Each winter, at a certain point, although it’s cold and the snow keeps descending from flat grey skies, the possibility of spring takes form. The lengthening days are noticeable. Sometimes on a sunny morning an optimistic chickadee makes its spring call. It’s a quiet thing in the beginning, just a slight stirring of what’s to come. Yet it persists, and then it’s upon us in a rush.
We check the seed catalogs and begin to work up a new garden plan. We’re tempted to order far more seeds than we can possibly plant. Each year this happens, and each year’s subsequent garden teaches us new things.
Gardening ideas come and go. In our experience, the ones that work best are the ones that arise from the basic understanding that nature really does know what she’s doing. These ideas assume a cooperative stance, seeking to work in a beneficial way with what’s naturally trying to unfold. If there are problems in the garden, rather than viewing them as a declaration of some kind of war and grabbing the most deadly weapon handy, we can take a breath, look more closely and try to figure out what it is we need to do differently to provide optimal growing conditions for our plants, keeping in mind that it is we, not nature, who make errors.
Bio-intensive gardening, a whole system whose individual parts work best when used together, suggests that initial deep soil preparation and the generous use of compost are beneficial and make it possible to grow plants close together in a grid pattern within beds of varied lengths that are approximately four feet wide. As the plants mature, their leaves spread out and just touch each other. This shades the soil, slows moisture loss and provides a cooler growing environment for the plant roots. It also discourages weed growth. The gardener, working from first one side of the bed and then the other, can easily reach to the center.
Ed Smith, author of the very popular The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible, proposes his W-O-R-D system for successful gardening throughout the country; wide rows, organic growing methods, raised beds and deep soil that, as one sign of its good condition, is able to support a vital earthworm population. To take a worm census, mark out a block of soil about a foot square and seven inches deep. Dig up and spread this block on a board or drop cloth. Gently break up any clumps. Now count the earthworms present, both large and small. If you find more than ten, be happy. Your soil has sufficient organic matter to attract wormy attention. These little wigglers will work for you improving soil structure and fertility and producing worm castings for you right in your own garden.
Different systems? From our perspective, they have much in common with each other. Each is mindful of the plants’ basic needs. Each considers the garden soil to be important and strives in natural ways to keep it fertile and its texture friable.
Wide beds create a situation in which the gardener can avoid tromping up and down long single rows of veggies, compacting the soil on either side of the growing row and thus limiting the areas in which roots can easily spread out. This tromping and compaction adversely affect plant vitality and ultimately the harvest as well. Just to see how extreme the compaction can be, you might take a garden fork and fluff up the soil in a small area of your garden, perhaps one foot wide and three feet long. Then walk back and forth in that spot a few times whenever you go into your garden. Do this for a week or so, then take the fork, dig the area up again and check the condition of your soil. We are always amazed at how quickly its texture can be ruined.
Paths between beds can be heavily mulched to both eliminate weeds, the time and effort spent removing weeds and to mitigate the effects of foot traffic. One might put down several layers of newspaper and cover them with straw. Walking planks also work but don’t decompose and add to general soil fertility as readily as newspapers and straw.
Each year, something new
Last spring we began experimenting with growing bags. These floppy-when-empty containers are made of a felt-like double-layered polypropylene fabric that breathes and allows excess moisture to escape. We chose bags designed for potatoes and were pleased with the results. Potatoes are pretty plants, especially when flowering. They enjoy cool weather and are planted early in the growing season. Our plants grew well and produced a nice crop of tubers. The bags needed more than twice as much water as was recommended. The hot, dry season probably accounted for that. Because the fabric breathes, an easy way to think about how much moisture is needed is to compare the bag to an unglazed clay pot rather than to a non-breathing plastic container and water accordingly. The bags are reusable. One cleans and dries them out at the end of the growing season, then folds them up for future use. Simple. We’ll do this again.
We also tried replacing the standard peat pot many of us use for starting seeds with an alternative called a cow pot. Cow pots were dreamed up and developed by Connecticut dairy farmers Matt and Ben Freund. The pots are made from composted cow manure. The manufacturing process removes weed seeds, pathogens and odors. Cow pots stand up to months of above ground use in greenhouse conditions. However, within four weeks of proper planting, the pots disintegrate, adding nitrogen to the soil as they do so. We used our cow pots to start squash, tomato, melon and pepper seeds. The results were excellent. The seedlings grew very well and exhibited absolutely no transplant shock when moved into the garden. When planting, it is necessary to completely bury the pot, making sure the rim is actually below ground. We liked what the cow pots did for our plants and are looking forward to using them again this coming season.
In his book Gaia’s Garden, A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, Toby Hemenway writes about the point at which everything in a developing permaculture ecosystem “pops.” This happens when the individual components of the system start to work together in a synchronistic fashion. Pop, the system now supports itself and no longer depends on our constant intervention for survival. Interesting unplanned things begin to happen. Birds arrive. Available water comes into balance with the needs of existing plants. The ecosystem becomes more than the sum of its parts. It emerges as a living entity. This is a thrilling moment.
For us a little mini-pop came when we began using wide beds in the veggie garden. The plants, leaves just touching, were pleased by their close proximity to one another and grew with enthusiasm. The soil, shaded by their leaves, required far less water and weeding than before. We noticed a toad hanging out under the kale, chowing down on insects. A phoebe built a nest nearby and also did bug removal. Everything began working well with everything else. Productivity increased and we found we actually were needing to do less work than before.
In new gardens and for those of us switching from chemical addiction to better growing through organics, often the beginning is difficult. We experience problems that are the result of long standing imbalances. It can be discouraging. But wait awhile before throwing in the trowel. It took time for the imbalances to develop. It will take time for things to return to health. Persist, and one day there will be real change. The constant insect invasions will lessen and ultimately become incidental. The health of the soil will improve, the earthworms return and do their aeration and fertilizing thing. Once we stop squirting poisons all over the garden, the birds will start to come back and will do a lot of bug removal for us. The various components of the garden will begin supporting and encouraging each other. The veggies will, if not actually smile, at the least look healthy and happy and respond with an abundance of tasty food for us. If we have patience and pay attention, this really works, and spring, the start of a new growing season, is a natural time for us to begin.
Copyright Pat Foley, 2011
Pat Foley attempts to live a green/sustainable life just outside of Cornish, Maine. She is the owner of Earthrest, a retreat center operating on solar power, which offers gathering space for groups and individuals. The underlying focus of Earthrest is on following Gandhi’s advice to be the change we wish to see in the world. You may contact Pat at earthrest@psouth or (207) 625-4179.