Monday, January 4, 2016

5 Gardening/Farming Terms I Get Asked About.. A LOT!

Recently, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about basic gardening and farming terminology that were, once a upon a time, considered common knowledge. But, like most things that were considered common knowledge “once upon a time” they weren’t written down commonly, and so the meaning is lost to the average modern person. Now, most people ask the question (what does this mean -or- what does that mean) and stop themselves, assuming that this is the kind of information I charge for. In fact, it’s the opposite.

Information like basic terminology is something I think should be given away for free. I actually believe that this is the very kind of thing that should be taught in public primary schools so that all children grow up with a basic understanding of how to grow their own food. Or, at least, what goes into growing it.

Now, I’m not going to go into too much detail in my explanations of each term. That would make this post entirely too long and mind-numbing. Besides, each term deserves it’s own day in the sun, and can be expounded upon in future posts that focus on just them.

Anyway, here is a list of the 5 most common terms I get questioned about:

1. Kitchen Garden: Sometimes called a Truck Garden; a kitchen garden is a garden that serves the kitchen(s) of the site it’s grown on.  Think of it as the farmer’s personal garden where he/she grows their own veggies for their own use. This is also usually very close to the house, where the cook can just step out and pick a tomato or a sprig of herbs as they’re cooking. If your mother or grandmother had some tomato plants and a couple of salad greens growing just outside their kitchen door, that was a kitchen garden.

But, kitchen gardens can also be very large. My own kitchen garden is 1/8 acre, and that’s just for the veggies and annuals. I grow most of my herbs and perennials in another garden, that’s also close to the house. I have friend who runs a local food ministry farm who grew up with a 5-acre kitchen garden.

2. Main Crop (Maincrop): A maincrop is where you grow the produce you intend to sell or trade. Again, a maincrop can be anywhere between a small garden to many acres. In modern society we’re used to thinking of this in terms of fields. Acres upon acres of monocropped corn, wheat, tomatoes, or what have you. But, this is a relatively new way of doing things, just since the invention of the industrial tractor. For thousands of years before that maincrop fields were smaller, easier to work by hand, and more diverse. The practice of polycrops was not uncommon.

3. Polycrop: Poly, meaning many, crop, meaning.. well, crops. Manycrop. A polycrop is several different kinds of plants, or guilds, being grown together. Your average kitchen garden is grown in this manner. The more common term for it is “companion planting.” Plants are grown together with other types of plants that make for good companions. Space isn’t wasted in a polycrop, and the guilds (collection of plants that grow well together) are made up of plants that each offer some benefit or another to each of the other plants in it’s guild. For instance, tomatoes and basil are commonly grown together because they are chemically compatible and offer benefits to each other. A more famous guild is the “3 Sisters” guild: corn, pole beans, and winter squash.

4. Crop Rotation: Crop rotation means just that. We rotate our crops every year. If one guild is planted in one bed one year, then another guild will be planted in that bed the following year. The planning for crop rotation is more complex than that, but that’s basic gist.

5. Sacrificial Plants/Crops: Sometimes called by other names like Trap Plants, Windwalls, Barrier/Anchor Plants, and Cover Crops.

  • Trap Plants are plants that are planted in order to lure bugs away from other plants that you want to protect. It’s not uncommon to plant a few isolated soft-bodied summer squash on the edge of a pumpkin patch in order to draw bugs away from the pumpkins. Squash bugs love pumpkins, but can’t resist a nice tender yellowneck squash if it’s available. So, the sacrificial yellowneck is planted as a trap plant to protect the pumpkins.

  • Windwalls are tall plants, such as corn, pole beans on a trellis, grapes, etc which can be grown to form a living wall that protects other plants from wind damage. Windwalls are to wind what a gabion is to water. They slow and calm the wind coming through the area. Not to be confused with a Wind Break, which is usually tall trees or bushes planted very close together in an effort to stop wind almost entirely. Windwalls are typically temporary living structures designed to live for no more than 10 years, while a Wind Break is designed to be far more permanent, living 50+ years, sometimes hundreds. 

  • Barrier/Anchor Plants are plants that either form a barrier between two zones in order to divide them, or create an anchor point that brings two zones together. These are usually multi-purpose plants that not only provide a physical or visual barrier or anchor between two different areas, but may also offer the area biochemical advantages to the soil, structural advantages, or offer specific properties for attracting beneficial bugs (like bees), or repelling unwanted bugs (like cucumber beetles). Barrier/Anchor Plants can also be used as a kind of cover crop to suppress weeds. 

  • Cover crops have many advantages for everyone from the small-at-home-gardener to the large industrial farm. The most common cover crop is the legume (beans, peas, etc), which infuses the area with beneficial bacteria that converts the nitrogen in the atmosphere into usable nitrogen in the soil. This process is called “nitrogen fixing”. But, cover crops do more than just fix the soil’s chemical structure, they also aerate the ground with their roots, hold the topsoil together during rains and winds, and protect the topsoil from too much sun exposure. In dryland areas, such as mine, they also act as living mulch to help the ground retain moisture and stay cool.  

So, there you have it. The brief definitions of the most common gardening/farming terms I’m questioned about. I hope that helps some of you out there in cyberland. Please feel free to leave questions in the comments section.