Sustainable Veganic Gardening
I was once a conventional gardener. I had a rototiller and knew how to use it. My gardens were pretty good back in those days, but I worked plenty hard at it - my garden sucked up a lot of my free time and energy (and a lot of water).
Then my rototiller died, and I just didn't want to buy another one. I learned about lasagna gardening and thought I'd give it a try. My first lasagna garden was a complete success, but I knew finding all those ingredients to layer on top the soil would someday be a challenge. I began using only hay for mulch and learned that hay is the perfect carbon to nitrogen ratio for most garden and horticultural crops. Hay is also a great mulch because it's readily available and in some cases can be grown on site - eliminating any imported garden amendments.
Most people add manure to their garden in order to amend soil and add fertility. I don't like using manure for a number of reasons. When a cow eats grass or hay, there are microbes in the cow's digestion which breaks down forages. The cow eliminates partially digested vegetation and that manure is super high in nitrogen. Even when we apply well rotted manure to our garden it is a guessing game as to how much nitrogen we need and how much nitrogen the manure contains. Too much or too little nitrogen is not good for the garden. In addition, there could be pathogens introduced with manure that could cause all kinds of problems in the garden, and in you and I, should we ingest it.
I elect to let microbes in the soil break down the hay directly - eliminating the middle man (the cow in this case).
I also like to eliminate the need for manure in my garden because manure production means that animals are concentrated and I don't want to contribute to such practices. If animals are free range, there is no manure pile. Cattle also contribute immensely to green house gasses due to their belching methane - see the award winning movie Cowspiracy: http://www.cowspiracy.com/
In addition to safer, more reliable nitrogen/carbon ratios in our soil, hay mulch offers the following benefits;
It is important to know the difference between hay, straw, and grass clippings. Hay is long grass, legumes and weeds that is cut, left to dry and raked or collected. Most hay has a favorable carbon to nitrogen ratio for most gardens.
Straw is the stem of grains - often oat or corn. Straw is mostly carbon and won't add enough nitrogen to your soil. You'll have to compensate with some other added ingredient high in nitrogen - but then you're back to the guessing game.
Grass clippings are usually too high in nitrogen and because they are small and tender, they decompose fast - too fast to suppress weeds. Grass clippings won't give you many of the gardening benefits that hay will and can sometimes even "burn" your garden due to too much nitrogen.
People often think that because hay contains weed seeds, that adding it to your garden would be disastrous. The reality is however, that when ample hay is added those seeds cannot germinate. If I have fresh hay, I always pile it up and leave it sit out in the weather for a few months so that most of the seed is spent - this will also help eliminate seeds germinating.
In order to be more sustainable, I have been using a hand scythe to harvest my hay. There are a number of benefits to hand harvesting hay. First, you save energy and the associated expenses of buying fuel. You also save money and resources by not having to service another internal combustion engine and eliminate another piece of junk in the landfill some day. Scything is also great exercise. In addition, hand harvesting hay is easier on the ecosystem because if there are bird nests or baby rabbits in long grass, you are more likely to see them when you are scything.
If possible, we should wait until at least mid July to harvest hay for the garden so that most birds and mammals can complete their nesting cycle and have a chance to escape the scythe. In the event that you should need to harvest sooner, you may want to do a comprehensive bird/mammal survey before beginning the harvest. This can be done by two methods. The first is to sit for perhaps hours and watch the field to be harvested. You should set yourself up in some kind of blind so birds do not know you are watching. Birds, when nesting, can be amazingly secretive and sly, so finding their nest is sometimes nearly impossible. Secondly, I walk a grid in the field so that I will flush up any nesting birds or mammals. Take some flagging and a stake with you so if you flush something and find a nest, you can immediately mark it.
Our grassland bird populations are suffering to a great extent because we have mechanized our hay harvesting and harvest multiple times in a season. If you harvest your own hay for your garden, please try to not be part of this problem - please do all you can to avoid birds nests and other wildlife. I find that if I detect a nest, cutting around the nest area leaves enough space for the adults to finish their parental duties. Some bird species require more space than others, so please give them the benefit of the doubt when cutting around nests.
Closed Looped System??
In order for hay mulching to be completely closed looped, we need to add nutrients back to the hay field or it would eventually deplete the soil and become poor quality hay. I would not recommend using humanure in the garden, but I would recommend using it on a hay field. Adding humanure and urine to the hay field completes the loop and adds fertility to the entire system. Manure never touches your garden because it is a generation removed (through the hay). This is one reason this type of gardening is considered to be so safe and sustainable.
Fruit tree pruning is one of those activities that is completely zen for me. It leaves me with a hurting back, and arms that feel like dish rags, but at the end of the day I can truly say that I love what I do. I once had a small apple orchard and attended some pruning workshops. I did my own research from that point and began pruning fruit trees for other people. I now offer this as a one of my many services. A well pruned fruit tree not only looks more appealing, it is easier to maintain and harvest. It also adds vigor to the tree and can really reduce the amount of fungicide needed to keep your tree and its fruit healthy. The result of pruning is often fewer fruit, but much higher quality.
As a horticulturist, I have learned many lessons along the way. The following is a list of non-tree fruit I'm currently growing and having good success with;
I was growing sweet cherries, apricots, and peaches, but the monster winter of 2013 - 2014 wiped them out. The following is a list of tree fruit that has stood the test of one of the worst winters in modern history;
A Word About Rain Barrels
I think rain barrels are wonderful - I use them whenever I can and I promote their use. However I always make sure to keep a leaning stick of some kind or a swath of hardware cloth in each rain barrel. Rain barrels can be wildlife traps. Critters come for a drink, fall in and are unable to climb out. Placing some kind of a stick in the barrel to serve as a ladder will save many innocent lives.
Also available for consulting - contact me.
the true cost of animal agriculture:
There was a time, before white people settled here, when Southwest Wisconsin was very diverse. The land was a combination of forests, woodlots, savannas and tall grass prairie. Today this is what grows here - cattle and corn. The biodiversity is gone. We have "taken" the land for our meat and dairy eating fetish. This is why every acre restored in diversity is so very important.
Planting Seed in a thick mulch garden
People often ask me how to plant fine seed in a thick bed of mulch hay. Hopefully the following will be helpful...
Part the hay down to the soil layer. Till the soil up with a small hand trawl if the soil is compact. I use a bicycle wheel to press a narrow seed bed into the exposed soil. Here where we have heavy clay soils, I often part the hay and till the seed bed a day in advance so the soil has a chance to dry, thus it's easier to work with.
Wire fencing and trellising can be deadly to birds because under some lighting conditions, birds cannot see the wire and fly into it - often fatally injuring themselves. We can make this wire more visible to birds by wrapping or twisting a strand of twine or other thick line or string to the single wire. (see below)