History of the South Garden
In this historic garden my practices now are basically that I selectively dig out grass and amend in pockets or ditches so as to keep most of the soil strata and the perennial polyculture of plants thriving. I grow out mostly heritage vegetables, in dense polyculture. To me this is Wildculturing, which is essentially a way of dancing with and respecting the fecundity of the earth, by working with what she is offering us, by working with what is already there.
This garden has an interesting and long history It’s likely as old as the house which was built in 1874, after the Crown transferred the land to William Berger (this area is unceded Algonquin territory); 147 years ago. It’s tucked in close to the house on the south side. Not like they had 300 acres to put the garden but like they had just a suburban lot. They kept it close for convenience and protection. This was the Miller’s garden for 100 years before the years before that. The Millers bought the land in 1924, I purchased the land from them in 1998. Now this land is kind of a backroad backwater but a hundred years ago it was a main drag between two railways. This is partially how it came to be over-logged and over-grazed.
This garden was mostly for sweet corn, green beans, lettuce, tomatoes, turnips and cabbage. They were traditional German stock and only grew what you could collect seed from, for most of the garden’s years. When I first grew in that garden some of their lettuce sprung up. I’ve kept the seed and keep it growing. I called it Golden Lake special. They never grew anything like eggplants or peppers. Too risky and wouldn’t know what to do with them. They grew potatoes over the east hill out of side from the house. They knew the animals, wild or domestic wouldn’t touch them. And they also had small fields of grain, barley and rye. North of the house, the barns form a courtyard where the animals could be kept in the winter when the fields had four feet of snow on them. In the courtyard there was enough of them the deep snow would get packed down and so they could still be outside and move around. In the winter they also needed the protection from the wind and the wolves.
Back then the garden was rich, loaded up with sheep, cow and horse manure. They’d also placed this garden only a few feet above the natural water table, so they likely seldom had to water. Back then there was more consistent and abundant rain and snow, which fed the land. Over the years, the garden always did well but in about 1980 Wilfred Miller sold his last horse and cow. From then on, for twenty years they used chemical fertilizers like miracle grow or 20-20-20.
In December of 1998 when I moved in, the garden was still fairly clear of grass and weeds and the soil still looked good. That next spring having no equipment, I planted out a vegetable garden there. Many of the seeds I planted were heritage species that I had already grown out in the area for about ten years. I had been gardening for many years, so I knew what I was doing at this point. But as the season passed the plants grew poorly, there wasn’t much production and at the season’s end the vegetables stored incredibly poorly. Because I had grown these very plants in three other gardens over the previous decade or so and they produced well in all those years, I knew that it was the soil. While it looked great structurally because it was silty bottom land that had been fed well for a hundred years. But the use of chemical fertilizers and who knows what else for twenty years had essentially sterilized the soil.
So, there was lots of lessons here for me about organic vs chemical methods of fertilizing. Not the least of which was the soil’s health, the plant’s health and nutritional uptake are directly related to their storage capacity.
I was so stunned by the poor results I just let that garden go for a couple years. In that time I read about polycultural green manure systems. The third year I tilled the fallow ground and planted oats and peas. The oats are faster growing, providing a bit of understory shade for the peas. And the peas get to hold onto the oats and get off the ground where the pods often rot. The peas fix nitrogen; the grain need nitrogen. You can harvest from this combo, but if you’re trying to build your soil, it’s meant to be turned back into the soil before the oats have set seed. The oat heads are collected by hand, up above the peas, but then the peas can run out the rest of the season, enriching the soil the whole time. And then you can harvest the peas.
Another ancient way of reconditioning the soil is buckwheat in the spring, plowed in when in early flower, followed by fall rye which doesn’t have time to produce seed and so grows right through to the next spring. The Buckwheat enriches the soil. The late Rye adds other elements and has an enzyme that kills off other grasses.
The next year I started planting vegetables again. I was into heavy mulching then, which is really good for building soil. Then we had a wet year and the slugs were terrible. The slugs and having to get truck loads of hay every year convinced me to go back to stop mulching. A couple of years later we ‘deep-dug’ the garden. That’s when you remove a section of topsoil about 4’x3’ move it to the end of your bed. Then turn the subsoil below and move the next section of topsoil back over that. Move along, top then bottom one section at a time to the end of the row. At the end you’ll have a gap which is filled with the top soil that you moved at the start of the row. That garden was very compressed so that really boosted the growth for a couple years. Especially with the roots, which grew as big as babies.
Then I got Lyme disease and couldn’t run the tiller. The fumes killed me. The grass wasn’t too bad and so with some help the first spring when I was still healing we turned the bed by hand. Trying to do as little as possible that year, many areas with a little grass were left and planted directly into, only digging the row out to add a bit of compost . That was about 7 years ago and we’ve done that minimum till system every year since. Sometimes if it seems like a dry year or for plants that need the cover, I selectively mulch. Every year in different ways I add ground dolomitic limestone and horse and chicken compost. In some areas like with the corn I ditch it in. In others, as with tomatoes or peppers, I put it in a pocket under the plants. This way much of the garden I can do untilled. These undisturbed soil strata act to quickly recolonize the disturbed areas where compost has been added. As I say in the video there is as many as fifty weeds in this garden, much of whose biomass goes back into the garden. Sometimes in the beds where I weed them and sometimes into the nearest altar of decay, otherwise know as a compost pile.