Compost Encouragement (for Life as well as the Garden) Organic Gardening Perennials Soil Improvement and/or preparation

Organic Gardening – The Laws (Principles) are Fixed – The Methods are Endless

In order to be successful in organic gardening there are universal laws (principles and/or fundamental truths) that have to be adhered to. Going against them is a sure recipe for failure. That’s just the way it is. And it doesn’t really matter what your opinions and/or beliefs are because these laws are set and sure. Following them means success. Going against them means failure.

The fact that the laws of organic gardening are fixed makes our success easier, because once we find out what the laws are, we know up front what has to be done. What we may not know at that point in time is what methods we want to use to accomplish what has to be done.

The truth is, we can be as creative as we want to be in the methods we use to accomplish what each law requires for success. We can tailor our methods to suit our life style, our likes and dislikes,  the finances available to us and all the other things that make our situation unique.

If you get wrapped up in dos and don’ts (the methods) you might totally miss the big picture.

An Example of What I Mean by  ‘Missing the Big Picture’

A friend and reader mentioned to me via email yesterday that some tomato plants had died when she was away a week on vacation “because there was no rain.”

Since she has read TMG for some time, I was a bit curious as to how this untimely death of tomatoes came about after just a week of not being watered. So my question to her was, “By the way, how was that bed prepared?  If I recall, you just dug in the ground and planted?”

Her first response was , “The herb beds were prepared using the Eliot Coleman method.  You remove the sod and take a fork to loosen the dirt (back and forth) every 4″ or so. Then we mulched.  We didn’t do much with those — beds.”

And then another response, “I don’t think he even mulches after he loosens the soil.”

And finally, “I remember reading about how he believes the levels of soil should not be mixed together.  He did not advocate tillage for this reason.  I believe I remember him to say that the existing soil structure should remain the same, thus, just the loosening of the soil every few inches.  You put the fork in, wiggle it back and forth a bit, then move forward a few inches more and repeat.  Then top with compost.”

What’s running through your mind right now?

Do you know the laws of gardening well enough to know the unmentioned principles behind what Mr. Coleman recommended?

Since I don’t personally know Mr. Coleman, have not visited his farm, and have not read everything he’s written, what makes me think I know more of what he meant than my friend/reader did?

Do you feel (at this point in the story) that my recommendations are not in harmony with Mr Coleman’s?  (Please read on to find out.)

A Beginning Path with No “man-created” Proof

As you know, if you’ve read my book or this website for any length of time, my reason to start gardening was to eat. I didn’t have the time, the means, or the inclination to embark on a study of the history of organic agriculture.

I had the faith that if I followed nature I would be successful. I never felt a need to find out if mankind had proven it. I knew already the earth had proven it. That was good enough for me.

Finding That the Proof Has Been Documented

When I started writing TendingMyGarden,  I became more and more interested in information that explained why my ideas and methods had been so successful.  It was fascinating.  And oddly enough, it made helping others even easier.

I embarked on a journey (one I’m still on) of exploring the history of organic agriculture; learning what has been proven time and time again; learning the proof that conventional agriculture continues to ignore; and learning the amazing ways that nature makes my simple and easy methods a success.

First Encounter

About 4 years ago I happened across what I thought was one of the best articles I had ever read. The article was entitled Organic agriculture: deeply rooted in science and ecology by Eliot Coleman.

This was my  first encounter with the writings of a man who is a proponent of organic farming, an American farmer, author of several books, agricultural researcher and educator.

Following are just a few highlights of that lengthy article. It’ll help you understand how Mr. Coleman looks as farming/gardening.

Why is this important? Because knowing this will better enable you to determine the probable validity of statements taken out of context from various things he may have written, even though you may not have read those things yourself.

Highlights of the Article

It’s important to note that a picture of crops growing at Mr. Coleman’s Four Seasons Farm is placed at the top of the article. The first words of the caption are: “Start with biodiversity and well-nourished soil —.”  (Keep this in mind.  We’ll come back to this at the end.)

Mr. Coleman started the article addressing a brief history of organic farming/agriculture; just what I had been studying!

He continued by addressing the mistaken premise on which industrial agriculture was based: “that nature is inadequate and needs to be replaced with human systems ” (or at least helped by them).

And of course, one of the main principles of agriculture that works with nature (soil fertility) is discussed.

Also noted is the “striking lack of interest (antagonism actually) from scientific agriculture in exploring why” biologically based farms succeed.

He goes on to talk of farming systems that rely on inputs (fertilizers, etc.) from other sources compared to a “biologically focused farming system that bases fertility maintenance on proven cultural practices with the addition of locally available waste products.”

He then lists those cultural practices.  Most of those have been covered time and again on TMG:

  • crop rotation,
  • green manures,
  • compost making,
  • undersowing (of various cover crops), and
  • enhancing biodiversity.

In the lengthy wrap up, Mr. Coleman expounds on

  • the generosity of the earth ,
  • working in partnership with nature, and
  • how those big agri-bu.siness and the chemical companies have everything to gain by promoting the earth as stingy and not capable of providing for us without their help.

The article ends with a most encouraging statement of fact: Biological (working with nature) agriculture’s “success has created a solid foundation for the superiority of biology over chemistry in agriculture and has established the promise of a well-nourished future for human beings.”

Beginning to Get the Big Picture?

If you’re working as an apprentice of nature and have gardened in accordance with her principles any length of time, you’ve already been able to see the flaws in what my friend erroneously picked up as being the way Mr. Coleman does things.

How We Understand is Based on What We Already Know (or Don’t Know)

I asked my friend “Where did you read of Eliot Coleman’s method as you described?” She replied, “Four Seasons Gardening, I believe. —”

As with any book on any subject, how we understand what we are reading is based on what we already know (or don’t know).  It is especially easy for a novice who knows basically very little, to take words out of context and apply them word for word without really knowing all the details involved.

Fortunately, I’d recently acquired Mr Coleman’s book Four Seasons Harvest, which I believe is the book to which my friend was referring. (I acquired the book with the hope of gaining more insight into hoop tunnels.)

I went through the book looking to see what Mr Coleman had to say about soil preparation.

He speaks of using a broadfork.  Reading the entire section, you see that he is speaking of using it to loosen soil structure in established beds where the soil is already loose and friable and has lots of organic matter in it. In no way is he telling the reader to take a broadfork, put it in hard unprepared ground, and then plant and expect good crops.

The Topics in the Book are More Proof of What He Really Meant

The book addresses much. To mention but a few:

  • soil improvement,
  • composting,
  • adding organic matter to garden beds,
  • using cover crops for underplanting, soil protection and feeding the soil,
  • enhancing biodiversity,
  • how roots help the soil, and
  • how “framed” raised beds are not necessary,
  • how the only compacted ground should be the paths,
  • how the soil needs air,
  • how it is best to add organic matter to the top of the soil and let the soil incorporate it, and
  • that it is not necessary to continual dig and “fluff” your soil.

All these things have been covered on TendingMyGarden as well.

The Laws/Principles 

Because our lives have been completely different, Mr. Coleman and I might use different methods, but we both know and strive to keep the laws (or principles) involved. It’s the only way to be successful in the garden.

  • Preparing Soil Properly

I was unable to find exactly how Mr. Coleman first opens soil for row cropping.

I do know that Mr. Coleman is a proponent of Ley Farming. That method states that land to be used for row crops can be planted 3 to 4 years in grass/clover pasture and will be close to virgin soil at the end of that time because of the enormous amount of plant fiber added by the perennial plant roots. My guess is, this is the kind of ground that his crops are planted in.

That type of ground does not need to be deeply prepared. Why? Because it is already exactly what it should be: improved and rich in organic matter with an active soil web and everything plants need to grow and be successful.

Keep in mind too, that even ground that does need to be deeply prepared and then improved, never needs tilling or digging but once when organic materials are continually being added and the soil is kept covered.

And if you’re willing to wait the required time for nature to loosen ground for you, all you need do is pile up organic material on the soil or plant grasses or cover crops. Overtime, nature will do all the work.  (I have two small beds in process now that should be perfect in two more years. I knew I couldn’t do the work necessary to prepare them quickly, but I am perfectly willing to give nature the time to do it for me.)

  • Adding Organic Matter

Coleman’s soil is rich in organic matter. (That’s one of the fixed laws I spoke of.) He doesn’t add the raw materials as I do (which in turn break down into organic matter), but rather uses finished compost (raw materials already broken down). That’s one of the methods he uses to keep that law/principle. (As mentioned above he also uses cover crops to furnish organic matter.)

  • Covering the Soil 

He is set up to grow the makings for his compost and to have sufficient amounts to supply his needs.  In addition animal manures from the farm’s own animals are used.

He has enough compost to use it as a covering for his soil. In addition, if you’ve seen pictures of his farming operations you know that many of the crops when grown end up totally covering the bed.  The compost and his crops covering his soil are the methods he uses to keep the law/principle of covering your soil.

Final Thoughts

It’s human nature to look for an easier way.  And that’s ok, but not at the expense of going against the laws set by nature. Then it’s really harder in the long run.

You cannot remove sod from a impoverished piece of ground and loosen it with a broadfork and have success.  As the caption under the picture of Four Seasons Farm stated in the article I mentioned earlier, “Start with biodiversity and well-nourished soil—.”

When you take the time to build healthy soil rich in organic matter, no matter how small or large the plot, you can be away longer than a week if necessary and your plants will most likely be just fine.

Don’t get so wrapped up in the dos and don’ts (the methods) that you miss the big picture. When you read any book or article, keep the laws/principles in mind. They’re set.

Regarding the methods you use to accomplish what the laws/principles require, you are limited only by your imagination.


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  • Theresa,

    I appreciate this post! I have worried about my garden recently because of lack of rain…. And in spite of the fact that we did not thoroughly prepare the spaces for our transplants, we DID cover crop last fall. I have restrained myself from watering, wanting to see if the plants would suffer from high heat and lack of rain. I just had enough faith that the roots of the rye had left channels deep down below the soil line, and that our tomatoes and okra were finding and taking advantage of them. Everything is looking good, and we finally got a good rain (and cooler temperatures) this week.

    Best surprise of all – the kale I planted in my mini-hugelkulture bed has grown SO large! And it is still putting on new growth in spite of the attack of the worms!

  • Theresa, great common sense blog–as usual!

    Here’s another book you may want to check out. It was first published in 1911 (well before the agricultural revolution) after the author F H King’s death, so the language and lengthy sentences may make it tougher reading for a modern-day audience. The title tells is all though, “Farmers of Forty Centuries: Organic Farming in China, Korea, and Japan.”

    The author had traveled these countries and observed how, with their huge populations, they had kept their soils fertile after centuries of cropping. And of course the gist of it demonstrates various ways these farmers followed the “universal laws” that you have so simply and ably described! Your book is much easier to read and understand, but this is a fascinating piece of history!

    He was wrong about one thing though as I show in the quote below, which has little to do with farming but is fascinating. It’s his thoughts on how “world commerce” would bring world peace! This written at the dawn of a century rife with global commerce and many sad and bloody wars!

    “Nothing is costing the world more; has made so many enemies, and has so much hindered the forming of friendships as the inability to fully understand; hence the dove that brings world peace must fly on the wings of a common language, and the bright star in the east is world commerce, rising on rapidly developing railway and steamship lines, heralded and directed by electric communication. With world commerce must come mutual confidence and friendship requiring a full understanding and therefore a common tongue. Then world peace will be permanently assured.”

  • Theresa, what a wonderful and telling article. As an avid reader, (BTW, I love your book, “Organic Gardening”), I understand the possibility of picking contents out of context and trying to make them work.

    I tend to study a topic to death before acting. I finally have one of two raised beds operational this summer, albeit with only onions and tomatoes, and without a fence. I do, however, have the fence posts planted. So far, the deer have ignored my onions. I added topsoil about halfway and filled the bed with aged manure. It set for a year before I planted. (A broken back from an ice fall slowed things up a bit.) I simply turned the mixture with a shovel and planted 160 onion sets I was given. The white onions are doing great. The red ones not so much, as they were planted the exact same way at the same time, but are short and some did not grow at all.

    Sorry for the lengthy comment, but I’ll finish with a word of thanks for sharing your deep knowledge.

  • Theresa, Great article. I can honestly say that your methods, book and articles have made it possible for me to garden this year. My husband has developed serious back issues and has limited energy to help me in the garden (other than supervising my work :-(……) and had it not been for the composting, mulching and planting methods I have learned from TMG in the past years I would not have been able to do the work myself. Not only do we have the existing garden beds planted, but I started a new area and planted in hills filled with organic matter. I will continue to develop the new bed this fall. We are enjoying the fruits of our labor and when I came in from the garden this morning with a big grin on my face I showed him our first tomato of the season. Happy gardening….

  • I suppose Eliot Coleman is assuming a basic knowledge on the part of the reader when they approach the “Four Season Harvest” book. Now that I think of it, it really is a more advanced book.

    It was the very first book I read on organic gardening so in my case, nope – I had no idea he would have assumed I knew how to start. At the time, I didn’t even possess
    the common sense to even consider building the soil or how to prepare it at that point.

    Organic gardening is a secret that mainstream life doesn’t want anyone to know about. Ithey don’t teach it to you, it really doesn’t come up – until/unless it does because of your own effort. The truth didn’t open up to me until I considered
    mulching for the first time and not wanting to use chemicals.

  • Thankyou Theresa for this article about the “basics”, but essentials, of good soil. I am nearly two years in to growing vegetables on our suburban section with varying success. I am making compost as fast as I can by combining waste vegetables from our local produce store and bark chippings from some trees we had removed.
    What I got from this article is that I’m doing a lot of the right things and just need to give it a bit more time and experience to get things growing really well.

  • You know Theresa, now that I think about it. Most garden articles focus on various techniques, and insist that their way is the only way. When in fact, the principles are the big think (as in life) and unless you are doing something really odd – the technique is of lesser importance.
    Thanks for the reminder.

  • I was fortunate enough to grow up in The Children’s Home in Winston-Salem, NC and we used the basic principles of Organic Gardening. We did have some fields we plowed, but many we did not.

    We had our own Milk Cows , Pigs, and Chickens… and we had our own grain Mill where we mixed all our own feed. Each year we canned over 6,000 gallons of vegetables and fruit in our own cannery.

    We were fortunate to learn long ago the value of Organic Gardening, but like many, adopted the till method of gardening. This year we moved back to the no-till method due to your many wonderful articles… and it has been a bumper crop! We employ the cover crop method as well as have a huge compost bin to which we add leaves, grass, rabbit manure, chicken manure (limited) and fruit/vegetable kitchen scraps from four homes.

    Theresa, your articles are an inspiration and you are very much appreciated!

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