I studied Natural Resource Conservation and Management and went on to focus on riverine turtles in graduate school. Since I was a part of the agriculture department, I also took many agriculture classes like soil science, weed control, plant science, and forestry that helped set me on this gardening path. Through my wildlife studies, I was introduced to Aldo Leopold who wrote my all-time favorite essay, “The Land Ethic.” Once I bought a piece of land last year, I resolved to practice my own land ethic on that land, fostering biodiversity while feeding my wife and myself. No-till gardening, with its focus on soil health and biodiversity was a no-brainer. Tilling disrupts the soil ecosystem by turning in oxygen and quickly depleting organic matter while destroying soil structure.

In early 2019, I’d built a 20’ by 4’ vegetable garden bed by removing the grass sod and adding store bought compost and mulching it with live oak leaves, which are abundant in my neighborhood. This bed was moderately successful, but the biggest benefit was all that I learned from the experience. Here are my five biggest lessons from 2019:
  1. Removing sod with a shovel is hard work and my sore back and blistered hands weren’t happy with me! Tilling is easier!
  2. Store bought compost isn’t that great. The stuff I bought had lots of uncomposted pine bark and sand. I’m sure there was some actual compost, but that’s what I get for buying the cheap stuff, I guess.
  3. Arborist wood chips are better than live oak leaves. The live oak leaves were a good mulch, but didn't hold moisture or insulate the soil as well as arborist wood chips. They also don’t promote as many decomposers which will release the nutrients of the mulch over time.
  4. Timing is important. Last year, I planted the tomatoes a little late and didn’t get a great harvest out of them before the weather got too hot for tomatoes.
  5. Soil testing is important. I didn’t get a soil test last year, so whenever plants showed deficiencies, I’d fertilize them with Miracle-Gro. That usually got them to a healthier place.
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​Last year's garden bed once I removed the sod. To do this, I needed to wait until the soil was dry enough, avoid stepping on it, and it was hard work.

During the summer I was able to get arborist wood chips delivered to my yard so I began building more vegetable garden beds to apply what I’d learned so far. First, I marked out where I wanted the beds with a mower’s width between each one. Each bed would be 4 feet wide so that I could reach the middle. Then I mowed the grass in that area as short as my mower could. I layered 6 inches of wood chips on the mowed area. These wood chips would prevent light from getting to the grass I was trying to kill. Unfortunately, bahia grass stores a lot of energy in its stolons and rhizomes so it was able to keep popping up through the mulch. My solution was to periodically pull as much of the grass and weeds that popped through the wood chips. Over time this lessened and pulling the roots all the way up got easier. This year I have three 4 foot (1.2 meter) wide beds: the original 20 ft. (6.1 m) long, a 17 ft. (5.2 m), and a 14.5 ft. (4.4 m) as well as a 2 ft. (.6 m) by 16 ft. (4.9 m) long bed that I'll add a trellis to for yardlong beans and luffa.
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​Building my no-till garden for 2020 consisted of adding 6+ inches of arborist wood chips where I wanted my garden a few months later. No cardboard needed to "smother" the weeds. You just need a deep enough layer of wood chips to keep the weeds/grass from getting sunlight. Some pulling of whatever pokes through is necessary.

A 6 inch layer of arborist wood chips can pretty effectively kill the lawn and build soil. I simply marked my beds and piled on the wood chips. I occasionally weeded any grass or weeds that made it through the mulch. As soil organisms move through the soil, breaking down mulch, they aerate the soil, thus making the soil a little bit softer. By keeping the soil moist and a more constant temperature, mulch helps more soil organisms to live at the top of the soil. The mulch feeds soil organisms. Fungi, bacteria, nematodes, earthworms, and other soil organisms work feed on the mulch in various forms until it’s broken down into the simple nutrients that plants can use.

Finally, I got a soil test done this year in one of the new beds that had been mulched for about 5 months. I sampled soil from throughout the bed and sent it to the LSU AgCenter Soil Testing Laboratory. The results weren’t too surprising, but I finally learned that my soil is already very high in phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, and just less than optimum in potassium. This means that I was adding phosphorus when it wasn’t needed when I used Miracle-Gro last year. It also means that any blossom end rot exhibited by my tomatoes isn’t due to a calcium deficiency (I didn’t have many issues with it last year anyway). It also means that fertilizing with Epsom salts as many gardeners do isn’t necessary for me since my soil is already very high in magnesium (Epsom salt is composed of magnesium and sulfate). My soil is somewhat low in sulfur and nitrogen is usually needed in most soils to grow healthy vegetables.

In 2020, I’m following the LSU AgCenter’s recommendation to use ammonium sulfate which will add nitrogen and sulfur to the soil and a small amount of muriate of potash (a source of potassium). My method for adding these nutrients is to scrape aside the mulch, sprinkle the amount of fertilizer needed (determined by the number and type of plants to be planted there), and then cover back with the mulch and water thoroughly to help the granules dissolve and move into the soil. This method doesn’t disturb the soil structure that the microbes have been building for months and the fertilizers are water soluble so should work their way into the soil anyway.

The plant selection also matters. This year, I paid a lot of attention to plant selection, getting quality seeds, and starting seeds the right way. I’ve never eaten an heirloom tomato so I wanted to try many varieties of unique, tasty tomatoes. Then, I found out about the Dwarf Tomato Project from the Joe Gardener podcast. Dwarf tomatoes typically get to be around 4 feet tall, but have great tasting tomatoes. So, I did more research into the project and ended up purchasing five dwarf tomato varieties as seeds from Victory Seeds.

This year, I'm also focusing on disease and pest resistant plants. In 2019, squash vine borers demolished my three yellow squash plants. This year I wanted to have zucchini but without the pest problems. Eventually, I settled on growing luffa, which can be eaten like zucchini but can also be left to mature and used as sponges. The only sweet peppers I’ve had really good success with in the past were Jimmy Nardello peppers, so I ordered those. Then, on the Open Source Seed Initiative podcast, I learned about the effort to breed a downy mildew resistant butternut squash through breeding Waltham butternut with Seminole pumpkin then selecting for the butternut-type fruit. The South Anna butternut squash was developed, and I wanted to try it since I’d never grown butternut squash before but I do love to eat them! I’ll again be growing yardlong beans since they are just bulletproof plants for the South Louisiana climate. They can take the heat and humidity of a Louisiana summer and the pests that go along with it.
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​This year's bed first planted in March 2020. Turned from lawn into garden by a 6 inch mulching from October 2019 to March 2020.

​​So, here’s a quick summary of strategies I’m using in 2020 to ensure a healthy garden:
  1. Choose sturdy, disease resistant, pest resistant varieties that I enjoy eating.
  2. Start healthy seedlings (supply nutrients and high volume light from the beginning to quality seeds).
  3. High quality mulch (limit weeds, add nutrients, conserve water, keep soil temperature constant)
  4. Maintain and improve soil structure (don't till or step in beds, keep mulched)
  5. Ensure proper soil fertility (testing and adding needed nutrients)
  6. Space plants at proper spacing (tomatoes at 18 inches, peppers at 12 inches, etc.)
  7. Starting with many plants of each variety and selecting the best to grow and the best of those to save seed (should adapt these varieties to my local conditions over time)
Really, it’s all focused on long-term thinking and trying to have a productive garden without having to spray pesticides or spending more time pulling weeds and watering. I'd rather spend my garden time enjoying the garden and harvesting food!