Back to the Soil

Blair Richards-Koeslag

George Kinderman with his granddaughter, at his no-till garden in the Ottawa Valley.

Uncertain times, such as these, bring us back to the soil. My garden has been many things to me along the way, not just a source of food, but a source of comfort and hope. The garden has been my friend and therapist. In these days of isolation, conversations between human and landscape have amplified in importance. Many people are looking at their lawns asking, “Will you feed us if things get hard this year?”

I once made a list of all the edible and medicinal plants on my 3/4 of an acre to discover there were 64, which included nothing that I had planted, only volunteers. At this point, I garden with them and around them, and they have become a large part of my harvest and my gardening team. All the qualities that make these plants good for the human body also make them good for the soil. They are all doing something. Every time I've led a plant walk, the first thing people ask is “what is this one for? Can I eat it?” Plants are complex, they live interesting lives, and they do many things. You have to slow down enough to understand. I focus on one plant at a time, they pop out of the landscape, and suddenly something I have never noticed is everywhere. Growing on top of or beside familiar plants, right out my front door there is a little, big, green shoot, branch, leaf, flower, that my eyes have been passing over for years. What is your name, I ask? How did you get here? Can I help you? Can you help me?

Starting a new garden can feel daunting. Pounding sod and pushing rotor tillers, especially when it seems like the entire world is coming apart at the seams, you may feel pressure. Over the years I have had many gardening mentors. I feel so much gratitude for the knowledge passed to me by someone handing over a shovel. Kneeling on the ground beside people I love, planting seeds, watching miniature miracles emerge. We will eat together what we've grown together. I no longer fight nature, but nurture it. Growing food for the birds as well as my family, planting flowers for the bees, leaving wild places for the praying mantis to breed. Things that I used to label “messy” are now birds’ nests soon to be gathered. Stalks in the fall left to attract flocks of joyful chickadees. “Thank-you,” they tweet. A mullein plant is suddenly beautiful with yellow blossoms, once I've forgotten it's a “weed”, glorious. All this wildness adds to the garden, and becomes a subtle harvest, feeding the deeper parts inside me, as well as encouraging pollinators and predatory insects to take up residence and robins to drop their mid-flight mini-manure bombs.

I do what nature does, smothering the ground, to establish new species, leaving all the roots underground, planting on top of the grass. While decomposing, roots become pathways for air and nutrients already in the ground, waiting, ready to feed my crops. I often just cut unwanted plants down with scissors and mulch with the greens. Gardening happens underground as well, this is compost. One garden I've played in, George Kinderman's on the top of a big hill in the Ottawa Valley, has taught me: it doesn't matter how poor the soil is, mulch applied each year will start new gardens without tilling and build soil where there is nothing. Forty years later, George's peas tower 10 feet tall dripping with pods, where there was once only 2 cm of sand on bedrock - now 2 feet of topsoil. “George, can I help work in your garden?” I asked. “No, you can only play here,” he replies. Dancing with his shovel, painting the landscape with blossoms and nutrition, visiting his farm is like walking into a living canvass that feeds you.

Blair's no-till garden 4th year ready to be planted.

The Playing Mantis perma-culture garden in Marlbank is the culmination of 20 years of veggie gardening on my part, and a testimony to my growing laziness. Made entirely by mulching, 1-2 feet of hay, grass clippings, leaves, wool, cardboard, all will smother the grass or other plants underneath them. When the grass peeks back through, just cover it again. Good-sized veggie starts can be planted directly into the mulch. Just part the mulch, take a spade, make a hole into the earth below, and plop your plant in with a little compost or manure if you've got some. When time allows you to wait one season, the space will be ready for direct sowing the next spring, if you mulch it now. Just part the hay. My favourite garden making method is to place a potato on the ground and cover it with a foot of hay. When the plant emerges, keep covering it with hay up to the top leaves. When you harvest them in the fall, that area is ready for planting in the spring. Boom.

I often grow in mound gardens, made by placing cardboard on the ground and a thick layer of soil on top of that, planting into that directly. I usually grow cucumbers or squash this way. Keeping the soil covered with mulch if possible (everywhere), will reduce the number of wild plants that grow along with your cultivated ones, hold moisture in the ground, reduce the need for watering, protect soil micro-organisms and fertility, as well as build soil and add nutrition. Healthy soils will eat a lot of mulch in a year, which means the soil biology is active. Keep on adding mulch to your garden when it disappears, your soil will get better and better. Covered soil is happy soil. Just think about how nature does it. Nature is the best gardener I've ever met.

Over the years I have witnessed and took part in a war against nature. People going after wild plants, pulling them all out of the garden, cursing them as they throw these little lives away, like garbage. Leaving the soil exposed to the elements, only to erode away in the wind and rain, have the micro-organisms scorched by the sun and dry out, creating a system that requires water from the ground to be poured often to maintain growth, only to evaporate again. Masanubu Fukuoka, author of “The One-Straw Revolution”, laments how people create so much work for themselves by working too hard. We push against the currents of nature, only to be washed away in the river. Our lives are so intricately connected and dependent upon soil biology. In this time, we often think of soil nutrition as chemicals that can be added, and levels that can be topped up. While all the beings around us take part in life as a community, every plant is surrounded by beneficial bacteria that trade nutrients for sugars that roots excrete. This soil bacteria supports all animal and plant life, and when you feed this, gardens become easy.

For as long as I can remember, all your lawns have been gardens in my imagination. Food harvested off roofs and planters pressed up against the sidewalks, squash, beans, and carrots, growing beside perennials, whole communities of people eating as locally as possible - that makes sense to me. Food and flowers everywhere! Stay safe and well-fed, and take this shovel.

Blair's no-till garden, first year.