Crisp and sweet, so massive she could carry only one at a time, Brenda arrived at the local farmers' market to sell her first crop of cabbages. Regulars at the market flocked to her stand, astounded by the extraordinary produce. At the time, she was unable to explain the bounty to the mesmerized market attendees. Her produce was eagerly snapped up by appreciative foodies. As the abundance of her harvest dwindled each year, she reasoned it must be the amount of sun, or rain, or some variance in the weather that season.
Brenda and her husband had purchased well-rested land, then plowed under an area of nitrogen-capturing alfalfa creating a garden to grow food for their family. Their first harvest was plentiful, the land, obviously, fertile. Yet each fall as her neighbour mucked out the horse barn onto a resting garden and harvested vegetables from last year’s manure-enriched garden, Brenda’s garden sat, more depleted and unrestored. In the fullness of time, she would come to understand that her sensational first-year crop had everything to do with the richness of her soil.
Brenda Harvey recently shared her hard won “soil wisdom” with participants in St Albert Urban Agriculture’s Organic Gardening workshop. She is a local gardening guru full of curiosity and a willingness to experiment, literally measuring her results while gaining greater understanding about successfully growing food.
While many of us turn our soil and pour litres of tap water injected with synthetic fertilizers onto our crops, Brenda chooses to emulate Mother Nature. After all, millennia of evolution have resulted in brilliant, effective natural systems. What forest requires leaf blowers, hoses and fertilizing?
Now Brenda wisely restores her garden soil in the fall. She spreads mulched leaves and compost, and lets Mother Nature provide the worms and the microbes to release nutrients back into the soil. Does she turn the soil to speed up the process? Absolutely not. That would disturb and damage the underground ecosystem that keeps the soil rich and moist. The more organic matter in her soil, the more sponge-like it is, holding nutrients and moisture and encouraging healthy plants while discouraging disease.
One of her more recent and highly successful experiments was a lasagna garden. Sounds delicious! It’s a fun and descriptive name for a layered garden (more mundanely called “sheet mulching”) one can build without the hassle of removing sod. In fact, all the nutrient and humus provided by sod enriches the garden resulting in more dazzling crops!
Lasagna gardening is ridiculously simple compared to traditional garden building methods. Plain cardboard or multiple layers of newsprint smother the lawn. Moistening these layers helps to break them down into compost over time. Brenda has literally layered in anything that once grew (i.e. nothing synthetic). She has raided her cupboards for stale cornmeal and oat bran. Kitchen scraps, leaf mulch, compost and grass clippings work too. Brenda was amazed at how quickly the layers disappeared and rich soil resulted. Some folks plant seedlings directly into it while others wait a season for the soil to “appear”.
Does this sound simple, economical, ecological? You bet! Abundant and delicious produce is your reward. Anyone want to join in a “no till, no turn” experiment this season?
Jill Cunningham grew up in St. Albert, has a Bachelor of Education from University of Alberta and is passionate about nature, the environment, and building community.