Breaking new ground aids quality of life

Posted Nov. 14, 2008, at 8:32 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 6:01 a.m.

“Perhaps the most radical thing you can do in our time is to start turning over the soil, loosening it up for the crops to settle in, and then stay home and tend them.”

— Rebecca Solnit

As writer and gardener Rebecca Solnit points out in her article “The Most Radical Thing You Can Do” (Orion, November/December 2008), the word “radical” comes from the Latin word for root. Gardeners rooted in the soil of their gardens always have worked diligently to keep it healthy and productive. Now, in times of escalating fuel and food prices, the quality of our lives may depend on staying home and breaking new ground.

We are breaking new ground in Marjorie’s garden, a small patch of the closest thing we have to “lawn,” a mixture of grasses (mostly Kentucky bluegrass), wild strawberries and dandelions. Before beginning the task of converting this weed patch to garden bed, we sampled the soil for testing, sending the samples to the University of Maine Analytical Lab. (Instructions for soil sampling and testing can be obtained from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension office in your county.) We will have the test results back before we need them in early spring.

Taking advantage of the past week’s mild weather, we began by mowing the weeds as short as possible. We then covered the area with several layers of newspaper, followed by an 8-inch layer of seaweed and straw (not hay, which contains weed seeds).

Our future garden bed will spend the winter under this cover and whatever snow accumulates above it. In early spring, as the sun warms the earth and stimulates new growth, most of the plants buried beneath the cover will quickly use up the food reserves stored through winter in their roots and die.

In early May, after snowmelt, we will remove what’s left of the cover, exposing bare ground to the sun. By this time, the newspaper will have mostly disappeared and what remains of the seaweed-straw mix will be set aside to use as weed-suppressing mulch over the new bed.

After the soil dries out we will turn it over with a spade, adding any amendments recommended by the soil test as well as plenty of composted goat manure. As we turn and rake the soil, we will remove any remaining clumps of live grass and roots. By the end of May, our new bed will be ready for its first planting.

The first crop will be summer vegetables, perhaps tomatoes, cucumbers or squash. Experience tells us that this first crop will be a bumper crop, likely due to an abundance of nutrients in the soil. For many years, the grasses and weeds functioned as a perennial cover crop, recycling nutrients, including those returned to the soil as clippings each time we mowed.

This is how we transform “lawn” into new garden beds in Marjorie’s garden. We like to begin in late autumn unless snow falls early, and then we cover the bed as soon as possible in spring and keep it covered until the end of May. This late start delays planting of the first crop until sometime in June, still early enough for a crop of tomatoes or cucumbers.

In hard times, we turn to our gardens. We enlarge our gardens or begin new ones. We stay home, grow our own food, and perhaps discover, as Solnit writes, “a more stately, settled, secure way of living.” We find richness rooted in our connection with healthy soil.

Send queries to Gardening Questions, P.O. Box 418, Ellsworth 04605, or to rmanley@shead.org. Include name, address and telephone number.

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