Gardening : Organic Bumper Crop Just Takes Diligence

Guffey is a Malibu free-lance writer.

"I'd like to choke the guy who brought snails to this country," says organic gardener Rusty Dalton as he searches for the voracious pests after dark in his Pt. Dume vegetable garden.

A soft smile and gentle voice betray his intense words, yet Dalton is passionate in his struggle to raise and harvest vegetables without using chemical fertilizers or pesticides. It took him about a year and a half of nightly hand-picking to rid his growing area of snails and slugs.

His sunny back yard has evolved into a model garden containing a small glass house, 11 raised beds filled with handsome and healthy vegetables, a number of fruit trees, and a towering Alaskan totem pole--for good luck. In describing his bountiful crops, Dalton suggests, "You don't need a green thumb for any of this. You just need to care and be attentive."

Dalton's organic garden, tended in his spare time after work and on weekends, generates bumper crops of lettuce, celery, potatoes, sweet corn, tomatoes, carrots, broccoli, cabbage, peas, onions, and elephant garlic. Producing more than his family can consume, Dalton's harvest now supplies a group of neighborhood families eager for fresh produce free from pesticides.

Many of his customers and friends bring their children to visit his garden, where they can select their own veggies--a sure-fire method for getting kids to eat their carrots and broccoli. Dalton sometimes instructs and entertains his young guests with storybook tales woven around gardening principles, the most popular being the saga of the little white butterfly whose eggs grow into garden villains.

He warns his customers that they will occasionally find an aphid or worm in the lettuce or cabbage because, despite his care and vigilance in the garden, insects are a natural part of an organic garden. His philosophy is that of coexistence: the organic gardener should expect to share part of his harvest with the insect world.

The major part of Dalton's farming is done in raised beds constructed of 2 by 12 rough-sawn redwood. These planters are about 3 1/2 feet tall and no more than 5 feet wide, so that the gardener can reach the center easily. A protective cover, made of PVC tubing and 3/4-inch bird netting, tops some of the beds. The netting prevents moths from laying eggs and birds from eating the foliage and vegetables. The bottom of each bed contains layers of scrap galvanized fencing to screen out gophers.

"Once you've built the raised planters, the worst part of your gardening is done. From then on, it's never hard again," claims Dalton. Raised beds have many advantages: excellent drainage, designer soil, and an elevated work area to save the gardener's back.

His garden also has three redwood hot tubs, discarded by neighbors when they installed new fiberglass tubs. "These redwood tubs are perfect ready-made beds for growing fruit trees and vegetables," says Dalton.

The vegetables in his raised beds seem to be packed very closely together. This intensive growing technique, called square-foot gardening, makes use of every inch of space. Looking at a particularly healthy bed of Romaine and leaf lettuces, Dalton says, "The best way to thin it is to eat your way through it."

Double cropping also extends his limited growing area. For example, peas and beans are grown between sweet corn, allowing the vines to clamber up the stalks once the corn has ripened.

To fertilize his crops, he enriches the soil with horse manure, blood meal, and bone meal. Twice a month he applies a diluted solution of liquid seaweed. Fingering the healthy quilted leaves of a tomato, Dalton declares that liquid seaweed is responsible for the green leaves and overall vigor of all his plants.

Water is a major concern in any Southland garden. To use it efficiently, Dalton employes an irrigation system with misters along the sides of his raised beds. The system is controlled by manual timers. ("Gardena makes the most dependable ones," he says.) A couple of times a week as he leaves for work, he sets the timers for 15 minutes, confident that when he returns the beds will be damp and the water turned off.

Another technique to conserve water involves the use of soil polymers, which come in dry granules that are hydrated into a gelatin mass. When Dalton transplants vegetables into his raised beds, he adds about one pint of the plumped-up gelatin mixture to the planting hole and then firms the soil around the transplant.

To water plants that aren't on his irrigation system, Dalton buries a one-gallon perforated pot up to its rim and fills it about twice a week with water that seeps out slowly, irrigating the target plant.

Dalton's garden is a continual learning experience for him; when he has questions or needs ideas, he turns to his favorite reference, "The Organic Garden Book" (Crown Publishers, 1987).

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