Featured Photo : Photo: Corn, Beans, Squash, Potatoes, Sweet Potatoes, Amaranth and Gardener
Last year I worked a couple of gardens with a friend/boss, Buck, who has been cultivating these spaces for decades. Though some of his techniques don’t jive with my permaculture sensibilities, such as tilling every year and walking in garden beds, on many things we were in lock-step. For example, once our seedlings had popped up a few inches high, we used leaves that had been piled the previous autumn to mulch the entire garden.
Up until then, I’d been dismayed with the amount of weeding we were doing each week. Once we’d applied the mulch, I asked why we’d not done it from the outset. Buck told me he preferred to keep a closer eye on the young seedlings—It was easier to amend the soil or address obvious issues without mulch being in the way—and thought of the early weeds, many of which were “chopped” into the soil, as nutrients for the plants. At the end of the growing season, he tilled the leaf-mulch into the garden to replace nutrients.
I have to admit, despite being a proponent of no-dig gardens and cultivating soil life (i.e. not killing it with a tiller), Buck’s technique had a lot about it that seemed sustainably conceived. Leaves had to be raked from the lawn and driveway (Buck is a caretaker for these properties) in the autumn; gardens had to be grown in spring. It made a lot of sense to me to do it this way. Other than adding a little soil enhancement to the hole when planting, the garden’s fertility was set-up to cyclically revive itself.
Learning as We Go
While taking care of these gardens with Buck, my wife Emma and I had been building our own lasagna gardens for annual crops. We’d planted kale, corn, tomatoes, chard, beets, carrots, peas, beans, sweet potatoes, potatoes, squashes, okra, cucumbers, nasturtium, arugula, borage, a mix of herbs, and several other things. Our spread was much more diverse than Buck’s, and we’d taken care to companion plant everything and worked on timed sequencing to boot. Suffice it to say, ours didn’t go quite as theory had dictated, but Buck’s at least felt as if it had.
We were pulling vegetables out of the tilled gardens sooner than our lasagna beds. Now, in terms of tomatoes and peppers, the answer was easy: He’d bought a few seedlings of each from a nursery rather than growing from seed as we had. (Though we’d started early enough to have had similarly sized seedlings, ours had sort of stunted after about a month. We’d also lost many to dampening off.) More disturbingly, his squashes, green beans, and okra had rocketed past ours as well. In short, I still believed the no-dig gardens we’d made were going to be great, but Buck’s tilled beds, grown organically without gobs of help, were humming.
In the end, our gardens, of course, provided plenty. We eventually had cucumbers and summer squashes coming out of our ears. We stowed lots of okra away in the freezer. Green beans were good. Corn had largely been eaten by earworms, but we’d gotten plenty of the heritage beans we’d grown up the stalks and the autumn squashes spreading out below them. Root stuff was questionable for us and a complete wash for most folks because there was record amounts of rain. Because our gardens were raised, we did get potatoes, sweet potatoes, and radishes, but only a few pathetic carrots and beets.
After some reflection on this, I’ve come up with some new theories—ideas we’ll be addressing this spring—as to why it happened:
- For one thing, our no-dig beds were brand new, meaning they should significantly improve in the years to come. Also, Buck’s mulching method would maintain fertility in his gardens and, despite the tilling, encourage soil life to establish. His method has been in the works for years, and I believe enhances the soil rather than depletes it.
- Having started seeds early, without a controlled climate for them, we’d perhaps done the plants (and ourselves) a disservice. Even inside our home, the temperature was below ideal for sowing. The squashes and cucumbers we planted later grew much faster and were way more productive.
- And, actually, this was all in route to discussing Buck’s little soil enhancements. One day at the nursery, Buck pointed out a general organic soil amendment to me and cited it as the secret to his success. When we planted, we’d put a scoop of it underneath either the seedling or the seeds. Sometimes this included a spoon of Epsom salt and/or lime, but everything got the mix.
Facing the Facts
I think a piece of me wants gardens so fertile that they don’t need amendments to grow gigantic plants heavy with nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables. However, whatever techniques we use, that’s not exactly how it works: In his videos, Geoff Lawton is always feeding the soil with worm juice or the compost pile with minerals. Some measure of this just takes place in improving and maintaining soil. Of course, we can possibly do it more sustainably than always buying a bag of something, but utopian fertility doesn’t come solely from the right method for building garden beds. The work doesn’t end there. It only makes sense that we (organically) enhance the soil directly beneath our crops because they’ll be more productive.
The other issue is that my wife and I are vegan, unwilling to buy things like blood meal and bone meal, which typically come from industrial farming. We avoid purposely killing animals and/or supporting the factory farming of them. We do so without asking others to do the same but as a personal choice in our own lives. For example, I scooped and applied Buck’s mix for him without reservation and ate some the vegetables resulting from it. All of this is to say that, while it would have been easy enough to simply follow Buck’s lead on this, the organic mix he uses, for good reason, contains both blood and bone meal. As a result, we don’t want to buy it, and I’ve been looking for vegan alternatives to what these provide, hoping to make a homemade equivalent of the mix he uses.
What I’ve come up with is a mix of items we inevitably produce or have access to. Here are the components of the mix Emma and I are compiling over the winter, and we are planning to mix the coffee grounds and ash roughly equally, with the manure ideally being the same and bananas sprinkled in whatever amount they’ve materialized:
- Coffee grounds. We are both coffee drinkers, despite it being imported, but we do buy organic, fair trade in effort to be more responsible about it. Coffee grounds, like blood meal, are rich in nitrogen and can be slightly acidic. It will hopefully provide the early growth thrust we are looking for. Plus, the grounds improve soil structure and encourage microbes. Alfalfa meal is a store-bought alternative, and it’s actually a listed component in Buck’s mix.
- Wood ash. Because we heat and sometimes cook with wood, we produce quite a bit of wood ash, which can cautiously be used in gardens. It does increase alkalinity; however, being in the mountains and forests of western North Carolina, we have notedly acidic soil. Wood ash adds micronutrients to the mix, and a good percentage of calcium, a big part of why folks use bone meal and garden lime. It also has magnesium—like Epsom salt—to aid in nutrient absorption.
- Banana peels. Like coffee, bananas are not locally sourced here, but we do still have them regularly. We make the effort of getting organic bananas and only buy them when they are on special and about to be thrown out by the supermarket. This is just another boost in nutrients and something to make the mix slightly more complex, i.e. diverse in its ingredients. Bananas peels are commonly recommended for directly applied soil enhancement as being a good source of potassium.
- Manure. This is another tricky thing for us as animals are involved. However, we are planning to collect little bits of manure here and there. We live near equestrian trails, cow pastures, and lots of deer, so scrounging up a couple of buckets without buying it as a product, thus financially supporting the use of animals for industry, seems reasonable (again our choice, not a judgement on others). I think the coffee would be sufficient were this not an option.
Again, this is to put in the planting holes, not a general soil amendment. We will continue to add mulch and compost atop the soil for overall maintenance. This mix is in an effort to get that initial growth spurt that Buck’s plants seemed to get but ours lacked (or got to a lesser extent). We’ll also be using homemade foliar sprays, comfrey tea and such, to help them along this coming year.
Verifying Such Thoughts
Aware of again working completely in the theoretical over experienced, at least in terms of a vegan approach to this amendment mix, I must admit that these thoughts are just thoughts. The mix hasn’t proven out effective and will be experimental, but I felt that the mindset was worth sharing. And, I’m interested in getting honest input into what we’re attempting with this fertilizer from those with more years of wisdom than I have. I don’t want to reinvent the wheel, but I do want to find a solution. And, I’m trying to do so without a product.
I’ve written about veganism on this site beforeand was—to put it in appropriately figurative terms—slaughtered for even bringing up the practice. (I should also note there was a lot of much-appreciated support.) As my previous article explains, I do understand the benefits of animal systems. Without getting into that again, suffice it to say that I know being vegan has increased the challenge of producing a self-sufficient garden and that most people don’t find the practice prudent. However, the advice I’m seeking is not regarding this lifestyle choice but how one might go about making a good, all-around soil amendment like Buck’s when faced with this challenge