Vegetable farmers don’t really grow anything – the plants do that. Instead, the job of the farmer is to create an environment for vegetables to grow and flourish, to harvest the energy from the sun, carbon from the air, and minerals from the soil, and turn it into food for us to eat and plant ‘waste’ to feed the soil. All food is grown with energy from the sun. One of the problems with agriculture today is that we rely on the energy harvested from the sun millions of years ago instead of just the energy as it comes to us today. We burn plants that died millions of years ago to run our tractors, convert them to fertilizers that don’t last, and erode soil formed over millennia.
Mark’s Market Garden focuses on harvesting the sun’s energy as it comes to us today. Here are some practices we use:
- No Tractor
- Deep, intensive planting
- Bike-driven transportation
- Reusable plastic mulch
- Grown in soil (no hydroponics)
Weed Control without Weeding
Weeds compete with vegetables for water, light, and nutrients. To control them without herbicides, we use several techniques. The first is our no-till system. No-till leaves weed seeds buried – since most seeds will only germinate in the top inch or two of soil, this helps keep the number of new weeds to a minimum. We also use reusable plastic mulch to cover the soil. Not only does this create a more ideal climate for soil life to flourish, but it also prevents weeds that do germinate from getting light. We also grow many vegetables from starts, which gives them the head-start they need to out-compete weeds.
Cultivating the soil regularly with a hoe is also important to success. Cultivating the soil knocks down young weeds, cuts their roots, and otherwise disrupts their life when they’re most vulnerable. It also has the added benefit of breaking up soil crusting, and introduces a fresh supply of oxygen to the soil. The ideal soil is about 25% air. Life in the soil requires oxygen to thrive and flourish and grow the best vegetables.
Soils in the Pacific Northwest are, as a general rule, not particularly fertile. Herds of bison never roamed here to help build up feet of topsoil, and the steady rain through more than half the year tends to leech the soil of what nutrients it has. We use several strategies to provide our vegetables with the nutrients they need to grow strong, delicious, and nutritious. When we harvest, as much organic matter is kept in the soil as possible, and what can’t be incorporated is composted onsite. Our no-till system prevents disruption of soil life (such as earthworms, nematodes, insects, and fungal networks), which provide plants with the nutrients they need to thrive. To kickstart the soil health, we use compost made locally from organic matter from the metro area green bins. Finally, we amend the soil with OMRI labeled amendments such as fish meal, a byproduct of the Northwest fishing industry. Nothing goes to waste.
Growing vegetables requires a regular and predictable supply of water. Though the Pacific Northwest is known for its rain, the clouds are conspicuously absent from the sky when the farmer needs them the most – summer. We employ a combination of efficient drip and overhead irrigation to keep the plants, worms, microbes, nematodes, bugs, and all the other soil life happy. Our plastic mulch also reduces evaporation so we don’t use too much water.
Insects, gastropods, birds, squirrels, and even the farmer’s dog can eat or dig a farm out of business if not carefully watched and managed. Prevention is our first line of defense. We use insect nets and low tunnels to prevent bugs from reaching the plants in the first place. Covering newly seeded beds prevents birds from eating our seed and aids with germination. Handpicking, slug traps baited with beer, blasting aphids with water, and promoting a healthy ecosystem where no one pest can gain an upper-hand also play a role.