Gardening seems magical and it both is and is not magical. Yes it is magical when you plant a small vegetable or flower seed and it grows into a productive plant or flower and it is not magical as gardening also has a lot to do with the health of your soil, the type of soil that you are working with, the ability of the seed that you are planting to grow in the area that you live in and the plant hardiness zone that you live in. In fact gardening is more scientific than it is magical.
I own a garden and farm design and planning business and I work with homeowners and farmers to help them build the gardens and farms of their dreams and also to teach homeowners to plant seeds, maintain their crops and enrich their soil as my goal is for my clients to need me for 1 year and then have the tools that they need to grow their own food, flowers, fruit and shrubs. I ventured into the world of gardening and farming in a very interesting way though – I had a crazy vision to start an organic farm in NYC and ended up turning an illegal garbage dump site in my neighborhood in the Bronx into an organic flower farm with the help of a few friends.
When I found the space that became our farm its soil was yellow-ish, there wasn’t a blade of grass nor a weed growing and we didn’t see a single bug of any sort. All of which are really strong signs that your soil is dead and even though I knew nothing about this, I knew that we needed to restore the soil. So I started digging with my hand and within minutes of digging I was pulling garbage out of the soil. I kept on coming back and kept on sharing my vision with others and soon we had a team of people who were working with us. We removed over 500 pounds of asphalt, concrete, bricks, car parts, large oil drums, carpets and more from the soil within our first three months there. While we were doing this work a friend suggested that we build a compost pile and I read a book and we did it.
A few months later we spread our compost, organic alfalfa meal that we bought (to restore the nitrogen levels in the soil) and an organic bacterial solution that we bought (to add bacterial life to our soil) on the soil and within a few weeks of taking these actions we had normal looking soil. So we decided to plant about 60 seeds and many fo them grew and while this seemed magical to us, it actually wasn’t. Our soil was healthy, was rich in nitrogen, had plenty of organic matter in it, was teeming with worms, ants, spiders, beetles, roly-poly bugs and more and had strong bacterial and fungal life, which are all the key markers of soil health. This is why our seeds grew and became productive pepper plants, lemon balm, bok choy, cilantro, nasturtiums and marigolds. If we would have planted in the dead soil that we inherited, it is highly unlikely that any of these 60 seeds would have grown.
During the process of restoring the health of the soil at the piece of land that we were working on (We called the space “The Land” for a while because we did not know if we could ever turn it into a farm) we learned a lot and we learned that vegetables only grow in bacterial soil and flowers, bushes, shrubs and trees grow in somewhat acidic to highly acidic soil. The Land that we were restoring had 80% of its space covered by trees and while we were digging up the soil and removing the garbage that was in the soil we found sheets of fungus and these factors told us that our soil was acidic which would not bode well for vegetable growth.
So we went about finding solutions to this challenge and this is where our finished compost, organic alfalfa meal and organic bacterial solution came into play. Finished compost that has an equal proportion of greens to browns (greens include all food scraps, green leaves, grass clippings, hay and any fresh plant material that is still green. Browns include brown leaves, twigs, branches, paper products, straw and soil) helps to make your soil bacterial as well as nitrogen-rich as flowers, trees, shrubs and berry bushes do not need much nitrogen to grow and in order to grow vegetables your soil needs to have nitrogen in it. All of these amendments changed the soil type from fungal to bacterial and our bacterial soil provided the proper conditions for vegetables to grow.
We also learned that we needed to find seeds that were adapted to growing in New York City and we found out that something called a plant hardiness zone exists. Plant hardiness zones allow farmers and gardeners to determine which plants are most likely to thrive in their region of the country https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/. We learned that seeds that were grown in our plant hardiness zone (7a) and seeds that were adapted to the winter and summer conditions that NYC experienced would do best in our soil.
So we searched for a seed producer that was either in zone 7a or in zone 6b (seeds that are produced in close by zones typically work well in your plant hardiness zone) and we came across High Mowing Seeds, a USDA Certified Organic seed producing company and bought seeds from them. We also learned that great seed producers will clearly tell you which seeds are easy to grow, which seeds require open pollination (either a pollinator such as a bee, bug or bird needs to pollinate the seed or you need to pollinate the seed yourself in order for it to grow) and which seeds were difficult to grow and needed care that was far beyond our knowledge and we decided to order only easy to grow seeds as we needed to learn how to produce vegetables. We found a number of other great USDA Certified Organic seed producing companies along the way and none of them were in our Plant Hardiness Zone and we learned that seeds won’t grow well in your region if they are not adapted to your climate no matter how great the seeds that you bought are.
Our scientific pursuit of restoring the health of the soil, learning about our Plant Hardiness Zone and choosing seeds that were adapted to our Plant Hardiness Zone is what brought us success in our first year. Our success was magical as neither myself nor the Co-Founder of our farm had ever planted a seed or taken care of a houseplant and with the right scientific processes we grew things. We did have the support of 3 fantastic friends who brought key knowledge to us and we turned “The Land” into an organic flower farm in year two and we grew over 400 organic tulips, more than 50 organic hyacinths, 50 organic daffodils, 50 organic irises, about 50 organic crocuses, 10 organic lilies and dozens of organic nasturtium flowers for three straight years at our organic, sustainable flower farm. Then we we all decided that we accomplished our mission and we all ended up moving on to further our own organic, sustainable agricultural missions in the world.
Having the right scientific processes made all of the difference in our success and this is what I want to leave all new and even experienced gardeners with. When you are working with someone who knows how to build the health of your soil, who knows which seeds will grow in your Plant Hardiness Zone, who knows what seeds are adapted to your region and how to identify the type of soil that is in your garden of farm they can help you succeed for as many years as you want to have a garden for.
Michael Forman is the founder of Pure Love Sustainability Inc and his mission is to restore the well-being of people, society and the planet. Michael offers no-cost consultations to gardeners and farmers alike and can help you to create the garden or farm of your dreams. If you are interested in scheduling a consultation please click here