How to Plan(t) Your Garden

You know, it’s no coincidence that flourishing is an ecological term.

The Pine Mountain Settlement School has been teaching its community about gardening for more than 100 years. A boarding school until 1949, this settlement school in the Appalachian mountains of Kentucky held regular workshops taught by experts for its students and neighbors to learn efficient food production. And it’s still doing that work. The school’s former executive director Preston Jones, who has worked with the school’s programming for almost a decade, talked with Common Good this spring. 

“We have a saying here at Pine Mountain that we’ve done things for so long that they’ve become new again. So it makes sense that Pine Mountain was one of the first four partner sites of the Grow Appalachia program, beginning in 2010. Through our program alone, we’ve seen somewhere around three-quarters of a million pounds of food produced in Harlan and adjacent counties. Food is one of the best ways to bring people together, and this year we’ve got 40 or 45 families and individuals participating in our garden workshops. When it comes to growing food, the basic principle has not changed since the dawn of time, really. Diversity, small scale, high quality — that’s what we think people should focus on.” 

Seeds: Start with quality seeds. 

“We might start with seed potatoes or we might have early-season lettuces. We’ll give those out at our first planning and planting workshop. We’ve got a couple varieties of heirloom beans that have been grown here for who knows how long. ‘Aunt Bets’ bean’ is the signature Pine Mountain bean. It’s been grown here as long as anybody can remember; the seeds have just been handed down through generations. That history adds value to the experience. We’re trying to educate our local families on those types of things, too.”

Space: Take a piece of graphing paper and draw out the garden. Think: How much food do I need to grow? What do I need to plant where? Take care of that space year round. 

“Gardening goes back to the soil. Healthy soil is the foundation for producing anything. The health of the soil is going to be revealed in that plant — discoloration, unhealthy growth, or slow growth.

“We try to do that here with cover crops, to never leave a vegetable plot bare. A lot of people will till in the winter and just leave bare soil, but you should have something to occupy that soil for many reasons. For one, you’re going to lose a lot of nutrients if you don’t, so you can get a cover crop, like clover or winter rye, in the ground in fall before the winter hits. Clover actually produces nitrogen in a symbiotic relationship with the soil bacteria. So when you till that into the soil in the spring, all those nutrients that otherwise would’ve been lost, or not even produced to begin with, are added into the soil.”

Tools: Seeds, fertilizer, a hand tool, a garden sprayer. There’s a kit, basically, that families get when they join the PMSS workshops, and it’s all free. 

“We even have loaner tillers and heavier equipment that people can have access to. Later on in the season, we’ll do a pest-control class, talking about organic insecticides and whatnot. We try to time things appropriately so people get what they need as they need it.” 

Taste: Plant by your own taste. What foods do you want to grow? What do your kids like to eat? 

“Just growing something for yourself, I think, makes it great. There’s nothing like eating a tomato that you grew for yourself, especially if you’ve never done that before. That experience alone is life-changing for a lot of people. And then being able to preserve that, I think takes it to the next level.”

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