When does a garden begin? Perhaps it first began in the dreams of the gardeners. In the spring of 2014, several staff dreamed up the idea of a garden to provide some of the vegetables for BCBS’s kitchen. We had 6 strips plowed up, each 30 feet long and as wide as a tractor tiller. These were separated by patches of grass. They were in the field to the west of the dharma hall and chestnut trees, where we hoped they would get the most sun.
The sun. It has been interesting to note the patterns of sunlight as the sun’s path changes throughout the gardening season. While we appear to be oriented almost perfectly east and west, still the trees above the garden, along the driveway, to the north, shade the top part of the garden by mid-afternoon leading to lower yields for the tomatoes on that side. And on the south, even at peek sun times, there is a bit of shade from two of the trees along the stone wall.
Looking at the grass growing in the field, we judged the soil to be relatively fertile. We brought in some aged horse manure, as well as some donated soil. The soil in the field turned out to be worse than we had originally thought. Potatoes did well, winning the cook’s praise as the best he had ever tasted. Plants in the beds and the squash did okay, but other things did poorly.
In early August, we began planning and preparing for a major garden the following summer. Our poor Executive Director – every time she went away, she came back to more changes. Fortunately for us, she was good-natured about it and generous with the resources as we continually went over budget.
The first things to go were the spaces between the beds. The mowing of the grass covered the veggies with clippings that were difficult for the cook to wash off. While we had the tractor and tiller there, we expanded the garden to the south and west. We put in 16 raised beds made of rough-cut lumber from a wonderful sawmill in New Braintree. These were 4’x8’ and 8’ deep. We filled these with a mixture of one-half 3-year-old cow manure, one-quarter peat moss, and one-quarter vermiculite. We mixed this all up with the tractor bucket. We lay a deep bed of hay or leaves in the beds and then put 2-3 inches of the soil mixture on top. This was with the exception of the two beds we planned to put garlic into. These were filled fully to give the garlic the depth it needed.
At first, we were not too impressed with the manure we had gotten from a nearby farm. It was clumpy, with the hay still not decomposed. On top of that, there was a fair bit of plastic in it. However, this manure produced amazing crops, and by the next spring, it was looking beautifully decomposed.
That fall, we decided to put 16 more raised beds in on the other side of the garden, leaving an open space down the middle and a large area at the south end for squash and potatoes. These new beds were filled with the same mixture. We found some nice-looking pallets and built a series of four compost bins. We have been happily making compost ever since, moving plant material from one bin to the next, layering it with chopped leaves, grass clippings, compost and manure. Some of this went into the beds this spring.
Throughout the summer, we counted and weighed everything the garden produced, recording it in a notebook. We wanted to see how much of our needs we could fill from the garden and what money we were saving. When the bookkeeping was done at the end of the 2015 season and the results tallied up, it turned out to be a very impressive year.
The big goal last fall, as every year, was to have as much work done ahead of time as possible, so that the springtime would arrive with as little pressure as possible. The beds were all covered with chopped leaves so that they would not grow weeds and also to add to the soil as the leaves decomposed. Our facilities manager rigged up a wonderful gathering system on the mower so that we could collect leaves as they fell throughout the fall.
In spite of planning to have most of the work done last fall, this spring of 2016 found us dealing with a lot of infrastructure still to be set up. Due to the mild winter, we were able to finish the fencing on the east and south sides of the garden. We had stalled on this project as we did not want an imposing fence such as we had on the other two sides. While welcoming the protection and the trellising it afforded, we were concerned that it did not feel welcoming to our guests. Mentioning this to Joseph Goldstein one day at lunch, he suggested a low fence and we figured out a way to do this while still hopefully having some deer protection. Where we had gates, we put in tall posts, stringing fishing line between the posts at 1’ intervals. This new fence makes use of the many bittersweet vines that grow in the forest around us.
This fence, while also containing the pine boughs featured in the other, is more curving and whimsical. It now provides trellising for our heritage Amish Paste tomatoes which tend to grow 4-8’ tall. We have over 60 of these in the ground this summer. Because they are the only large variety we are growing, it allows us to save seed, one of our lesser gardening passions. There are also three varieties of cherry tomatoes- one red, one orange and one white so that we will have an artistic as well as a tasty mix of small tomatoes.
There are 6 openings into the garden for which we have made and hung gates. These are framed in rough lumber, filled in with decorative pine boughs, and have handles we have collected from an old barn nearby. A seventh opening is large enough for us to bring the tractor into, delivering hay, grass clippings, or manure. Generally we avoid the weight of the tractor on the soil because it compacts it, but sometimes it saves a lot of time and energy.
The other infrastructure job that came as a bit of a surprise this spring was that most of the beds needed a lot of topping up. We had put hay and leaves into them last season, forming a base onto which we added a few inches of soil. An odd result of this is that our carrots kept coming out with an unusual shape – they were all bent at a right angle after about four inches of growth. It took a while for us to figure out that they were growing through the soil on the top and then hitting the bed of leaves underneath. Unable to penetrate the leaves, they headed off at a right angle and continued to grow.
Because the leaf and hay had sunk down in the beds, we brought in 8 cubic yards of composted manure and mixed it again with peat moss and vermiculite. Luckily, we could manage this with the tractor, but all of it was carted into the garden by wheel barrow loads over several weeks of the spring. We were fortunate to have the help of young, strong volunteers for part of this.
We had had a big problem with voles at the end of last season, and already, throughout this past winter and spring, we were seeing signs of them. They ate half our beet crop, which we did not even know about until we went to pull the beets. Likewise, we lost one third of our potato crop to them. In an attempt to prevent at least the damage to the beets, we built two new beds and put hardware cloth on the bottom before filling them with soil. This was a suggestion from two of our yogis. Our guests are always a wonderful source of information, recipes, and gardening ideas.
Last spring, we had three days of delicious strawberries, which happened to nicely coincide with a board meeting. Then the chipmunks discovered them and took them all. This year, in view of the huge number of chipmunks, we have built a box around the strawberry bed. It perfectly fits three lightweight screen doors on the top. The strawberries are beautifully in bloom right now, and we look forward to a bumper crop.
The last big infrastructure job that has to be done (half completed at the time of this writing) is that the paths have to all be re-covered with wood chips, as the ones we had laid down last year have rotted. Clearing had been done for Analayo’s cabin and this gave us a good supply of wood chips.
2016 – This season has started with two main new focuses, and a third has spontaneously come along. The first was to look at our soil health and amend it for what was optimal for the earth, the plant health, and our health. To this end, we took our soil tests to Dan Kittredge, who has vast knowledge in this field and also sells various mineral supplements. He sent us home with bags of minerals and lots of good advice. The minerals have been mixed in, and hopefully we will see some results in our plants this season. One interesting thing he said was that the healthier the plants, the less disease and insect damage we would have, and the more critter damage. Good news and bad news.
The second aspiration for this season was to work with more volunteers and, along with that, open up more dialogue for education. We now have a few volunteers who come each week, plus others who come for two or more days at a time when we have housing available. This frees up time so that the landscaping and flower beds can get more attention. There are many more flowers planted this year. We now have a dahlia bed with several different varieties, some of which are new and some of which we wintered over in a basement. Several varieties of peonies have been planted, as well as fifteen rose bushes.
The third focus that has arisen spontaneously is that we have located several wild foods and brought them into the garden. We have brought in sedum, also known as wild cabbage and the first edible wild food to come up in the spring. We now have a patch of fiddlehead ferns, which will spread and hopefully be able to be divided and provide us with fiddleheads in the coming years. A patch of stinging nettles was transplanted at the edge of the woods a distance from the garden, knowing that they will spread and possibly be invasive. They are an excellent source of vitamins and minerals in the spring, a liver tonic, and a good tea later on in the season.
Speaking of tea, we have patches of bergamot and chamomile in the main garden, with lemon balm, peppermint, and spearmint growing in the dahlia garden over by the garden shed. To the left of the main garden entrance is an area of edible flowers. The purple johnny-jump-ups have been appearing already in salads, calendula are sprouting that reseeded from last year, and a patch of nasturtiums are coming along after being transplanted from the basement nursery.
Here at BCBS, we are slowly trying to lessen our negative impact on the earth. We now have solar hot water in the farm house, and the lighting throughout the center has been replaced with more efficient bulbs. Growing our food cuts down on the petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides used in non-organic agriculture. It cuts down on the pollution of transporting food as well as the unnecessary packaging. We are enriching the health of the soil on our small piece of the planet. Our guests are getting high quality food that is completely fresh and has been handled by very few people. We want this to be a positive addition to their time spent here.
The garden grows and changes, and each year it gets better and better. Yogis love to walk in it and explore the beds. We have an arbor built, creating a bower facing our Kwan Yin statue. We plan to plant wisteria here to cover the arbor and create a shady quiet place for meditation and contemplation. Throughout the garden are scattered various items salvaged from Mr. Alexandrovich’s barn, in honor of my memories of him and his wonderful stories. The handles on the gates are from there, as well as the geranium planter and several containers. On the main arbor entering the garden are several copper stencils used for labelling apple crates that we found in the small barn. One of the greatest garden compliments we have gotten for this garden was when Joseph told us he thought the garden was as tidy as his house. We try to keep it that way so that it is not only a garden, but a piece of art. We hope that it inspires peace and calm in those that visit it.