So you have a gorgeous, lush vegetable garden but you’re looking for a way to make it more productive. Or maybe your garden isn’t everything you’d imagined – it’s just not producing much, the plants are scraggly, and you need some help brightening it up. Here are six basic steps that can be applied to any garden – big or small, old or brand new – to improve the beauty and increase the productivity of your space. (Affiliate links present in this post)
1. Prepare Your Soil Using the No-Till Method
- It’s a harsh fact that machines are destroying our soil. When we mechanically till the soil, a negative chain of events happen. First, the soil’s complex structure gets broken up into tiny particles. Air pockets created by earthworms and arthropods diminish. Colonies of beneficial bacteria and strands of fungal hyphae break apart. When these tiny pieces all settle, they become extremely compacted, leading to poor drainage. On larger farms, this causes major flooding and soil erosion. Second, when the tiller kicks up all the soil, it exposes all the valuable microbial life to the air, oxidizing and killing all of it! When we don’t have a solid foundation of diverse microbes, we don’t have a diverse nutrient supply for our plants, either.
There’s a common misconception that we must till our soil every spring to aerate it. The concept of tilling is so that our crops’ roots can breathe and water can drain more efficiently, but tilling does not accomplish this. There is another way to prepare our gardens that is healthier for our soil and uses much less effort and equipment – this is the Double Dig Method.
I first learned about double digging from John Jeavons, founder of Ecology Action and the Grow Biointensive farming method, and author of How to Grow More Vegetables, when he presented at the MOSES Organic Farming Conference in 2015. The Double Dig Method entails digging two layers of soil with a shovel using nothing but old-fashioned manual labor. Using the least amount of effort possible, the digger is to “twist” the soil in patches while amending it using organic fertilizers and compost. Watch this instructional YouTube video on double digging (note that there is a second part you’ll need to watch).
The benefits of double digging are endless. There’s no intense breaking up of the soil structure. There’s no mass killing of valuable microorganisms, so plants are naturally healthier. All of your earthworms, spiders, centipedes and other beneficial bugs will be left in tact. Your plants’ root systems will grow deeper and stronger. And what’s fascinating is, once you build your soil fertility with organic matter your soil will hold more water, reducing the need to water as often.
For more tips on double digging, visit my post on how to build healthy organic garden soil.
2. Improve Your Soil Biodiversity with Homemade Compost
- If you know anything about compost, let it be this: Not all compost is created equal! The nutrient content of the compost you are using depends on what it is made out of. Did you acquire it from your municipality, in which case it could be mostly decomposed grass and tree trimmings, potentially laden with herbicides? Or did you make it yourself, in which case it is probably a richer concoction of grass and leaves from your yard, kitchen scraps of fruits, herbs, veggies and egg shells, and all kinds of organic matter from your own garden?
You see where I’m going with this. Compost is a great way to feed your garden and introduce more biodiversity into the soil, ideally at the end of the season or during soil preparation. The best compost to use is your own because you control what goes in it. All of the different types of organic matter we throw into our compost support different types of microbes, and this vastly increases the biodiversity and the nutrient content of our end product. A more biodiverse compost pile means a more biodiverse garden.
Some of us don’t have room to make compost. If you’re one of these people, getting compost from your municipality is fine – usually it’s free, and everyone loves free!
3. Stop Stepping on Your Soil
- This might sound obvious, but I’m adding it in here and for good reason: I’ve worked with a ton of people who stepped all over their garden beds until they worked with me. Soil compaction is one reason, while the breakage of tender plant roots is another, but the main reason why you should never, ever step on your soil is because your weight crushes and suffocates your microbes.
By now you’re going, Really? For the third time? Microorganisms, microbes or whatever the heck those things are she’s talking about?
I use “microorganisms,” “microbes,” “soil biodiversity,” “microbial life,” and “Soil Food Web” interchangeably throughout my posts, but I mean generally the same thing when I talk about how important they are – “they” being a collection of bacteria, protozoa, nematodes, algae and fungi, billions of which can be found in one tablespoon of your soil. Caring for these living creatures is the most important aspect of growing food.
So, a solution to stop stepping on your soil. You need clearly marked, delineated pathways throughout your garden. And once you’ve developed this pathway system, it needs to always stay that way. My favorite and easiest to use path materials are straw, woodchips and stepping stones.
4. Mulch, Mulch, Mulch
It is so, absolutely important for you to mulch your vegetable garden. Not only does mulch keep weeds down and prevent moisture from evaporating quicker, mulch materials also break down over time and add valuable organic matter to your soil. Most importantly though, mulch provides a thick, protective layer for your microbes against the harsh outdoor elements.
Though a full-sun space is a blessing and ever-desirable in organic gardening, it can have a detrimental effect on the top few inches of soil by completely drying it out. The top four inches of soil is where most of our microbial life is contained, and the hot sun will crisp and evaporate the little guys right up without a protective layer. Rain can also have undesirable effects – microbes are so tiny that raindrops falling on them has a similar effect not unlike our stepping all over them. The way we can protect our microbes from the natural elements is by using mulch.
There are lots of different options for mulch, but here, I will highlight the simplest mulching solutions.
- – Straw is an economical option because not only is it initially cheap to buy, but you can also use it for your pathways. It is good to use around baby seedlings because it will help prevent birds from nibbling at them, and it will partially break down over winter so it may be incorporated into your soil during preparation in spring. Be sure to get “straw” and not “hay,” where seed heads are present.
- – Decomposed leaves, or leaf mulch, is an attractive mulching option and adds a good amount of nitrogen to the soil as it breaks down and becomes incorporated into the garden bed. Earthworms love it. If you have a lot of trees on your property, you could create a compost pile of leaves and make your own leaf mulch, otherwise it comes bagged at most landscape suppliers. Be aware that if you do not buy certified organic leaf mulch, the mulch you do buy could have residual pesticides – not great for us or our microbial friends.
- – Living mulch is a way of mulching by growing groundcover plants with shallow root systems in between vegetable plants, not unlike cover cropping. Growing living mulches takes a little more maintenance and technique (you must know what plants are acceptable to grow for living mulch and when to plant them), but anyone can do it! Living mulch is so great because it’s very cheap and easy to do (all you need are seeds), it adds lots of color and texture to your garden, and the added root system provides tons of extra food for microbes. Great options for living mulch are sweet alyssum, creeping thyme, creeping jenny, and arugula.
5. Get Your Fencing Right
My adoration for bunnies, squirrels, deer, and especially groundhogs, has waned since I became a vegetable gardener (and I’m sorry groundhogs, but you never were that cute to begin with). When you grow food, animal families seem to multiply out of nowhere, and they all have this perfectly-timed instinct that tells them exactly when to nosh your harvest just hours before you can get to it. I’ve developed a few colorful words for them in my vocabulary, but rather than offending every person reading this, I’ll refer to the little angels as “pests.”
The only way for us to keep pests out of our garden is by building a strong fencing system. I will always say that with fencing materials and construction techniques, the higher quality they are, the better results you will have in creating an animal barrier. There will also be less upkeep with damage from storms and weight on it from heavy snow and ice, for us with cold winters.
There are some basic dimensional details to know, based on what type of animal you need to keep out:
- – Bunnies – The openings in your fencing material should be no larger than 1”x2”, and I think this is a good rule for all garden fencing no matter the pest. Baby bunnies have the ability to get through 2”x2”, and they are everywhere. If you have a gate within your garden fence, be aware of the threshold gap at the bottom of it – the gap should be no more than ½”. If you don’t have deer, a 3’ tall fence is good enough to keep bunnies out. Keep in mind though that you can’t grow tall crops on such a short fence, so sometimes its nice to go vertical anyway.
- – Deer – Your fence should be at least 6 feet tall. It sounds hulking and fortress-like, but it’s actually nice to have fencing this tall because then you can grow pole beans, peas, cucumbers, squash and vining flowers on it. Deer have a tendency to eat plants through the mesh fencing, so you may need to attach a screen or a similar very fine mesh with twist ties to keep them out.
- – Chipmunks & Squirrels – Just forget it! No matter of fencing, unless you completely cover the top of your garden, will keep them out. If squirrels are taking bites out of your tomatoes, chances are they are sucking the juice out because they’re thirsty. Try leaving shallow dishes of water out for them to drink. I swear it works!
- – Groundhogs/Gophers – These are burrowing animals, living up to 18” underground in large nests connected by a network of underground pathways. They’re incredibly smart. You’ll need to dig a deep trench (ideally 18”) and attach an underground mesh to the bottom of your fencing to keep them out. Groundhogs are not typical in suburban backyards or city yards, but if you’re out in the country, or live near open fields of any kind, you absolutely need to protect your garden from groundhogs or all will be lost. I’ve learned this the hard way.
6. Assess Your Tree Canopy
Trees grow fast. Sometimes just a few years after setting up your garden your trees can grow so much that new branches block primetime sunlight. If you notice your plants are stunted but you think you’re doing everything else right, I encourage you to spend some time in your yard one day and assess the sunlight in your garden. Look up and see if any trees might be blocking the sun pattern. If they are your own trees, and are small enough, go ahead and trim them back with loppers. If the branches are larger and too high, consider calling a local landscaper or arborist for their tree trimming rates – it is probably worth the cost. You’d be surprised at just how one really tall branch can make hours of a difference in your garden! Visit this post for a blurb on how to determine the hours of sun exposure in your garden.