Sunday, May 9, 2010

Random Garden and Sluice: An Introduction

Early last year, after reading an article about the botanical collaborations of John Bartram and Peter Collinson in an issue of Early American Life magazine, I was inspired to re-create the large gardens that had originally dominated our place in Stratford, Connecticut.

I'm not totally sure what brought this on. No doubt part of it was inspired from reading about the extensive gardens that Bartram cultivated at his home on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, as rendered in this drawing by his son, William Bartram, in 1758:

Undoubtedly, another source of inspiration was my memory of the large English gardens that once existed throughout our yard. Planted in the early half of the last century, a few remnants of those gardens were still around when I was growing up. Today, all of this is gone, though you can still make out traces of the original garden plan, if you know where to look.

So, it was inevitable, perhaps, that last spring, I embarked on this journey to restore the old gardens. In time, my long-term planning evolved to include herbs and vegetables, and I decided to attempt a large-scale kitchen garden or potager, by combining what I remember of the old gardens together with elements from traditional New England kitchen gardens. That would be the overarching objective, anyway. Certain other parts of the yard will also eventually be devoted to more experimental or exploratory gardening, including such things as nicotiana and New England wild flowers.

I started by reclaiming a large garden plot that would be the easiest to dig because it was still something of a functioning garden. We regularly used to plant tomatoes here, and then about 20 years ago, the tomatoes gave way to roses. Today, there are a few surviving roses that still manage to bloom despite a lack of maintenance over the years. But all that will change in time. The roses will be retained, and at some point, this plot might once again be returned to a full rose garden, but for now, it will participate in the potager:

Top: The first plot selected to re-work. Note a few roses and armilary sundial toward the center. The future kitchen garden will ultimately consist of about eight or nine plots, some interconnected, all approximately the same size as this one. Bottom: An old scalloped border is nearly covered over by sod. These blocks will eventually be removed in favor of a natural border.

If you've ever gardened in New England, you know the soil situation here: Rocks, roots, and hard-pack. You cannot readily dig deep spits and turn them over to start a new plot. Doing so would basically leave you with a rock pile. In my first attempt, I dug a relatively shallow plot (about 5-6"), and removed some of the larger rocks I dug up. Then, I spread a thick layer of leaf mold that I obtained from a nearby fen (I envisioned John Bartram exploring unknown territories in search of new fauna, as I descended down into the fen, of course), and filled the plot with a mixture of the original soil and prepared garden soil containing the usual sphagnum peat moss, manure, et cetera:

Top: Leaf mold spread in the plot. The plastic children's pools are very useful for collecting soil without making a mess. Bottom: The first section of the plot filled with soil and smoothed over, just prior to initial tamping down.

With the next section of broken ground, I got a little more ambitious. I decided to dig a deeper pit and use a sieve to filter some portion of the larger rocks out of the soil. I'm assuming that this is more or less what was done with the original garden plots. In fact, there is a very old fireplace in the yard that was constructed a long time ago by hand and made exclusively out of fist-sized stones. I assume all these stones were produced by turning the original plots over, though I suppose we'll find out for sure when I attempt to re-dig them.

Using some 2x lumber that happened to be on-hand and exterior-grade screws, I assembled a frame for the sieve. In the photo below, I had just added the first of two braces (the sieve frame is in the upper portion of the photo):

Cutting and attaching a metal lath acquired from the local Home Depot completed the sieve; I fastened the lath to the frame with galvanized roofing nails:

The completed structure reminded me a bit of the old sluice boxes that gold miners used, so I just started referring to it as "Sluice". Sluice performed remarkably well when I turned over subsequent sections of the plot. I dug much deeper (about 12-15") and filtered out a prodigious number of rocks. I then filled these deeper sections more or less in the same manner, alternating layers of original soil/garden soil mixture with leafy mold layers. I also made it a point to regularly add rocks back into the soil to make sure the soil held together and continued to drain reasonably well. But at least the impentrable hard-pack occurs at a much greater depth than before. Needless to say, this all amounted to quite a bit of hard work....

Top and Bottom: Roses blooming amidst all the digging

The photo below shows a view of this garden plot toward the end of last summer. Quite a number of different things ended up being planted here. I created a natural border of alternating sedum/stonecrop and winter creeper (I'm not sure why I did that; I just did). I also planted beans, collards, many different types of herbs just within the border, and various decorative plants amidst the ferns toward the back of the plot. There are also a number of containers with tomatoes and other plants in the vicinity of the armilary. And all the existing roses are in there too, of course:

All this is in the spirit of a true potager, I suppose, but the relatively random collection of items got me unconsciously referring to this plot as the random garden, even though it's supposed to be a coordinated portion of a much larger garden of the future. The next photo is a close-up of some of the purple sequoia bush beans I had planted here, along with a new offspring bush posing right alongside its proud parent:

As winter approached, I sowed a cover-crop mixture of winter rye and crimson clover throughout the relatively exposed portions of the plot to hold the soil together and fix more nitrogen for the following summer. In the next article, I'll write more about the subsequent incorporation of that cover crop in anticipation of spring planting, something I had actually accomplished the very same day I published this posting.

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