Master gardener and sustainability expert Celeste Longacre joins us for part two of our interview series on learning to grow your own food at home. In this segment we discuss gardening methods to fit every living situation, how to prepare soil for planting, and effective all-natural pesticides. We hope it inspires you to step outside, savor the sunshine, and get your hands in the dirt! Enter Celeste...
Do you think that there is a "best way" to garden?
Well right now there is a big movement for no-till. Everyone used to get the rototiller out to churn up the soil in the spring so that the garden would be ready to go. But what that actually does is interrupt all of the organisms that are living in the soil. They’ve created pathways and little homes that get disrupted. You also let a lot of carbon into the air when you agitate the soil this way, which of course is a concern now. So instead of turning things over, I use a pitchfork to loosen the soil a little bit. This way the process mimics nature. In the forest the leaves fall on top of the soil and then they decompose down in— nobody comes along and turns the soil in the woods and it works out just fine. So that would be something I would advise people to think about.
Another thing to consider is adding minerals. I add kelp meal to my beds and azomite powder because they are high in minerals. As I mentioned before, a lot of our soils have been denatured and don’ t have the same minerals anymore. If you want your plants to be healthy you need to provide them everything they need. In fact in my book, I interviewed two soil specialists and they both said that if your plants get everything that they need they can’t be sick and insects can’t eat them because they have too many sugars. Of course, I don’t think there are too many people that can give their plants everything they need, but it was an interesting point.
What do you use as a natural pesticide?
I do a lot of companion planting. For example all of the brassicas (including cabbages, broccoli, kale, brussel sprouts) will attract cabbage worms—little white moths that lay eggs and turn into green worms that eat the plants and make a mess. But if you plant marigolds right in the bed with the brassicas, you don’t get the cabbage worm. I think maybe they can’t smell the cabbages or broccoli. I also plant nasturtiums in with my cucumbers which help to keep the cucumber beetle away. And then for Japanese beetles and Asparagus beetles, I go out early in the morning or late at night because they can’t fly when it is cool. I take a little cup of water and knock them into it, then bring the beetles down to feed to my chickens. If you don’t have chickens all you need to do is put a little dish soap in the water and that will kill them. You don’t really need pesticides or heavy chemicals. These are simple tricks and they work really, really well.
What is your favorite thing to plant in your garden?
That is a little hard to say, but I guess it would be tomatoes. There is just nothing like a really, really, really ripe garden tomato. One of the problems with tomatoes is that when they get fully ripe they also get very soft. Farmers can’t actually afford to leave them on the vine until they are perfectly ripe, because as soon as they pick them they are going to be damaging them. So if you have a garden of your own and you can let the tomatoes get that deep, deep red they are so unbelievably delicious, it’s mind boggling.
I think you are making everyone want a garden!
Yes! I think everyone should have a garden. It wasn’t that long ago, around World War II, when everyone here did have gardens. And If you go to some places in Europe people have tiny lots, but every inch is a garden because they know that it is important. I agree that it is important for us to have a connection to our food. Something that I grow is not going to hurt me.
Where did we get off-track with gardens?
Well, we got into a mass-production system where food became so cheap that people thought it wasn’t worth the effort to have a garden anymore. It is true that food can be cheap, but it is cheap in all ways. Mass-produced food is cheap in that it doesn’t really nurture us either.
What would your advice be for someone who has no experience and wants to start a garden for the very first time?
I would say to start with a book. You can get my book or another one and do some reading before jumping in. Also try to find somebody you know who has a garden; look at what they do and ask questions. Next find a spot that is sunny. We already talked about some other things that spot needs. Bring in some soil. I used to get a dump truck full of organic manure delivered in May and leave it to the following May because it heats up and cooks out the weeds and bugs. Compost is also wonderful. It is amazing how much you can generate to compost, even if it is just a couple of you living in the house. Either way, we need to be giving to the soil.
So to summarize: have a compost pile, find a good spot, start small so that you can see how much time a garden takes and how much you want to donate to it, and plant what you like to eat. Find a friend or even the county extension services if you don’t have a friend who gardens. County extension services are usually very helpful at giving out information and usually do so for free.