Turning compacted sod into a garden is not that hard . . . but it's also not that easy. It takes a bunch of cardboard, compost, and mulch – and time.
After moving to our homestead (which we've named "Tournesol") in June of 2012, we set about doing a bunch of things. Planting some annual veggies, making some home improvements, learning to care for all the flowering perennials that were already here in residence.
And we also started turning the lawn into a garden. We started small, with a patch about 10 feet by 15 feet. We laid down plain brown cardboard, covered it with a couple inches of good compost, and then topped that with a few inches of straw. In the spring we kept building out the bed, 'til we had created one large rectangular garden about 20 feet by 30 feet. Then we tackled the existing perennial garden, making more room for vegetables, expanding it by about 12 feet along its perimeter.
Surveying the gardens last spring, I was very proud of what we'd created – until I went to plant our first seedlings. A few weeks earlier, we had raked away the straw and used a broadfork to aerate the soil, and I figured I was ready to go. I started digging with a little trowel, but realized quickly that it wasn't enough. So I picked up the shovel, and had to really push to get more than 5 inches deep: the soil was still compacted, and sandy, to boot. And not just a little sandy – sandy like a giant's sandbox had been dumped there. I looked down on my flat of little baby seedlings and nearly burst into tears. There was no way that these little guys would be able to grow good roots and flourish in this dense, sandy soil. My pride turned to embarrassment . . . so much to learn, and I am so new at this.
I had forgotten about that moment until just this week, almost exactly a year later, when I went to rake away the straw and put down another couple inches of compost. Kneeling, I tugged on the few blades of quackgrass, and they came up easily, in long strands, which is a thing of beauty when you're trying to rid a garden of this vigorous weed. Marveling at the intact, two-foot long roots in my hand, I realized what they signified: loose, aerated, crumbly soil. I looked at the soil, remembering my frustration just a year ago, and saw the change: it was dark, crumbly, full of worms. I went over to Anne, with a huge smile on my face, and gave her the good news. We had indeed built garden beds – it just took a while longer than I thought.
That's one of the things that I like – when I remember it – about farming: the long perspective it cultivates in you. You can't help but think about what things were like last year or the year before, or what they will be like in the future. Farming asks you to compare, to improve upon, to try not to repeat mistakes. "What worked well last year?" "We have to make sure not to plant tomatoes that close to the black walnut again." "Wait 'til those trees start to bear fruit..." The garden asks you to see it in a continuum of time, to envision the changes that are happening so slowly you can't yet see them.
It took nearly two years to build good, workable garden beds out of a typical lawn – just imagine what they'll look like in 10 years. We did grow kale, peas, cabbages and some other veggies in those beds, and they did OK, but they didn't thrive or reach anywhere near their potential. I'm excited to see how they grow this year, now that we have some beginning level of "tilth." Farmers use this term to describe soil that has the right balance of soil particles, humus, water, and aeration for growing crops. It comes from an Old English word for "tilling".
Ironically, mechanical tilling with its heavy machinery ends up producing compacted soil, the very thing we are trying to avoid. So we're doing "no-till" farming, using only hand tools to work in fertilizer and soil amendments, creating raised beds and pathways, and doing all we can to not walk where we plant. Gotta let the worms and bugs and bacteria do their work, let them help us; when you till, you destroy those intricate layers of soil biology.
But we do want tilth, that quality of soil that makes it perfect for planting in, even if we are not tilling – and we want it not only for growing crops. We want soil that can aborb water during massive rainfalls, and that can hold that water in reserve, for droughts. We want soil that has a wide diversity of microflora and fauna, all the bugs one could ever want, doing their thing, under the surface. We want soil that is rich in nutrients and minerals, soil that is capable of weathering climate change, soil that can sustain us for decades to come.
So we're doing a few things besides just adding compost and mulching to help make that happen. If you don't cover the soil, nature will cover it for you, starting with vigorous, quick-spreading, and quick-to-flower plants, otherwise known as "weeds." (As the saying goes, "growing like a weed!") If you want to prevent weeds, you have to cover the soil with a thick layer of mulch. Mulch also prevents erosion and evaporation, and keeps the soil cool for the biology that lives in the soil. Adding a layer of compost (which fertilizes) and then a layer of mulch are a couple basic things that all gardeners should be doing. To these, we're adding bokashi and rock dust.
Bokashi is less well-known form of composting that works anaerobically, rather than aerobically. For aerobic compost piles, which probably most people are familiar with, you need to layer carbon (straw, dry leaves, brown matter) with nitrogen (green matter, grass, manure). Unless you do it under the right conditions and with the right ratio of carbon to nitrogen, it can take awhile to break down. You can turn a compost pile occasionally to speed up the process. But usually you can't effectively compost meat or dairy in such piles unless you have a lot of manure to make it a really hot pile.
Bokashi is different: you take all your scraps of meat, vegetables, dairy, and even bones and fat, and you put it in a bin that has an airtight top. (Here's where we got our supplies.) You sprinkle on top a little bit of rice bran or other material that is inoculated with a particular combination of micro-organisms (yeast and bacteria) – these guys basically "pickle" the food scraps and, in so doing, produce a very good compost "tea" that you can then dilute and pour on the garden. Because they are fermenting the scraps, it smells like pickling rather than rotting. After the bin is full, you put it aside for three weeks, until the material is partially digested. Then, you dig a trench, about a foot deep and a few feet long, and bury the whole contents of the bucket in the soil. Because it's fermented – pickled – animals are not attracted to it and don't dig it up.
We love this system because 1) it allows us to reduce our weekly landfill deposit even further, since we go through a lot of bones in our house, 2) we collect great free fertilizer in the form of compost tea, and 3) we get to build the soil with the bokashi that continues composting below the surface. These micro-organisms are supposed to be great for the soil, and we are hoping to see some results as early as this season: we buried two bucketfuls last fall in one of the beds, and we'll be able compare the plants in that bed with plants in other beds.
Finally, we bit the bullet and ordered a ton, literally, of rock dust. Remineralizing the soil is a practice that I learned about a few years ago at the Northeastern Organic Farming Association (NOFA) conferences – the basic idea is that between logging, grazing, and farming over the last four hundred years, most New England soils have been depleted of the minerals that should be present in order to produce strong plants. (Between 1650 and 1880, half of New England's forests were removed for agriculture, and most of the other half were cut for ship-building and fuel; we might forget this because we live among second- and third-growth forests now.) You may have heard that vegetables used to be much richer in vitamins and minerals a few generations ago; modern farming has stripped the soil of much of its nutrients, meaning fewer nutrients in our food. Well, people who have been adding minerals to the soil in the form of rock dust and other trace amendments have had some great results: more vigorous plants, plants with a better nutrient profile, plants that can recover from blight, plants that produce longer in the season...
So, we are getting a really big bag of basalt dust from a local quarry in Westfield. (Here's where we got our rock dust.) What we'll do is spread it out on the soil and slightly dig it in, and then hope that over the next few years it begins to break down and provide additional minerals to our plants. It took centuries to deplete the soil, so I figure it'll take awhile to remineralize it. It's a long-term thing . . .
Just like making any kind of real change is, I suppose. It took me years to make the changes I have in my career, my health, my everyday life. It took me years to figure out that I love to work with both food and words, that I need a lot of solitude, that I'm happiest being my own boss. And it is going to take me years to build this soil. But if the last decade has taught me anything, it's that each time around the sun there is new evidence of growth and change, and, even impatient as I am, as long as I remember to take the long view, I can be satisfied with these slow revolutions.