Dear Miss Floribunda,
I moved from California to Hyattsville last autumn, and when spring came, I got to thinking about planting vegetables in the backyard the way my grandfather did. The tomatoes he used to give me were to die for. Thinking of all that, I bought a spade but soon discovered that soil here is rock hard. Even after a rain. I’m a techie who hasn’t been close to nature, or even a gym for that matter, and don’t think I can handle a pickax. One neighbor suggested I start out with raised beds, which sounds like both work and skill are needed. Another neighbor thought I might try collecting cardboard from broken-down boxes, put it down on the ground, add newspaper, and wait till next year to plant. That sounds like work too, and I want tomatoes this year. OK — I’ve heard of “no work” gardens. Tell me about those!
Techno-Geek on Gallatin Street
I’m very sorry to have to tell you that a genuinely no-work garden is as mythological a concept as the chimera, phoenix or unicorn. What the term really means is a no-till garden. Instead of disturbing the complex microbial network in the soil and endangering your own safety by wrestling with a rototiller, you mulch your soil heavily and frequently. This keeps down weeds and, eventually, over the course of many years, improves your topsoil to the point that it becomes easy to plant seeds with just a poke of a dibble. Permaculture gardeners plant multiple crops so thickly that there is little room for weeds, and they are careful to choose plants with roots that penetrate to different depths so that there is no competition for nutrients. This takes considerable know-how. The Hugelkultur garden can be described as a compost pile with a base of twigs and branches, and the lasagna garden uses layers of cardboard, newspaper, grass cuttings and compost — not just cardboard and newspaper. None of these methods are effortless.
All gardens require work at first, but in time you can develop an easy-care garden. Also, as you garden you’ll reap health benefits from the exercise and may even become enthusiastic about the experience.
Start small — I suggest container gardening for your first summer. You can buy cherry and grape tomatoes in large pots and enjoy them till frost. Other containers — there are cheap discards that many gardeners will be happy to provide — can be filled with soil and seeds, or seedlings, for bush beans and cucumbers. If you want to grow corn or eggplant, be careful to have a large enough pot and only one plant to a container. In midsummer, you can start a fall garden by planting radishes, spinach, kale and leeks in window boxes, and cabbages and bok choy in larger pots. If you have the means and a flair for decoration, you might buy some ornamental ceramic pots.
Depending on your finances, you could hire someone to make a frame for a raised bed. Or just have a nursery come dump compost on a selected spot that you will dig under next spring. Yes, I advise some digging. Your highly compacted hardpan probably hasn’t got a rich microsystem to protect yet. That doesn’t mean I recommend cardboard or any sheet mulching. Some community gardens will not permit cardboard because of possibly harmful chemicals in its composition. Aside from questions concerning the high cellulose content and the chemicals, cardboard is made tough and thick to protect the contents of the boxes it’s made into. If you’re intent on using it, shred it first. Any thick covering deprives soil of oxygen and water. This not only destroys the microbes that the no-till garden is supposed to protect but also the all-important earthworm.
A number of gardeners, upon seeing loads of wriggling earthworms underneath a lifted cardboard panel, have come to the dangerous conclusion that somehow the cardboard has caused a population explosion. Dr. Greengenes, one of my soil gurus, tells me the truth is that struggling oxygen-starved worms have come up to gasp for air. Instead, give the worms lots of compost to work into the clay soil. They are your most efficient garden helpers and will break up the soil so that the roots of the vegetables you plant can penetrate it. You don’t have to buy worms. Compost, and they will come.
Dr. Greengenes bids you to be wary of fads. I agree. For example, I’d go easy on mulching too thickly. Too much at one time provides a nice habitat for slugs, termites, moles, voles and mice. The Hugelkultur mound might attract even larger rodents. One popular method, using thick layers of hay, provides plenty of weed seeds. I must warn you now that even at best your garden will never be completely weed free. Birds will always be dropping seeds into your soil, and squirrels will be planting acorns in your garden every fall. However, think of the exercise you will get stooping and bending. And since you’re at the computer a lot, you are probably at risk for carpal tunnel syndrome. My Cousin Nerdette swears that the varied motions involved in weeding cured her of hers.
Many members of the Hyattsville Horticulture Society (HHS) have jobs requiring long hours at the computer, and when we resume meeting, you can compare notes with them. Keep looking at the HHS website, hyattsvillehorticulture.org, to find out when that happy day will finally come.