1. Water like crazy.
2. Fertilize every week.
3. Allow no weeds.
4. Use vertical gardening techniques.
5. Harvest when ripe
Growing Food in Harsh Environments
I went to a gardening workshop back in February with this title. It rocked my world. It was taught by Jim Kennard who teaches the Mittleider gardening technique. Without going into too much detail, I’ll break it down for you and tell you where to find more info. I can not express how excited I am to finally grow some serious amounts of food in the Central Texas heat and caliche.
Just like Mittleider, Jim Kennard goes all over the world and teaches people who live in difficult climates and terrains how to grow more food than they can eat. Jim’s foundation is called Food For Everyone, or FFE. He is obsessively dedicated to the idea of everyone in the world being able to grow and eat their own nutritious food. I feel beyond blessed to have spent 5 hours in his presence.
Jim recommends building 18″ wide grow boxes, but you can make them as big as you fancy. Dirt is not what your plants need. Think hydroponic here – plants need sunlight, water, and nutrients, 16 nutrients to be exact. That’s all. So, as crazy as it sounds, Jim recommends filling new grow boxes with a mixture of 1/3 sand and 2/3 saw dust. I personally, did not do this, because I didn’t find a “clean” place to get saw dust. I used garden soil that was 25% sand, 25% rice hulls (which substitute for saw dust) 25% topsoil and 25% compost. Whatever dirt you already have in your garden is just fine. You just might want to amend it with sand and/or sawdust.
My grandfather, rest him, wasn’t completely right
My granddad was a farmer in East Texas in the 1920′s. He used to say, “Water deep or not at all. You want those roots to go deep in case of a drought.” Well, for him, there and then, that may have been the best policy. But Jim explained that if you have unlimited access to irrigation, never ever let your plants get thirsty. As soon as you see that droopy, parched plant, you can be sure that it is putting no energy whatsoever into producing fruit. It is only putting it’s last little vestiges of life into its roots. If the whole purpose behind all of your hard labor in your garden is to produce produce, then you will water water water. In Central Texas in the summer, that will be every single early morning.
Fertilizer, not compost
As much as I LOVE composting, it pains me to say that Jim doesn’t use compost at all. After much experimentation between using the best compost available to mankind and the Mittleider fertilizer recipe, Jim has science behind his teachings. The fertilizer simply produces more pounds of fruit without introducing pathogens and weed seeds into your garden. Also, all you “organic” gardeners out there, fear not. The word chemical refers to everything under the sun. You are chemical and so is the chair on which you perch. Kennard and Mittleider are not going to tell you to use harsh pesticides all over fruit. Far from it. However, they are going to tell you to mix the fertilizer chemicals you need in order to derive maximum yield.
Here is the fertilizer recipe:
- 25 lbs. of 16-16-16 (15-15-15, 13-13-13, 20-20-20 will do) – that’s nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus – get it at any gardening supply
- 4 lbs. of Epsom salt – that’s magnesium and sulfer
- the 10 oz. package of trace minerals you can purchase at FFE
- You also need to add a bit of perlite to keep the stuff from getting weepy and sticking together. I add about a pound.
Mix well and keep it with a lid on. You use one 15 oz. vegetable can for every 30 feet of 18″ bed. Just sprinkle it between the plants and water it in. Easy.
We all know this, but it’s true. The FFE foundation even sells an awesome little weeding tool that you attach to the end of a shovel handle. Once your garden is established, you simply run the little tool between the plants once a week to uproot any weedlings.
Vertical Gardening and the brilliance of the T-post
95% of what your plants need is sunlight. The vertical garden makes the most use of space by encouraging the plants that are capable of growing up to do so. These plants include tomatoes, cucumbers, peas, beans, and even some melons. T-posts are big and heavy, but they need to be because they are eventually going to provide support for 100′s of pounds of produce. The LDS Prepper on Youtube has become one of my heroes. Here is his explanation of T-posts and building them. Mr. LDS Prepper is a Mittleider fiend. He has hundreds of hours of how-to video on Youtube. I will pass you off to him after you read this article.
I will say that the PVC watering system which Mittleider teaches and LDS Prepper uses has been surpassed in my opinion. The PVC system is labor intensive to install. At hardware stores these days, you can find a plastic brown and black tubing water drip system that is super user-friendly. You can attach sprayers for when your seeds are in the ground, and then quickly attach the dripper hoses whenever you are ready. It doesn’t flood the garden the way the PVC system does, but it’s working for us. Put it on a timer. Between the automatic watering system and the magic weeder mentioned above, all we do in the garden is pick fruit. ~ Pleasant sigh ~
Notice the curved PVC piping above the LDS Prepper’s Tposts. That serves two purposes. In the hot summer, you can put a cloth across it to shade the plants in the heat of the day so that they don’t just give up and die. When the weather starts to cool in the fall, you can roll greenhouse grade plastic up there and drop the sides down all the way to the ground when it gets cold. You then have a makeshift greenhouse right in your garden. Even the small stuff in your garden can have these PVC “rainbows” over them with the clear plastic and you can have produce all year round.
And finally, when your massive crop reaches its peak – harvest it. Don’t just pick a few today and a few tomorrow and let some rot on the vine. Harvest. Wash. Put in your fridge what you can consume, and give the rest away. It’s mid May and my zucchini is already producing like crazy. This gardening method is proving itself. I started in February, and look at my photos. I’ve been envious of gardens that look like this in Central Texas. Now, it’s mine that looks like this. I can’t tell you how happy I am.