(From the Harrisburg Patriot-News, August 18, 2005)
Take one look at Kenny Point’s vegetable garden, and it’s obvious he’s doing something right. And different.
This suburban Lower Paxton Township back-yard garden is a far cry from the fairly typical vegetable garden you see this time of year – ones that have degenerated into ignored, sprawling, weed-infested, groundhog-chewed, bug-attacked, junglelike eyesores.
Point’s vegetable plot actually looks better than most people’s perennial borders. Herbs, vegetables and even flowers intermingle nicely in block plantings. Bright gold patty-pan squashes dangle from vines in the middle of one wide row, while peppers and tomatoes ripen red nearby.
Unusual edible specimens pop up here and there, like the Swiss chard with multi-colored stems, a patch of okra with its tropical-like leaves, and a striking, 3-foot-tall foliage plant with wrinkly blue leaves called “palm kale.”
The whole garden is laid out in four 5-foot-wide beds with neat, clean, straw-lined paths between.
Weeds? If there are any, they’re pretty well hidden.
To keep a garden this pristine, you’d figure Point must spend every waking hour out here. And you’d be wrong. For starters, he works full-time as an auditor at a large Medical Center.
Even when he’s in the garden, he basically putters for most of the year, doing little jobs here and there as he gets a chance. “My heavy labor during the summer is harvesting,” he says.
Point manages to pull off this vegetable nirvana with relatively little work by melding together a host of labor-saving techniques that are polar opposites from the way most people veggie-garden. He uses wide rows and raised beds instead of single rows planted directly in solid clay or shale (which masquerades as our “soil”).
He’s a big believer in feeding the soil with annual additions of compost, which he makes himself from fallen leaves, spent plants and other yard waste. And he works with nature instead of against it, such as encouraging birds and “good bugs” to eat the “bad bugs” instead of drenching the whole plot with Sevin at the first sign of something crawly.
“Once I started using this system, it made so much sense, it worked so much better and it was a lot easier than the way I gardened before,” says Point, who has been gardening since his mother introduced him to it as a 10-year-old in his native Washington, D.C.
The crazy part is that Point’s system is nothing new or revolutionary. In fact, he gardens much the way all gardeners did for centuries before industrialized agriculture came along.
While single-row plantings, big paths and regular applications of chemical fertilizers and bug-killers might make sense for mechanized large-scale farming, it doesn’t translate well into the home garden, says Point. “I think we look too much at commercial agriculture and feel we have to follow it,” he says.
A case “in Point” is raised beds, which Point considers to be the single most important change a home vegetable gardener can make. “Plants grow better in raised beds,” he says. “You don’t have soil compaction because you don’t walk on the beds. I don’t have to till my soil every year. All I do is use a digging fork to lightly work in a little compost every spring or fall.”
The loose, rich soil encourages deep root growth, which not only increases plant yield but makes them healthier and better able to fight off bugs and disease. Point’s raised beds are about 4 inches high, 18 feet long and 5 feet across – just wide enough so he can reach in halfway from either side. That maximizes planting space in the garden and minimizes the space devoted to paths.
“The only logical explanation I can think of for planting in single rows is that it’s the way farmers plant,” Point says. “Rows are designed to allow the tractors and harvesting equipment to get through.” Point plants everything closely in a matrix or block pattern in his wide, raised beds.
“The goal is to plant just far enough apart so that when the plants mature, the leaves of neighboring plants will just barely touch,” he says. That not only maximizes yield but reduces openings for weeds.
“I seldom do weeding,” Point says. “First of all, I don’t till, which is what brings up a fresh crop of weed seeds from the subsoil. But when you plant closely, the tight canopy shades out weeds. Most weeds need light to germinate.” Point hand-pulls the few weeds that manage to poke up before the garden plants spread out.
A thick, 6- to 8-inch layer of straw put down each spring and topped off each summer stops weeds from growing in the paths, which are ideally 18 to 24 inches wide. Point also avoids weeds by never letting any empty spaces in the garden.
When one crop is done, he immediately replaces it with another. Much of his garden churns out three crops a year, such as a spring planting of lettuce, followed by beans or squash in summer and then finished off with a fall planting of kale.
One other thing Point seldom does is spray. “I don’t have much of a problem with insects, not like I did before,” Point says. “I try to encourage the presence of beneficial insects by interplanting flowers and herbs that attract bugs and birds that prey on the pest insects.
If I do have to take action, I’ll hand-pick first and then try a (horticulture) oil or (insecticidal) soap spray, or maybe Bt.” (Bt is a bacterium that targets caterpillars but is harmless to pets, people and birds.)
Some of his favorite good-bug-attracting flowers and herbs are tansy, borage, cosmos, zinnias and purple coneflowers. “A bonus is that this makes the garden look better, too,” says Point. “That means you don’t have to put your vegetable garden in a corner because it looks like an eyesore.”
The annual addition of compost gives Point’s plants most of the nutrition they need. In season, he sprays the leaves of most plants with a liquid kelp and fish emulsion spray every few weeks, but he never uses the more common chemical fertilizers, such as weekly treatments with Miracle-Gro or regular side-dressings of the old-favorite 10-10-10
By avoiding pesticides and chemical fertilizers, Point says he’s got soil that’s teeming with microorganisms and earthworms that are critical for good soil health. Good soil means good plants. And good plants make a great garden – not a weed-infested backyard jungle.
Intrigued by Kenny Point’s vegetable-gardening system? He’s written a 125-page ebook on it called “Amazing Secrets to Growing Luscious Fruits and Vegetables at Home.” It’s available through Point’s website at MyGardeningSecrets.com
Point also offers an online mini-course on his techniques, a newsletter (now up to 12,000 subscribers) and a $69 kit that includes audio and printed copies of his book plus 10 packs of gourmet seeds, an heirloom gardening magazine and organic fertilizer.
(George Weigel is a Pennsylvania Certified Horticulturist who covers gardening for The Harrisburg Patriot-News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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