What gardeners can learn from farmers

by Mark Cullen

If there is one group of people who watch spring approach with the same anticipation as gardeners, it is farmers.

Like gardeners, they are land stewards and plant aficionados. Unlike most gardeners, farmers depend on their land stewardship and plant knowledge to cultivate their livelihoods (vs. doing it for fun). There is a great deal that gardeners can learn from farmers – scientific knowledge which has been developed in our universities and agricultural extension programs, and cultural knowledge which has been passed down for generations from one farmer to the next.

Here are the top 4 lessons that I have learned from the farmers:

  1. Crop Rotation
    Crop rotation benefits farmers by breaking insect and disease cycles, allowing deeper rooted crops to improve soil structure for plants with less root vigor, as well as by adding nutrients to the soil and increasing the content of organic matter. The practice of rotating crops around a field annually contributes to more reliable crops, healthier harvests and a better bottom line.
    One crop which is particularly dependent on a proper rotation in the garden is tomatoes, which should be moved every year. Tomatoes are particularly susceptible to soil-borne diseases such as verticillium wilt and early blight. Moving them also helps avoid soil-borne pests such as wireworms and beetle larvae. I recommend a three year rotation where year two incorporates a “Cabbage Crop” (such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi, or kale) and year three, an onion crop (such as garlic, leeks, onions, scallions, and shallots).

    For container gardeners who want to plant year after year, I recommend that you remove and replace your soil each spring- making sure to clean the container to rid it of pathogens. I do this will all of my containers regardless of what I am growing.
  2. Reduced-Tillage or No-Till
    In an agricultural setting, excessive tillage (i.e. plowing or cultivating) destroys soil structure which plants depend on to grow and store nutrients. It also leads to soil compaction and erosion while accelerating the decomposition of soil organic matter.

    Soil structure and organic matter should concern all gardeners. “No-till” gardening generally requires that after the bed is established, the surface is never disturbed. To retain the highest degree of natural soil borne nutrients, mulch soil to prevent drying out and crusting over.
    When you plant, pull the mulch back and disturb the soil only to plant into the ground. Leaves, compost, finely ground up bark mulch and straw all make great mulches.

    Leaves should be spread no more than 25 cm thick when dry or 4 cm thick when matted and wet. Come July, all those leaves will have decomposed and been taken down into the top soil by earth worms, where they are converted into nitrogen-rich worm castings. If you don’t have lots of worm activity in your soil, you can buy worm castings by the bag at your garden retailer. I mix them one part to ten parts soil.
    Natural nutrients are added to the soil as the mulch breaks down, your earth worm population will explode and you will experience a dramatic decrease in water requirements.
  3. Feed the Soil
    With each harvest of nutritious crops leaving the field, farmers know that the nutrient value that is removed when the plant is harvested needs to go back into the soil. These nutrients are fed back into the soil as compost, well rotted manure or fertilizers where they are available to the next crop – and the cycle continues.

The nutrient cycle in the garden is really no different, and to expect the garden to absorb nutrients without first feeding the soil is misguided. By far the best thing you can do for your garden is start a compost pile, diverting kitchen waste from landfills and adding rich nutrients and organic matter back into your soil. When I run out of compost from my own pile, I supplement with Biomax- the only brand of manure approved by the Composting Council of Canada and is OMRI certified.

  1. Pollinators Do the Heavy Lifting
    No doubt you have heard about the state of our bees and pollinator populations. No one is paying closer attention to this issue than farmers, as 1/3 of all our food is directly pollinated by insects and birds.

    Gardeners can do their part to protect pollinating insect populations by creating a habitat for them. Design a garden that incorporates tall, native grasses and pollinator-friendly perennials such as blanket flower, Black-eyed Susan, Beebalm, Coreopsis, Mint and Purple Prairie Clover (all of which can be planted now for next year’s blossom). Not only will this type of garden look stunning and support a range of pollinators, it will also be less susceptible to disease or vulnerable to drought.

    Gardeners generally have the luxury of pursuing our labour of love free from many of the pressures which farmers face, mostly as we are not making our living at this pastime. Through our shared experience we can learn from one another to maximize our productivity, satisfaction and environmental contribution in the garden.