Right now my vegetable garden is going crazy! I live in the desert and we haven’t had rain for a few weeks. Temperatures are around 110 degrees. These are certainly not ideal conditions for a vegetable garden. Yet every day I get strawberries, swiss chard, kale, spinach, cilantro, tomatoes, green onions, zucchini, and basil. There are many reasons why my garden is so successful and I’m going to share them with you! Here are my 7 secrets to a more productive garden:
1. Fresh Compost-
I spent the winter composting the poop and bedding of my chickens and rabbits. Composted chicken and rabbit poop are said to be the best fertilizers for a vegetable garden. I also composted leaves, old plants, and my fruit and vegetable scraps from the kitchen. How did I do this? It’s simple: I threw all of those things into my garden beds and let my chickens peck around in it. As they hunt for bugs, they shred and mix the material. Every day I would go out and water the pile and let the chickens do the rest. If you don’t have chickens to do your composting for you, you can easily compost on your own. All you need to do is mix brown ingredients (leaves, old plants, cuttings, non-shiny paper, wood shavings, and saw dust) with green ingredients (fruits and veggies, grass clippings, farm animal manure (no cats or dogs), and coffee grounds) and keep this mixture moist and warm. The sun will keep your pile (or bucket of compost) warm, and turning the pile frequently will keep the composting process going as well as prevent the pile from smelling. If you’d rather not compost yourself, you can buy bags of it at any garden center. You can even buy bags of aged chicken manure! Fresh compost is a great way to fertilize your garden naturally. It also helps loosen the soil for the roots of your plants.
Earthworms are amazing for your garden. They eat organic material in the soil and turn it into fertilizer (they are a huge help to compost piles). Many people add store bought worm castings (poop) to their garden as fertilizer. Personally, I prefer the cheaper and never ending supply of castings that come from adding live worms to my garden bed. As the worms crawl around not only do they turn food into fertilizer, but they aerate and loosen the soil. I feed my worms in the middle of my garden under a piece of driftwood. They eat fruit and vegetable scraps, aged chicken and rabbit poop, and grass clippings. They then travel around the garden bed bringing the nutrients of what they just ate to the rest of my garden. And since worms multiply at a fast rate, you don’t have to wait long before you have enough worms to provide consistent fertilizer to your plants. Just make sure to feed the worms in a dark place (they don’t like sunlight) and keep the soil moist so the worms don’t dry out and die.
3. Rock Dust-
Have you ever heard people say that our fruits and vegetables aren’t as nutritious as they were a few hundred years ago? That’s because our soils are depleted of minerals. As we continue to plant vegetables in the same places every year, they use up the minerals in the soil. Farmers try and combat this by using fertilizers but they don’t completely solve the problem. That’s where rock dust comes in. Rock dust is simply ground up rock from mountains, glaciers, or volcanos. Adding rock dust to your soil helps to re-mineralize it and makes your fruits and vegetables healthier and bigger. Just mix in rock dust to your soil according to the instructions on the bag. I use Azomite – Organic Trace Mineral Powder which is a combination of volcanic ash and marine minerals.
Ollas are unglazed clay pots that are used in dry parts of the world to efficiently water plants. Ollas are buried in the soil leaving only the opening of the pot above ground. Because the pots are made of porous clay, water slowly seeps out of them into the soil. When you plant your vegetables around them (like tomatoes), the veggies form their root ball around the ollas and suck water out through the pores as needed. This system uses less water because the water is not wasted and is used only as needed by the plant. Very little water is lost to evaporation as there is usually a lid or top on the pot. You just have to remember to fill the olla when it gets down to about half full (which in the desert means once every day or every other day).
In rural countries (where ollas are most used) ollas cost about $1. In the U.S. however, they cost around $30 (ridiculous, I know!). I made my own ollas using 6″ Terra Cotta pots and saucers and a little food safe aquarium glue. The best part is that it only cost me about $2.50 to make each one! All I did was glue the saucer to the top of the pot and after 24 hours (and I leak test) I planted them in the ground.
This was the first year that I used ollas. And while I also used a soaker dripline when temperatures started getting above 90 degrees (I live in the middle of the desert…), the plants that were planted directly next to the ollas did far better than the ones that weren’t! Tomatoes especially benefitted from them.
So next season before you plant your fruits and veggies, consider planting ollas along with them. It will save water and give you a little more piece of mind that your plants are getting the water they need.
5. Coarse Vermiculite-
Coarse Vermiculite is a soil amendment made of ground up, heated particles of mica rock. It holds air and water and releases them as the plants need them. Vermiculite helps to keep the soil loose and acts as a buffer against over and under-watering. Mix a generous amount of vermiculite into your garden bed soil and your plants will thank you.
6. Nasturtium and Marigold-
Nasturtium and marigold are flowers that should be planted all around your garden. Not only are they attractive, but they help keep pests away from your fruits and veggies. They also attract pollinators to the garden making it less likely that you have to hand pollinate. As a special bonus, nasturtium is completely edible (even the flowers). You can add nasturtium to salads for a little bit of spicy flavoring.
Mulch is any material that you spread on top of the soil in your garden. Bark, straw, untreated wood chips, dried leaves, newspaper, and plastic sheeting are all things that can be used as mulch. Mulch helps retain the moisture in the soil and protect against weeds and pests. There is usually a big difference in the amount of work you do in a garden that does not have mulch vs. one that does. You need to water much more often and weed frequently if you chose not to use mulch. This is especially important if you live in a hot, dry area as the soil can dry out in between waterings if you do not use mulch.
There you go! These are the things I do in my vegetable garden that make it the most productive it’s ever been! Even adding just one of these things to your garden will yield dramatic results.