A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

The Locavore

Seeds of Change  

From garden to agribusiness?

by Harry Matthews

Despite a seemingly endless winter, spring is in fact here, and with it comes a dizzying multitude of ideas for those of us gardeners who have spent these past cold months fantasizing about what we might do differently in our this season. Plant more? Plant less? Build raised beds? Hay or straw bale gardens? Start everything from seeds? Why always plant so many tomatoes, kale, or zucchini?

One thing I know for sure is that I want all of my gardening to be easier (my poor back!). And I want it to be less expensive.

One thing that has been a revelation for me this winter was rereading the book One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukouka. His agriculturally-based philosophy was what he referred to as “natural farming” (alternatively called “do-nothing farming”), which utilized an ethos of simplicity. He was against tilling, using herbicides, pruning, weeding, and instead was a proponent of following the cyclical flow of nature and its first principal of random wildness, to grow what he needed. As an unofficially certified slacker, this idea of less work for more bounty deeply appealed to me. In reading further about his methods I found they were not necessarily as easy as he made things sound, but it did spark new channels of my own thought.

In many aspects of life I am something of an expert at “winging it” in any situation I might find myself in, and generally pretty damn bad at making long-term plans. This flows over into my gardens. For many years I have hardly given any pre-thought as to what vegetables I would plant. One day my local nursery would be having a spring sale and I would fill my truck with starter plants. It would only be a few months later when I would find myself working 35 kale plants, lugging armloads of zucchini, and trying to hand off far too many tomatoes. And I would wish that I had planned things out a little better beforehand.

This year things are gonna change! Instead buying starter plants (which can add up to a pretty penny if you’re not careful), I will germinate all I want from seed. It is incredibly simple and costs a faction of what you would spend on the nursery grown babies. It also means I can more carefully plan what I’m going to grow. Helping in this process are the greatly beneficial charts one can find online that let you know exactly when to start germinating what, and when to plant them in.

The second big change this year is that I’m planning on doing straw bale gardens, at least for half of my garden. This is also relatively inexpensive and easy, and after the initial set up requires almost no other work beyond the occasional watering. All that the setup entails is adding fertilizer to your bale, and watering them. After ten days of this your bales are ready and you plant your seedlings directly into them. Done. The great thing about straw bale gardening is that there is no weeding to do. (By the end of July or early August the weeds in my veg patch have practically taken over; despite my having laid down plastic sheeting and wood-chip mulch it’s still out of control). I’m hoping straw bales will make for a big change.

Another way I‘ve started saving money in the garden is by planting certain things that are perennial, or very good at reseeding themselves. From rhubarb to horseradish, dill to asparagus, I have numerous plants that, if treated right, will regrow each year. Beyond that I have fruit trees and berry bushes that continue to give up their yearly sweet bounty. Most years there are also the rogue tomatoes, lettuces, and cucumbers that show up randomly with no help from me.

Despite Fukuoka’s hard-to-imagine idealism of “do-nothing farming,” I do in fact do quite a lot of pruning to my fruit trees. And this not only keeps the trees in a healthier state but speeds up production and makes for a richer crop.

Lastly—and beyond the sharing of what you grow with friends and neighbors—a great way to be more economical in your garden is to invest in a pressure-cooker for canning. From making jams and sauces to simply canning beans and other vegetables (or making pickles!), there is no easier way to preserve your harvest than by “preserving” it. And what could be better than cracking open a jar of blueberries in the dead of winter for that wonderful taste of summer to come flooding back into your mouth? Cornell Cooperative gives classes in canning on a regular basis.

Exploring the variety of options you have regarding seeds can be one fun way to dig into this subject. The Hudson Valley Seed Company puts out calls every year to artists for images to grace the covers of their beautiful seed packs. They may be a bit more expensive at first glance, at least in comparison to national brands like Burpee. But remember that you are keeping your money local as well as supporting the wide breadth of artistic talent we have here in the Hudson Valley. And most of their seeds are certified organic.

In the end, figuring out less expensive ways to garden is always a good and often a much-needed practice. Like Fukuoka did in Japan, watching the profusion and yet perfect economy with which nature unfolds itself each spring, in spreading its bounty, can be utilized in one’s own garden. Letting plants go to seed and using the seeds the following year, composting your garbage into rich fertilized soil, and caring less about the look of the garden to allow the wildness to stretch out can keep many costs in check as well as teach one about the cyclical nature of what you’ve invested so much time into. Like Jeff Goldblum’s character so sagely says in Jurassic Park, “If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but life finds a way.”