How to create backyard systems inspired by natureMay 05, 2020 11:26AM ● By Paige Slaughter
Picture endless rows of corn—as in, you can’t see anything but corn and machines.
Now picture a forest—ferns collecting speckles of sunlight beneath aspen and evergreen trees, a thick layer of leaves beneath your feet.
Everything in the garden exists somewhere between these extremes. As home gardeners, we can draw insight from both ends of the spectrum to create backyard systems we truly love.
From beetles to bacteria
Countless organisms interact with one another in soil. As they break down organic matter (leaves, twigs, dead things), their web of activity enhances the soil, filling it with pockets that store water for plants.
Healthy soil captures carbon and recycles the nutrients that feed plants, animals and humans.
Above ground, a variety of annuals and perennials, fruits, roots and greens creates a diverse habitat for insects and critters. While it might be tempting to defend our gardens against all the bugs that nibble on the food we’re growing, they, too, contribute to a diverse garden ecosystem. Invite beneficial critters into your garden with small ponds, safe spaces and season-long blooms, and by avoiding toxic fertilizers and chemicals.
Finding ways to align biodiversity with your values is fun and beneficial for both you and all living things in your garden. Here are two of my favorites:
How to plant tomatoes into a bed of buckwheat
Last month, we planted a bed of buckwheat to keep our tomato bed nice and cozy. You can cut all the buckwheat back or keep some along the edges of the bed. Cut the buckwheat at its base and use the clippings to mulch around the tomatoes after you’re finished planting.
In a row, place three stakes firmly in the ground, each 6 feet apart. Between each stake, plant four tomato plants. Dig deep holes, evenly spaced between stakes. The holes should be almost deep enough to bury the whole tomato plant.
Add about 1 teaspoon of Azomite (a natural trace mineral that helps plants absorb calcium) to each hole. Fill the holes with water, then prepare your plant starts by pinching off any suckers that may be starting to pop out from between stems. Pull the plants out of their pots, loosen the roots with your hands, and remove all lower stems.
When you bury the stem, roots will emerge from that lower stem, giving your plant more capacity to root itself firmly in the soil.
Fill remaining gaps with soil and tamp down on the soil surrounding each plant so that the roots can make good contact with the soil. If you’re using drip lines, now’s the time to set them in place. Tomatoes prefer to be watered from below.
Lastly, create a trellis by tying a strong twine to the end stake, just a few inches off the ground. Pull the twine across one side of the plants below the first branching stem. Wrap it all the way around the middle stake(s), then continue on towards the other end-stake. Wrap it twice around, then pull the twine back toward the middle stake along the other side of the plants.
Wrap it around the middle stake, then pull it towards the stake you started with, again hugging opposite sides of the plants, and secure it tightly.
Pull the branching stems over the twine so that the plants’ lowest stems are supported. If your starts are tall, add another line of twine a few inches above this bottom one.
Repeat this process as your plants grow taller. Keep caring for your plants as they grow by pinching off suckers, weeding, and cutting back buckwheat if it begins to block the tomatoes’ sunlight.
Plant the Three Sisters
With origins in Mesoamerica, corn, beans and squash have coevolved over thousands of years. Together, they’re called the Three Sisters.
Sweet, dent, flint or flour corn is the big sister, providing support for climbing, nitrogen-fixing pole beans, which pull nitrogen from the air into the soil, benefiting all three plants. Squashes’ large leaves are a living mulch that keep the soil cool and moist and suppress weeds.
Soak corn seeds in water for a few hours before planting. Consider growing an organic, heirloom variety of sweet corn, popping corn or flour corn. Corn is heavily industrialized, and we gardeners can each do our part to preserve and perpetuate some incredible yet fading varieties.
Use your finger to make 3-4-inch holes, 6 inches apart. Leave at least a foot of spacing around the outside of your grid. Once corn sprouts are 4 inches tall, sow a row of pole beans around the perimeter of your grid.
Finally, around the edge of your bed, create small mounds of soil 18 inches apart, and sow three squash seeds in each mound.
Later, if all three sprouts come up, thin your mounds so that one strong plant comes up from each mound. Squash plants will spread outward and you’ll need room for weeding and harvesting. Opt for bush beans in place of squash anywhere you’re limited on space.
Add more sisters like sunflowers, nasturtiums, bergamot and marigolds to attract beneficial insects, deter squash bugs, and look pretty.
Wait until Mother’s Day to transplant tomatoes, peppers and basil, as they’re especially sensitive to cold. Have a few sheets on hand to cover beds in case of late spring freezes.
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