There is so much to discuss about Heifer Ranch I thought it deserved a second post. In the first post I introduced you to this farm and learning center that is a part of Heifer International. With only three full time gardeners who maintain almost four acres of produce, I figured the folks at Heifer Ranch would have some good tips for us home gardeners. Here’s what they had to say.
- Plant Early: Ryan, manager of the garden, says the first step to success is putting in a spring crop as early as possible. It helps the workers get a jump on the season and take advantage of Arkansas’ short spring before the weather turns too hot.
- Succession Planting: To stay in constant supply of fresh produce, the gardeners plant the same crops every 3-4 weeks. This is especially helpful for pest-vulnerable crops like squash, but it also helps if a heat wave or flash flood destroys one planting group.
- Row Covers: Many people shy away from them, but row covers made from thin agricultural fabrics are used to cover plantings for two main purposes: frost protection and as an insect barrier. This is an added protection for tip 1- planting early- but it also helps with weed control.
- Rotation: The Heifer Ranch gardeners try not to plant a crop of the same family in a particular spot within four years of another member of that family being planted there. For example, the areas that have tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplant this year will not have any of those items planted there for the foreseeable future. It’s a task that requires a little note keeping, but it greatly helps with the prevention of disease and insect pressure for future crops.
- Drip Irrigation: With the typical Arkansas summer, and especially this year’s drought-plagued summer, drip irrigation is a saving grace. The use of drip tape or line helps them conserve water and helps keep plants foliage dry, which reduces disease. It’s especially useful to keeping the soil moist when plants are young so that roots won’t dry out.
- Compost: The dynamic duo of food waste from the cafeteria and manure from the barns with the addition of garden remnants creates “black gold” to greatly enhance garden soil.
- Cover Cropping: Despite the extra work it may entail, the gardeners try to never have bare soil. When a “cash crop” is finished producing, they quickly plant a crop like cowpeas in the summer or winter wheat in the fall because in sustainable farming, cover crops help manage soil fertility & quality by adding nutrients back into the ground and help keep weeds, pests and diseases at bay.
- Mulch: By placing mulch around the base of plants, the gardeners can keep the soil consistently moist and cool while also discouraging weeds- the less weeding they have to do, the more time they have for planting and harvesting.
- Organic Pest Control: Heifer Ranch is a certified organic producer and they avoid chemical-based pest controls. But as a last resort for those hard-to-beat pests, they rely on the organic pyrethrum-based controls for blister beetles and fire ants and baits containing Nosema locustae against tomato hornworms and grasshoppers.
- Hard Work: What garden doesn’t require this? All of the vegetables are harvested by hand, so the three full-time gardeners are out in the sun for 8-10 hours a day. Even so, they rely on help from volunteers, guests, and CSA members to keep things fully harvested. Gardening and farming are social events at Heifer Ranch.
Do you use any of these methods to keep your garden in top form? We’d love to hear which of these you use, or any other tips you have to make a garden manageable.