I was so pleased to see how much more fertile the soil was looking in the bed where we grew the peas and where Philip and Zhang transplanted some greens this past week.
The soil in that bed was looking very tired this spring so we wanted to plant something that would feed us, while feeding the soil too. Peas fix nitrogen; all the legume pea and bean crops do this as well as the clovers we find growing in the lawn and some shrubs and trees. (For the scientifically inclined you can get a start on understanding this process here. ) The alder tree that comes up first in BC’s clearcuts fixes nitrogen in the soil as it quickly grows, shedding leaves and pumping nutrients back into the soil so more demanding trees can get their start. By growing nitrogen fixing legumes in our garden we feed ourselves and nourish the web of bacterial, insect and fungal life we call soil.
At our Friday learning partymeet-ups we’ve been experimenting with different ways of planting (greens in blocks, not rows) and we did attempt a polyculture. In a polyculture you plant several crops together- carrots, beets, greens, radishes to imitate the diversity of a wild system. Polycultures depend on early harvesting of the crop that comes up first (radishes usually) to create space for the next.
We’ve also been experimenting with mulches. This is probably the area that I feel has made the biggest different to my own garden. We’re so used to bare soil in gardens that we forget that this rarely happens in the wild. Leaves fall, grasses die back and as they break down they create rich hummus layer of soil. By layering the weeds back on the soil that we pull, by adding grass clippings and leaves or straw or compost (or whatever organic material we can get our hands on) we feed all the hungry soil microorganisms (and the bigger guys like the worms) the nourishing meals they need. Healthier soil makes healthier, stronger plants.
We’ve also experimented with resisting the urge to pull every weed. This is very challenging! Dandelions have a long, strong taproot that penetrates the deep into the ground and absorbs minerals. I’ve been letting a certain number of my dandelions go and treating them as a source of living mulch. I just pick the leaves (they get big when they’re loved!) and mulch around other plants. Whenever I do pull one up I’m always amazed at how many worm babies there are curled around the root. Certain kinds of wild bees (we have over 800 varieties of wild bees in the lower mainland depend on wild plant and weeds. Some of them prefer dandelion blooms to any other!
All of these experiments are messier than traditional vegetable (and even organic) practices at least at first while we’re learning. I’m comfortable with a messier look when I see how much habitat I’m creating for the garden helpers (bees, worms, beneficial insects, birds), how resistant my plants are to disease and harmful insects and how rich and crumbly the soil is. After just a couple of years of gardening like this I’m seeing how much healthier my soil and plants are, without any added chemicals or even manures. The garden is feeding me and itself. As we learn to at first tolerate a few beneficial weeds and even nurture them a bit, they look more lush and intentional. Over time we develop instincts of what to leave and what to pull. We can cut up weeds into smaller, uniform sizes to make a mulch layer look more tended. And as the soil builds more life it nurtures our vegetables so they crowd out the weeds. All our eyes see is the vibrant life and food we’re growing.
Thank-you all for being part of the experiments this year and tending the garden so well. At our next learning party we will get the garden ready for winter by mulching deeply (I’ll bring some straw since we’ll probably be a bit early for autumn weeds. This is also the time when many folks plant a "cover crop" like annual rye grass. It’s grown to protect the soil in the winter (all those rains wash away a lot of our soil fertility if we leave them bare) and then dug into the garden in early spring to compost in place. I don’t know if we’ll have a bed free to try one, but I’ll bring some seed along just in case.