Straw and Compost into Gold

The tracing paper drawings for this garden are crinkly now from being folded up wet in a file, so they seem ancient. It’s good to look at such beginnings – a reminder of how relative everything is.

In the earliest pictures, the garden is all straw piles edged by random chunks of concrete – but that was an improvement over the end-of-construction weed-covered dirt pile, slimy straw, and mud. A later picture, tucked into one of the books I talk about here, shows the patient younger son, hoodie obscuring most of his face, pitchfork in hand, while nearby the dog stands equally patiently, but uncomfortably, on crushed gravel. I’m geared up in wool hat and windbreaker to direct the addition of more straw and more compost to shape what I hoped would be a larger garden bed.

The day a guy handy-with-a-backhoe (a little puzzled by my requests but game), looked at my drawing and shaped the four-square garden, thrilled me. He bladed the dirt from the foundation hole into four, unequal rectangles as I added straw and compost (clearly a four-square garden of historical lineage to me – I think a case of “whatever” for him). He and an assistant lifted broken concrete and pavers, left from the previous owners’ attempts at paths, to contain the piles.

After I showed him pictures in Ann Lovejoy’s book “Organic Garden Design School,” he built a sturdy wall out front out of chunks of concrete, salvaged from another of our contractor’s jobs, laid one on top of another. He poured load after load of crushed gravel into paths and a zone three feet out from the house. We felt better by the end of the day for having some structure.

Toby Hemenway’s book, “Gaia’s Garden,” was the other recipe book forever to hand. There is mud on the page of my book with his picture of “the ultimate sheet mulch.” And sheet mulching in all its miraculous forms built all the beds here. No topsoil – but plenty of compost and straw layered and mixed with the foundation hole dirt (it’s full of clay here – but clay is full of nutrition).

Hemenway’s book makes permaculture, despite an uninspiring name, the gold standard of sustainable gardening (living really). Hemenway describes the kind of garden that first caught his attention:

“These are true backyard ecosystems – not just disconnected fragments – that are as resilient, diverse, productive, and beautiful as those in nature. They are not merely flowery showplaces or ruler-straight arrays of row crops. Yet they are also not the brambly tangles that identify many wildlife gardens. They are places where conscious design has been melded with a respect and understanding of nature’s principles.”

Lovejoy, author of many books about beautiful gardens, explains how to do the “conscious design” in any size garden. She is utterly realistic now about available time and energy and doesn’t spend it in fruitless tasks. Her advice about making good dirt, plant choice, clustering plants with like needs, “sandwich plantings,” wise water use, pest control, compost, mulch, and conserving the gardener’s energy – all permaculture principles – sustained me.

This was the summer the house was finished, but we weren’t able to live here yet. So we topped the beds with a layer of straw and left the soil-making alchemy to eager microorganisms and winter rains.

1 thought on “Straw and Compost into Gold

  1. “Conserving the gardener’s energy,” ahhhh, anything that brings a sense of ease even in the midst of great effort — I love the idea of joining forces, working with, following the flow, expressing content through form. “Good design tells the truth,” says Robert Grudin — I think because it joins forces, works with, follows the flow … never has to remember or prop up the artificial details of a lie. Very inspiring, Katy! – Julie

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