Over the years I’ve abandoned a number of gardening products and practices that I grew up with or used in my own garden in the past. This process of elimination has allowed me to develop a low cost low effort approach to gardening that gets excellent results by focusing on what really works. Today I’ll share 10 gardening products and practices that I’ve abandoned over the years and why.
I’ll start with 3 that my parents used in our family garden when I was growing up but my wife and I never adopted. The first is tilling. When I was a kid, my father tilled our family garden every spring. This made perfect sense to me at the time because the soil was usually compacted and full of weeds and tilling seemed to fix these problems, at least temporarily. But when my wife and I started our own garden in the early 90’s, we didn’t want to buy or rent a rototiller. Instead, we built a raised bed and filled it with compost. We never walked on the bed, and we added compost every year to the soil surface without digging it in. Using this approach, I couldn’t help but notice that, unlike my family’s garden when I was a kid, our soil never became compacted and we never had to do much weeding. Since then I’ve learned that tilling disrupts soil structure and can actually increase compaction. It destroys fungal hyphae, including my corrhizal networks,and kills other beneficial soil organisms like earthworms. Finally, it brings weed seeds to the surface where they can germinate and create more of a weed problem. Instead, our approach is to let earthworms and other soil organisms do the tilling for us. We apply compost and mulch to the soil surface, and let soil organisms break it down and incorporate it into the soil. The only time we dig is to harvest root crops like potatoes or plant transplants like tomatoes. Using this approach, we never have a problem with soil compaction and we do essentially no weeding.
The second gardening practice I grew up with but never adopted in my own garden is growing in rows. Growing in rows makes sense on large farms where space is needed between crops to operate machinery,but we don’t use machinery in our small garden. Instead, our priority is to grow as much as we can in our limited space. Growing in beds does just that by increasing growing space relative to walking space. It also reduces soil compaction by minimizing the area of ground that is walked on. We grow in beds that are 3 to 4 feet wide. This width allows us to easily reach the center from each side. Though we have raised beds, you can also grow in beds in your native soil simply by growing in 3 to 4 feet wide plots instead of narrow rows. The third practice I grew up with but never adopted is the use of synthetic fertilizers. Both of my parents grew up on farms after World War II when the use of synthetic fertilizers increasingly replaced traditional organic methods. On their farms, they used both synthetic fertilizers and organic methods and they carried over this approach to our family garden. But when my wife and I built our first raised bed, we made the decision to grow organically. At first we purchased organic compost and fertilizer, but we soon realized that compost, worm castings, and mulch from free local resources provide our soil and plants with all the nutrients, beneficial microbes, and organic matter they need. We prefer this approach over the use of synthetic fertilizers for many reasons. Simply put, compost, worm castings, and mulch from free local resources are more sustainable,better for the environment, and better for plants and the soil food web. If you’d like to learn more about why we prefer this approach over synthetic fertilizers, please see this link. The fourth product or practice we’ve abandoned is store bought compost. We did buy several yards of organic compost in the early 1990’s to fill our first raised bed. Doing so definitely jump started our garden at a time when we were very busy and didn’t have much experience making compost. But since then we’ve learned a lot about making compost and about the abundance of free local resources in our area. These resources are so plentiful and accessible that it just doesn’t make sense to me to buy compost anymore. Some of our favorite free and local compost ingredients are kitchen scraps, autumn leaves, grass clippings, yard waste, comfrey, aged wood chips, horse manure, straw, and spent brewery grains. We’re not only able to make all of our own compost with these materials,but we’re also able to keep these valuable resources out of landfills.
The fifth item on our list is store bought organic fertilizer. We did buy organic fertilizers in the early days when we expanded our garden beyond our first raised bed and started growing in the native soil. The native soil was in pretty bad shape, so I do think the organic fertilizers probably helped. But as we ramped up our compost production,I began to wonder if the additional fertilizers were even needed. So, several years ago we stopped using them entirely and we’ve never seen any negative consequences as a result. In fact, one of my goals when I started this article was to show that compost, worm castings, and mulch from free local resources can provide our plants and soil with all the nutrients they need and I sought to demonstrate this with both garden results and with a soil test. A soil test this spring showed nutrient surpluses and we can now actually reduce our compost applications to bring nutrient levels down.
Numbers 6 and 7 are products that were never actually part of our gardening regime. Instead, we only used them in the context of a field trial to test their effectiveness,and based on the results we don’t plan to use them in the future. Number 6 is rock dust. For the field trial, we used a rock dust brand recommend by a leading rock dust advocate and applied it according to his instructions, including his recommended application rate. Compared to a control, the rock dust group produced significantly lower yields,rock dust tomatoes had slightly lower brix readings than control tomatoes,and while rock dust kale and collards fared well in a taste test, rock dust tomatoes were judged to taste not as good as control tomatoes. I’ll be continuing the rock dust field trial this year,but so far the results don’t support the hype. For a mineral amendment to be effective, there first has to be a mineral deficiency,and based on our soil test that does not appear to be the case. In fact, most soils contain the elements needed for plant growth,and usually compost alone can supply them when they’re missing. Finally, peer reviewed research does not support the purported benefits of rock dust. Number 7 is biochar. Unlike rock dust, the peer reviewed research on biochar is very promising. Biochar improves soil structure, increases nutrient and water retention,and its porous structure provides a habitat for beneficial microbes. As a result of these benefits, biochar has been shown to increase crop growth,improve drought tolerance,and increase resistance to root and leaf diseases. However, despite these benefits, we don’t plan to use biochar in the future because our soil already has the properties that biochar provides. Specifically, without biochar, our soil already has nutrient surpluses and a high cation exchange capacity, which means it holds nutrients well. It’s high in organic matter and, as a result, holds water very well. And our use of compost, worm castings, and mulch ensures a healthy population of beneficial microbes. And so far we haven’t seen superior yields from our biochar group in our field trial. Again, this is probably because our soil already has the properties that biochar provides. Biochar is much more likely to have a positive impact on poor soil than it is on soil that is already rich in organic matter, nutrients,and already teeming with beneficial microbes. One final reason we don’t plan to use biochar is that our soil is slightly alkaline. Biochar is very alkaline and we don’t want to risk raising our soil pH by adding biochar.
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The eighth product or practice we’ve abandoned is comfrey tea. We grow comfrey to use as mulch and a green compost ingredient and a couple years ago I made a batch or 2 of comfrey tea but I haven’t since then. We made it by submerging comfrey in a bucket of water for a few weeks, until the comfrey decomposed. We then poured the resulting brew on the soil as a liquid fertilizer. We initially stopped using comfrey tea simply because the fermented liquid smells very bad – like raw sewage – and the smell lingers in the garden for days. In addition to the smell, I don’t see much benefit in taking the time to make the tea. Even if the nutrients in the tea are more plant available, I’m not in a hurry to add nutrients to the soil anyway. I’d much rather simply chop and drop the comfrey as mulch which keeps the soil covered, provides a food source for earthworms, and takes less time and effort. So, no more comfrey tea for us!
The ninth item on my list will probably be the most controversial – compost tea. Of all the things I’ve said in my articles, nothing has provoked more ire than my decision to stop using compost tea. This is definitely a topic people feel very strongly about. Compost tea is purported to restore beneficial microbes to the soil food web, protect plants against diseases like powdery mildew, and increase plant health and yields. Unfortunately, these claims haven’t been supported by peer reviewed research. In fact, research has shown compost to be more effective than compost tea at introducing beneficial microbes into the soil and improving plant resistance to disease. We stopped using compost tea entirely last year and noticed no negative impact in terms of plant health or yields. In fact, we had our best garden ever. And because we used to make compost tea every week, we now have more time to do other things. The tenth product or practice we’ve abandoned is turning compost frequently. If you need compost in a hurry, turning hot compost definitely helps. And I have no doubt that our garden has benefited from this practice over the years. But now that our soil is rich in organic matter and nutrients,we no longer need compost quickly. So, we can just let compost happen. We started this compost pile in the fall,but probably won’t use the compost until next fall. The pile initially heated up to about 130 degrees Fahrenheit but it has cooled off now that it is winter. In the spring, earthworms will move in and finish the job for us. This saves us a lot of time and effort,and it also saves my back, which isn’t as strong as it used to be.
I hope this has provided food for thought on how you might be able to save time and money by reevaluating certain gardening products and practices. Though some of these products and practices can be helpful at times, the needs of our gardens change over time. So, it’s important to reevaluate and adapt in response to new evidence and changing conditions. Well, that’s all for now. Thank you very much for your time. And until next time remember you can change the world one yard at a time. If you want compost in a hurry, turning hot compost definitely helps. . . .