The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Planning ahead for subirrigated tomatoes

2011 tomatoesThis year's tomatoes went in the ground less than two weeks ago, and I'm already planning ahead for next year.  I've had good luck for the last two years choosing a subirrigated spot as a blight-control measure, but I want to keep the tomato patches on at least a three year rotation, which means I needed to find yet one more garden area with high groundwater.

The back garden is the obvious solution.  Unfortunately, previous owners let that area's topsoil completely erode away, so it's a bit more like a swamp than like a true subirrigated garden.  Which is all a long way of explaining why the back garden is in the midst of a 12-month cover-crop rotation to get ready for tomato season 2014.

Rye cover cropMuch of the back garden has actually already been in cover crops for over a year.  I sowed annual ryegrass in early March 2012, kill-mulched in early summer, then planted buckwheat in any beds that weren't needed to reach last year's vegetable quota.  At the end of October, the whole area went into rye, which grew up over my head despite sodden and poor soil.

Before Mark cut the rye this week, I scattered buckwheat seeds amid the standing stalks, and I plan to ask Mark to pee on each bed in turn to add nitrogen to the soil.  This is my Dewy pea flowerversion of Fukuoka's do-nothing grain rotation, except that I don't let the grains go to seed and instead grow them for biomass production.  I figure I'll have enough summer to plant buckwheat three more times in these beds, before either repeating the winter rye experiment or using oilseed radishes there for the winter instead.

My hope is that by this time next year, I'll stop thinking of the back garden as terrible soil, and can upgrade it to "good soil as long as I add a lot of manure every year."

(In case you're wondering, the pea flower has absolutely nothing to do with tomatoes.  I just thought it was pretty and wanted to share.)

Like subirrigation, our chicken waterer keeps water where you want it (in your hens' beaks) without turning the surroundings into a swamp.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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How long do you expect it to take to consider the soil "upgraded"? Do you just kind of feel that out?
Comment by Stephen Tue May 28 20:49:12 2013
Stephen --- It's completely an art, not a science. I'm not so sure the ryegrass did much last year, and possibly not the buckwheat either, but I'm hopeful that the higher-carbon rye will start adding to the organic matter levels. I'm mostly going for less of a swamp feel.... :-)
Comment by anna Tue May 28 20:58:19 2013

here's the actual link

Comment by Cameron Thu May 30 14:53:00 2013

It's a well-kept secret that tomatoes don't have to be rotated. No less an authority than Eliot Coleman says, and my own experience and others' as reported on the web bears out, that a well-tended tomato patch just keeps getting better year after year, and absolutely no need to fuss with disposing of blight-infected plants at the end of the season, just let them add their dynamic to and be dealt with by the rich and robust mix. So "you must rotate your tomatoes" is just another garden myth repeated ad nauseum. Or, if you must use the same spot, you are advised to replace the soil. What a waste of labour.

Comment by Jackie Fri May 31 14:13:48 2013
By the way, Coleman does rotate his tomatoes, because it conveniently fits into his tried and true crop rotation. Also, being able to subirrigate is awesome.
Comment by Jackie Fri May 31 14:20:52 2013

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