Mike Western is talking, and I should be paying rapt attention. After all, Mike's a really interesting guy. He's a fantastic gardener, he writes country music, and he has a workshop filled with every power tool known to man. But right now, the only things I'm contemplating are the huge black vultures that keep landing on the trees in his Mount Sidney, Virginia, backyard.
"Oh, don't worry about them," Mike says confidently. "They show up here every afternoon." Not yet convinced they aren't some kind of omen, I march warily with Mike into his vegetable garden.
And what a garden it is. Here in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, tidy planting boxes give birth to lettuce, beans, and broccoli. Tomato and pepper plants flex vegetative muscles to hold up an amazing crop of yellow, red, and orange fruit. Cut flowers and produce decorate a potting bench. Weeds are scarcer than culottes at a senior prom.
Mike was introduced to gardening at a young age. "At our house, we always had a vegetable garden," he recalls. "Like any other kid, I hated working in it, but I learned a lot." That knowledge lay dormant for decades until a gardening class inspired him to start one of his own.
From the first, Mike and his wife, Glenda, decided that it would be organic. "We just feel it's so much better for you," he explains. "All the nutrients we put into the ground come back to us in the vegetables." Every year, Mike amends the soil with huge amounts of leaves that he collects from the yard, chops, and composts. To this he adds natural fertilizers--rock phosphate for phosphorus, green sand for potassium, cottonseed meal and blood meal for nitrogen, and gypsum for calcium and improved soil structure. Natural products don't work as fast as manufactured fertilizers, but they last a lot longer. "I fertilize just once a year," he states. "If I used 10-10-10, it'd be gone in 30 days."To control insects, he uses natural pesticides, such as pyrethrin and rotenone. To head off disease, he sprays with copper.
Raising Them Right
Meticulous to a T, Mike likes for everything in his yard to be just so. After he and Glenda visited the gardens at Colonial Williamsburg, he hit upon an idea to improve plant growth, reduce maintenance, and enhance aesthetics--raised beds. He built planting boxes out of 2- x 6-foot tongue-and-groove, pressure-treated lumber. Glenda designed the layout of 4- x 16-foot raised beds. The narrow width allows easy reach for planting and harvesting. He filled them with his custom soil mix. A layer of mulch between the boxes discourages weeds.
Sections of metal lattice laid on the boxes are an eye-catching twist. Mike uses it like a grid to evenly space his plants. Around planting time, he can stretch floating row covers atop it to keep insects off seedlings. "It also supports crops such as broccoli against the wind," he adds.
Mike starts most of his plants from seeds sown in pots and then transplanted to the beds. His garden is in production at least nine months a year. Crops for fall or spring include lettuce, spinach, chard, broccoli, cabbage, and radishes. Tomatoes, corn, peppers, squash, carrots, cucumbers, and beans are summer mainstays.
Keys to Success
People often think that vegetable gardens are too much work, but Mike says that everything is so much easier once you take care of the basics. First, and most important, build good soil using lots of organic matter. Second, water regularly. "If you want a successful vegetable garden, you've got to have lots of water," he states flatly. Mike uses sprinklers on his raised beds for an hour almost daily. The rest of the garden gets an inch of water a week. Third, plant disease-resistant selections when possible. (This is easy for tomatoes--just look for the letters V, F, T, and N after the name. These indicate resistance to common maladies.) Finally, harvest regularly. If you let crops mature and set seed, they'll stop producing.
Mike claims his garden is so productive he can easily feed his family, neighbors, and friends. That sounds great, but one question lingers in my mind. Who's feeding the vultures?
Please note: Scientific studies have shown that pressure-treated lumber preserved with CCA (chromated copper arsenate) poses no significant or unreasonable risk to humans or the environment when used properly. However, due to changing market perceptions, manufacturers are making a voluntary transition to newer types of wood preservatives for consumer use. Although you can find lumber treated with new-generation preservatives now, retailers will not officially phase out their current inventories until the end of 2003. In the meantime, if you are still concerned about using pressure-treated lumber, consider coating your treated wood project with paint, stain, or a water sealer. Or use other rot- and insect-resistant lumber, such as heartwood cedar, redwood, and cypress.