There is so much wisdom in “Gaia’s Garden'” (Chelsea Green Publishing) that I would need a dozen columns to do it justice.
Subtitled “A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture,” author Toby Hemenway has given us, through this book, a bold, wonderful, nature-embracing and completely sensible vision of the future. In this new vision, there are no lawns, no sprinklers, no weeds, no insect pests, no chemicals, and no back-breaking garden chores. Instead, there are perennial edible plants, bountiful flower bouquets, and an abundance of wildlife.
Among their many goals, permaculture advocates seek to create sustainable gardens and communities. In an ideal permaculture community, you would find all your food – plants and animals – growing or grazing either in your own back yard or in the back yard of one of your neighbors.
Hemenway demonstrates how some gardening tasks are completely contrary to natural processes. For example, the heavy watering and fertilization required to keep a lawn green lead to constant growth not only of grass but of the surrounding shrubs and trees. Yet this constant growth serves no useful purpose as it is typically mowed, pruned and taken away to the dump.
Just about now you would expect the author to invoke that magic word – composting. Composting is the process that turns green waste into sweet-smelling soil amendment. Yet Hemenway has a different approach to building the perfect soil, albeit in a manner that uses green waste.
“Composting isn’t my favorite way to build soil,” Hemenway writes, “and I try to do as little of it as possible. For one thing, it’s a lot of work … something that every efficient gardener seeks to minimize.”
Instead, Hemenway advocates a related form of soil building known as sheet mulching. Sheet mulching can be carried out directly in the garden bed or close to it. In the area to be mulched, you chop down any existing vegetation but leave it in place. Poke the tines of a spading fork into the soil but do not turn the soil over. Cover this area with a high-nitrogen material such as blood meal or chicken manure and place a layer of cardboard or 1/2 inch of newspaper on top. Wet the cardboard or newspaper with a hose and sprinkle over this more blood meal or chicken manure. Now pile on 12 inches of bulk mulch, which may consist of loose straw, hay, leaves, wood shavings or stable sweepings. Water the pile as you build it up. Over the top, spread a 2-inch layer of compost or compost mixed with garden soil. Finally, add a finishing 2-inch layer of straw, wood shavings or fine bark.
The beauty of the sheet mulch pile is that it never needs to be turned, unlike the classic compost pile that requires constant mixing or aeration. Still, a 1-foot tall pile of sheet mulch constructed in the fall should, on its own, shrink down to several inches in height by spring and be primed for planting. No fertilizers or soil amendments need to be added to a bed built from sheet mulch.
An even less laborious way of preparing the soil in fall for spring planting involves the sowing of a cover crop. A cover crop, planted now, should be tilled into the ground next spring after it begins to flower but before it sets seed. At that point in its life-cycle, the root growth, nitrogen content and biomass of a fall-planted cover crop reach their peaks.
Cover crops that grow well in the Valley and could be planted now would include: red and white clover, fava bean, fenugreek, mustard, annual rye and oats.
One of the many fascinating concepts discussed in “Gaia’s Garden” is the so-called chicken tractor. The chicken tractor is nothing less than a bottomless chicken coop on wheels. You roll the chicken tractor over to a particularly weedy or slug-infested area of your garden and let the birds go to work. They will not only make a meal of the weeds or slugs but leave their droppings for fertilizer as well.
< TIP OF THE WEEK: Garden workshops with Toby Hemenway will be held Tuesday and Wednesday at the nonprofit Los Angeles Ecovillage, located at 3551 White House Place, near the intersection of Third Street and Vermont Avenue. Prepaid reservations are required because space is limited. Call Lois Arkin at (213) 738-1254 to reserve a place.