Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Good Life Project: falling into winter

Some more writing I did last year for consideration for Isuni's "Living the Good Life" book project. A version of this appeared in our "Island Tides" newspaper last February. Here's a link to the paper:

My Garden Year: Falling into Winter (2nd week of November to Winter Solstice)

Next year, I'm going to have my best garden yet!

This is such an inspiring time of year for me. As winter solstice approaches, I'm feeling the beginnings of a new garden season, full of new ideas, promise and hope. I love new beginnings. I think I must really have it bad - the gardening bug - because in the fall, as I'm still cleaning up the past summer's garden, I get that familiar feeling of creative anxiety welling up in my belly. I start getting excited about planting and growing things in the summer sunshine again!

Visions of beautiful concentric circles of different coloured baby lettuces dance in my head. Tidy groupings of carrots and broccoli that grow big and wonderful with no wireworm or cabbage moth damage. All the weeds under control. Cabbages that look like giant flowers. Sunflowers standing tall and shining bright and sweet pea flowers that smell divine. I can't wait!

Enough of all this fanciful dreaming, there's a lot of serious planning that has to happen now. A wise woman once told me, "Walk the mystical path with practical feet." So let's start planning next summer's garden!

Crop rotation and companion planting are the first things I think about when I'm beginning to plan my garden year. When we garden year after year with the intention of growing our own food it's really important to rotate the crops. This is because if we don't, we'll deplete the soil of important nutrient balances and encourage plant and soil diseases and pests that are attracted to the area if we've planted the same thing in the same place year after year.

A happy garden that's grown naturally without synthetic chemicals is a garden where plants that are good for each other are planted together and plants that aren't compatible are kept at a distance. So in my mind, crop rotation goes hand in hand with thoughtful companion planting.

To garden with a crop rotation plan, we need to start with a basic understanding of the different plant families. This is a big topic and feels a little too much like biology class to me which really gets in the way of my more enjoyable and creative gardening thoughts so I'll just share how I try to keep it simple at my place:

In my garden, I focus on organizing my food crops into these groups:
1. the cabbage family which includes broccoli and cauliflower, and the lovely brussels sprouts too,
2. the allium family, garlic, onions, leeks and chives,
3. the legume family which in my garden is beans and peas,
4. the tomato family which includes potatoes, peppers and eggplant too,
5. the carrot family which includes dill, fennel, parsley and celery,
6. the squash family, cucumbers, melons and pumpkins too,
7. spinach, beets and chard,
8. lettuce and some other salad greens,
9. and corn stands alone.

The idea is that every year I'll plant each family in a different spot. After 4 years the families can return to the same bed they grew in 4 years ago. And around and around it goes.

I like to draw a simple map of my garden every year where I write in what grew where. At this time of year, in the late fall and winter when I'm dreaming of next summer's best garden ever, I take out my drawings from the past 3 years and get out my row markers that are labelled things like "carrots" and "green bush beans" and "garlic". I begin to place them in the new year's beds, making sure they don't go into a bed they were in on my last 3 years of drawings. Even though it's kind of like a puzzle, it works surprisingly well for me. There are many ways of doing this and probably the best way for each of us to figure it out is by doing it.

While I'm deciding on the different plant families I'll grow and how I'll organize the rotation I get to figure out which plants will grow side by side and which ones I'll keep away from each other. Companion Planting! Now this gets really fun. So many creative possibilities. Dream. Plan. Create. Herbs. Vegetables. Flowers.

There are some things I always grow together like cabbages and lemon gem marigolds. Not only do the marigolds discourage the cabbage moth from laying it's eggs on my cabbages, it makes my heart sing every time I look at it because the little yellow flowers peeking out from around the cabbages are just so beautiful.

One of the best known examples of efficient and beautiful companion planting is The Three Sisters plant combination, originally a Native American approach to growing maize, beans and squash. This combination is now found in modern home gardens everywhere. I love planting The Three Sisters in my garden! When I lived in the city I grew this combo in big half barrel containers. Last year in my Mayne Island garden, I grew my Three Sisters in a round bed about six feet in diameter. I planted 16 sweet corn plants in the center, a whole bunch of bush bean seeds all around the corn plants (3 of these were pole beans so they could climb the corn to show off their lovely red flowers but didn't smother it) and six winter squash plants around the edge of the bed, mingling with the beans and circling the corn forest in the center. This little garden produced a load of green beans for many of our summertime dinners, most of the corn plants produced 2 ears of sweet corn each (what a summertime delicacy!) and my squash plants yielded 9 orange beauties for winter storage. All from a teeny tiny piece of earth. One of my gardening successes!

The reason this companion combination works so well is because beans and other legumes have the miraculous ability to draw nitrogen from the air and bring it to the soil through their roots. Since corn needs a lot of nitrogen to do well, it loves growing together with the beans that supply it with the nitrogen. The corn in return, gives the beans something to hold onto and climb. Squash loves the nitrogen from the beans too. As the vines grow and spread over the ground, the squash serves as a living mulch, keeping the soil moist and keeping weeds from growing. Symbiotic relationship, the beauty of companion planting.

For some winter reading and learning, the classic and well known companion planting guide "Carrots Love Tomatoes" by Louise Riotte is a nice place to start.

Happy Winter Solstice! May your dreams of the best garden yet come true!

The Good Life Project: gardening my way to a good life on Mayne Island

I thought I'd finish off this year's postings by sharing this article that I wrote and submitted for ISUNI's "Living the Good Life" book project over a year ago.......

A couple years ago I joined a meeting with the Islands Sustainability Initiative (ISUNI) folks on Mayne Island and became interested in their "Living the Good Life Project".
The project's intention is to share ideas about how to create an island lifestyle where we consume less, lowering our carbon footprint and to look for local feedback and information that'll help us create the vision of a collective sustainable lifestyle.

Our discussion got me thinking about Scott and Helen Nearing and their well-known book "The Good Life" that tells the story of their years of self-sufficient living. I remembered a quote of Scott Nearing's I had read long ago that I never forgot.
It still leaves me with such a strong feeling:
"Do the best that you can in the place where you are and be kind."
Wow! Timeless. Inspiring. So simply said, yet so challenging to live day to day.

I'm hearing the word sustainable used a lot these days and so I've thought about what that really means to me.
For me, evolving my lifestyle into a more sustainable one means building a garden that can produce food and flowers for myself and my little neighbourhood. It's my way into a life where I can do the best I can, in the place where I am.
It gives me focus, a way to live more in harmony with my values.

As I work to make the garden productive and beautiful day to day, season in, season out, year after year, I notice myself being and doing with a stronger sense of my own place in the natural world. I'm more intimately connected with the cycle of life and it calms me.
I don't feel silly anymore talking to the owls that come to visit me as I hoe my rows. I also feel a deeper responsibility to the land.
The fulfillment and happiness that I experience as I achieve some of my gardening and food growing goals gets me feeling really good which makes being kind so much easier: kindness flows more often, more naturally.

"Do the best that you can in the place where you are and be kind."
It seems to me there are probably as many ways to achieve this as there are individual people. These days, my way is with my garden.

It can be overwhelming to think about the environmental and cultural changes humankind needs to make to lower our carbon footprint and live sustainably on this planet.
Sometimes it makes me fear that growing my own food is too insignificant.
But I don't care, I'm going to do it anyway.
Will you join me?

Let's build a small garden plot to begin, just big enough to start growing our own daily cut-and-come-again salads. (about 4'x6') Let's make some compost, let's gather some rainwater. We'll enjoy some home grown salad, we'll let some plants go to seed, save some seed, plant again.
It takes time. It'll be a process.
Let's trade the baby greens in the plastic boxes from California for some beautiful, tender and delicious morsels that we've grown in our own yard, in our own soil, with our own water, surrounded by the same air we breath and our own sparkling sunshine. Let's feel the joy while we massage our sore backs and try to get all the dirt out from underneath our fingernails. Let's reduce some of our negative impact on our environment.
Let's go grow some of our own food!

I open my garden to visitors in the summer and when folks visit, they often tell me about how they want to have a vegetable garden of their own and ask me how I knew where to start, how I did it and how they can do it. (Everybody wants to garden!)

I began building my garden on Mayne Island 7 years ago.
I made growing at least some of my own food a priority in my life and I remember giving myself permission to start slowly. I needed to learn to do by doing. It helped me to remember that creating a successful productive garden is a process, like life itself and that failures are an important aspect of learning.

One of my favourite easy low stress ways of creating a new garden bed is the way I did it when I started 7 years ago. I've found it ideal to begin in the fall since it'll sit over winter and be ready in time for spring salad planting. It works any time of year, though.

I cover my new chosen area (which usually starts out very grassy, weedy, compacted and rocky) with a layer of newspaper and then I cover that with compost and maple leaves, manure and straw, wood ashes from the wood stove, chopped up nettles from beside the pond, grass clippings, whatever is in season when I'm inspired to make the new growing bed,(or if I'm ambitious and organized, I stockpile good stuff all year). Then I put it out of my mind for a few months and move on to other things.
I come back to it in 6-8 months (even up to a year sometimes) with a pitchfork and turn over the mulches and newspaper (which have started to break down in place), mix them up, remove rocks, add more compost on top and that is the birth of a lovely new garden bed. Now the lettuce seeds can be planted!

For the new food grower, this will be the beginning of an exciting adventure of learning to do by doing. Do the best you can in the place where you are and be kind. Sow some seeds and see what happens. Start another bed the same way right beside the first one!

Mistakes and crop failures will happen. The first time I planted lettuce seeds in my new bed, the new seedlings began to wilt and die. I was very disappointed. That's how I learned that I had wireworms in my soil and now I know more than I ever wanted to know about wireworms. But even though many plants died, I still had some delicious salads!

I've noticed that for me, gardening is most enjoyable when I think ahead and give it lots of time. Maybe this is true for all of us.
So fine tune your new beds over a couple years. Over the years, as compost is added, the soil will get so beautiful, you can dig out the rocks little by little and you can find the way of gardening that is best for you.
It takes time.

Self-study is one of my favourite things. This year, during the dark and rainy days of winter, spend a few evenings reading a book about how to build a garden plot. Two good ones that I like are "Square Foot Gardening" by Mel Bartholomew and "Lasagna Gardening" by Patricia Lanza.
I'm wishing you fun and inspiration!