Mark and Sandy Washechek live in the center of Brookings, and have taken a unique approach to their gardening. They focused on improving the health of the soil. Their goal was to reduce the time and effort they put into weeding the garden, to improve infiltration, and the health of the soil so that water and nutrients applied would be used more efficiently and produce better crops.
Washechek, a former United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) employee, performed a test in farm fields to determine how well water infiltrates into the soil. He used this same test in his garden. The first inch of water moved into the soil in nine seconds and the second inch in 19 seconds. This meant there was no runoff and the plants used all the rain that fell.
After promoting no-till farming methods during his career, Washechek incorporated the principles into their garden. “We have not tilled the garden for 10 years and are close to being organic,” he said, “I do at times add some commercial fertilizer if I think there is a need. But for us, using the no-till method is extremely convenient and has worked very well.”
Their yard and garden are small, so they use ‘square foot’ gardening technique which helps reduce weeds but can increase fungal disease problems. To compensate, they select plants that are resistant to disease, especially tomatoes and potatoes. They also water at ground level and use adequate mulch to cover the soil surface. “In our case, our mulch is grass clippings from our yard. Knowing the source of your mulch can assure no weed seed or chemicals are being added to the garden,” said Washechek.
As far as weeds go, Washechek says you need to make sure weeds do not go to seed and that all perennial weeds are eliminated. “We did this by hand weeding our garden,” he said. “After three years, a high percentage of weed seeds were gone and we only need to deal with a few weeds each year.” The other key Washechek says, is to keep the soil covered with mulch which smothers the unwanted weed seeds.
In addition to not tilling the soil, the other techniques the Washechek’s incorporate into their garden are crop rotation, manure, composting residue, cover crops, and controlled traffic walkways. The crop rotation helps control disease and insect pests. They have a strict rotation and nothing gets planted in the exact same spot for six years. The manure is important to build soil organic matter. Washechek added that he removes residue from the garden and puts it in a simple compost bin he made. Then, he later returns that composted plant material back to the garden to feed the soil.
The roots of the cover crops have biological activity that goes on below the soil surface where their live roots are actively growing. This biological activity around the roots helps his garden’s soil the most by recycling nutrients, removing areas of compaction, and increasing organic matter. “We have come to like three species of cover crops in particular,” he said, “Oats, field peas, and chickling vetch.”
Washechek only uses radishes to reduce compaction in the controlled traffic walkway areas. After walking in the same areas for 15 years these areas got compacted. “I planted radishes one spring where I walk all the time and It worked,” he said. I planted them again in August and it worked even better so I’ll use this approach when I feel the soil in the walkways are getting compacted.”
He plants the cover crops between August 15 and September 15. Any later and they won’t get enough growth before frost and will not be worth the effort. Any earlier and they could go to seed. “If the crop is not out, such as the tomatoes or peppers, I’ll seed cover crops underneath so when the mature plants are removed, the cover crop will already have a good start,” says Washeckek.
The Washecheks want their garden looking nice, therefore, Sandy planted moss roses around the edge. The moss roses go to seed every fall and come back from seed each spring. The flowering plants are an added benefit for attaching pollinators. They have also started to use the edge of the garden as a nursery for flowering forbs that volunteer seed into the landscape. This makes the garden visually appealing and provides two-to three-year-old plants for transplanting in their yard, the neighbor’s yard, and to give away.
Thinking about next year? To learn more about gardening and how to incorporate principles of soil health, please contact horticulture resources at SDSU Extension, the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition, or visit your local USDA NRCS office or go online at www.sd.nrcs.usda.gov/.