While it’s true that winter isn’t always easy to take, what would spring be without the struggles of getting through the snow and cold first? Winter sets the stage for the sense of relief and new life that makes spring great, especially when it comes to gardening. At least it has done this for me ever since I started gardening seriously 30 years ago. Gardening and a big part of the enthusiasm I feel for it has to do with the new strategies I’ll be trying out. There are three big ones this year.
We began mulching our perennial flower gardens heavily in the early 1990s, and that’s been a great thing. This year I’ll be trying the same thing with our vegetable garden. I call it the no-till vegetable approach. The garden itself will be permanently mulched using thick, shredded cedar bark to eliminate weeds and hold moisture. I tried a small plot last year on our garlic patch and it worked beautifully. Instead of tilling the whole garden in the spring, as I usually do, I’ll rake back the mulch in a row that’s just wide enough for the rototiller, plant seeds or transplants, then rake the mulch back over the growing vegetables as they get bigger. Weed suppression and water retention are the obvious benefits, but I know from our flower gardening experience that soil organic matter and microbe life skyrockets after 3 or 4 years of constant woody mulch cover. Earth worms get almost as big as your thumb, which is obviously a great thing.
Boost With Water-Soluble Plant Food
My wife, Mary, is the real flower gardener in our household. I handle the vegetables, small fruits, apples and heavy work. And if there’s one thing people say about Mary’s flower gardening, it’s how well the colour and blooms hang on into the summer and fall. Part of this has to do with the water-holding ability of the silty clay loam at our home on Manitoulin Island, but a bigger part of our success is also about fertility. Water-soluble fertility in particular.
For years our flower gardens started to fade towards the middle of August, like many do. This was especially true when it came to hanging baskets and pots. We thought it was related to water, but it turns our there’s more to it than this. Ample watering alone didn’t completely solve the problem. Quite by accident we noticed a huge improvement the first year we got intentional about feeding our flower gardens regularly throughout the season. And there was an even bigger improvement when we started using water soluble plant food every two weeks on a schedule. Longer lasting blooms and healthier plants in the second half of the season were the obvious benefits.
Our gardens are large, and when I first started with the whole water soluble plant food thing I bought it in powder form, in commercial quantities meant for the greenhouse industry. For a number of years I tested various specialty and professional brands to see what worked best. We haven’t found anything that works better than the Scotts Miracle-Gro you get in hardware stores. We started with their powdered product, but have since settled on LiquaFeed that works with a special nozzle on the end of a garden hose. It lets you cover more ground in less time than powders, and this means we end up getting the benefits of water-soluble feeding over more of our gardening area each year. It’s surprising just how much of a labour saving the liquid version is compared to powder. We’d never go back to dissolving powder for liquid feeding, but I am looking to try testing some Shake ‘n Feed slow-release granular fertilizer to see how it works.
Chicken-Tilled Garden Beds
We’ve never had any trouble with insects in our garden, except slugs. They’re always present, and they especially like hostas. Wet summers are worse than dry, but slugs are always there. They’re never so bad that they ruin entire plants, but who wants even a few small leaf holes if you can avoid it?
We’ve tried surrounding slug-favoured plants with woven copper mesh (too expensive and troublesome), so this year we’re trying chickens. We keep a backyard flock of a dozen Leghorn hens (and one noble and brave rooster named Foghorn), and now that the snow has gone and the perennials have yet to emerge, we’ve let the chickens roam free over the mulched gardens before plants come to life. They’re kicking up quite a fuss in the gardens and profoundly interested in eating something deep in the mulch. Whether these are slug eggs or over-wintered slugs, time will tell.
How will the mulched vegetable garden work? Will the chickens reduce slug-pressure? How good will the blooms be this year with extended feeding? Anticipation is one of the first fruits of any garden that you care about. And when it comes down to it, isn’t “care” the first and most important ingredient in any garden?
Scotts Miracle-Gro has donated a product giveaway package that I’ll be awarding to the gardener who sends me the best email note and images on how they’ll be investing care into their garden this coming season. Scotts is the sponsor for this contest, but they haven’t reviewed any of my experiences with their products and they’re not responsible for the content. So email me what you have planned, send me some photos of how things are going, and you could get a free package of products worth more than $150 to help you make your gardening vision come true. Email me at email@example.com