladybugs, for instance. "Ladybugs are voracious. They go back and forth eating bugs, like a killing typewriter."

You can also introduce preying mantids (via their eggs), and decollate snails are predators of other snails.

On the non-predatory-but-good side, red worms are good for the soil.

Green said there is also an organic caterpillar killer that works via an amoeba. This is perfect for getting rid of tomato worms, and presents no danger to humans.

Green said you can also plant marigolds among your vegetables. "Bugs don't like being around them," he said.

There are organic repellents for deer and rabbits as well, and organic ant baits and snail and slug products.

As you begin and continue your garden, you will learn the techniques that work for you. "Learn from your gains and losses," Green said. "If you can't grow something, concentrate on things you can grow well. That will make you a winner and make you feel good about yourself."

And he added, "Don't forget to take time out to stand back and look at your garden, to enjoy it."

That could be the best victory of them all.

Green Landscape Nursery is located at 26191 Bouquet Canyon Road in Saugus (where Cinema Drive meets Bouquet) and the phone number is (661) 255-8838.

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