Garden Planning part one: Dirty Talk

Black Turtle Beans, 10 feet

For plants to truly thrive they need a good foundation. These bean plants were stunted by the poor soil which I plan to fix using the principles of permaculture |

I’ve been under a lot of stress lately. Like a lot. I was in a car accident nearly three months ago and it has turned my world upside down. While the accident wasn’t too serious, thankfully, it was enough to cause me health problems I’ve been dealing with ever since. One way to cope with stress is to do things I love — cook, write from the heart and dream.

There’s something about being up to the elbows in fresh soil that is oddly soothing. Caring for a vegetable garden is a satisfying journey that begins with the dirt. While it’s too early to get my hands dirty (though seed planting begins in only a few short weeks) I can cope with the stress by daydreaming about this year’s gardens.

One of my biggest mistakes in gardening last year was not paying attention to the soil. My raised beds thrived because they had great soil, the newer ones in the front however, terrible. Here on the Niagara Escarpment we have a lovely red clay soil… not so good for growing. While we did add a few yards of soil to the plot and some manure and compost, it was not enough to create an atmosphere where plants would thrive. Case in point, my midget pepper and bean plants which were barely half way up my calf when they reached their maximum height.

Peppers are looking lush again after a dose of Epsom salts |

Hopefully my pepper plants will really thrive this year with better soil and a steady dose of epsom salt (read about the benfits here

Let’s talk dirt

I’ve been digging up a lot of information on dirt these days. Doesn’t that sound fascinating? I have been pouring over blogs and articles about soil and amendments to make sure my gardens are operating at peak performance this year. One method I am keen to try is a no-till garden which involves the layering of compost and straw. Of course now that I am looking for the article on this particular type of gardening I cannot find it so I will do my best to explain in my non-gardening-expert way.

The first step is to soak the area on which you plan to create your garden then lay cardboard down over the moistened area. This will prevent weeds from growing through. The next layer will be one of straw which will add plant-loving nitrogen to the soil. Soak the straw layer well before covering with organic matter of your choice. Because we have rabbits we have a steady supply of wonderfully, rich organic compost. My raised beds have been getting a regular topping up of rabbit droppings and I am going to start a pile near the big garden area in the front yard. I was going to start just spreading the manure on the garden but if I plan to follow this method it will be wasted. The rabbit manure won’t be enough so I also plan to purchase some mushroom compost from a local farm.

Once the compost has been applied, you spread another layer of straw, then repeat another layer of compost, watering each layer as you go. You can repeat the layers as many times as you wish, finishing with a layer of straw that will also act as a mulch to keep in moisture and prevent weeds from creeping through.

To plant your seedlings, make holes in the top straw layer, spaced appropriately for each plant to mature, and fill with your compost mix, seed and water as you would in a regular garden.

To maintain the garden throughout the growing season, top with additional layers of straw and compost as needed.

Think we will have plenty of Romaine this year. Who wants to buy a head?

Plants in my raised beds grew best as they already had a healthy soil foundation from previous years |

Why no till?

The existing soil is an ecosystem made up of beneficial insects and microbes that help the help plants grow. Disturbing even the top few inches of the ground can severely damage the natural environment. This is one of the founding principles of permaculture, a practice that is guided by nature. In a forest, plants are able to grow through the carpet of leaves that covers the soil. There is nothing that pushes these seeds into the soil, they are just able to grow.

Nature has things figured out, all we need to do is look to her to find the way. Permaculture is ecological agriculture — a sustainable design science that is rooted in nature. Permaculture is so much more than growing food, it is designing for a sustainable future. I am only just starting to crack through the surface of this system thanks to a free permaculture design course offered by Open Permaculture (they also have a free e-book you can download outlining the principles of this system).

Step one in garden planning is preparing the soil. The next step is figuring out which varieties you will grow. Another system I plan to utilize more this year is companion planting to get the most from the garden space. Part two of this series will look at companion planting to maximize yield and flavour.