Growing Beautiful Food: A Gardener's Guide to Cultivating Extraordinary Vegetables and Fruit (2015)
Civilizations that get too far from the land are bound to decay.
—J. I. RODALE
Before the thrill of seed catalogs and plant sales, before the anticipated savor of heirloom tomatoes or tree-ripened fruit, there is soil, in all of its arcane and unknowable complexity.
Good soil is the foundation of successful growing, and without it, all of the energy and passion you’ve put into planning your farm or garden and nurturing seed into promising seedlings will be undone. Becoming a good soil farmer, though not as sexy or visual as cultivating plants, is critical; flourishing farms and gardens, like good houses, are always built on solid foundations.
Soil is the most complicated ecosystem on the planet, a dark cosmos of interdependent life that we tread on and don’t give much thought to until we want to grow something in it. Understanding soil ecosystems—the mysterious bonds between microbial and fungal life, between organic and mineral nutrients, between organisms, insects, and plants—is a challenge to us all, and there’s still so much intercellular noise and chatter going on that we have yet to understand.
Most of the problems and pathology of growing healthy plants can be traced back to soil conditioning, and when your plants struggle for life or fail to reach their seed-packet promise, it’s usually your soil telling you something. It’s best to learn how to feed and nurture the soil first, then let the soil feed your plants.
Soil and dirt are superficially the same thing, although soil is alive with decaying organic matter and microorganisms, whereas dirt is soil that has been displaced from its environment and is—essentially—dead. Most fallow ground found in yards, although it supports grass and a host of insects and organisms, is not near rich enough to meet the heavy demands of food crops. Once the sod is removed to create a growing space, the soil will need to be amended with organic matter in the form of compost, leaf mold, and green and animal manures to create a rich, healthy home not only for your plants but also for the countless life-forms that support soil health.
Organic growing builds up dynamic, living systems in the soil and consistently replenishes the earth’s skin. This is how plants are fed in nature, without the intervention of agriculture, and any look at uncultivated ground will tell you that nature seems to know what she’s doing. By contrast, chemical farming—in the form of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides—adds nothing to the fertility of the soil and only exploits the immediate needs of plants while adding toxins and salts that destroy intricate living systems. The short-term gains in productivity using chemical farming have been great, but the price we’re beginning to pay in depleted soil fertility is far greater.
Soil is made up of three basic particles: sand, silt, and clay. Sand is the largest, with irregular, quick-draining particles that tend not to bind. Silt’s particles are smaller, though still irregular, while clay’s structure is almost microscopic, with flat particles that lock into an impenetrable layer. Though clay is usually rich in nutrients, it is almost anaerobic and watertight. The ideal garden soil is a combination of these three, often called sandy loam, that is rich in nutrients, well-draining, and hospitable to plant roots.
You can determine your soil type and texture with a simple test. Take a handful of damp soil and squeeze it into a ribbon in your hand. If your ribbon breaks off at about an inch, you have sand or silt; if it makes it to 2 inches, you have loam; and beyond 2 inches, you’re dealing with clay.
The ways in which soil particles bind (or don’t bind) together determine the soil’s structure. Most plants grow best in soil that binds together in small aggregates, clumps of particles that break apart easily. Aggregates create pore spaces in soil so air and water move well through the soil, but not too quickly.
Texture is just one of the things that determine a soil’s structure. Climate, soil organisms, pH, nutrients, and minerals all contribute to the formation of structure. Compacting the soil with heavy equipment, or by walking on it repeatedly, and tilling the soil when it’s too wet or dry can break apart aggregates and destroy soil structure. The best way to improve and support soil structure that is good for growing plants is to add organic matter.
In addition to the mineral particles that make up nearly all of the solid part of the soil (air and water occupy about half of the space of healthy soil), a small but significant percentage of soil consists of organic matter. Including bacteria, fungi, living, and once-living plants and animals, organic matter rarely makes up more than 5 percent of the soil, but it is essential to plant life and health.
Included in the soil’s organic matter is humus, a stable form of decomposed organic material that remains after once-living matter has been digested by soil-dwelling organisms. Among other benefits, humus is the glue that binds soil into aggregates.
“Feeding” the soil with plenty of organic matter, particularly in the form of compost, is at the heart of organic growing on any scale. By creating a healthy, diverse community of micro-organisms and larger soil-dwelling critters and by supplying that community with abundant material to eat and digest into humus, you are setting the stage for rich, healthy soil that will support productive, healthy plants.
Air and Water
Plants’ roots need both air and water in the soil to grow and thrive, but too much of either one causes problems. Good drainage is essential for nearly all food crops. In soggy soil, roots suffocate and plants can’t carry out their basic functions. Meanwhile, fungal organisms tend to thrive in wet conditions, and bacteria often travel in a film of water. Constantly wet soil sets plants up for disease problems and leaves them weak and vulnerable to infections.
At the other end of the drainage spectrum, however, is drought. Very sandy soil, with its big particles that don’t fasten together well, lets water slip away too quickly. Plants need soil aggregates that hold a film of water on their surface where roots can reach it but that also create pore spaces for air in the soil. When the soil is too sandy, two things can happen: Roots dry out and die, or nutrients are unavailable to plants because there’s no water to make them soluble so roots can absorb them.
NOTES FROM THE WONDERGROUND
Dreams under Our Feet
It’s March, and most of the prevailing madness at Stonegate Farm these days is focused underground. Besides fretting over tender seedlings in the greenhouse, I’m preoccupied with soil: top-dressing, tilling, broad-forking, sampling. Managing the health and fertility of the land is a strange kind of rural hypochondria, particularly here at the OCD (obsessive compulsive dirt) farm.
We’re obsessed with dirt because it is mysterious, with a deep and secret life of its own. It’s the most complex and abundant ecosystem on earth; a dark universe of fungi, bacteria, and microorganisms all interacting with plant roots and rhizomes in a language that’s still arcane to science. In a spoonful of dirt, there are more than a million species of microbes, mostly unknown: a cosmos of dreams beneath our feet.
“I have spread my dreams under your feet; / Tread softly because you tread on my dreams,” said Yeats.
If I had any issues last season, they were largely subterranean, with soil lacking in certain trace elements or nutrients, with waterlogging leading to root rot on brambles in the orchard, and with not having rotated my crops and therefore depleting the soil’s vitality.
Of course, there’s always the usual flotsam the land heaves up in the thaw of spring: bricks, metal scrap, cistern caps, carriage linkages, not to mention the constant scree of glacial rock that lies reliably just 10 inches below my topsoil. There’s nothing quite as bone shuddering as hitting a 20-pound chunk of stone with the business end of a shovel.
The roots of massive estate trees also have a way of weaving themselves into the soil, frustrating the tines of tillers and broadforks. Although none of our geriatric trees has tumbled out of the sky, some are looking precariously frail, just a puff away from oblivion. Our farm is loomed over by a collection of arboreal specimens that were born in the 19th century, majestic, beautiful, senile Victorians. They seem to wander about in the wind, their leafy green gowns flapped open, debris trailing from their brittle canopies. Ginkgo, tulip poplar, cucumber magnolia, Kentucky coffee bean, American linden, chestnut, sugar maple, black walnut. They’re all here in hospice at Stonegate.
So I’ve been breaking new ground and my metaphorical back with my compulsion for agricultural order and fertility. And this season, in particular, after a winter spent abroad in the Bavarian countryside, where “Ordnung muss sein” (order must be), I’m more determined than ever to rein in the wild and scrappy. Bavaria, with its carefully cultivated farms and fields and charming villages, is postcard quaint; a place where the stewardship and care of agricultural lands are communal acts. If ever there was an argument to be made for agriculture beautifully integrated into community, you’ll find it there. If here at Stonegate Farm I achieve a fraction of what the Bavarians have accomplished, I’ll consider this whole OCD experiment a success.
Tons of composted horse manure top-dress the farm each spring, building up the soil’s organic matter, tilth, and fertility.
Because both air and water are so critical to the health of your garden, it pays to observe and get to know your land before you settle on a site for planting. Soil texture and structure both help determine soil drainage, as do climate and physical location. In general, drainage is difficult to alter. If at all possible, choose a garden spot that has well-drained soil rather than one that is either very wet or very dry.
If you’re uncertain about your soil’s drainage, try this simple test: Dig a hole that’s roughly 1 foot deep and 1 foot in diameter. Fill the hole with water and let it drain away. Once the water has drained completely, fill the hole again with water and time how long it takes for the water to disperse. If water stays in the hole for longer than 8 hours, you will want to take steps, such as creating raised garden beds or installing a drainage system to divert water and improve the growing area for your plants. If the soil drains very rapidly, you may want to amend it with lots of organic matter to improve moisture retention and consider other measures to conserve moisture. Rapid drainage may seem easier to manage, but it means you’ll spend a lot more time and resources supplying water to your garden over the course of the growing season.
The pH of the soil is a measure of its acidity or alkalinity and is determined by the native minerals that make up the soil as well as by climate. A pH of 7.0 is considered neutral. Below 7.0, the soil pH is acidic (or “sour”); above 7.0, soil is alkaline (or “sweet”). Plants are said to “prefer” certain pH levels because of the nutrients that are or are not available to them depending on the pH.
Soil pH is normally adjusted by adding ground limestone or gypsum (to raise pH) or ground sulfur (to lower pH). But modifying soil pH is a long-term process, best begun at least a growing season ahead of planting. If a test indicates that your soil’s pH should be adjusted, your local Cooperative Extension office can recommend the right amount and timing of amendments for your soil type and growing conditions. Meanwhile, amending the soil with organic matter can help to mitigate the effects of pH by ensuring that nutrients are present in the soil in forms that plants can use.
If you’re uncertain about your soil’s fertility before you start planting, or if you’ve been gardening in a spot where things just aren’t growing as well as they should, a professional soil test can tell you what nutrients are missing. In most states, soil samples may be submitted to the land-grant agricultural university for analysis, usually by using a kit available through the county extension office. The kit will tell you how to collect and package a representative sample for testing. In exchange for your fee and a bit of soil, you’ll receive a complete assessment of your soil’s nutrient content and pH, along with recommendations for amending it to suit your plants’ needs. There are also a few private laboratories that perform soil tests for consumers; these may provide a more comprehensive evaluation but may also charge a higher fee. Wherever you choose to send your soil for testing, don’t wait until the week before you plant a garden to send in a test. Collect your sample the summer before you hope to start gardening the following spring. If you’re lucky, you’ll get results in time to begin amending and improving the soil in fall, so that the soil is really ready to plant when spring rolls around. Finally, be sure to specify that you want organic recommendations and on a scale that’s suited to the size of your garden—amounts per square foot, not per acre.
Fertilizers and Amendments
The garden soil you begin with will most likely need to be amended before you plant out your precious seedlings. Even if your future garden site supports a lawn, it may not have the nutritional strength necessary for fruiting plants and hungry vegetable crops. If you’ve had your soil tested, you know what to add and—hopefully—when to add it for the best results. But if you’re flying without a net, as gardeners often do, you really can’t go wrong by applying compost.
Incorporating ½ to 1 inch of compost into the soil each growing season is a reasonably sound soil-care program that will add modest amounts of nutrients along with organic matter to support both good drainage and moisture retention. For a new garden bed, cover the surface with 1 to 2 inches of compost or composted manure and dig or till it into the top 4 to 6 inches of the soil. Incorporate compost in fall and then mulch the bed with straw or wood chips to protect the soil from weathering during winter. In spring, pull back the mulch to let the bed warm for early crops and plant into the compost-enriched soil. Or leave compost atop the garden as a protective winter mulch and incorporate it in spring as you prepare beds for planting.
For the most part, your garden will thrive as you build the soil and nourish the plants according to their specific needs. Your soil will need amendments, fertilization, and remineralization to restore the nutrients that hungry fruit and vegetable crops require. Remineralizing, in particular, is as essential as composting when it comes to soil health, fertility, and the nutrient density of what you grow; the healthier the soil, the more nutrient packed and healthful the food it produces.
At Stonegate, we tend to feed our heavy fruiting vegetables with extra phosphorus (in the form of a 0-45-0 triple superphosphate), for example, knowing that they make demands on the soil that normal phosphate levels may not be able to provide. We also fertilize the soil and foliar feed throughout the season with a high-octane fish emulsion and seaweed spray, which provides an almost complete and regular nutrient buzz for soil and plants.
Think of this as a patient, steady process—a way of providing a healthy, balanced diet for both soil and plants—rather than as some supersupplement pill that top loads plants with a megadose of nutrients while doing nothing to contribute to the long-term health and fertility of the soil that supports them.
I’ve been amending my beds and soil for years with composted horse manure from a friend’s stables. He lets me load the previous year’s piles into my pickup each spring, and it’s become something of a ritual. His horses look on, seemingly amused by my compulsive shoveling of their waste. Once, his 10-year-old chestnut gelding stood curiously by as I shoveled composted manure into the truck, then slowly approached and brushed his long, warm muzzle against my shoulder as if to ask, “What are you doing with my poop?” I love this horse, with his sweet and massive tenderness. If I brought him a bushel of ‘Purple Haze’ carrots and heirloom apples, I wonder if he’d make the connection between what he gives and what we get?
My compost is a mix of last year’s greens and carbons and manures left to cold compost in a large contained pile along the edge of the orchard. I think that not rushing compost, and allowing all of its richness to form into complex soils as nature does (over time), is the best for all the bacteria, fungi, and microorganisms—and human energy—involved. Quick and hot composting can kill a lot of the beneficial life you’re trying to preserve. Besides the organic vegetable waste from the farm’s harvests, we add fall leaves and straw and have a small electric chipper to shred plant stalks and stems into biodegradable, manageable pieces. I’ll also add richly soiled straw bedding from the chicken coop in fall and early spring, along with aged horse manure, and turn it into the pile. The mound gets worked and turned only occasionally and produces a healthy, friable soil every season.
NOTES FROM THE WONDERGROUND
Or✵gan✵ic (adj) \or-gan-ik\
We’ve been setting out young greenhouse seedlings for the last week—loose-leaf lettuce, broccoli rabe, rainbow chard—and organizing them into perfect matrices on the farm; it’s the kind of hopeful symmetry that prevails in spring, before the sprawl of summer growth turns order into succulent mayhem.
When you’re not spread out over acres of land but are farming on limited ground, your season is defined by meticulous planning and biointensive forethought. Small farms need to make particularly efficient use of space. Deciding what to plant where and with whom is a kind of delicate agricultural choreography, one where missteps can seriously lower productivity or, worse, lead to crop failure.
Each season begins with the same questions: What can I plant here and harvest early before the space is succeeded by a later-season variety? What could I squeeze into the soft, usable dirt between taller stems, or companion plant so that there’s balance and harmony, not competition?
Of course, balance and harmony are fundamental to organic farming. Organic asks that you take as much as you give, that you’re attentive to inherent cycles and rhythms, that you consider the farm as a macro-organism where all the living parts function in service of the whole.
But organic isn’t just a method and philosophy of growing food. The Oxford English Dictionary defines organic as “denoting a relation between elements of something such that they fit together harmoniously as necessary parts of the whole.”
And aren’t we all looking for lives that “fit together harmoniously,” for a sense of order and meaning, for some magical coherence at the end of the day?
Working with the land gives you some of that. It ties you in and proposes that you ask the right questions. When I began to restore this property 15 years ago and stood looking at a cluster of worn-out buildings buried beneath veils of bittersweet and at the menacing loom of wild and unruly trees, I started to ask those questions: What if we restored this, or added that, or moved this building here and built one there, or started a farm?
The answers have broadened the meaning of organic at Stonegate. Very little that happens here is out of context or harmony. My work as a photographer and writer is shaped by my relationship with this place and vice versa. Working in magazines and books helps add broader purpose and meaning to the farm and is an engine of its sustainability. (I’ve even grown my own props for food shoots!)
In order to be fulfilled, life needs some organizing principles. The center for me is held by the farm, the pulsing heart of things that helps to make beautiful sense of it all.
Spring-planted carrots are a sweet, crisp harvest come midseason.
There’s a lot of blather about the do’s and don’ts of composting, and some folks seem to get so caught up in the conversation that they lose track of why they’re composting in the first place. Some composting methods can seem daunting, full of arcane references to organic chemistry that will remind you of why you dropped out of premed. Composting does feel like a kind of alchemy, turning waste into something rich and viable, and it appeals to our resourceful, enterprising spirit as growers, but it’s not the end-all. Make it a part of what you do, not the whole point.
The compost you make should resemble the one nature makes on her own: deep brown, crumbly, full of organic matter. With the right mix of carbon and nitrogen-rich materials, water, and air, plant material will decompose, worked on by millions of tireless microorganisms, and regenerate itself as soil.
What to Compost
While you may need to forage locally for ingredients for compost making, there should be little need to buy materials to put in the pile or bin. Our gardens, lawns and landscapes, and kitchens typically provide plenty of raw materials for the composting process, with the exception of animal manures, which you may need to seek out if you don’t have a few critters of your own.
The more diverse the materials that go into the compost pile, the more nutritionally varied the outcome. With the exception of meat scraps, dairy products, and greasy foods and quantities of oil (they’ll put up a stink and attract pests), put all the organic wastes from the kitchen and garden into the compost pile: eggshells, coffee grounds, tea leaves, fruit peels, vegetable trimmings, cooked pasta, crumbs from the bottom of the cereal or cracker bag, bread scraps, and more. Almost everything you eat can be converted to compost.
From the garden and landscape, collect weeds, fading plants and plant parts, grass clippings, fall leaves, twigs and branches, stems of perennials cut back for winter, cornstalks, and ornamental grasses. We use a small electric mulcher, or shredder, to break down thicker plant stalks, and you can also use a mulching mower to break down small twigs and leaves. Don’t despair if you lack a lawn or trees to yield clippings and leaves. Often these can be picked up from local curbsides during municipal yard waste collections. Or your local government agency may have a central collection point where they produce “compost” or wood chips that are free to residents. Not surprisingly, municipal products can be highly variable—not everyone is scrupulous about what they toss into the leaf pile or drop off at the collection facility. To be safe, you can get your yard waste from a friend or neighbor who you know is tending their landscape without the chemical soup of weed killers or toxic pesticides.
Green grass clippings are known as the “manure of suburbia” and can boost microbial activity in a compost pile with their high-octane shot of nitrogen. A combination of chopped dry leaves and fresh grass clippings makes a fine compost mix without anything else added.
To the rich mix of plant wastes from home and garden, add manure if it is available. Skip the wastes of carnivores—no dog or cat droppings in the compost—because they can carry disease organisms that can affect humans. The bedding from a chicken coop, the material from beneath a rabbit hutch, and straw and manure from stables or barns that house horses, cows, sheep, goats, and llamas are all nutritionally potent additions to the compost.
How Compost Happens
While it may seem like you are doing most of the work of transforming all this organic waste into compost, your contribution actually pales in comparison to the labors of countless micro-organisms (and there are billions of them in a gram of compost, including bacteria, fungi, and protozoa) that munch their way through the heap.
Launching a successful compost project is quite simple, but what happens to the assembled materials is remarkably complex. Compost ingredients can be generally classified as either “browns” (carbon) or “greens” (nitrogen), and they represent the two main nutrients required. While each material contains its own ratio of these nutrients, and complex algorithms can be devised to perfectly balance the amounts of each that go into a compost pile, there’s really little need for that level of scrutiny. As a general rule, a compost pile should be constructed of two or three parts of carbon/brown materials to one part of nitrogen/green materials by volume, typically expressed as a 3:1 ratio. Think of two or three bags of dry leaves mixed with one bag of fresh, moist grass clippings or a similar amount of manure.
Working the Soil
At Stonegate, our growing beds are divided by grass paths that are 18 inches wide (lawn mower width), and the beds themselves are 5 feet wide. This means we’re never walking on and compacting our growing soil, and we’re always planting, weeding, tilling, and amending from the edges. A green grid between beds is easily maintained by mowing, not time-consuming weeding, and helps to visually define the growing areas. Distinct and abundant beds of vegetables framed by neatly mown borders are perennial-garden pretty and make it clear that you’re answering to a higher aesthetic authority than if you were just working a big patch of dirt.
We do most of our soil work in spring and fall, after it’s sufficiently dry, and throughout the growing season as needed, and we use a number of sturdy and reliable tools. If farming is a long-term investment, then the tools you use should be, as well. In general, older tools and machines that have proven themselves over time—and are not mass-produced, riveted together, and made of disposable pot metal—are best.
My two go-to tools for soil work are the broad fork and a 40-year-old Troy-Bilt Pony tiller that I bought on Craigslist. Because my soil has a fair amount of clay and is slow to drain, using a broad fork each spring opens up the deep layers of soil to nutrients from above and improves drainage. A broad fork is a manual beast, one of the few tools you have to stand on to work, and it consists of a series of long, sturdy tines attached to a flat bar that bridges two long, upright handles. The fork is driven into the soil and then stood on and worked back and forth to loosen soil layers to a depth of about 14 inches.
Once all of my beds have been pierced and loosened by the broad fork, a thick layer of compost and composted manure is spread across them, along with any needed nutrients based on an annual soil test. Once these composts are spread across the farm, they’re tilled in with a walk-behind tiller that works these amendments into the top 6 inches of the soil, then raked with a sturdy bow rake into a smooth, loamy bed ready for planting.
During the growing season, the tiller and bow rakes are used to prep beds for succession plantings, and different hoes—such as circle, scuffle, and stirrup—are used for weeding between rows. You will make thorough and demanding use of these tools and will come to rely on them as much as you do your own passion and stamina for growing, and they should be treated fairly.
After designing your growing space, putting in the necessary infrastructures of fencing, trellising, water supply, and tool storage; and after tilling, amending, and prepping your soil, it’s time for the fun part: ordering seeds.