The heat index feels like 115 degrees F as Patrick Decker drives his tractor across the 240 acres of corn, beans, and other crops he farms on his mother’s land in Winthrop, Iowa. Like other farmers and gardeners in the Midwest, he’s been struggling with the hot, dry weather that arrived with the summer of 2012. The country is baking in the worst drought we’ve seen in the last 24 years, according to meteorologists, and to date, more than 1,000 counties in 26 states have been declared natural disaster areas.
“Our big issue is keeping everything watered,” says Decker, who recently retired from a career as a machinist to farm. I’ve called his cell phone to ask about his organic garden, but it’s hard to hear over the tractor’s growl and rumble. “Hold on a minute,” he adds, killing the engine so we can talk.
“Usually moisture’s not an issue up here,” he tells me when he returns, “But it’s so hot and dry, it’s difficult this summer.”
Mr. Decker, who’s been gardening for over 40 years, just celebrated his 65th birthday. He still enjoys “playing” in the dirt so much, he comes home from working the farm each evening to tend his own 50’ X 50’ plot.
He practices organic gardening, which means growing plants without using chemical pesticides or insecticides. The only commercial products that go into his garden, he says, are phosphorus and potash, which he puts out as fertilizers in the fall.
Although it’s actually all about old-fashioned, traditional practices, organic gardening seems to become more popular every year. While the 240-acre farm is not organic, Mr. Decker’s personal garden is. “I don’t use insecticides or pesticides because I never wanted my kids or grandkids to go out in my garden and eat anything with that stuff on it,” he says. “With a lot of the (produce) that’s sold in stores, you don’t have much choice.”
He keeps fresh food on the table with his homegrown tomatoes, peppers, onions, sweet corn, and cucumbers, and he seasons the meals he prepares with his own basil, dill, sage, rosemary, oregano, parsley, cilantro, chives and other herbs.
Chemicals might kill the weeds, Decker says, but he likes to work his garden. He warns that you’ve got to stay on top of things, though. “Keeping out the weeds is not that difficult; it’s just hoeing, the old-fashioned hard way. You control the seeds, and the weeds won’t come back next year.”
Decker says keeping the weeds out also holds down the bug population. “I’m very fortunate that I’m not really bothered with them. A lot of bugs can’t get through our winters. Last winter was mild, but it can get down to 30 below. If I do see a bug, I get that plant out of my garden right away.” He also rotates crops like corn and soybeans, to help prevent diseases from spreading, and builds up his soil with lots of organic matter. “I do a lot of composting with leaves and shavings from the lawn, and rototill it in every spring. If you take care of your soil, it’ll take care of you.”
In the winter, Decker keeps some of his mother’s land covered with oat stubble, corn stalks, and other kinds of mulch, to prevent erosion. “If we don’t have a good cover of snow, the wind will blow the dirt away.” The mulch also helps keep the nutrients in the soil from leaching out in the rain.
Mr. Decker is rightfully proud of his garden, which yields so much that he’s able to give his surplus to his neighbors. “I’ll put my garden up against anybody’s,” he says with a chuckle. “I like being able to give vegetables away.”
Tips for Organic Gardens:
- Test your soil before you plant and add amendments, if needed. Most vegetables grow best in a pH around 6.5.
- Plant varieties recommended for your region. They’ll perform better for your climate and growing conditions.
- Grow companion plants like peas and beans, which turn atmospheric nitrogen into a form that other plants can use. Try strong-smelling plants, like marigolds or onions, to repel pests.
- Grow nectar-rich plants like sunflowers to attract beneficial bugs. Ladybugs and other “good bugs” gobble up destructive slugs, mites, and other pests.
- Use a soaker hose or drip irrigation to keep water off leaves. Wet foliage invites disease, especially in hot, humid weather.
- Weed often, before weeds can set seeds or spread.
- Discard or destroy diseased or buggy plants. Don’t compost them.
- Space plants as recommended on seed packages or plant tags, to ensure good light and air circulation.
- Keep plants mulched, and water regularly and deeply. Healthy plants are better able to resist pests and diseases.