With the semester winding down and students eager to go home for the break, Students for Sustainability is discussing what it will do with the garden for the next several months. Currently, one of our officers is studying crop rotation and trying to identify what would be best to plant in the spring. Crop rotation basically means figuring out what to plant in which beds based on what plant came before it, since plant families have different influences on the soil. For example, some crops take up large amounts of Nitrogen from the soil during their life cycles. Instead of using synthetic chemical Nitrogen (found in fertilizers), which can be hazardous to soil structure and not even necessarily be in a form for plant uptake, the gardener should plant something that naturally puts Nitrogen back into the soil in a form that other plant can easily uptake -this specific process is known as Nitrogen fixation, and legumes are the plant family that perform it. Taking advantage of this natural process not only naturally restores vital nutrients to the soil, but helps create better tilth -which is more resistant to soil erosion, fights off plant disease cycles, and keeps pest problems at bay.
Students are also considering planting a live mulch for the spring and summer garden. As mentioned in a previous blog, mulch is laid down in between crops and rows to suppress weeds, prevent soil erosion, retain moisture, and maintain temperature. While some typical mulches are plastic, newspaper, straw, and grass clippings, living mulch is a plant that is interspersed between crops. Crimson clover is one example of a living mulch and can be used with a crop like corn, since corn is taller than the mulch. Advantages of living mulches include those of regular mulches, but they can also encourage beneficial insects to live near the crops and deter soil splashing, which occurs when rain hits the soil and causes it to splash on the plant. If the soil is carrying a disease, the splashing is very dangerous to the plant's vitality.
Nature provides us with the tools to build and maintain a healthy garden that can last for years if we do our research and understand plant/ soil relationships holistically. Trying to develop synthetic methods for gardening ignores these relationships and assumes that reducing a garden to individual problems will give achive the "ultimate" goal: large crop production. However, providing solutions to for one problem does not recognize how that solution will affect this large and clearly very intricate natural system, and though one season of fertilizing may bring big yields, the gardener will have more problems to deal with in the future and find his goal much more difficult (and expensive) to achieve. When we choose to use organic methods, we are not only taking advantage of what the Earth has provided us, but we are investing in future years of fertile, rich soil, good tilth, abundant biodiversity, and ultimately, healthy crops.