By Darlene Belton, Master Gardener
I’ve grown herbs and a few vegetables, such as tomatoes, cucumbers and squash, for many years but I have always tucked them right into my ornamental borders. However, this year for many reasons, I decided to experiment with creating a dedicated vegetable garden.
The prime motivator was wanting to implement my recent learning about regenerative agriculture, a growing movement to restore farmed landscapes to levels of soil and ecological health not seen since before the European settlement. Soil health is now even more rapidly degenerating through impacts of industrial agriculture, which destroys soil and ecosystems by heavy tillage, chemical applications, and the increasingly intensive cultivation of monocultures.
The learning adventure started for me this January with the MMGA Education Day speaker, Rod Kueneman of Sustainable South Osborne Community Co-op, who recommended a book by North Dakotan Gabe Brown, Dirt to Soil, which I subsequently ordered. I found Gabe’s soil-building practices both fascinating and feasible, and so when I heard in February that Gabe was presenting to farmers interested in soil regeneration near St. Malo, about a 20-minute drive from Winnipeg, I immediately signed up and notified Rod. Rod and a colleague from SOCC attended, all of us interested in the gardening applications of this primarily farming methodology. After the event, which we found stirring, Rod and I kept in touch on the topic.
In early March Rod sent me an email describing a just-released book he had discovered: No-Till Intensive Vegetable Culture: Pesticide-Free Methods for Restoring Soil and Growing Nutrient-Rich, High-Yielding Crops by Connecticut market gardener, Bryan O’Hara. Enthusiastic about this detailed handbook and its gardening applications of soil-regenerative techniques, Rod also included a list of links to O’Hara’s YouTube videos. I immediately viewed them and ordered the book online. I became as enthusiastic as Rod about O’Hara’s techniques for building soil and surrounding ecosystem health while producing abundant nutrient-dense organic herbs and vegetables.
I am unable to create a dedicated vegetable garden at my home. It is a struggle to keep ornamentals alive in soil continuously robbed of moisture and nutrients by the voracious roots of the many spruce trees hovering too near our property line in a neighbour’s yard, not to mention too much shade. My husband and I explored many options, including looking for rural property which we have been unable to find so far. We finally asked my brother if we could develop a vegetable garden in his yard which receives more sun. He agreed, and we set to work in May using as many of O’Hara’s techniques as we could to carve a 14’ X 14’ garden out of the lawn in my brother’s back yard.
I mentioned above that I had many reasons for this venture. Covid 19 supplied additional motivations. In early spring when I was in the preparation stage, it was most uncertain what the economic impacts of the pandemic would be. Would food supply chains be disrupted? Would the stock market crash, taking our savings with it? It seemed reasonable to consider that we might need a more self-sufficient future lifestyle, and I know that growing vegetables is a skill not acquired overnight. No matter what, I was sure we would learn a lot from this first venture. I am also concerned in general about our food security, trusting most the produce I have grown myself that I know is chemical-free and from healthy, living soil.
From this backdrop, I shall now describe our process.
Step one: Obtaining seeds. Preferring to buy local, I purchased seeds from a local seed company in mid-March and managed to get my order filled before it was inundated by orders from others like me across Canada who were venturing, often for the first time, into vegetable gardening.
Step two: Creating the garden. Although O’Hara’s approach to vegetable gardening is no-till, he provides a step-by-step procedure for starting from ‘virgin’ turf, such as my brother’s lawn, and this involves initial tilling. We purchased a sod lifter hand tool, and my husband cut the sod into manageable strips ready for lifting. The tool worked well, and he was able to clear the space in a few hours. Beneath was soil that appeared very healthy by both Gabe’s and O’Hara’s criteria (see Figure 2) – an appearance of ‘cottage cheese’ consistency that shows that the grass root exudates combined with bacterial and fungal action had caused the soil to lump together, allowing for passage of air and water. My husband then dug the soil using a spade and lightly turned it, adding additional soil enriched with worm castings and Sea Soil. This will be the only ‘tilling’ the garden will ever receive, an event very destructive to the soil biology, but from which it can recover provided the tillage is a one-time event, according to O’Hara.
The sod was lifted and turned over, ready for the soil to be shaken out and returned to the garden along with worm castings and Sea Soil amendments.
The “cottage cheese” appearance of healthy aggregated soil.
Step three: Designing the garden’s configuration. I chose to make only three short pathways with space for double row planting between, allowing for access to all the grow areas for produce tending and weeding. The paths were laid with leaves (saved from last fall) covered with a thick layer of flax straw so that the garden is accessible even after a heavy rain (we should be so lucky in these droughty years!). We strung fishing line between bamboo poles to support the peas and beans and installed what so far has turned out to be an excellent rabbit fence (sourced in 50-foot X 26-inch bundles. The fencing also encloses a generous pathway around three sides of the garden, including an ingenious ‘gate’ created by my husband.
Me sowing seed on a chilly May 21st. Note the pathway row design.
Step four: Planting the garden. In late May I sowed seeds for several varieties of lettuce, plus sugar snap peas, beans, carrots, kale, spinach, Swiss chard and arugula (the kale and arugula didn’t ‘take’, possibly owing to the odd hot/cold weather at that time). We reserved a small area for my three-year-old grand-nephew to sow seeds of his favorite vegetables, and then in the second week of June planted seedlings, grown under grow lights at home, for patty pan, butternut and spaghetti squash, plus cucumber, sweet pepper, eggplant, watermelon, and three tomatoes in containers. I covered the space between rows with a mulch of shredded leaves with flax straw thinly stretched over.
Rows seeded, mulch laid, ready for growing to start.
The rabbit fence design has small spaces at ground level gradually enlarging up to the 26” fence height.
Step five: Maintenance. My brother agreed to water daily through the hot, dry later June days, and so it has only been necessary to visit the garden (a 25-minute drive from our home) two to three times a week. The mulch has kept weeding to a bare minimum, and most plantings are growing well. I was delighted to observe our deep maroon ‘Red Sails’ lettuce which O’Hara says is an ‘indicator plant’ – if it is dark red, your soil is good. In fact, it will soon be time for a second sowing, as the lettuce and spinach are getting mature.
So far so good with this experiment. We have already enjoyed delicious salads from our produce and eagerly wait for the rest to mature. These recent hot, humid days, coupled with some good rains, are causing the growth to leap.
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Local Seed Companies that sell vegetable seeds: Heritage Harvest Seed, Fisher Branch; McKenzie Seeds, Brandon; Prairie Flora, Teulon; T&T Seeds, Headingly.