Not long ago, we looked down across the site of our future vegetable garden plot and thought, “How on earth are we going to get this sod tilled up before it freezes solid?” Luckily, with a little help from our friends and neighbours (namely, Tim, who lent us his walk-behind rotary tiller), we managed to turn over more than a half-acre of thick pasture in a matter of days.
But tillage is only the first step in developing land for sustainable, practicing-organic agriculture. Next, we’d need to think about amendments, cover cropping, mulching, and weed surpression, all before we even got to planting.
Our soil is a sandy clay, naturally light on the rich dark humus we plan to build over time as we farm responsibly; a good amount of humus is essential to big, healthy vegetables. Toward the base of the sloped plot is a band of poor drainage that makes for thick sucking mud after a period of even moderate rain. So, in order to successfully grow good food in just a matter of months without relying on toxic chemical fertilizers and heavy-machinery, we’ve got to put on our creative farmer overalls.
To increase soil humus – that healthy black goodness – we’re adding years worth of composted leaf litter, collected from trees right here on the property. Mulch, essential for maintaining adequate moisture levels and buffering temperatures, is applied in the form of mucked-out bedding from our critter houses. Goat, rabbit, chicken, and duck bedding act as both mulch and slow-release fertilizer; over the winter, precipitation, microbes, and creepy-crawlies will pull nutrients from the manure-soaked straw into the soil, so that by spring the left-over dried bedding can be pulled back like a bedsheet, uncovering healthy, active soil below.
To improve drainage, which is essential to keeping our crops from drowning in the muck pit mid-field, we’re adding sand from higher points on the property, especially the stuff right below our leaf-mold pile, where small stripes of clay have soaked in nutrient over time. We’re also layering in composted horse manure from our new friends at Lancaster Equestrian, and composted spent grain from our old friends at Carton Brewing.
Speaking of friends down the road, we also just met a neighbor who let us take (not only let us, but helped us load and then unload) some old cedar fencing he’d pulled down to use as siding on our animal houses. Thanks, Frank!
We’ve got our work cut out for us, but we’re happy as clams about it. Farm life is not for everyone, but when it’s for you, it’s just about all you care about in the world.