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December 27, 2014
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How does your garden grow?


Spring starts in early January at my house when my husband starts planning his Fedco seed order, reading aloud the enticing descriptions of leeks and lettuces from the catalog. By the time spring officially arrives, the seed trays on the back porch are full of tender shoots that will soon be transplanted to the 30-by-30-foot garden he has nurtured for the past 15 years.

The prospects for that patch of earth were not favorable when we moved here in 1998. The ground was so hard a shovel bounced off it. In fact, our first soil test revealed a nearly total absence of organic material; we didn’t have dirt so much as compacted dust, highly acidic and inhospitable to earthworms and other beneficial organisms.

We couldn’t afford to truck in topsoil and anyway, imported soil would eventually become depleted and need rehabilitation, too. The most practical choice was to rehabilitate the soil we had by building it up with the necessary minerals and organic matter and using it in such a way as to replenish its fertility through organic techniques.

We chose a soil testing company that would make organic recommendations, and learned that what we needed most were calcium and potassium, both readily available from Fertrell. Calcium, in the form of lime, raised our soil’s pH to a healthy 6.5, good for growing vegetables. We added Jersey Greensand to improve our soil’s water retention. Most importantly, we began composting all of our vegetable kitchen waste and yard waste such as leaves, chips and pine needles. Even the ash from our wood stove is recycled as a pH-correcting soil additive, good for vegetables and for shrubs and trees as well. We learned we could also enhance soil fertility by rotating our crops and growing “green manure”—soil replenishing ground covers.

These strategies have enabled us to avoid chemical pesticides because healthy soil pH and crop rotation prevent the creation of habitat for pests and diseases. By contrast, chemical gardening creates the never-ending need for fertilizers and pesticides because it does not address longterm soil health.

Within two years, the garden was producing more strawberries and tomatoes than we could eat, an annual feast that now includes lettuce, spinach, leeks, scallions, onions, carrots, potatoes, celery root and rhubarb. Garlic is our new obsession, and the scapes—the “flower stalks of hard neck garlic plants”—make an amazing pesto. We grow lots of herbs, and bee balm and coneflowers to attract pollinators. Valerian and amaranthus add dramatic shapes and color, and a small tree nursery is dedicated to propagating fringe trees (Chionanthus virginicus), a beautiful flowering native.

Our personal choice to embrace organic practices has made our garden much less expensive to grow, easier to maintain and infinitely healthier to eat—in short, sustainable. And sustainability in the microcosm of my own back yard translates to a bigger picture; if every home gardener followed organic practices, we could significantly reduce toxins in our water and soil, reduce the demand for petroleum-derived chemical fertilizers and reduce the carbon footprint of the manufacture and transportation of those chemical products. That would be a collective personal choice with global environmental significance.

Our go-to reference is Eliot Coleman’s book “The New Organic Gardener.” Fedco (www.fedcoseeds.com) is a great supplier of organic, non-GMO seeds, and Fertrell (www.fertrell.com) has a range of organic soil amendments.