Giving our soil, and ourselves, a chance to rest
Every week for the past month, I’ve arrived at the garden with the intention of taking our zucchini plant out, only to change my mind and leave it alone. The thing just keeps going. A new zucchini appears without fail every seven days. Zucchinis are piling up on our countertops and in the arms of reluctant friends. We long-since passed the point of being able to fit them in the fridge or freezer.
Still, I can see signs that the plant is stressed. Many of its fruits now succumb to blossom end rot before they mature. This gross-looking condition is associated with a calcium deficiency in the plant. In other words, the soil – after months of helping to produce an onslaught of summer squash – is getting tired.
Just as plants are food to us, the soil provides food to plants. And just like us, plants suffer when they aren’t adequately nourished. Humans need protein, carbohydrates and fat to survive. Plants need nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. Both of us need a range of minerals.
The way that we garden in urban spaces is inherently intensive. With only a small space available to us on our patios, backyards or community gardens, most of us plant very close together and in quick succession. That’s fine up to a point. Late in the season, though, the gardens can show signs of depletion. The rapidity with which we deplete the soil means that we need to take extra care to replenish it.
Planting cover crops can help to restore tired soil. Photo by Lauren Eden.
Early this spring, I added a layer of compost to all of our beds. It supercharged our soil and allowed things to grow rapidly. Six months later, many of the nutrients from the compost have been sucked out by a succession of hungry crops.
In some cases, adding more compost (either homemade or purchased from a reputable supplier) in the fall can be a great idea. I’ll be doing this before we plant our garlic. Often, though, it makes sense to work with the cycles of nature and simply allow the soil to take a break. Now that the fall equinox has passed, the growth of plants will slow down noticeably. Nights are longer than days and the weather is getting cooler.
I don’t have an easy time with rest. Like most other people in Western society, I’ve been drawn into the construct that constant productivity is the way to go. The problem is that we humans aren’t that different from plants. Constant output can exhaust us, especially when the days grow short. Recently, I’ve been experimenting with injecting real rest into my life for pretty much the first time ever. Real lying on the couch, having long meals with friends, watching silly movies kind of rest. I was scared to do it, since relaxation takes time and space away from getting things done. But I tried it, and the strange thing was this: taking a break made me more productive the next day. I still got everything done that I needed to do.
I’m now thinking about ways to incorporate similar kinds of rest into my garden. One of the most powerful ways to do this is by growing cover crops: plants that restore the soil. These crops, which include things like clover, buckwheat, rye and vetch, do many wonderful things, such as increasing the availability of nitrogen, building up organic matter and attracting beneficial insects. What they don’t do is provide food to humans. It’s for this reason that I’ve used cover crops only tentatively in our space up to now. It seems like a waste of space in our tiny yard, especially during the winter when I need every inch of productivity I can get.
This year, though, I think I’ll follow the principle of “more rest equals more productivity”. I have a bag of fava beans, a crop that restores nitrogen, ready to go in after the zucchini. There’s about a month of productive time left in our garden before things start to truly slow down, and when that time comes I plan to embrace the slowness and know that our soil is taking a well-deserved break.
Rebecca Cuttler is an urban gardening teacher, member of the Vancouver Food Policy Council and board member of the Environmental Youth Alliance. She blogs about urban food gardening at http://abundantcity.net.