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Converting Pearl's Garden

Published in the six Nashoba Publishing papers on Friday, 10 August 2001

Pearl Russell, who lives next door to me, at ninety is still planting a 400-square-foot vegetable garden every spring. We’ve been trading plants and produce for a long time, and enjoying each other’s gardens. But until now, we have had one major difference in our gardening styles: I do it organically, and she has been using chemicals.

However last year she told me she was frustrated with how poor the soil in her garden is. I had noticed, when I dug in it, there were no earthworms. Many chemical fertilizers and pesticides kill earthworms, as well as other tiny animals and beneficial microorganisms — all of which are essential to healthy soil. And her plants were doing poorer and poorer, even though she kept adding more fertilizer.

The first step was to add about four cubic yards of compost. That’s more than a backyard pile can make in several years, so I bought it from Mass Natural, in Westminster. On top of that, the Garden Troopers and I spread 200 pounds of natural fertilizers: blood meal for nitrogen, ground rock phosphate for the phosphorus, and greensand for potassium. These fertilizers are naturally slow-release; the chemistry of the soil will convert them to the nutrients that are needed by both plants, and earthworms, and beneficial bacteria.

Then Rob Collins tilled it with his rear-tine machine. Rear tillers are more powerful (as well as easier to use) because the weight is behind the wheels. He made three passes over the whole area, eventually digging the eight-inch tiller wheel in to its whole depth, mixing the new nutrients thoroughly into the old, poor sandy soil below. Finally Pearl planted: lettuce and tomatoes, beans, squash and peppers. The earthworms won’t come back immediately, but the soil amendments will attract them.

Eight inches is below the root depth for many garden crops; at that depth we’re feeding the soil more than the plants. But that’s how organic gardening works: you don’t try to feed the plants in isolation from their environment. That would be like trying to keep a human body healthy by eating pills instead of fruits and vegetables: supplements can’t give you everything you need because scientists don’t even know everything we really need yet. So with our crops: the organic gardener feeds the soil to feed the plant.

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© Copyright 2001 Catherine Holmes Clark