My Turn: A growing calm in the garden

  • For more than 40 years, Sol Solomon has been using raised beds in his garden. Sol Solomon

  • You can grow much more in a limited space with raised beds than in a traditional garden. Sol Solomon

For the Monitor
Published: 5/10/2020 8:00:13 AM

This year I am even more aware of what a privilege it is to have a garden. It affords fresh air and exercise with no worry about social distancing. The chipmunks and birds scurrying about are not concerned by my proximity. I sometimes feel guilty for having such freedom of movement and to be fully immersed in nature whenever I want.

This season more people than ever are gardening. Seed packets are in scarce supply. Garden centers are booming. People are learning that growing their own food can be easy and fun. I hope they also discover the benefits a garden provides in addition to growing vegetables.

When I walk out my front door into the garden, my senses are assaulted with magical fragrances and bird songs. The emotional and mental benefits of gardening are as valuable as the food it provides. There is no better stress relief. I cannot imagine living where I could not put a seed in the ground, watch it sprout and grow.

Gardening connects me directly to the soil, to the Earth; it grounds me. No matter what stress I may be struggling with, a few minutes in the garden helps put things in perspective. Gardeners can’t help but be reminded of the cycle of life with every crop they plant and harvest. Gardening reminds us what a miracle life is, whether it comes in the form of a vegetable, an animal or an insect

I am a proponent of no-stress gardening. I have no expectations when I put a seed or plant in the ground. I do my best to help it thrive, but I’m not dependent on its yield. Whatever I get is a bonus. I haven’t had a soil test on my beds in 40 years. I just keep adding compost and stuff grows nicely. That’s all I want or expect.

When I began gardening, I had not yet heard about raised beds, so I bought a Troy-Bilt Rototiller, the Cadillac of tillers, and used it for several years to turn the soil over in the spring. I was an avid reader of Mother Earth News and a proponent of organic gardening. Then I read a book called The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka in 1978 that dramatically changed my thinking.

Fukuoka observed that trees and plants thrive in their natural setting without any human interference. Nature does just fine without us, he wrote, and we would do well to mimic Nature’s laws on our own farms and gardens.

Look at the soil and the diversity of plants in a forest, Fukuoka writes, and you will find layers of insects and microorganisms working in harmony. There is an order and logic to these soil layers that permit redwoods to grow hundreds of feet and live for thousands of years, and for all the myriad forest plants to prosper.

Soil is not a lifeless medium in which to pump fertilizer and pesticides, the tenets of modern agribusiness. Rather, soil is a living, breathing, intelligent ecosystem that prospers best when left alone by man. I was stunned by the simplicity and intelligence of Fukuoka’s observations and the “do nothing” techniques he suggested.

I’ve followed Fukuoka’s guidelines as much as possible since then. I sold my Troy-Bilt tiller and built raised beds. I’ve had these beds for more than 40 years. The beds are small enough (about 3½ feet by 7 feet) that I can reach into the middle and never have to step on the soil. Nor do I turn the soil. I simply aerate the beds each spring with a fork, keeping the layers intact. As a result, the soil is loose and friable and filled with earthworms.

You can grow much more in a limited space with raised beds than in a traditional garden. Instead of narrow, single rows of plants and wide walkways on either side, raised beds and their plants take up most of the space, with walkways minimized.

I don’t fertilize and rarely water. The soil is so rich with compost the plant roots are able to descend deeply to find moisture. No matter how hot it may be, heavy forest dew blankets the plants every morning. By putting the plants closer, their leaves create an umbrella that reduces weeds, like a forest canopy.

Raised beds warm quickly, so I’ve already planted peas, carrots, lettuce and Swiss chard. They all happily survived the snow that briefly covered them twice. The garlic and rhubarb have been up for weeks.

Fukuoka’s teachings are reflected in the current popular trends of Regenerative Agriculture and Permaculture. These forms of small-scale farming and gardening embrace the use of perennial food-bearing plants, trees and shrubs, and the incorporation of livestock and water elements to create a living, breathing ecosystem that provides abundant yields of food with a minimum of work.

Compare these common-sense techniques with modern agribusiness and its use of mono-cropping, tillage and petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides. Our arrogant belief that the cycles of nature are insufficient and can be improved upon by humans has led to the catastrophe of modern agriculture. These farms are testimonials to a toxic growing environment that damages the soil, air, groundwater, the health of farmers and produces inferior food.

Small-scale organic farms have been growing by leaps and bounds over the past few years. These farms are able to turn a profit while serving their local communities with food that is superior to what may be available in the supermarket.

If one result of this pandemic is more people start a garden and reconnect with the natural cycles of nature, perhaps this will also lead to a more critical look at how our food is produced. I can think of no better guide than Fukuoka’s small book, which happily is still in print.

(Sol Solomon lives in Sutton.)

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