106 Plant Groups (1: Vegetables)

Knowing what you’re growing and what it looks like is important for a few reasons. Knowing how much space your plants will fill in a garden determines how many you can grow. Plant grouping also affects companion planting, pests and diseases. Let’s start with the basics. We’ll split vegetables into recognized groups before looking at how to combine them for their and our benefit.

Plant Families

Legumes

These plants fix nitrogen out of the air. Making it available for the legumes and the following crops. They do this through a symbiotic relationship with bacteria growing on their roots. 

This group provides protein in the form of peas and beans. They can be eaten fresh, allowed to grow to fruition and collected dry. This means they are available all year, with a little planning. Important for vegetarian and vegan diets as that protein source.

Examples of legumes include:

  • Peas
  • Snow Peas
  • Scarlet Runner Beans
  • String Beans
  • Bush Beans
  • Broad Beans

Brassica

This family is huge. They are frost hardy, will grow over winter, slowly and will ‘bolt’, that is run to seed in hot dry weather conditions. Often characterised by having blue/green leaves many parts are edible. Leaves (Cabbage, Mizuna, Bok Choy, Turnip/Swede Greens, Kale), flowers (Broccoli, Cauliflower, Brussel Sprouts) and roots (Turnips, Swedes, Radishes).

This group can provide a huge part of your diet. They must not be grown on the same piece of ground for more than two seasons to avoid a disease called clubfoot which will destroy the crop. Allow three years between sowings on the same plot.

Examples of brassicas include:

  • Cabbage
  • Kale
  • Brussel Sprouts
  • Broccoli
  • Bok Choy
  • Mizuna
  • Mustard
  • Turnips
  • Swedes
  • Cauliflower
  • Kohlrabi
  • Rocket (arugula)
  • Woad
  • Cress

Allium

The onion family has been cultivated from the very earliest of agricultural times. They are slow growing and need some care and attention to ensure they are established. Once secure they require steady watering without excessive swings in moisture levels.

  • Onion
  • Garlic
  • Leeks 
  • Chives
  • Shallots

Nightshades

Related to the weed Deadly Nightshade, these plants from the Americas took some time to be established outside their native ranges. Amongst the most popular of vegetables, they have great variety and you should be able to find many cultivars suitable to your location. They are frost tender.

  • Tomato
  • Capsicum
  • Chilies
  • Potatoes
  • Eggplant (Aubergines)

Cucurbits

Vine vegetables that can take up a large area. Some can be trained to grow up trellises to save space. The harder shelled fruits will keep into winter. Frost tender.

  • Melons
  • Cucumbers
  • Squash
  • Pumpkins
  • Zucchini (courgettes)
  • Loofah
  • Gourd

Root Vegetables

These vegetables come from a variety of groups. They are placed together for the purposes of cultivation rather than species. Many can be left in the ground if you don’t receive excessive snowfalls.

  • Turnips
  • Swedes
  • Beetroots
  • Mangels
  • Potatoes
  • Carrots
  • Parsnips
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Radishes
  • Celeriac
  • Jerusalem Artichoke

From these plants, a balanced, fulfilling diet can be constructed. Eaten fresh, dried or otherwise preserved, they will provide sustenance all year. How you deal with excesses depends upon the complexity of your garden systems. If you have animals ~ chickens, rabbits, sheep, goats, pigs ~ the excess or some of it can become feed and thereby manure to feed the garden. If you don’t keep animals and probably even if you do, preserving will be necessary to ensure all year long food.

There is a separate module of food preservation coming.

105 Weeds (Blog)

Weeds

Knowing where weeds come from, means we can set up the conditions where they will not take root.

To know this we need to look at weeds a little bit differently from the combative model. The “traditional” approach is to see weeds as the enemy. Something which needs to be attacked at every opportunity. Deny them life, destroy them. And, to be fair there are time to take this approach but it is not a good starting point. For a more on this Epoisode 127 of the World Organic News podcast would be a useful listen.

To understand weeds we need to understand the growth habit of the weed, its place in the ecosystem of the garden and what it is trying to do to assist the ultimate aim of Nature: no bare soil.

Where Do They Come From?

If we look at how the ecology of weeds works we will have a better idea. Think back to the end of the last ice age. As the glaciers retreated, bare soil was exposed to the light of day. Natural systems do not function well with bare soils. Erosion and so on are the consequences. 

Weed seeds are all about us. They lie within the soil waiting to express their “weed-ness” into an environmental niche. 

Why Do They Come?

They come to protect the soil in the most efficient manner possible. It’s not that Natural systems “make decisions” in the sense we do but after 4 billion odd years of life on this planet, sufficient evolution has occurred so that there is a seed for every occasion. We are attempting to create the niches ideally suited to the needs of our vegetable seeds. So if we dig, turn the soil, rotavate or plough, we are creating the conditions for weeds. The bare ground of the de-glaciated soils from 10 to 12 thousand years ago. Hence no-dig. I’ve covered how to set up a no-dig garden bed in module 101. By placing material over the soil, we are not creating the bare soil conditions where Natural systems will attempt to fix the “problem” we didn’t know we were creating.

Setting the Right Conditions

The actions of weeds, when seen from the soil’s point of view, are to cover it. Protecting the biology underneath. The great advantage of the no-dig method is against annual weeds. They come to cover the soil, we cover the soil and they have nowhere to grow. Now on a deeper level perennial weeds suggest a bigger problem. Things like thistles are annuals and can be dealt with by either setting the conditions where they will  not grow or by dealing with them through their lifecycle. 

If thistles are a problem, or any similar growth habit plant, they will respond to slashing at the correct time. Cutting a thistle before it has reached the flowering stage, will only result in the plant still flowering but at the level it was cut. The secret is to wait until you see the first flush of purple on a thistle flower within the patch. This points to the plant moving from growing to seed production. This is the critical time. It is now that a scorched earth policy is needed. Slash, cut or stamp upon each and every plant. What happens is this: the plant will not return to the growth phase and grow new seed heads. The seed heads produced to this point will have immature seeds that are not viable and the slashed material will form a mulch layer over the ground they were growing on.

The perennial weeds, things like ragwort, blackberry and lantana, need a different approach but again this is based upon an understanding of the ecology of the plant. They generally have a store of energy in their roots. This gets them through periods of grazing, damage and drought. They also hold soil in place. You can out compete them. With blackberry I’ve seen people successfully use chokos to out grow them and then graze them with cattle. The cattle love the chokos and trample the blackberries. Follow up slashing is required when they grow back. I’ve used goats and damara sheep to do the same thing by directing eating the blackberries. My preferred method for all three of the perennials mentioned, ragwort, blackberry and lantana is to slash and slash and slash again. Eventually the underground root stores are depleted, the plant dies and the ground is covered with a mulch. 

They Still Turn Up!

Weeds will always arrive. Off your boots, from birds and on the wind.With a no-dig approach, they will be small in number. That means you can uproot them and leave them on the surface to rot down and become part of the bed.

The Right Mindset!

It all comes down to the right mindset. Understanding where they come from, why they arrive and what they are doing means we have a deeper understanding of the problem. They, in fact, cease to be a problem. They become clues to our soil health, what we need to improve in our systems and a resource to respond to and improve the current conditions.

Weeds will come, our understanding determines whether they will be a problem or another piece of information helping us to make good decisions.

103 Manure

Maures

The lifeblood  of organic production, manures keep your fertility ticking along. Fertility determines your production. Choosing which one to use can be fraught with complications.

What do the NPK numbers mean? Can I trust the figures provided? How do they relate to the seeds I’m using? How much sleep should I lose worrying about this?

Most of the manures I use do not come with an NPK rating. These stand for Nitrogen Phosphorus and Potassium. I mention them because I’ve seen a number of “organic” fertilizers with added chemicals available in a well known hardware supplier. The same is true for blood and bone fertilizers. Continue reading “103 Manure”

102 Soil

Soil

The foundation of all growing plants in an organic system. Soil is what actually grows plants by providing a living biological matrix. This biology is critical to what we can grow. Most academic courses cover the chemistry and physics of soil but ignores the biology. We are about to cover all three.

Types (The Physics)

Soil is divided into different types a few ways. The first is by particle size. These particles are created by the actions of weather, wind or water, frosts and thaws and under glaciers.

Sand

This is the coarsest of soils. It will drink water like a camel. On the other hand it is free draining. It’s a matter of perspective. It can also be improved and made 

Loam

This is the ultimate soil. It holds water, it drains as required. Plants love it and if you have it, cherish it.

Clay

This is made up of the smallest of particles. If worked wet, it turns rock hard. But we do not “work” any soil, do we? We are no dig gardeners.

 

No-Dig Implications

In some senses the soil type doesn’t matter. By growing above the soil, or extending the soil up, so to speak, we ameliorate the effects of the soil type. Over time the organic matter rich material we use to create our raised beds has an effect on the underlying soil type. 

This can happen much more quickly that would be expected. My first successful raised bed adventure involved putting goat bedding over cardboard on top of yellow, biologically sterile, sandy soil. Eighteen months later when we moved house, I dug up the raspberry canes to discover a friable, rich, worm filled, black loam. Further excavation revealed this change had penetrated to a depth of about 50cm (20 inches). All in eighteen months, one winter was droughty and the beds held water and crops kept growing.

 

Currently I’m on clayey loam. The beds will be investigated once the eighteen months are up and I  can see what’s happened. I don’t have goat bedding, which I think was the secret ingredient, so I’m using compost and chicken bedding. If you check the table in the “Manures” module, you can see this is different from most other manures. Results to be published as they come in.

 

pH (The Chemistry)

Soils vary between acidic and alkaline. This affects the uptake of nutrients in some plants at some levels of pH. This is important but may not be as important as many people think. I’ll get to that in the No-Dig Implications. 

 

pH Rating
4.5 to 5.0 Severely Acid
5.1 to 5.5 Strongly Acid
5.6 to 6.0 Moderately Acid
6.0 to 6.5 Slightly Acid
6.6 to 7.5 Neutral
7.6 to 8.0 Slightly Alkaline
8.1 to 8.5  Moderately Alkaline
8.5 to 9.0 Strongly Alkaline

 

Acid Loving Plants

  • Potato
  • Blueberry
  • Parsley
  • Raspberry
  • Sweet potato
  • Apple
  • Basil
  • Cauliflower

Neutral

  • Carrot
  • Corn
  • Cucumber
  • Dill
  • Aubergine
  • Garlic
  • Squash
  • Tomato
  • Turnip

 

Alkaline Loving Plants

  • Asparagus
  • Beans
  • Brussel Sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Celery
  • Kale
  • Leeks
  • Lettuce
  • Onions
  • Radish
  • Squash
  • Spinach
  • Sunflower
  • Rockmelon
  • Watermelon

 

Organic Matter (The Biology)

This where the biology comes in. Anything that is or was once alive will be of benefit to the soil. This can be taken to extremes but most not be. Covering an acre of land with deceased cattle would eventually do the soil good but the process would have many negative effects. Spreading a handful of blood and bone per square metre would be more useful. Similarly, spreading a layer of wood chips will have a benefit but it may take a few years to have an effect. All these options will be discussed below.

Compost

Compost is not a natural process. It requires the careful construction of a pile of organic matter in a fairly strict ration with plenty of moisture to ensure a biologically active process. Thye heating kills pathogens and seed viability. As much soil can be created through composting in a year as Nature makes in a century. (Journey to Forever)

 

Vermicompost

Vermicompost is the material left after it has been consumed by compost worms. Technically not a compost more the droppings of worms, it never reaches the temperature of hot compost. It may still contain weed seeds. 

Vermicompost can be used neat, placed directly on garden beds, used as a seed raising mix or converted into a tea. (There will be a complete module of liquid fertilisers coming later in 2020.)

Vermicompost tends to sweeten soils over time, especially acid soils moving them to a more neutral pH. It doesn’t seem to affect alkaline soils.

 

Manures

 

Mulches

Mulches are the prefered tool of Nature. Think forest floors, deciduous or evergreen. Layer upon layer of organic matter, protecting the living soil. Moderating the temperatures during the extremes of Summer and Winter, mulches both cover and feed the soil. They take much longer to decompose than the compost process mentioned above but they do represent the evolved solution from 500 million years of forests on the planet.

You have many choices when it comes to mulches: straw, hay, leaves, woodchips, slashed cover crops, shredded paper, wet cardboard, unwashed sheep’s fleeces, collected coffee grounds. You get the picture. The materials need to have been alive, capable of protecting the soil from direct sunlight and rainfall and let water in.

Sprays

These are specifically formulated liquids added to the soil, the mulch, fruit trees and the leaves of growing vegetables. These are made using compost, vermicompost, manures and even weeds. These are soaked in water, with or without aeration. On a small scale, aquarium aerators work well. On the whole, an aerated liquid works better, smells better and is more pleasant to handle. There is a module on this entire process in the pipeline for later in 2020. There are also commercial options on the market. These tend to be based on seaweed or on the shredded bodies of invasive species of fish harvested in the clean up process of local waterways. Always check the labels to be sure of what you’re adding to your food producing gardens.

 

Key Points

 

  • Soil Physics

    • Sand
    • Loam
    • Clay
  • Soil Chemistry

    • Acid
    • Neutral
    • Alkaline
  • Soil Biology

    • Compost
    • Vermiculture
    • Manures
    • Mulches
    • Biological Sprays
    • Compost Tea
    • Vermicompost Tea
    • Manure Tea