Admitting What Didn’t Work

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As a gardener/ farmer with a city lot, my rate-limiting step is space, and things that don’t work need to be given up and the space given to something else. This time of year, I’m often busy dealing with things that didn’t work and freeing up their real estate for other purposes.

Take my effort to create an asparagus bed with minimal work. The spot where I wanted to establish this long-lived perennial was awful, not to put too fine a point on it. The workers who built the house parked their trucks on it and used it as a dumping spot for leftover cement and other choice debris. The ground was packed hard as concrete, weeds wouldn’t grow there, and it promised hours of backbreaking work.

I decided to use less laborious methods to heal that area, and I planned to take two years to do it. In year 1, I built a long, low compost heap on my future asparagus bed. I used straw and chicken manure, layered it up about two feet high, and it heated well. I ended up with about four inches of pure finished compost over the entire bed, which I left to cool off completely over the winter.

Year 2, I stirred the surface of the compost and planted daikon and oats. The idea was that the oats would provide organic matter and the daikon would pierce and break up the hard pan beneath and make drainage channels through it for the plantings to follow. I supplied water, and the mixture grew well and looked healthy. Again, I left it over the winter to break down.

This year, year 3, I ordered my asparagus starts. On the first warm day in early February, I went out to the bed-to-be with my spading fork, to gloat over the results of my strategy.

What I found was a thin mat of organic matter, bound together by roots, over impenetrable hard stuff. The oats had made a thick mat of roots a few inches thick, and the daikon had turned at right angles when they encountered the hardened mess beneath and grown sideways
along the bottom of the compost.

So, finally, I did what I had to do and double-dug the bed, using a pick to break up the hard conglomerate and incorporating organic matter 18 inches deep. It took an entire back-breaking weekend. Now my bed is mellowing, ready for the asparagus roots to be planted in March.

Does this mean that labor-saving methods of gardening don’t work? No, it just means that everything depends on the situation. Study your situation, and be aware that some areas can’t be repaired without putting in a lot of sweat equity. Is it worth it? If you want fresh food and want to leave a piece of land better than you found it, the answer is an emphatic “yes.”

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