Friday, October 2, 2009

Breaking Ground

The past few days of wonderful fall weather has been perfect for our latest project-expanding the garden.

There has been a garden for many years at the house. This fall we are using the existing garden to grow our fall greens. However, we have already outgrown the 30’ x 90’ garden plot. We need a place to plant alliums: garlic, onions, and leeks this fall. Garlic is traditionally planted in the fall. Onions and leeks will germinate, grow a few inches, then sit dormant for the winter. In the spring their fall growth allows them to quickly restart growing for an earlier harvest. We are also preparing ground for early spring plantings of greens. We are doing this now because in the spring the ground is often too wet to be worked up very early.

This fall we have opted to prepare out ground with no motorized tools. The principle tool we are using is an “Italian Hoe.” This heavy, long handled hoe is lifted to about hip height then dropped into the grass with a satisfying “thunk.” We have broken ground on seven new beds with this tool.

The next step is to fork the bed with a digging fork. This is a wonderful all around garden tool for stirring compost, preparing soil, weeding, or harvesting root crops. The fork allows us to work the soil deeper than the how alone. It also breaks up the clods left behind by the hoe. The last step is to prepare the seed bed with a metal garden rake.

Preparing our beds by hand may take longer, but it has several important benefits. First, it is cheaper. The tools only cost about $125 and will last for years if properly cared for.

Second, tillers and plows leave a “pan” of slicked over clay just below their tines or plow shovel. This pan becomes nearly impervious to water and plant roots, effectively limiting the soil available for food production. Also tillers and plow are potentially highly destructive to soil structure. Soil is a complex world of solids, air, water, and living organisms. Soil organisms are adapted to very specific depths. Some need the more steady temperatures found at 6 inches while others need more air found at the surface. Plows in particular completely invert this ecosystem. It can take soil years to recover from being flipped upside down. Another aspect of tillers and plows is that they are always attached to heavy machinery. The weight of machinery compacts the soil, especially if it is wet; counter acting the very purpose of tilling or plowing. For a general discussion of soil management including the effects of tillage see

Third, the area we are preparing is relatively small (maybe a ¼ acre) and I enjoy hand work-so why not? Avoiding motors means I can hear the birds or have a conversation while we work.

Finally, hand tools avoid the use of fossil fuels. We must learn to produce our food without the use of fossil fuels. Currently we use from 3-10 calories of fossil fuel energy to place one calorie of food energy on our plates (it depends on the food-vegetables take less, meat more). This is an energy equation that cannot continue. Whether we have 5 years or 100 years of fossil fuels available does not change the fact that they are a finite resource-they will run out. Additionally, their continued use has led to a variety of environmental and health consequences ranging from an increased CO2 concentration by over 30% over stable levels to through the roof asthma rates in and around cities. For more information on energy use in agriculture read

We have curved our garden beds to try to follow the contour of the hill while at the same time orienting them east to west. This allows southern light to hit the long side of the beds. We have left the grass in the paths to prevent erosion over the winter. Another technique we will use to prevent erosion is to plant a fall cover crop. This mixture of clovers and grasses will hold soil in place with their roots, soften the impact of any winter rains, and hold soil nutrients that would otherwise leach over the winter. Most plant nutrients are volatile and do not just sit around in the soil. If a plant does not use them, rains easily wash them deeper or down slope. Erosion of soil nutrients is now one of the leading surface water pollutants leading to a host of environmental and public health problems.

With hard work and care these beds will provide a bounty of beautiful and nutritious food for years to come-without depleting our ability to continue growing food in that location.

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