Piling It On

Years ago I read a wonderful book called Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of our Own Backyards, by Sara Stein (Houghton Mifflin 1995). Stein (who, sadly, died of lung cancer in 2005) tells the story of how she began to completely reinvent the way she gardened in her five acres in Westchester County, New York. Instead of endlessly struggling against the local ecosystems to create some kind of idyllic English garden-style suburban lawn, Stein began to garden with her local habitats, to restore biodiversity right there in her backyard and coax it into a more naturalized landscape.

The layers, from ground-level view, before I dug through them

One of the topics Stein devotes some attention to in her book is soil. Rather than tilling up the soil of her vegetable garden and compacting it down year after year, she began to try to mimick a forest floor with her garden—to help it become dense with layers of biomass that fall to the earth and break down into loam. Stein made like a tree: she deposited deep layers of leaves, along with kitchen scraps and other compostables, onto the soil and left it there for months on end. When she stuck a spade through the layers, she found rich, fluffy soil that was teeming with microbial life.

I own a tiller, but I have rarely used it after reading Noah’s Garden. Instead, every fall I heap leaves, chicken poo-soiled hay, and half-broken-down compost onto my garden beds. Last fall, before I spread the leaves, I also put down several layers of paper—mostly some old chicken feed bags, but those paper lawn waste bags work great, too—right on top of the soil after I had pulled out all the spent summer vegetable vines and stalks.

Here's a peek at the soil after I hoed through the layers to plant peas.

It went like this: a layer of paper, a layer of leaves, a layer of poo/hay and half rotted compost, then another layer of leaves. I kept piling it on, adding more throughout the fall and winter, so that the layers were about a foot deep. I have heard this method called “lasagne gardening.” It’s also called “sheet composting” or “no-till gardening.” Sally Wylde would have called it mulching. The woman did know how to mulch her garden.

A view of the rows hoed out and ready for peas. The layers of mulch will remain between the rows.

Whatever you call it, it is some kind of magic. Last weekend I planted peas, which meant it was time to send a hoe through those layers and see what was beneath. And what it was, was worms. Big, fat, juicy ones. The earth itself practically wiggled, there were so many earthworms in it.

Those earthworms basically do the job that the tiller would do—only they do it much better, without damaging the soil structure, without leaving the soil vulnerable to later compaction when you walk through in your garden clogs. They are also a sign of healthy dirt. And my favorite part? Throwing a bunch of paper, leaves, and poo down to grow the worms is much easier and less stinky than handling a tiller. It’s also, I think, a much easier way to get worm compost than with a worm bin. I am all about the lazy.

The other thing about all those layers is that they will stay there all summer long. They will slowly break down and become pure compost, too. Worried that your garden will offend the neighbors because it’s piled high with your recyclables? Consider this: in late summer, while your neighbors’ gardens are dessicated and pitiful and the weeds have taken over in the relentless heat and drought, the “trash” you piled in yours will be holding in tons of moisture and helping keep weeds to a minimum. Your garden will be thriving and green.

Here’s a little clip of me saying howdy to the worms:

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5 Comments

Filed under Conservation, Gardening

5 responses to “Piling It On

  1. d017

    A tip I learned from Toshi Seeger on this method of building soil. If you drink coffee, layer coffee grounds with newspaper (she used the NY Times). The worms eat the coffee grounds, and get a buzz from the caffeine. Speeds up their work, though I guess you might have jittery soil afterward. She turned a rocky hillside into the most wonderful terraced gardens using the Times, coffee grounds, kitchen scraps and of course mother nature’s wonderful earthworms.

  2. Such cutie patootie worms! They are inspiring…

  3. Those worms are HUGE! Oh man, worms gross me out, but I know they’re good for the garden. It just means I do a little “ew ew ew” dance every so often.

  4. Cool idea! I’m always kind of surprised at my neighbors who rake their leaves relentlessly and then go buy stuff to put on their garden beds… ?

    ALSO: I really want to have a patch of tall-grass prairie in our big back yard someday, but am afraid of what my neighbors would do/think about it. A woman in our town did that a few years back and her neighbors got the city to come mow it because it was a “nuisance.” Ugh.

    Good luck with your worms and peas! :)

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