How to Plant an Organic Garden (Without Touching Any Dirt)

The Hudson Valley Backyard Farm Company allows you to enjoy the fruits of your garden — without the labor

Every time Jay Levine opens his mouth on the subject of vegetable gardening, he seems to defy conventional wisdom: “Avoid topsoil.” “Water mid-day — not in the morning or evening — to prevent diseases.” “Don’t till — it just stirs up old weed seeds.”

It might all sound crazy at first. But if you get a chance to see any of the dozens of vibrant, organic vegetable oases that the owner of Hudson Valley Backyard Farm Company has designed, installed, and maintained across Dutchess and Ulster counties, you’ll realize that he’s not full of beans.

A former science teacher and graduate of the Conway School of Landscape Design in Massachusetts, Levine used to be a project manager for Scenic Hudson Land Trust, turning land into publicly accessible parks. Back in 2007, a friend saw his thriving organic home vegetable garden in Red Hook, which Levine harvests from March through December, and shared a link about the Seattle Urban Farm Company. Levine did some research and discovered that services that tend farm gardens for clients are a growing trend — a way for people to grow their own without a big time commitment. He launched his business in 2009.

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When you hire Levine to install your garden, he’ll pull up in a van loaded with manure, compost, and cardboard. From these he creates “lasagna gardening” layers. “Cardboard keeps the weeds down,” he explains. “Compost, which is the lifeblood of the garden, slowly releases nutrients. I often make the analogy that topsoil is to compost what white bread is to wheat. You’ll get a slower and steadier release of nutrients with the compost.”

Rates vary by project, which can range from a four-foot-square bed to multiple 10-by-12-foot plots, but most fall in the $2,000 to $6,000 ballpark. The rate includes the materials needed to build and fill the beds, bells and whistles like drip irrigation, fencing, and trellising — and, of course, the actual planting. Maintenance is a separate fee, but if you want to do it yourself, Levine is happy to share all his tricks of the trade, especially when it comes to preventing pest invasions. “You can’t just spray away problems with an organic garden,” he says. “Try fencing or laying materials over your plants so harmful flying insects can’t get to them.”

Best of all, you’ll save money by growing your own produce. Levine did a study on his own garden in 2009 and found that he spent $300 to raise 373 pounds of vegetables that, if purchased from a local store, would have cost $1,300 as conventional veggies and $1,800 if organically grown. Don’t worry about having too much: Levine shares recipes and ways to preserve your bounty in sauces, salsas, pestos, and preserves. Not sure how? He teaches classes on how to do that, too.

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