Gardening in Gumbo

Before there was Belly Acre Farm, I tried to grow food in my backyard. The effort was not successful. In fact, it is the primary reason I started Belly Acre.

Even though our subdivision is built on land that was once a farm, I’m quite sure our particular end of it was not used for growing vegetables. Soon after we moved in, I picked out a suitable space for a small garden in the backyard, just as I have done at each place we have lived. Nothing huge or fancy, just a little space to grow a few tomatoes and maybe some snow peas or fresh greens.

But when I tried to turn over the first shovelful of dirt, it felt as if I were digging on the concrete patio by mistake. I tried several other places but found the same results just about everywhere. Soon I came to realize that under the thin sod of my lawn lay two surfaces. The first is slate, a gray material that looks more suitable for kitchen countertops than for gardening. (But, alas, it turned out to be too easily broken to be used for a DIY kitchen makeover.)

The second is red clay. Now, I’ve lived in the South my whole life, so I know a thing or two about red clay. But this is pure red clay, the kind you can mix with a little water and take directly to the brick mold. In fact, when the monks built the monastery and basilica at the nearby Belmont Abbey, they made the bricks onsite. I must live atop the same vein of clay.

After a little investigation, I discovered the name for this kind of clay is gumbo. That seemed to be about as close to food as this stuff would ever take me, because growing anything in it seemed hopeless. I tried digging in a little compost with my old Mantis tiller, but the poor old thing just bounced off the surface. I tried digging with my old shovel, but I bounced off almost as badly. I finally discovered that the soil could be dug when just the perfect amount of water was present, but the clods hardened into poorly shaped bricks when they dried.

I subscribed to several different gardening magazines and tried to research online. That’s where I began to read about double digging as a way to improve almost any soild.

But my introduction to double digging came from all the writers saying it isn’t necessary. One writer called it a variation of the French Intensive method, as if to dismiss it as Old World. None of the sources went into much detail about it, much less explaining how to do it. I even found one article specifically dedicated to the opinions of various experts that double digging is not needed. Besides, they agreed, it’s a lot of work.

So I looked for alternative methods to make my backyard gumbo productive.

One particularly attractive method was to build raised beds. In the most appealing variations, I was told to ignore the underlying soil, isolating it with a layer of newspapers or weed-blocking plastic, then pile in good compost and soil brought in from elsewhere (in my case, from the nearby Big Box store).

After doing a little scouting and figuring, I determined that if I bought $1,000 worth of framing materials and spent another $1,000 on good soil and amendments, I could grow over $50 worth of tomatoes and assorted vegetables.

Clearly, the economics didn’t suit me.

Borrowing a page from my late father’s book, I scouted around the home place for alternatives. The previous owner of my property had obviously been fond of the art of string-trimming (called weed-eating around here). There were dozens of pieces of red concrete edging, similar in color and hardness to the native soil. It was used by my predecessor to line every border in the yard that was not lined with landscape timbers or poured concrete. I had pulled it up (I hate weed-eating) and stacked it in the woods next to the tool shed soon after we moved in.

I reassessed my concrete holdings in light of my new needs. These pieces were about two feet long each, and about four inches high with scalloped edges that dipped down to about two inches. Not ideal, because they weren’t quite tall enough. But workable.

I still had to buy the soil, so having a shorter frame would help keep the costs down a little, I reasoned. Off to the BBS.

After several bags of soil and compost, plus a few hours labor, I had three small concrete edged beds, totaling about 100 square feet. I felt pretty proud of myself. According to the theory I had developed from the gardening magazines and Web sites, the newspapers would kill any weeds in the garden space before decomposing and letting the purchased soil start improving the underlying gumbo. By this time next year, I’d have perfectly acceptable garden soil.

But this year I had some tomato plants to set out. I plunged my transplanter into the soft, beautiful soil, which it penetrated almost immediately, crashing through the newspaper and lodging in the red clay.

Oh, yeah, I thought. I forgot that tomatoes have to be planted more than three inches deep. So the no-work gardening plan met its first setback.

I chipped out a hole in my three-layer garden and planted the tomato plant. I did the same for the remaining tomatoes, then planted seeds for squash, beans, and a few other vegetables.

After a season of care, I harvested one or two pitiful looking squash, a handful of beans, and a fair number of stunted tomatoes. My Beefmasters came in the size of plum tomatoes.

The next year, after the newspaper had decomposed, it was a little easier to dig, but the soil was only marginally improved. Following the recommendations of yet another article designed to help us avoid the evils of digging too much, I bought more bagged compost and added it to the top of the soil without trying to mix it in.

Yields were marginally better that year, just enough to keep me motivated to try again. But a new wrinkle was added. New neighbors across the cul de sac introduced a herd of free-range cats. They loved to range into my backyard and use the soft soil in my raised beds as litter boxes. I understand their thinking. Trying to dig anywhere else in our subdivision would be mighty hard work.

But understanding their thoughts didn’t make me any more sympathetic. I wasn’t about to eat vegetables fertilized by felines. I tried a number of home remedies to discourage the cats, including covering the whole garden with bird netting. Turns out bird netting makes a very good snake trap — while mowing my lawn, I came almost face to face with a deceased black snake who got tangled up in the netting and couldn’t get out. It took me forever to remove his body.

Eventually I found that spreading pine cones over the surface of the garden kept the cats from invading, without capturing any other critters.

But the crops of vegetables I was growing were not improving significantly year to year. That’s why, when Mom suggested I start a small garden over at her house, I jumped at the chance. The soil there is a good clay loam, so it was a much better base to work with. And besides, there weren’t any cats around.

This year, things were going well enough at Belly Acre Farm that I turned my attention back to The Brickyard, as I’ve started calling my backyard beds. Some crops need frequent care, and I like being able to walk out the back door and grab a few herbs when I’m cooking.

I went back online and searched French Intensive Method, which I’ve heard about in general terms for years. When I finally found it, I realized it’s not what I had thought. Back in the nineteenth century, Paris had a lot of horse manure, so they spread it in a thick layer outside of the city. They used the enriched medium to grow lettuce and other vegetables.

I don’t have horses, and the original method is not sustainable. Nitrogen builds up to unhealthy levels after awhile.

But a cross reference led me to the Ecology Action website (www.growbiointensive.org), where I learned about John Jeavons’ biointensive methods. There was my old friend double digging, explained in detail. There’s a library of instructional videos which show precisely how to do each facet of the Grow Biointensive system.

At first I thought the directions were a little too precise. They teach you how to hold and use a D-handle digging fork and spade, how to move the soil, etc. Eventually I realized that the site, like the system, is intended to show people all over the world, with differing levels of experience, how to do this. Besides, after I got over my gardener’s hubris, I discovered I really hadn’t known how to use a digging fork up till now.

Anyway, the arguments on the website convinced me to give double digging a try. I ordered their book (How Grow More Vegetables), got my tools together, and watched the relevant videos again.

Then I started digging one of my raised beds. The clay happened to be perfectly wet when I started, and the website’s directions on how to use a D-handled digging spade were helpful, but it was still a lot of work. It took me most of a spring day to dig the first bed.

Double digging is perhaps a misnomer. You actually remove the top foot of soil from a foot-wide trench, then loosen the twelve inches of soil underneath the trench. Then you dig another foot wide and deep trench behind that one, placing the soil where you just dug. You move through the whole bed, and fill the last trench with some of the soil you removed from the first trench. You’ll end up with a few buckets of soil left over because the soil expands as it is broken up.

The idea is that the compost and other soil amendments you place on top of the bed before digging will be distributed throughout the soil and the soil will be aerated and broken up without being pulverized.

When I finished going through my bed, it looked as if there had been an explosion and fire at the brick factory. The black compost lay in smudges amid clods of red clay that looked like broken bricks. The book said not to worry about clods, so I tried not to.(And the book was right. After a few weeks, the clods broke down and the soil leveled out.)

I dug a second bed, leaving the third bed alone for now (it was growing snow peas at the time). Besides, I was tired of digging, at least for now.

I planted some tomatoes — a sampling of the same ones I planted at Belly Acre Farm — along with some peppers, cucumbers, squash, eggplant, basil, cilantro, and even a little bit of corn and potatoes.

So far the results have been amazing. The squash is bigger and healthier than any I grew in previous years. Tomatoes are almost as big as their twins at Belly Acre. The corn is tall and healthy, although I’m not sure I have enough to self-pollinate, so the yield is still in question. The potato plants are a little scrawny looking, but we’ll see how the yield is in a few weeks. I had low expectations for potatoes grown in red clay, so anything will be a bonus.

The biointensive method calls for redigging the beds each year, with the soil growing better (and easier to dig!) over time.

Based on the results so far, I’m sold. The magazine articles were half right — double digging is a lot of work. But if you are starting with problem soil, it seems to be worth the effort.

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