Planting Potatoes
In Minibeds

Dateline: 25 April 2017

Wood Prairie Farm up in Aroostook County, Maine has been growing certified organic seed potatoes for decades. They have an Experimenter's Special that caught my eye. An Experimenter's Special seems just right for a Minibeds-on-Plastic experimental garden.

Three seed potatoes from four varieties of your choice (17 different varieties to choose from) for $19.95. I chose the varieties you see above.

I decided to experiment by planting the three seed potatoes from each variety into four minibeds, as this picture shows...

I planted each seed potato 4" to 5" deep but did not cover it completely. I'll fill in the depressions as the potato plants emerge. Then I'll hill what soil I can (which won't be much) around the stems. After that, I plan to mound the bed up with shredded leaves. I have a lot of shredded leaves stored under cover from last fall.

Since I have some Whizbang Solar Pyramids, I decided to put one of them over each potato bed...

It may be that three seed potatoes in each bed will be too much. I also planted two other minibeds with a single seed potato in the center. One with King Harry and one with Island Sunshine. And I did not cover those beds with solar pyramids.

It will be interesting to see if the solar pyramids make a big difference. And it will be interesting to see what kind of yield I get with shredded leaves instead of a soil covering.

Growing potatoes in a group (referred to as a hill) instead of in a row is actually an old technique. 

I well remember the time my family visited Old Sturbridge Village in the fall, and in the garden by Freeman Farmhouse a man was about to dig up a hill of potatoes. He invited my three young sons to help. They dug up the hill, extracting the spuds using just their hands. It wasn't the first time my kids had dug up potatoes, but it was the first time they dug up a potato hill, and the first time they dug potatoes using just their hands.

Growing potatoes in Minibeds is not a practical way to grow a lot of potatoes. But it may end up being a practical way to grow some early potatoes for seasonal eating.

Elsewhere in my garden I have planted rows of potatoes for winter storage using a more conventional approach.

Potato Onions
In Minibeds

Dateline: 14 April 2017

I think spring is pretty  much here and I've been working in my Minibeds-on-Plastic experimental garden. Today I planted two beds with potato onions, as you can see in the picture above.

Those nine potato onion seed-bulbs weighed exactly 1 pound. They are part of last year's potato onion harvest. I saved the nicest bulbs for planting stock. It will be interesting to see how many pounds of onions I harvest from one pound of seed bulbs. 

Some people plant their potato onions in the fall, like garlic is planted in the fall. I may try that with a Minibed this fall. Speaking of garlic, here's a photo of some garlic I planted last fall in a minibed...

I have quite a bit more garlic planted on a raised bed elsewhere in my garden, but I wanted to get some in one of these Minibeds too. I'll see what kind of yield I get from 13 cloves in a Minibed-on-Plastic. As for the potato onions, 18 bulbs planted in two Minibeds is enough for this year. Potato onions are still a bit of a novelty for me. I will, as usual, grow quite a few storage onions using a larger bed elsewhere in my garden.

The beauty of these Minibeds is, of course, that they are so downright easy to plant and tend, as compared to any other gardening approach I've ever undertaken. The shredded leaf mulch I put in the beds last fall has protected the soil and provided food for the earthworms...

The earthworms are a good sign. I'm glad to see them. In the few Minibeds that I did not cover with leaves, the soil is harder and it's tough to find a worm. 

By the way, when I planted the potato onions in the two minibeds today, I did not cultivate the soil. I just parted the leaf mulch, dug the holes, and planted the bulbs. No till!!!

If you would like to learn more about potato onions, check out my Upland essays Potato Harvest 2016 and Potato Onions For Dinner.

How To Make And Use
Solar Pyramids

Dateline: 5 April 2017

My recent post titled Solar Pyramids In The Minibeds generated an astonishing number of views. It must have been mentioned by a popular internet web site. Thank you, whoever you are.

That kind of interest got me to thinking that I should create an inexpensive PDF report all about the solar pyramids. If someone doesn't want to part with the money to buy a copy of my Planet Whizbang Idea Book For Gardeners in order to learn all about this amazing gardening appliance, they can just buy the report.

So that's what I've done. The 11-page report has an introductory page, a couple preliminary pages from the book, and then the 6-page solar pyramid chapter. I tell how I came to invent the solar pyramid and how you can make and use your own solar pyramids. Then, the last two pages of the report have several color pictures of the solar pyramid.

I have been using solar pyramids in my garden for the last six years. They are well suited for germinating seeds and jumpstarting transplants. I think they can also be utilized for season extension too, but I have not tried that yet.

Cost of the PDF report is $2.50. You can order with the "Buy Now" button below. After you have completed the payment, a download link will be sent you you by e-mail.

Buy Now

Part 2 Of
My Son's First Garden

Dateline: 31 March 2017

It's a recycled Bella Rosa Wines billboard tarp!

Click Here to go to Part 1 of this series.


The 14' x 40' billboard tarp arrived yesterday, and there was minimal wind, so Robert and I commenced to get it in place after he got out of work. We had two perimeter sides buried before I thought to take the picture above.

Robert's wife, Danielle, is looking forward to getting some zucchini out of the new garden. She wants to make a zucchini relish that her mother makes. Excellent!

Zucchini (and other summer squashes) will grow great in a minibed-on-plastic. One (maybe two) plants in the center of a minibed will grow to overfill the space very nicely. Maintaining the minibed will be a cinch (a little natural mulch will keep weeding to a minimum), and there will be no encroaching weeds from around the bed to deal with.

Zucchini roots will be able to get the moisture they need from capillary subsoil moisture retained under the sea of plastic-cover surrounding the minibed. If there is a drought year and the zucchini plants show any sign of wilting, the bed can be easily deep-watered once a week using the super-simple Whizbang Bucket Irrigation concept I developed.

So, get your mom's recipe, Danielle. This will be the year you make your own zucchini relish!

Here's a picture of the garden area covered with the billboard tarp.

As you can see, the edges are nicely tucked into the earth all around. Wind will not be able to lift and displace the large sheet of plastic mulch. And Robert will be able to mow around the outside of the garden without shredding the plastic edges. 

Now the garden is ready for minibeds.

Stay tuned....

My Son's First Garden

Dateline: 29 March 2017

Robert is my middle son. He is 26 years old and works for the town highway department. He lives with his wife, Danielle, in the rural farmhouse where I grew up (from 9th grade on), which is only about 3 miles from where my wife and I now live. That's Robert and me in the picture above.

Robert expressed an interest in having a Minibeds-on-Plastic garden. I like that. He wants to grow cucumbers (lots of cucumbers), onions, summer squash, sweet potatoes. I suggested lettuce? No lettuce.

Robert told me he was willing to spend around $50 for a piece of billboard tarp plastic. So I ordered him a 14' x 40' piece of the material. The price was $45. There is an added cost for shipping, which is kind of a bummer.

I'm going to see if I can find a billboard company not too far from us and ask if they have used billboard plastic for less... or free. For now, we bought the plastic from the internet.

The billboard tarp is not here yet but this afternoon we dug a trench around the perimeter of the garden. You can see the trench in the pictures with this blog post. The trench is 13' x 39'. That will allow 6" of material to be buried around the perimeter. 

The land where the garden is going is behind Robert's house, on the edge of his field. He has big trees around the house so the garden needed to be out where it can get full sun for most of the day. That's pretty much rule #1 when you put in a garden.

The soil will NOT be cultivated. The plastic will go directly over the field grass and weeds that you see in the picture. After the minibed frames are in place, and the plastic is cut out of each one, I'll show Robert how to use a digging fork to "crack" the earth and loosen the soil. Then, the grass and weeds in the beds will be pulled. Any cultivation after that will be shallow. This will be a no-till garden, just like I explain in my Minibeds-on-Plastic Report.

At this point, I think there will be two rows of 10 minibeds on the plastic. 20 minibeds is not too small for a first garden. In fact, I think it is just right. 20 Minibeds can be very productive if properly managed.

For now, the objective is to get the plastic in place while the soil is wet and easy to dig. Then Robert can make the minibed frames. He thinks he can round up some used lumber to make the frames. If not, he can make a few at a time as he gets the money. Or, I see no reason why some flat rocks couldn't be used around the minibed openings. There are plenty of rocks around here.

I hope to chronicle Robert's progress with his garden, along with the progress of my own experimental Minibeds-on-Plastic garden. And if Everett Littlefield on Block Island can get me some pictures of his Minibeds-on-Plastic garden, I'll post them here too. I welcome pictures and comments from anyone else who wants to try this experimental (for now) gardening idea this year.

I should point out that I'm helping my son get his garden infrastructure in place. And I'll help him with the planting. But it will be up to him to take care of his own minibeds. 

I'm confident that he will not be overwhelmed with this gardening project (as often happens with first-time gardeners and a conventional garden). He's a busy guy but the whole minibeds-on-plastic concept is geared for easy manageability.

Solar Pyramids
In The Minibeds

27 March 2017

It's a rainy, overcast day here in upstate New York. There is still snow in the hollows, but my Minibeds-on-Plastic experimental garden is clear. So, today, in the midst of so much wetness, I set up some Whizbang solar pyramids in the minibeds. 

As you can see in the picture above, the solar pyramids fit the minibeds perfectly. And the plastic flaps on the pyramid covers fit under the minibed frames right nice. I didn't have the solar pyramids in mind when I decided on the minibed size last summer. So this is a pleasant surprise, indeed.

If you have read my Planet Whizbang Idea Book For Gardeners (and visited the special hidden web site I created just for readers of that book), you are familiar with my solar pyramid idea. But for those of you who have not seen these unique garden devices, here is a picture I took several years ago that illustrates just how remarkable these solar pyramids are...

In the picture above, you can see a tomato plant inside a solar pyramid, and you can tell that it is a good size. In the background (on the right) you can see some smaller tomato plants. Believe it or not, all the tomato plants were transplanted into the garden on the same day, and they were the same size when planted. The tomato plant in the solar pyramid was in a totally ideal  growing environment, while the others were not. That made all the difference.

It's not a pyramid-power thing. It's a solar thing. And, as I explain in my book, this idea came from Leandre Poissson's excellent Solar Gardening book. Leandre made solar cones using an expensive rigid plastic. My solar pyramids are made using a much-less-expensive (but very durable) woven plastic. Here's a picture of Leandre Poisson with one of his solar cones...

The diffuse light inside the cone is ideal for plant growth. And the dynamics of the open top on the cone (with the bottom being sealed) play an important role in maintaining optimum growing conditions. The growth inside one of these things is nothing short of amazing.

It is much too early to plant anything in the garden, but I have been reading about winter sowing of garden seeds (thank you, Scott Cooper). I have a feeling that I can vary the common winter sowing approach and simply plant seeds directly in the earth inside the solar cones. When the soil temperature and environment in the cones is right (long before it is right outside the cones) the seeds will get themselves started.

If I can start tomatoes from seed, directly in the soil, in very early spring, here in upstate NY, and have them be at least as big as the usual transplants at the usual planting time, that would be quite an accomplishment. Same goes for some other crops that are not usually planted this early.

I've wanted to try this for a few years and haven't done it. This year will be different. I now have an experimental Minibeds-on-Plastic garden!

Stay tuned...

Insect Fabrics In The Garden
Current Options For U.S. Gardeners

Repost Dateline: 26 March 2017
(originally published on 25 August 2016)

ProtekNet 25gr insect barrier on hoop cloches in my garden.

My recent post about the Haxnicks lantern cloche, and the observation that such a screened cloche has been an incredible boon to four kale plants in my garden, has led me on an investigation into insect screen options for garden beds.

I have used Agribon-over-hoops to make cloches in my garden for years. It works very well for getting plants off to a great start in the spring. But as the heat of summer comes, Agribon cloches get too hot on the inside. They also restrict sunlight and air movement, which isn't necessarily a good thing. Other downsides to Agribon are that it does not let any rain get through and it doesn't allow you to see what's happening inside the cloche (without lifting the cover).

On the other hand, an insect screen cover allows more sun, air, rain and visibility, while protecting your plants from insects, deer, rabbits, rodents and hail. 

I have found three brand-name insect fabric materials made for the garden:

1. Agralan Enviromesh
2. Haxnicks Micromesh
3.  ProtekNet 25gr

I've purchased all three to see them and put them to use in my garden. Here are some details for you...

Agralan Enviromesh

Agralan Enviromesh is made by Agralan Ltd. in the United Kingdom. I purchased a piece measuring 8'6" x 16' from Greenhouse Magastore.

The Enviromesh is made of UV stabilized woven polypropylene. Color is white. The grid size is 1.35mm x 1.35mm.

Agralan Enviromesh has apparently been around for a long time. They say their fabric has a 7 year lifespan, but with care it should last at least ten years. That's quite a claim!

When I opened the Enviromesh package, my wife said it looked like flea beetles could get through. I read the literature included with the fabric and it says "flea beetle may be discouraged by ENVIROMESH, but it may  not give complete control." Well, that was a bummer. One of the reasons I want netting is to exclude flea beetles.

Then I read: "In situations where flea beetle is a serious problem, it may be preferable to use ENVIROMESH ULTRA FINE, particularly over very small plants."

The Ultra Fine has a grid size of .8mm x .8mm. So I went looking for the Ultra Fine Enviromesh. I can't find a US source. I've contacted Enviromesh in the UK, but they have yet to reply.

Haxnicks Micromesh

I purchased a sheet of Haxnicks Micromesh measuring 16'6" x 5'10" from Gardener's Edge. It is made of woven polyropylene. It is UV stabilized. It has a green-yellow tint. 

Grid size is .6mm x .6mm, which they say will exclude flea beetles. Lifespan is not stated. Haxnicks does not make the same durability claims that Agralan makes for their Enviromesh. The difference in durability is visibly evident. While both fabrics are strong, the Enviromesh looks to be much stronger.

The Haxnicks package indicates that their mesh is made in China. 


ProtekNet appears to be the most popular name-brand insect netting in the United States. The company actually  makes several different kinds of insect netting. The most commonly available option is the 25 gram. If you go to THIS LINK, and click  the "Brochures" tab, you can download a chart that compares all the ProtekNet fabric options. For the discussion here, I'll stick to the popular 25gr netting. 

Johnny's sells ProtekNet 25gr in large rolls for hundreds of dollars.  I bought a 82" x 33' piece from Purple Mountain Tools for considerably less. The picture at the top of this page shows some ProtekNet-covered cloches in my garden.

ProtekNet is a completely different kind of netting material. It is made of knitted (not woven) polyamide, which I understand to be a nylon. It is soft and stretchy, while the woven polypropylene materials (Enviromesh and Micromesh) are much stiffer. When you cut ProtekNet, the fabric edges curl. That doesn't happen with woven polypropylene.

ProtekNet has a very fine mesh at .35mm x .35 mm. It has no problem stopping flea beetles, and even smaller insects.

It is recommended that if you use hoops with ProtekNet, they be PVC, not wire, because the wire may damage the fabric. 

The stated lifespan for ProtekNet is only 1 to 3 seasons, which I interpret to be one season (or two if you're lucky). Though the material is said to  have UV resistance, my understanding is that nylon does not have anywhere near the long-term durability of polypropylene.


I like the stretchy ProtekNet for my small hooped cloches. But I don't like the idea of it not lasting. 

The Enviromesh looks like a vastly superior product. But the flea-beetle-excluding size  apparently isn't available in the United States. :-(

Other Options?

Yet another UK company (Gromax) makes a product called Gro-Net, which appears to be comparable to the Agralan Enviromesh (though the Agralan company disputes the long-term viability of Gro-Net). I contacted the Gro-Net company and the salesman was on vacation. But he's supposed to get back to me soon. It looks like their product is not yet available in the US. 

I'm not aware of any other insect netting material in the US that is specifically made for garden applications. I am curious to know if anyone reading this knows of other products. Or, do you have personal experience with any of the products I've discussed here?

There appears to be an opportunity in this country for someone to come up with a product on par with the UK Enviromesh. That is to say, a UV stabilized woven polypropylene that is made to last for a decade or more.

In an upcoming post I will tell you about a new approach to gardening that I'll be trying next year. And I'll show you the different netting materials on some hooped cloches.

For more information on this topic, please see my blog post titled, Everything You Need To Know About Enviromesh Insect Netting.

Whizbang Pocket Cultivators
On Sale Now
(Limited Supply)

Dateline: 23 March 2017

If you have read my blog writings for awhile and/or you have read my Planet Whizbang Idea Book For Gardeners, you already know all about the Whizbang Pocket Cultivator. I call it a pocket cultivator because it fits in your pocket, like this...

A lot of people, upon first seeing the pocket cultivator say, "That's just a fork!" Well, they just don't understand.

It was a fork, but after it is cut to length and a bulbous taped end is created, the fork becomes a comfortable tool for stirring the soil around plants in your garden. I almost never go to my garden during the growing season without my pocket cultivator. The tool will be especially useful with my Minibeds-on-Plastic experimental garden this year.

As an entrepreneurial experiment, I have made a limited number of Whizbang Pocket Cultivators like you see in the picture above. By limited, I mean I made only ten of them. They are for sale here, first come first served, until they are gone.

These pocket cultivators are Deluxe versions for two reasons. First, they are made from vintage silverplate forks that I bought at an antique store last summer. There was a box with hundreds of pieces of old silverware and I sorted through them all to get the ten forks-to-pocket-cultivators that I'm selling here.

It so happens that some old forks are really heavy duty. Not all old forks—just some. And these ten forks were exceptionally strong. After getting them, and making the ten pocket cultivators I'm selling here, I figured I would just find some more vintage forks on Ebay with the same manufacturer's name and buy them. So that's what I did. And I was profoundly disappointed to find that they were not nearly as strong. So they are not going to be pocket cultivators.

If I make these pocket cultivators again, it will be only with vintage forks I've found in antique shops, and have had a chance to see just how strong they are.

That said, please keep in mind that if you buy one of these Limited Edition, first production run Whizbang pocket cultivators, you should not use them to dig potatoes in clay soil, or anything like that. You can dig somewhat with them but if you do so, you should grasp the fork down close to the tines so the handle-to-tine connection doesn't bend. These vintage forks are strong, and they will serve you faithfully for many years (as long as you don't lose them), but they will bend if you put a LOT of bending stress on them. The primary function of these little cultivators is to stir the soil surface, snag little weeds up close to your vegetable plantings, and make shallow planting pockets in the soil. They'll smoosh bugs too.

The second reason these pocket cultivators are Deluxe is that I've double-dipped them in Plasti-Dip. So they're even more comfortable than cultivators with ends that are just tape-wrapped. They're also easier to find with the bright red color. I don't know how long the Plasti-Dip coating will last, but it's pretty tough, and even if it eventually wears off, the tool will still be perfectly functional. Here's another picture showing a couple of the Deluxe pocket cultivators I'm selling…

Every pocket cultivator is a little different. The forks themselves are different, and the hand-wrapped, hand-dipped handles are different. That's because the handles are carefully hand-crafted by yours truly. There isn't a doubt in my mind that you will appreciate this unique gardening tool.

The price is $21.95 each, and that includes first class postage to any US address. I hope to make more of these for next spring, but these ten pocket cultivators are the only ten I have for now.

UPDATE 3/26: All the Pocket Cultivators are sold. Thank you.

Back-To-Eden Gardening
(Part 4)

Dateline: 22 March 2017

This is maximum productivity in an 18" diameter minibed-on-plastic! These little beds (mulched with lawn clippings) were forerunners of my wood-framed, 30" x 30" Minibeds-on-Plastic gardening idea.

My previous essay in this series explained that there is no more effective weed suppressing garden mulch than black plastic. That’s why black plastic mulch has become so popular with so many growers. 

Granted, it's an artificial cover, but a cover nonetheless, and it provides the benefits of a soil cover without the need to import large amounts of natural biomass (i.e., wood chips, straw, hay). The larger a garden is, the more biomass you need for mulch. Black plastic mulch is a biomimetic solution.

But there are a couple of discouraging drawbacks to black plastic mulch. First, wind will lift and displace it unless it is somehow secured, and typical hold-down techniques are a bother. Besides that, they often don’t work with complete satisfaction. This matter of wind-lift and hold-down is exacerbated by the fact that the vast majority of black plastic applications use long, relatively narrow strips of the material. Four foot wide plastic is typical.

In the Minibeds-on-Plastic gardening system, wind lift is NOT a problem. That’s because a single large sheet of black plastic is used and it is securely weighted down by numerous, precisely-spaced minibed frames. 

For example, my Minibeds-on-Plastic experimental garden was made with a 24’ x 44’ sheet of plastic and it has 45 minibeds. The perimeter of the single large sheet is secured by burying the edges in a shallow trench, weighting them down, or pinning them in place. I’m using a combination of all three methods.

The reliability of the Minibeds-on-Plastic approach to plastic hold-down proved itself here (upstate New York) in the 2017 experimental garden last month. We had a February thaw. My whole garden was bare, and there was a significant wind storm. The wind lifted several sheets of sheet-metal-roofing that I use in part of my garden to mulch a walkway. The metal has been in place for years with no problem. But the big winds lifted and tossed the metal sheets. The wind also displaced several weighted-down plastic sheets I was using for occultation covers on some long raised beds.

However, my Minibeds-on-Plastic experimental garden, which is right next to the sheet-metal walkway, was totally unaffected by the winds. It was a true test that the experimental garden easily passed, and I was well-pleased to see it.

The other common problem with black plastic mulches is that they are thin and only made to last for one season. So, if you use the long strips, you have to pull them up and dispose of them every year. That’s a hassle.

But with the Minibeds-on-Plastic approach, the large plastic sheet stays in place for several years. Eventually, the plastic will need to be replaced, but if a thick, UV resistant plastic is used, it should last. I’ll be evaluating the longevity of the 6mil, UV resistant bunker cover I’m currently using. I hope to get at least three years of useful life from the material. 

Tom Dolye, the man who inspired me to eventually develop my Minibeds-on-Plastic garden, used a single, large sheet of specially formulated black plastic that reportedly lasted for decades. Perhaps the inexpensive, recycled billboard plastic tarps, which seem to be more durable than the 6-mil bunker cover, will last that long. I plan to establish a small Minibeds-on-Billboard-Tarp garden this spring.

 Biomass With 

The only real drawback I can see when using black plastic as a garden mulch is that it does not feed the soil and soil biology, like a natural mulch does. But with my Minibeds-on-Plastic gardening system (which, I should add, is still in the experimental stage) each 30” x 30” minibed will will have a natural mulch for soil cover. 

My intention is to use shredded leaves for minibed mulching. But I will also be using mulching materials from aboveground biomass that I harvest from some of the minibeds, which brings me to an important aspect of the whole system I want to create…

I will be planting different cover crops into the beds in order to establish root biomass. The root mass of some cover crops far exceeds their aboveground biomass. I will focus on maintaining a steady, rotating supply of different root biomass into each minibed.

I once heard Elaine Ingam say that “massive aboveground biomass is biomass in the wrong place.” She said that because roots, live and dead, feed the soil biology in a very tangible way—especially if those roots are in a no-till garden bed. And those roots will extend into the soil well beyond the perimeter of each minibed.

No-Till Minibeds

The mention of no-till gardening brings me to the the other important aspect of my Minibeds-on-Plastic garden system… I will not be digging the soil in the minibeds. There will be shallow cultivating occasionally, and minimal disturbance when transplanting, but no tilling, no double-digging, no turning of the soil. All plant roots will be left in place (unless, of course, they are part of my harvested crop).

I’ll admit that leaving plant roots in place is contrary to everything I have done in my garden over the decades. I want to pull up every plant and prepare the soil bed so it is neat and clean. But last year I resisted the urge in a couple of raised beds elsewhere in my garden. Instead of pulling and cultivating the soil after I grew a crop, I just cut the old plants off at ground level, and planted the next crop beside the old plants. It worked just fine. Here are some pictures showing what I did in one garden bed (not a minibed)... 

As I recall, this garden bed was planted to spinach. When the spinach crop went by, I cut the spinach plants at ground level and planted three rows of peas, without cultivating the soil. Once the peas were up, I shallow-cultivated the bed to eliminate weedlings, and mulched with shredded leaves, as you can see in this picture.

When it came time to plant garlic in the bed, I cut off the pea plants, leaving the roots in the soil. This picture shows a couple of roots I pulled up to see if there were many nitrogen-fixing nodules... and there were!

In this picture you can see that I am planting garlic into the bed. The soil is undisturbed except for the holes I made to plant each garlic clove. If any pea roots were in the way of my planting spaces, I removed them. The soil in the bed had beautiful tilth. After planting the cloves, I mulched the bed with a heavy cover of shredded leaves. That bed is now covered with snow.

The objective with this no-till approach is not to save work (though it does save work), but to preserve soil structure and inflict minimal damage to soil life. It is the biology in the soil that feeds plants. We need to preserve and promote that soil life. No-till gardening does that in a profound way. If you have not yet watched the Ray Archuleta series on soil health, Click Here Now and watch it. After watching that series, you will understand the importance of no-till.

So, my point is that the soil directly under and adjacent to every minibed is going to be husbanded with an eye towards soil health. There is more that I could write about this, including the importance of oxygen in the soil, and how a plastic mulch actually contributes to the proliferation of oxygen in the underlying soil. 

I know that sounds backwards but it's in my Minibeds-on-Plastic Report, which goes into some depth explaining Tom Doyle’s thoughts on “oxygen fertilization.” The first time I read it, I thought Mr. Doyle was promoting a nutty concept. But he was onto something. 

I recently heard soil-health advocate Jerry Brunetti say on a YouTube presentation that "oxygen in the soil is the number-one fertilizer." The Minibeds Report also goes into some depth discussing Tom Doyle’s experience of never needing to water his plastic-covered garden. 

Oh, one last thought… When growing a cover crop in the minibeds, the aboveground biomass can be cut up and used as a natural mulch in the beds. Or, it can be composted. Or, it can be spread over the black plastic as a cooling cover in the hotter months. 

If a mature cover crop in a minibed is so dense on the surface that it’s not possible to plant the next crop into it (or if the topgrowth needs to be severed from the roots to stop the cover crop from growing), my plan is to harvest the cover crop low, then slice the dense mat of stem and root vegetation into manageable sections with an old knife. Then I'll cut the plants just below the surface and flip the biomass over to use it as a mulch layer (the aboveground biomass will never be tilled into the bed). This kind of operation would be tedious on a large scale, but it will be much simpler in a minibed.

And this is a good place to end this series of essays. As you can see, Minibeds-on-Plastic is an integrated system of gardening that is very manageable. It allows for focused attention on a diversity of garden crops in small growing plots (as opposed to the whole garden) with the goal of high-culture and maximum productivity. 

Manageability, efficiency, and productivity is what will result in maximum satisfaction. That's my "theory" with Minibeds-on-Plastic. The upcoming 2017 Minibeds-on-Plastic experimental garden will prove the validity of my gardening system.... or not.


to go back to Part 1 of this series

Back To Eden Gardening
(Part 3)

Dateline: 21 March 2017

The 2017 Minibeds-on-Plastic experimental garden in late 2016.

In Part 1 of this series I introduced you to Paul Gatuschi and his the Back To Eden gardening. In Part 2 I provided some insights into his system of gardening. This essay I will begin to look at similarities and differences between my Minibeds-on-Plastic gardening system and the Back To Eden system.

First, and foremost, there is the matter of covering the soil, a.k.a., mulching. This is fundamental to Back To Eden gardening, and it is fundamental to Minibeds-on-Plastic gardening. The difference is that Back To Eden gardening is known for promoting the idea of using wood chips for a soil cover (but in more recent interviews, Paul Gautschi says that the mulch doesn’t have to be wood chips. It can be whatever you have—even rocks), while the Minibeds-on-Plastic system utilizes a single, large, thick sheet of black plastic. 

The whole point of any mulch is to protect the soil—to keep it from drying out, to reduce compaction, to promote biological activity, and to suppress weeds. Mulch is important, especially with a no-till gardening approach, which is also common to Back To Eden and Minibeds-on-Plastic.

Specifically, the suppression of weeds is the biggest and  most desired benefit in many gardener's minds. This is especially the case if they have some experience gardening. 

Unwanted weeds will, obviously, rob your garden plantings of soil moisture, soil nutrients, underground root space, and aboveground access to sunlight. As a rule, vegetables do not suppress weeds, the weeds suppress vegetables. 

My experience has been that natural mulches like wood chips will suppress a LOT of weeds in the garden, but they never suppress all the weeds. Black plastic mulch, however, will suppress ALL the weeds in the area it covers. Not some. Not a lot. All. That’s a powerfully endearing quality.

In the book, Teaming With Microbes, Jeff Lowenfels states in the first paragraph of his chapter on mulches that “black plastic sheeting makes great mulch.”  Then he goes on to ignore black plastic as a mulch and focuses on natural mulches. This is the usual bias among people who garden organically or naturally (it was my bias for more than 30 years of gardening). 

The exception to black plastic mulch bias is a great many organic market gardeners and small farmers. They have seen the enormous benefit of using a black plastic mulch, and this has been the case for decades.

While many organic food producers don’t like to use black plastic, they know how well it works for them. They have to be pragmatic about black plastic. They have to take into account success and production. It’s much easier to have a successful garden when you have virtually no weeds to deal with. 

Even the Rodale Institute, progenitor of the American organic movement, admits (In their 2014 report, Beyond Black Plastic) that black plastic mulch is a totally effective mulch…

“Black plastic very effectively prevents plants from growing in the areas it covers. Compared to growing vegetables in bare soil, using black plastic greatly reduces the need for other forms of weed control, be it herbicide application, cultivation, or labor-intensive hand weeding. Another perk of using black plastic is that it warms the soil, in some cases allowing for earlier planting. For these reasons, black plastic has grown in popularity over the last 50 years.”

Among the drawbacks to using black plastic mulch, the Rodale report notes that plastic is inherently unsustainable and difficult to recycle.

Fair enough. But plastic is also ubiquitous these days, and its use can be as easily justified as it can be condemned. My justification is that, in the form of a black sheet in my garden, plastic allows me to achieve a measure of plant yield, overall success, and personal satisfaction that I can not otherwise get (considering the time I have for gardening, and my overall physical ability). 

Besides that, I sided my house with wood instead of plastic, I never drink soda (no plastic soda bottles), and I frequently refuse to take a plastic bag for small purchases. (“I don’t need the bag, thanks. Save a tree!” is my standard reply—which gives you an idea of how long I’ve been ecologically minded). So, I reckon I’m eligible for some sort of moral offset when it comes to the oft perceived “sin” of using plastic mulch in my garden.

Another problem with black plastic mulch in the Rodale report is a concern about microbial stress, suggesting that excess heat in the summer may destroy fungal activity in the soil under the plastic and promote a preponderance of bacterial activity, to the detriment of the plants being grown in the plastic. Here’s what the Rodale report says in the summary…

“The maximum soil temperatures in the black plastic treatments averaged 5.8 °F higher than the rolled and mowed [organic mulch] treatments in June, 4.0 °F in July, 2.0 °F in September, and 0.5 °F in October. Minimum soil temperatures in 2012 were higher in the black plastic treatment in June and July by roughly 2 °F.”

Hmmm. Those temperature differences are actually less than I would have thought. Are they enough to ruin the soil biology under the plastic? I don’t really know. The Rodale study did not look at soil biology. They only suggested that the soil biology may be negatively affected. I wish they had taken a closer look at that aspect.

And how deep were those temperature readings made? I can’t find that in the report. Was it at the soil surface? Down one inch? Down 2 inches?  It seems like depth would make a difference.  Is the soil biology devastated by such heat, or it merely inconvenienced and temporarily set back in certain areas of the mulched soil? 

Based on my past experience using black plastic mulch, I have a feeling that the temperature under the plastic is not going to be a big issue. But this is something I plan to test in my 2017 experimental garden.

The bottom line here is that black plastic is an incredibly effective garden mulch. The only real drawback I can think of at this time is the absence of aboveground biomass, and the soil benefits that come from such biomass. But Minibeds-on-Plastic gardening (as I  am pursuing it) does not ignore biomass and soil biology. Not at all. 

I’ll discuss those things in the next (and final) installment of this series. 

And I’ll also discuss how Minibeds-on-Plastic gardening is not your typical black plastic gardening concept because it has NONE of the common complaints that gardeners who use black plastic usually have.


to go to Part 4 of this series