Gene and Kathy Garthe farm on property that has been in Gene’s family for five generations. While the land has been in the family for many years, the techniques they use are contemporary and focus on the science that we now know creates the best environment for crops and people. As Gene carries on the tradition of the family’s fruit growing operation, Kathy focuses her efforts on growing vegetables.
All farmers and gardeners understand that the quality of your soil is critical to the establishment of a bountiful garden. Years of tilling can do serious damage to important soil networks. While tilling has been used for years to break up and loosen soil, turn up weeds, and quickly incorporate soil amendments, we now know that tilling destroys fungal networks and the sticky exudates of soil organisms that hold soil together.
That’s why Gene and Kathy have chosen a no-till method for their family vegetable garden. “With the no-till system, you leave the soil intact as much as possible, gently disturbing only the top few inches for weeding, planting, and harvesting,” Kathy explains. “This activity allows a bit of aeration without destroying soil organism habitat or beneficial fungal networks.”
As a result, she’s established permanent garden beds and pathways to keep soil in the garden beds as loose as possible. It’s a practice that saves time as well.
Kathy relies on mulch to shade the garden bed soil, which helps create a habitat for the beneficial soil organisms and reduces the germination of weed seeds. “I use grass clippings and leaf mulch during the growing season because that’s what I have the most of,” she says. “For beds that are lying fallow for a year I use cardboard and wood chips and grass and leaf mulch, layering them spring and summer. In the fall I add compost with another layer of leaf-grass mulch for enriching the soil through the winter.”
Each summer Kathy grows a wide range of salad fixings including kale, bok choy, mesclun and lettuce – things she can easily cut or pick to eat and that are pretty to work in. Many of the garden items go into a daily lunch for the harvest crew.
She also plants onions which she uses in the spring for salads and harvests in the fall to winter over; beets (the survival of which is a battle with the deer) and edible flowers like nasturtiums. She also uses the flowers from her chives for salads and grows marigolds to deter pests around her tomatoes.
Kathy also grows vegetables for sauce including tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos, eggplant and zucchini. Basil, chives and tarragon lead the list of herbs she grows and she also plans for fall and winter eating with winter squash and corn. She puts up fall vegetables in the couple’s commercial freezer and uses them to start the harvest meals the following summer. And she’s learned from the migrant laborers who make us the harvest crew, adding to her repertoire of growing items serrano, jalapeno and poblono peppers and squash blossoms.
The tradition of growing what they eat is natural for Kathy who grew up in Kansas. There her mother raised vegetables and made cottage cheese and the family raised cattle, which provided the protein in their diet.
Kathy thinks often of Gene’s aunts and uncles who ran a restaurant on the lake bluffs near the farm where Kathy and Gene live. She was able to learn from one of the aunts, Christine, who taught her about things like when and how to harvest lambs quarters. “I keep thinking about what questions Christine would ask, what she would be thinking about as I plant and work in the garden. And I keep looking for techniques that, if they were here, they would adopt,” Kathy adds.
Guiding her along the way is a book by British author Richard Perkins who now lives in Sweden, near the 59th Parallel, and who has created an amazing permaculture farm in a far northern climate (Northport is just north of the 45th Parallel). “He’s taken generations of knowledge that has been kept in silos and he’s putting it all in one place,” Kathy says. “I found his book Making Local Food Work: A Pragmatic Whole Systems Approach to Profitable Regenerative Agriculture to be a great guide for anyone wanting to raise food or operate a small farm.”
Kathy Garthe’s No-Till vegetable garden is located on Seth Road, west of Northport. It will be one of eight gardens on the Northport Area Heritage Association’s fundraising tour on July 31. The tour, which runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., is $25. Students and children are free. Tickets are available at the Pennington Collection, Tamarack Gallery and the Northport Museum or they can be purchased the day of the tour at the various gardens.