Oh, the pleasures of the garden in May. Early light, long evenings, and the rapid growth of vegetables, flowers, and trees make May an exciting and vibrant month. It seems to get better every year. This is the way of the garden, and the gardener.
The wild dogwoods have been spectacular, their teasingly - slow opening provides weeks of beauty. They are a great background for delicate pink and white apple blossoms, and the wonderful soft pink of the royal azaleas and magnolias.
Add a few lilacs for fragrance, and a deep red tulip next to an overflowing bleeding-heart, its pink heart-shaped flowers, hung in rows from gracefully arching branches, and quickly, it becomes a real pleasure to go outside. And, all this beauty happens with almost no maintenance. Trees, shrubs and many perennials need little more, once planted and mulched, than to be left alone, and kept free of other plants which might overgrow them. Knowing the invasives like poison ivy, multiflora roses, bittersweet, and quack grass, and weeding them out is a good strategy.
But as beautiful as the flowers are, it's our garden soil that gives me the greatest pleasure. It too gets more beautiful every year. We planted winter rye in many of our gardens last fall. When I cut it down this spring and turned it into the soil, the rye and its fibrous roots created a great texture. There are almost no weeds because the rye has crowded them out. Using a shovel, I chop up the stems before turning them under. I also try to open up the soil as deeply as possible. Air and water passages down into the soil encourage soil organisms and deep rooting. For planting potatoes, I turn under the rye in the rows only. Later, I'll cut what's grown between the rows for mulch and then turn under the stubble when I hill up the potatoes. I've recently read that the vigorous decomposition which occurs when the rye is first turned under, helps to prevent scab on potatoes.
To make a garden bed, after turning over an area about 4 by 25 feet, I scoop the best soil up from the paths around it and put it on top like a deep brown feather comforter. I poke shallots and a few fingerling potatoes into one of these soft beds, and, in a few months, we'll have some good food.
Last fall, we turned in buckwheat, planted in mid-summer, the same way, to make four long beds for the garlic. It's been up for almost two months. The stalks are as thick as my thumb. Now, here's a great crop! Soon after work begins in the garden in early spring, the garlic is there - its blue-green pointed leaves, sturdy and vigorous, promise a great harvest in July.
Each season that the soil is worked this way, using cover crops and perhaps adding compost and a bit of ground rock, it gets better. Its tilth improves. The plants are healthier; weeds become more manageable, and much easier to pull out. Time is on the side of organic gardeners and farmers because we work with nature, using her powerful tendency toward greater diversity, fertility, complexity and stability.
History tells us that civilizations ultimately rise and fall depending on how they treat their soil. If left alone, in forest or prairie, soil builds up slowly and steadily. Once soil is disturbed, however, the process reverses. Currently, conventional farmers loose two bushels of topsoil for each bushel of corn they produce. Dominant agricultural practices allow millions of tons of poisons to be dumped on the soil each year.
It is much easier to protect the soil when we work it by hand using organic practices. And, contrary to what we are often told, yields from intensive hand cultivation often outstrip those from commercial methods.
Most of us have access to some piece of the Earth. Since on this planet, there is less than an acre of cropland per person to raise all the food we need, what we do in our yards, community gardens, school grounds and other public land is critically important.
As the institutional dinosaurs of the dominant culture continue to thrash about for market share, political advantage, and higher profits, the garden in your yard will become the most important building block for a healthy, happy future.
Good gardening to you this glorious spring.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth.
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