This post is an annotated version of a section of a talk on Vegetable Gardening, given to the Martha’s Vineyard Garden Club.
At the edge of Mill Hill, and near to Ridge Hill, the Wishetwurra Farm garden is located at an upper edge of what was once Old Man West’s cow pasture. It faces roughly east-southeast, and is at the head of a small valley that slopes down to Looks Pond and the Tiasquam River. Existing topsoil is meager at best. The dirt here is mostly gray and white clays. Kaolins, I’ve been told. It’s a glacial jumble, for sure. While building my house, I hand-dug the basement trench for my water line. In the course of forty feet of trench there were patches of sand as fine and as loose as confectioner’s sugar, and other patches of hard, gray, pebble-laden clay that would yield only to a pick wielded by a younger, stronger, me.
This hard, poorly-drained material has required much labor, and much hauling, to transform it into the soil it is today. Lime has been applied to bring the pH up to a level approaching neutral. The lime also helps the teensy particles of clay clump up, thereby improving structure and drainage. I have added truckloads of sand, and mixed that in. Whether the sand has helped I am not certain. Ashes from my woodstove get applied from time to time. But the primary key to improving the soil has been the continuous addition of as much organic material as I can haul. Compost, manure, leaves, and seaweed, added, and added again, are the the primary source of this material. Another excellent source of humus is from growing cover crops Which we grow whenever and wherever possible.
I have tried many composting methods, from bins made of pallets, to rings of wire fence, to layered constructions that were six feet wide, five feet high, and fifty feet long, to “sheet composting”—where you spread out leaves and till them in to the top level of the soil. These days I have two compost “centers”.
One center is a bin made of used concrete blocks. This is where most day-to-day garden weedings, thinnings, and “waste” material goes. From time to time I’ll add a layer of manure, or sprinkle on some wood ash. About once a year, the bin gets dug out, and the compost gets wheelbarrowed to where it’s needed.
The second compost center is a commercially made, two compartment “compostumbler”. I found this rig at a yard sale for a hundred dollars, and it was money well spent. They’re expensive to buy new, but nothing I’ve seen yet works as well as this one.
We have millions of helpers in the garden. The worms.
Over the years I have done a lot of double-digging and trenching, in an effort to get organic material more deeply into the earth, and to improve drainage. Most of the garden has now gotten this treatment.
The next photo is of my very favorite part of the horse.
The part that comes from the “rear office”.
Here on the Vineyard, we are fortunate to have a lot of horses around. Many horse owners are very, very happy to have you come take as much manure as you can haul. If you don’t have a truck, or are at an age where you’re not as strong as you used to be, there are people who will bring you a whole dumptruck load of poop for relatively small money.
Manure is spread thickly on the garden beds.
Here’s the same bed, a month or six weeks later.
We used to use winter rye for a cover crop. The problem with rye, for us, is that it survives over the winter, and then, when the weather warms, shoots up a couple of feet. Tilling in two feet of rye is a big, big, ridiculous chore. Planting cover crops that are killed by cold does not endow you with such springtime troubles.
We have been experimenting with adding charcoal, or “bio-char” to the garden. We accumulate a lot of brush each year, which we burn in the early spring. At one time we let the fire go down to ashes, which we then spread, but we have too many ashes already. Now we make charcoal, and add that to the soil.
You get charcoal by removing air from the embers. Put the coals into metal cans, and cover, or simply douse the embers with water.
Spread the charcoal on the garden, and till in.
We wrote much more extensively about bio-char in another tompostpile post.
Please see: https://thetompostpile.wordpress.com/2013/03/16/low-tech-biochar-at-wishetwurra-farm-an-experiment-in-progress/
Whenever winds or storms bring seaweed ashore, we go gather up as much of it as we have time for.
Seaweed is a great mulch, and can often be re-used a time or two, as it’s slow to decompose. When it finally does go to earth, it takes with it just about every micronutrient you might want.
The end result of all this work?
Having to call in the heavy equipment to hill the potatoes.