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.
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.
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.
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: