The Locavore’s Dilemma

Typically on this blog I write about research and teaching subjects. But it’s time now to rotate the proverbial crops and see what else will take root. What better way than to be un-metaphorical about it, and write about growing my own food?

To quote the immortal ABBA, “Mother says I was a dancer before I could walk.” Not me — but like most, I was an eater before I could talk. And I never thought much about where my food came from, until I read books like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006; reviewed here). Now that I’m a vegetarian, partly for environmental reasons, I’m trying my hand at backyard gardening to see if I can grow my own kale and tomatoes. Everybody’s doing it, from my favourite food blogger to PBS hosts to urban gardeners from Edmonton to Melbourne.

This spring, I moved to an old house with a sizeable backyard. A previous owner cultivated an inner-city orchard there, with seven apple trees. But now they’re gone, replaced by a grass lawn. The lawn: a standard-issue, all-American, high-maintenance, monocultural failure of the imagination.

Something had to change. I started (where else?) with a book: Tara Nolan’s Raised Bed Revolution, which covers the practical topics for an amateur carpenter and backyard farmer: how to build them, arrange them, and fill them. There’s also a section on hügelkultur. It sounds like an IKEA product line, but means the “centuries-old, sustainable” method of stacking mounds of decomposing wood and other compost beneath layers of soil. This decomposing biomass mimics conditions on a forest floor. The wood retains water while aerating and enriching the soil, slowly releasing its nutrients and microbes.

Hügelkultur mounds are typically long pyramid-shaped structures with plants growing up each side, though some gardeners use the technique in raised beds, what some call half-ass hügelkultur. That’s what I did, but my reasons were more pragmatic than a desire to reproduce ancient agricultural methods.

Here’s what I mean:

The project started with these stacking corners from Lee Valley, which let me build beds of any dimension and height. First, I cut cedar 2x4s to the length and width of the available plot. I added the corners to make a basic rectangular box with hinges on the corners, and made it square. Then you can stack the boxes as high as you like; I opted for three levels, each about 8 inches deep, to make a raised bed about two feet deep. I lined it with weed-preventing cloth in the bottom so nothing would grow through from below.

Then I had a problem: I didn’t have nearly enough topsoil and compost and peat to fill a box 10 feet long and ~3 feet wide, to a depth of ~2 feet. But I’d recently felled a dead tree and needed to dispose of the debris. So I improvised a raised-bed version of the hügelkultur technique.

Here’s the empty cedar box, with the first layer of debris covering the weed-proof cloth.

I added more layers of pine, lilac, and anything else too big for my compost bin.

After adding the big logs, I tossed in some more cuttings from an overgrown lilac bush.

That nearly filled in the whole box, but there was a lot of air amid all those logs and branches that would all get compressed.

The next step was to cover the wood with a layer of dense material to support the topmost layer of soil and compost. So I dug up a corner of the lawn and layered the turf (grass side down) atop all the wood.

Then I adding alternating layers of loam soil and compost, using a combination of sheep manure and my own bin’s decomposed food scraps and other material.

It took about 30 loads from the wheelbarrow to fill the whole box.

I gave it a few days to settle and absorb some rainwater before staking out the rows for seedlings and installing this metal pyramid for runner beans.

The back row I planted with alternating tomato plants and bee-friendly flowers like sweet William and purple salvia.

Then I planted a middle row of herbs like coriander and basil, and a front row with seeds: parsnips, carrots, kale, chard, spinach, and zucchini.

Now I’m trying to resist the urge to check on the seedlings every day. What next to do, but wait like an anxious parent? Among other things, like feeding the soil with new compost as it settles around the edges; keeping the soil moist but not waterlogged; and building a second box for the front yard. Because there’s more grass to conquer.

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