Once upon a time, a woman moved to the country and planted a new garden in “soil” that was mostly just sand and decomposed granite.
And since this parable is also a True Story, I’ll clarify that it was the 1970’s and the woman was my late ex-grandmother-in-law.
So she fenced a sunny area and planted her garden, and the soil was very poor, and the plants struggled, and insects preyed upon them and native weeds sprang up and choked them and gophers dug in and gobbled their roots, and at the end of the first summer she didn’t have much to show for her efforts.
But she was determined to win the struggle. So year after year she dusted her plants with pesticides and fed them chemical-based fertilizers and meticulously cleared all the old plant and weed residues out of the garden before she replanted each spring so as not to spread diseases and weed seeds. And OH, the battles she waged upon those gophers! She put out traps and poisons and poisoned traps, and now and then she had her husband sit in the yard with a gun to pick them off whenever they poked their little noses aboveground. It was a bitter war, my friends, and she fought the good fight right up to the very end.
And after 25 years of this, she had more gophers than ever and her garden was basically a barren wasteland, even less fertile than when she’d started out.
I met this well-meaning lady about five or six years before her death. I was just getting started in gardening at the time, and I was reading a lot of books and magazines on the subject and listening to a lot of advice from more experienced folks. She had a LOT of advice for me, mostly about how to keep bugs and weeds and diseases and most of all gophers from ruining my crops.
I took a long, hard look at her garden and knew in my heart that I needed to find a better way.
So when Steve and I moved to this property one of the first things I did was to fence a sunny area and plant a garden. And the soil was very poor, and the plants struggled, and insects preyed upon them and native weeds sprang up and choked them and gophers dug in and gobbled their roots, and at the end of the first summer I didn’t have much to show for my efforts. My in-laws offered lots of advice on the best pesticides and the best traps and poisons. And I thanked them, but told them that I wanted to go the organic route if it could be done. They all laughed and shook their heads and left me to my folly.
I decided that first I would focus on improving my soil, and deal with the pest issues later. So I dug in lots of horse manure every year and discovered the magical benefits of mulching with straw, and I planted much more than I needed so that I wouldn’t have to lose sleep over a few gopher-killed bell pepper plants or an insect-chewed bed of lettuce.
It took a long time to get my soil looking like real garden loam instead of something akin to beach sand. Like, three or four years. But it did happen, and eventually earthworms showed up by the thousands, and my veggies began to thrive and glow with health and produce bumper crops.
I got a few surprises along the way. For example, the insect population in my garden became more plentiful and diverse than ever, but somehow they weren’t bothering with my plants anymore, or not enough to worry about. I learned that healthy plants growing in rich, fertile soil have their own natural defenses against insect pests. Better yet, by creating a nature-friendly environment I had unknowingly welcomed in the insects and birds that prey upon destructive bugs.
Best of all, I discovered that gophers do not like to dig in rich, mucky soil: they prefer dry sandy ground for their burrows. The blacker and richer my garden soil gets, the fewer gopher holes I see in my vegetable beds. Last summer I think they stayed out entirely, only venturing back in during the winter when pickings got too slim elsewhere.
The moral? Focus on your soil, and your plants will take care of themselves. Avoid the temptation to resort to chemical fertilizers and pesticides. They actually weaken your plants, destroy the biodiversity of your soil, and create many more problems than they solve. Learn about beneficial insects, and plant the herbs and flowers that will attract them to your garden. Mulch, mulch, mulch! Mulch holds moisture in, keeps weeds out, and gives your earthworms and other soil-builders something to nibble on.
These principles apply anywhere you plan to grow edibles, although outside of the garden fence you have other issues like rabbits and deer. I don’t get deer on my property, but rabbits will gobble up almost anything that doesn’t have a good layer of chicken-wire around it. Use common sense when planting young, vulnerable perennials, and keep them protected until they’re big enough to take care of themselves.
Next: best varieties for edible landscaping!