Organic Gardening with Fern Marshall Bradley

May 6, 2009

Today’s post features an interview with Fern Marshall Bradley, co-author of the recently revised All-New Illustrated Guide to Gardening.

Fern wrote a previous article here about ways to Save Money by Growing Organically, and is back to offer more of her great insight and to answer a series of questions regarding her organic gardening techniques and recommendations.

Kenny Point: How long have you been involved in gardening and how did you get started?  How did you gain your professional knowledge and experience in the areas of gardening and landscaping?

fern-marshall-bradleyFern Marshall Bradley: I became fascinated with the diversity of plants while taking a college botany course, and then grew my first garden as a college project. I’ve been hooked ever since. I have a Master’s Degree in Horticulture from Rutgers University, and I worked for several years managing gardens on an organic farm.

I started working in garden publishing about 20 years ago. As a garden book editor, I’m continually learning new things about gardening, and I’m still a dedicated home gardener.

Kenny Point: What are your favorite fruits or vegetables for growing in the backyard garden, and are there any exceptional or rare varieties that you particularly love to grow or recommend to home gardeners?

Fern Marshall Bradley: It’s hard for me to think of a fruit or vegetable that I don’t like to grow! But some favorites are carrots, peas, turnips, asparagus, raspberries, arugula, and spinach. I like to grow these because it’s very hard to find store-bought or even farmer’s market sources of these foods that are as crispy and tasty as fresh-picked from the backyard.

My favorite variety of turnips is ‘Hakurei,’ which is a small white turnip that has a wonderfully sweet, rich flavor. And last fall I had great results with ‘Lombardia’ spinach.

Kenny Point: Are there any critical but common mistakes that you see home gardeners making over and over that often lead to serious problems or wasted time and effort out in their backyards?

Fern Marshall Bradley: One common mistake is trying to cultivate a lawn under shade trees. Lawn grass isn’t happy growing in the shade. It’s much easier and more sensible to allow moss to naturally take over the shady areas under trees, or to plant a shade-loving groundcover such as pulmonarias, Solomon’s seals, or sweet woodruff. Leave an unplanted, mulched buffer area around the tree trunks to help prevent trunk rot and avoid excess competition between the trees and groundcovers.

Kenny Point: What tips would you offer to the inexperienced or first time gardener who is interested in raising and harvesting delicious homegrown produce from their own vegetable plot? What about those gardeners who only have a small area to garden in?

Fern Marshall Bradley: Search for the sun if you want homegrown produce. Most food crops need at least 6 hours of full sun daily in order to produce a bountiful harvest.

So find that sunny site, and start small—a plot that measure 8 feet by 10 feet is plenty the first year. Limit yourself to three or four crops, and pick at least a couple that are easy to grow (beans, lettuce, tomatoes, turnips, peas, kale, Swiss chard).

If you have only a small area, plant in containers, which you can move around to follow the sun if need be. And grow crops vertically on trellises or other supports. Cucumbers, peas, and beans are very productive when trained on a trellis.

Kenny Point: What are your secrets to building a rich, fertile, and healthy soil? Is soil testing and adding outside amendments each year an essential necessity?

Fern Marshall Bradley: Adding compost to your soil and keeping the soil covered with a layer of organic mulch (grass clippings, straw, shredded leaves, etc) are the simple secrets to building a rich, healthy soil. Yearly soil testing is not necessary unless your garden just isn’t succeeding.

As for adding outside amendments, that depends on what it is you’re growing. For an established perennial garden, for example, yearly mulching may be all the soil enrichment that’s needed. But for strawberries or roses, you may want to pamper the plants a bit with extra amendments.

Kenny Point: This interview will continue tomorrow when Fern discusses the shift in focus of the Illustrated Guide to Gardening towards organics, and shares more tips for growing a productive garden in your own back yard.

Fern Marshall Bradley, co-editor with Trevor Cole of The All-New Illustrated Guide to Gardening: Now All Organic!, is a writer and editor whose favorite topics are gardening and sustainable living.

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