My guest this week is Barbara Damrosh. An icon in the world of gardening, Barbara began her horticultural career in the mid-1970’s and has always been driven by the desire to help others get into gardening. To that end, she published her first of many books, The Garden Primer, in 1988; and she’s spent time as a regional host of The Victory Garden and her own television show, Gardening Naturally. Needless to say, I’m excited that Barbara was able to join me to talk about some timeless gardening principles.
She and her husband, Eliot Coleman (another legend in the gardening world) have lived on their commercial, organic Four Season Farm in Maine for the past two-plus decades. I first met them a few years back when they were featured on an episode of my show, Growing a Greener World®. Gardening year-round in Zone 5b of Maine is no joke, so it was fascinating to observe their techniques for growing produce through the cold winter months.
To say that these two are passionate about gardening would be an understatement. They spend each day working the farm and growing, not just food, but also flowers which Barbara gathers and sells to area distributors,.
They carved this farm out of the woods of Maine, mostly by hand. Eliot began the work when he purchased the land in 1968. Without the benefit of power equipment, he and a team of volunteers cleared the land by axe and bow saw. As a former landscaper and landscape designer, Barbara helped to shape the property beyond a vegetable farm and into an elaborate example of bloom and form. Together, they have worked with the processes of nature to create fertile soil that produces a bounty of edible crops and a vibrant landscape.
Barbara is a firm believer that you don’t need a green thumb to be a good gardener. You just need to get in there and start to do the work – get dirty and enjoy the experience. The more you garden, the better you will become at it. Mother Nature will reward your efforts.
Letting Go of Control
As a species, we are all about control, and the garden has been no exception. Historically, gardeners have worked hard to reinvent their environment – tilling, fertilizing, clearing away, and planting in. More and more, we are coming to recognize a beautiful truth: We will be more successful when we don’t strive to reinvent Mother Nature. The natural processes at work can work for us as long as we don’t work against them.
A great example is a long-held practice known as double-digging. Barbara taught about this traditional method in her books. It involves digging deep into the subsoil and then backfilling with lots of amendments to create several inches of fertile soil. I demonstrated this technique myself once several years ago on an episode of my show, Fresh from the Garden. Today, we both laugh about all the extra effort we spent which, ultimately, did arguably as much harm as good.
Why is this process now considered obsolete? Well, we now know that the soil food web is one of our strongest partners in the garden. There are billions of organisms within the web which process nutrients and create structure within the soil to promote aeration and drainage. By double-digging, we were disrupting the soil food web and hindering its bounty of benefits.
The same adverse effects of double-digging come as a result of tilling. Many gardeners still faithfully till their gardens each year with the belief that it’s a beneficial way to aerate the soil and incorporate amendments. Maybe you do it too? Tilling can be an option when you are first creating a garden space – if that space is overgrown or rocky, but it’s not the best option.
Ruth Stout was one of the first modern-day gardeners to realize that a no-till garden is where it’s at. She began gardening in her later years and relied on a contractor to come and till her beds each season. Well, that contractor wasn’t so reliable, and Ruth became impatient. Rather than wait for the tiller, she got fed up and resorted to covering all her beds with a thick layer of mulch. One day, Ruth discovered that layer of mulch had broken down and turned the surface into a beautiful soil. Her garden flourished, and she never looked back.
When you cover the garden and landscape beds with a good layer (around 2”) of natural mulch, that organic material will decompose and break down into the soil – thanks to the help of the organisms in the soil food web. Those organisms feed on the material and release all the nutrients held in that material, so those nutrients are available for your plant roots to take up.
The decomposition process and pathways created by the soil food web improve the texture of the soil. It can turn heavy clay or loose sand into rich, loamy earth – improving the soil’s ability to drain while also retaining a good balance of moisture for your plants.
This goes back to working with Mother Nature. After all, consider the natural process that takes place as trees drop their leaves onto the ground. When left undisturbed, those leaves are broken down by the organisms in the soil – along with other plant debris which falls on the soil surface too. Over time, those natural materials build into a rich soil which feeds all the surrounding trees and other plant life. This is the natural, regenerative cycle.
As our landscapes became urbanized; we began diligently raking up leaves, keeping our gardens tidy and getting rid of all those materials. We disrupted the opportunity for materials to break down in our environment. Our human attempt to take control and “fix” poor soil by tilling was a band-aid for the real problem.
Fortunately, we’ve learned better in recent years, and a no-till approach is catching on. More and more gardeners are realizing that we can expend less effort and have better results. By adding organic matter, like compost and natural mulch, we can feed the soil food web, which will – in turn – feed our plants. Less work – more benefit. I call that a major win-win.
Putting the Natural Cycle – and Organic Materials – to Work
Organic matter can cure compacted soil and make it easier to work with. Soil with the proper balance of organic materials will work like a sponge. It will hold moisture, but it will release any excess. It will hold tiny pockets of air, which is critical for plant roots to breathe and remain healthy.
Fertilization is big business in gardening, but the truth is that organic materials can provide most of the nutrients your plants really need. Even pH issues and some mineral deficiencies can be improved just by putting organic matter to work in your garden.
One of my favorite materials is shredded leaves. After all, they’re free – and who doesn’t love free? Plus, putting that abundant material to work is a great way to reduce our landfills. I love to use shredded leaves as mulch on all my garden and landscape beds. Whatever I don’t get around to shredding, I just pile up and allow to break down over time. The decomposing leaves create what’s called leaf mold.
This isn’t the green funky mold of your kitchen. Leaf mold is primarily the result of fungal decomposition of the leaves into a dark, earthy-smelling material that is rich in nutrients and looks a lot like the most beautiful soil you’ve ever seen.
Compost, on the other hand, is broken down mostly through microbial activity. The microorganisms at work in the soil food web are also getting busy in your compost pile. Since both bacterial and fungal decomposition is important for healthy soil, compost and leaves are a magical combination for an easy-to-care for and abundant garden.
Let the soil food web do much of your work for you. Your plants will be the happier for it too.
When you use synthetic fertilizers in your garden, those synthetic chemicals actually inhibit the organisms in the food web and can do genuine harm to the overall health of your soil. When that happens, there are fewer nutrients in your soil for your plants. That makes them more dependent on the synthetic fertilizer. This cycle continues and, over time, your plants become – quite literally – chemically-dependent.
If you’re caught in this chemical cycle, you can turn things around, but it will take some time. Although I’ve developed what I consider to be a perfect soil recipe, you can’t create abundantly healthy soil straight out of a bag or compost pile. You can provide the proper balance of ingredients, but nature will still need time to do its thing.
Don’t get me wrong, my soil recipe creates beautiful soil, but it’s only as I continue to add organic material through amendments and mulching that the soil food web really gets established, and my soil becomes amazing. It takes time, but my patience is rewarded with soil that was fantastic after a couple of years and only continues to get better every season.
Barbara calls soil “the precious skin of the earth.” Without soil, we wouldn’t even have life on this planet. Through development and our own foolhardy attempts at control, we do harm to our soil – but gardeners can be an enormous force for change.
Although supporting local farmers is popular and is hugely important, growing some of your own food in your own home landscape is where the greatest power lies. You will have a stronger connection with your food, will be providing a bit of habitat for pollinators and other wildlife, and improving the precious skin of your little corner of the earth.
Growing Opportunities Abound
You don’t need a farm the size of Barbara’s or mine, here at the GardenFarm™ to grow your own food. In fact, you can garden on a much smaller lot that you may realize.
A great example is succession planting. It will allow you to grow food for a longer period through the year. Interplanting is another great option – placing quick-growing vegetables amongst those which can take weeks or months to mature.
Grow vertically, like peas and beans, or plant edibles in between your landscape plants. Focus on growing vegetables which provide more bang for your space “buck.” For instance, leafy greens can be harvested as they continue to produce. Beets can be harvested for, not only their root crop, but their foliage too. Plants like melons and corn might be great, but they can dominate a lot of space for not a lot of production.
So, don’t just plant something because you found it available for sale at the big box store. Consider your limitations and select the plants which will be best for your situation.
Maybe your struggle is that you produce more than you can eat? Well, there are probably people all around you who would love a share of your bounty – including local food pantries. Check out sites like Ample Harvest for more ideas too.
You can also get creative when it comes to storing the food you’ve grown. Most of us don’t have a root cellar these days, but we all probably have a little closet space. Many edibles can store for weeks in a cool, dark closet away from appliances which generate heat. Barbara suggests digging a space in your yard to bury a garbage can or a travel cooler. This space, sunken into the cool earth and covered with an insulated lid can mimic a root cellar, providing stable temperatures and darkness necessary to store edibles long-term.
The moral of the story: Where there’s a will, there is definitely a way.
Don’t Forget Native plants
Your power in our vast urban landscape doesn’t lie solely in the world of vegetables. Native plants play a huge role in our environment and are another way Mother Nature can work for us in our gardens.
Native plants are vital to the creatures native to our areas. They provide food and shelter which can sometimes be the difference between population survival or decline. For example, monarch butterflies rely solely on milkweed as a food source. As our natural spaces shrink and milkweed declines, so does the population of monarchs. Thanks in large part to urbanization; pollinators, frogs and much of our wildlife is at risk through habitat loss.
It’s not necessary that you grow only natives, just be mindful to incorporate some into your landscape spaces. There are far more beautiful plants native to your area than you might realize, since they aren’t readily available at your local nursery or big box store. Do a little homework. Sites like the Mt. Cuba Center can be a great resource.
Barbara shared some examples of her favorite natives – winterberry holly, oak leaf hydrangea (also my personal favorite), azalea, witch hazel, goldenrod, bee balm, mountain laurel, Joe pye weed, and spicebush. There are blueberry plants native to many areas too, and these shrubs are multiple-duty powerhouses. They produce a delicious food source, they look spectacular throughout most of the year, and they provide that all-important habitat for wildlife.
Pests and Disease Management – Naturally
Not only will native plants provide food and shelter, but they will do another important job for you in the garden. They attract native beneficial insects, which will help you control pest issues. It may take a little while for them to arrive and get to work, but if you allow them that time, they will have a more powerful and far-reaching impact than any chemical treatment can provide.
Barbara and Eliot have acres of food and landscape plants, but they have little to no pest or disease issues. Barbara attributes that to working with Mother Nature rather than against. In addition to letting beneficial insects fight off the bad bugs, Barbara and Eliot also recognize that proactively focusing on the health of their soil and plants will reduce pest and disease issues naturally.
We all know that if we eat well, get enough sleep and exercise properly; our immune system and overall health will benefit. If we get run down, we are more susceptible to illness. The same is true in your garden. Plants will be more susceptible to attack by pests and disease if they aren’t healthy.
Rather than resort to chemical treatments which – just like those synthetic fertilizers – can do more harm than good; Barbara and Elliot use manual pest controls. They would rather pick, wash or even vacuum (that’s right – vacuum, like with a shop vac!) the pests off than to utilize chemicals which can harm the soil and the beneficial creatures in their gardens and landscape.
Another manual control: Floating row cover. During the early part of the season when flying pests are buzzing around and looking for spots to lay their eggs, floating row cover prevents the pest from landing on your crop. No eggs laid – no pests to hatch.
That’s not to say they never experience pest or disease damage. They do. We all do. The point is that our plants don’t need to be pristine. It’s better to suffer a little damage, while doing our best at natural and proactive management rather than chase perfection with chemicals which always carry a price of unintended consequences.
Your garden doesn’t need to be perfect. It needs to be healthy. So, go easy on yourself. Take advantage of these natural processes which will result in more robust soil, a richer ecosystem and more resilient and productive plants.
If you haven’t already listened in to my conversation with Barbara, you can scroll to the top of this page and press the Play icon in the green bar just under the title to hear more stories from Barbara about life on the farm. You’ll also hear her describe how she uses that shop vac to manage pests too. And stay tuned, Barbara’s husband Eliot will be joining me in just a couple of weeks while I get his take on four-season gardening. I guarantee you won’t want to miss that one either.