Jim Kennard is a master gardner and has traveled around the world teaching gardening. He grows a garden on the west side of Hogle Zoo. His wife conducted a chorale I sang in about 8 years ago. He is amazing.
M E R I D I A N M A G A Z I N E
Grow a Great Garden Anywhere! Just Control the 6 Laws of Plant Growth
By Jim Kennard
Why grow a vegetable garden? Because the Prophet told us to!
But he hasn’t told us HOW to do it, and therein lies the challenge. Most of us never learned the gardening lessons our grandparents took for granted, and our children often think produce “grows” in the grocery store.
Let’s cut right to the chase and learn what it takes to grow a healthy, sustainable and highly productive garden. If you will learn to harness the laws of plant growth I discuss below you can have a great garden in any soil – or in no soil – in almost any climate, and without any soil amendments. You’ll discover that soil and climate differences are NOT major problems.
The method of gardening that we teach is sometimes called “The Poor Man’s Hydroponic Method” – and for good reason. Hydroponic growers are able to consistently control all elements of the growing process, and therefore get maximum yields – the best produce as much as 330 TONS per acre!
However, in order to do that hydroponic growers must invest about $1,000,000 per acre in buildings and equipment, and in addition they have very high labor costs.
Your garden yields can approach the hydroponic growers with an investment that is a tiny fraction of the typical hydroponic grower’s.
That’s why the label “The Poor Man’s Hydroponic Method” fits – anyone can do it with very little cost. And some call this method “The best of organic” also! You’ll learn why as we go along.
You’ll learn to control the 6 basic physical conditions necessary for healthy plant growth. By borrowing hydroponic growers’ principles and procedures, and adapting them to the small family gardener, we increase both the quantity and the quality of our garden yields MANY times as compared to traditional methods.
I. The most important factor to control is LIGHT – for reasons that should be obvious. Light is life! And nowhere is it more obvious than in the world of plants, where 95% of the structure is the result of that marvelous miracle called photosynthesis.
Using just the three basic elements carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen they get from the air, plants create CARB-O-HYDRATES.
Number one in importance is providing maximum sunlight – for as long as possible. In the far North plants grow like crazy in the summer with 18 to 20 hours of sunlight!
Therefore you must AVOID planting where there is shade – from trees, houses, walls, shrubs, etc. Even tall vegetable plants will shade others, unless you plant tall varieties to the North or East of short ones.
Any fruit-bearing plant must have direct sunlight for at least 6 hours per day, and 10 hours is much better. A plant can even shade itself more than is healthy! Therefore remove sucker stems from climbing plants, and prune excess leaves, to allow light everywhere and increase crop yields.
II. The second element to control is TEMPERATURE. Plants thrive in a rather narrow temperature range, and this is especially true when they first germinate. Sustained temperatures above 70 degrees Fahrenheit are essential for fast germination and high germination rates. Even 10 degrees colder will greatly increase the germination time and reduce the number of plants.
If your garden is too small to justify or accommodate a greenhouse, start your plants on a heating pad in your house. Somewhere warm is essential. No light is needed until after germination.
Even after germination young plants need favorable temperatures to thrive. In early spring this may require some protection – and sometimes even a little supplemental heat – whether in the greenhouse or in the garden.
Covering your plants with plastic helps warm the soil and eliminate cold winds, and on cold nights even the heat from a couple of light bulbs can be enough to prevent freezing. In this way – by covering your plants and protecting from frost – you can extend your growing season by up to 4 weeks in both Spring and Fall.
Covering large mature crops with arched PVC frames can allow you to grow plants clear into December in temperate climates. Building and using T-Frames is a great way to do this and to multiply your yields in a small space. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for a simple set of instructions.
III. The third element to control is AIR. Remember that plants receive carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen from the air. However, they access those things mainly through their roots.
Therefore, good drainage is necessary. Why? Because roots get oxygen, etc. from the air, not the water, and soil that is soaked with or covered with water drives out the soil air, so a plant left standing with its roots under water can drown in a fairly short time.
So, to insure your plant roots receive the soil-air they must have, never plant in a low spot with poor drainage. We solve the drainage problem by RAISING the planting area of our soil-beds slightly higher than the surrounding aisles.
IV. The fourth element to control is WATER. It obviously should be clean, and it MUST be non-toxic. Any concentration of harmful elements, such as chemicals from a nearby industrial plant, can quickly kill your plants.
How much and how often do you need to water? Understand that a plant is a continuous water pipe, from the tip of the smallest root to the top of the highest leaf. And a plant is over 80% water!
Water should therefore always be available to the plant roots. The soil should be moist but not completely wet. One inch daily is sufficient.
In addition to being slightly raised – your soil-beds should be level. This avoids the loss of water, plus your seeds, small plants, and fertilizers are not washed out and lost.
Do not plant until your beds are level. Much grief is avoided by following the procedures accurately.
Level beds also ensure uniform distribution of water and natural mineral nutrients to all plants’ roots.
Even when watering almost every day you will conserve water, using about half that of traditional methods. This is because you will only water the root-zone of the plants, which is only about 17% of the garden area. This way no water is lost to run-off, nor wasted in the aisles.
Never water your garden by sprinkling – for at east 3 reasons:
1. Sprinkling encourages weed growth in the aisles and on the ridges.
2. It wastes a great deal of water through evaporation as well.
3. It promotes diseases, which thrive in a moist environment.
On a hot day evaporation wastes up to ½ of the water when sprinkling is used. And even more than that is wasted on the aisles and ridges. Sprinklers may be needed for lawns, but they have no place in the vegetable garden!
Surrounding your planting area with four-inch-high ridges accomplishes several things:
1. It defines the bed aesthetically,
2. affords some protection to small seedling plants,
3. and keeps the water and fertilizers in the root zone of the plants.
Automating your watering will greatly increase the pleasure you receive from your garden. It also makes watering easier, faster, and more efficient! Many beds can be watered at the same time. One hundred 30’-long beds at my garden near Utah’s Hogle Zoo are watered in less than 60 minutes.
Simple illustrated plans for automating your watering system are available free online at http://foodforeveryone.org. The main water pipe should be as large as your water source. Use threaded connections – not glued! And use 200 PSI pipe rather than schedule 40 for watering.
V. The fifth element to control in your garden is your plants’ FOOD. Besides the 3 elements plants receive free from the air there are 13 other elements that plants must have for food.
Most people know about the 3 MAJOR nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, or N, P, & K. However, 3 SECONDARY elements are used almost as much by plants as phosphorus, and these are calcium, sulfur, and magnesium.
In addition there are MICRO-nutrients, also called trace elements because plants use only small amounts of them. They include zinc, boron, manganese, iron, copper, chloride, and molybdenum.
Plants require feeding in two ways, with two separate natural mineral nutrient mixes. They are called the Pre-Plant Mix and the Weekly Feed Mix, indicating how they are used.
People in the Mountain West can get these complete balanced plant foods pre-mixed as Mittleider Magic. But wherever you live simply get micro-nutrients from the website at www.growfood.com and mix with NPK and Epsom Salt according to instructions to have the complete balanced nutrients.
Unless materials are water-soluble plants can’t get or use them. They receive their nourishment as water-soluble minerals through their roots.
WATER SOLUBLE is the key! Dirt often has most or all the minerals in it, but they are usually NOT water soluble – therefore they are not available to your plants.
How are the methods I’m describing “The Best of Organic”? The nutritional value of manure and compost are unknown. We know what plants need and we supply exactly that – in balanced amounts using USDA-approved natural minerals that come from ground-up rocks.
And we supply small amounts weekly throughout the growing season – just as they are needed. THAT is how we’re “the best of organic.”
VI. The sixth and final element you must control is COMPETITION. Competition from weeds, bugs, and animals is usually fierce and constant. And diseases are very difficult to control, and sometimes almost impossible to eliminate after they get established.
One of the first requirements of a good garden is to eliminate all weeds! Success STARTS with a weed-free garden! Don’t expect a great finish if your beginning is sloppy. You must remove both annual and perennial weeds, including the roots, rhizomes, and runners. And after planting you must KEEP UP the weeding! People often ask what the secret is to our weed-free gardens. It’s E & O Weeding – early and often! Get those weeds out as soon as they show up!
How do you eliminate bugs from your garden? Cultural practices that greatly reduce your risk again include weeding. Maintaining a weed-free DRY perimeter, aisles, weed-free beds, and keeping the garden free of mulch or other ground coverings will go a long way toward eliminating bugs.
Rather than providing bug hotels throughout your garden, make them walk the Sahara Desert to get to lunch or dinner. Most won’t make it! Because of the above cultural practices, and growing healthy, fast-growing plants, we rarely have to resort to pesticides or herbicides.
You must take positive and sometimes aggressive steps to control and eliminate animal pests. Those steps may include fencing, traps, baits, and/or netting.
Disease is the last thing you need to control, but not the least. It’s recently been discovered that healthy plants naturally resist disease. In addition to minimizing bugs, a dry periphery and aisles are inhospitable environments for diseases. Disease thrives in moist conditions. Therefore keep everything possible dry. The best disease control is PREVENTION.
Pruning plants reduces moist conditions diseases love, and provides light and air to ripen tasty fruit. Remove leaves touching the ground, and prune those that are touching adjacent plants.
Follow this recipe accurately and consistently and you’ll have a great garden in any soil, in any climate.
Jim Kennard, President – Food For Everyone Foundation www.foodforeveryone.org