My beloved ‘sprawl of abundance’
Since my home garden is tiny, I’m fortunate to have the use of a plot in a community garden a few minutes’ walk from my home. As I’ve mentioned before, the soil had been scraped off before I inherited the plot and last year I mainly focused on rebuilding. To bring the subsoil to life, I spread granulated humic acid generously before adding a thick layer of compost. In autumn, I spread a layer of leaves, topping that off with more compost. The soil is certainly improved in quality, more open and crumbly and less heavy and claylike. It both absorbs water and drains better, a sometimes challenging pair of qualities to balance. However, the weather was so uncooperative this spring that this hasn’t been a super-abundant harvesting year of anything but kale and garlic. Oh, and a fabulous purple sprouting broccoli!
The good news, of course, is that kale and garlic are staples in my kitchen. That sprouting broccoli also gave generously all last fall, through the winter and spring and into summer. Indeed, I was still picking small but delicious side shoots every week when a prolonged heat wave awoke a devastation of powdery mildew in many gardens this summer, including mine. Removing all the victims created better air circulation and the remaining kale plants are happily thriving. I love the casual abundance of my garden, which is always full of bees, and was mildly shocked to learn that some of my fellow gardeners think I’m a total slob. Actually, that makes me smile, because I realize that some people have a notion that a published garden writer MUST take after Martha Stewart, which I decidedly don’t. My garden probably (ok, definitely) shocks those who prefer tidy gardens (which I also decidedly don’t).
The Three Sisters
Listening to audio books is a favorite pastime while I’m knitting (there’s always a baby coming along), and one of the books I turn to again and again is Braiding Sweetgrass, read by the author, Robin Wall Kimmerer. Shortly after hearing that my garden was coming in for censure from the Tidy Patrol, the author reached the section called The Three Sisters and said this:
”For millennia, from Mexico to Montana, women have mounded up the earth and laid these three seeds in the ground, all in the same square foot of soil. When the colonists on the Massachusetts shore first saw Indigenous gardens, they inferred that the savages did not know how to farm. To their minds, a garden meant straight rows of single species, not a three-dimensional sprawl of abundance. And yet they ate their fill and asked for more, and more again.”
The Three Sisters, of course, are corn, beans and squash, which are mutually supportive. Corn provides strong stalks for beans to climb up, while squash spreads wide leaves that shade the soil, conserving moisture and discouraging weeds. Planted closely, these three crops provide far more nutrients per square foot anything else, an important point for anyone wanting to grow their own food today. Those nutrients are also relational, each benefiting from the presence of the others in the human diet to provide more complete proteins as well as vitamins and numerous phytonutrients.
As a young gardener, I was strongly influenced by Ruth Stout, who taught a generation of organic gardeners to heal the soil with deep, nutritive mulches. Ruth preferred a combination of bedding straw or salt marsh hay and autumn leaves, layering both as much as a foot or more deep, especially over poor or exhausted soil. By feeding the soil, she indirectly fed her plants, which were famously productive in her New England garden. I also took lessons from the woods and meadows around my home and across the country, where plants are closely intertwined, sharing space graciously and enduringly. That natural reciprocity creates a kind of circular economy in which resources are shared over and over to mutual benefit. When studying biodynamic and permaculture gardens, I found the same principles at work, with the return of compost and mulch to make up for what’s removed by harvesting.
The Three Sisters relationship is mutually supportive, but an additional vital element is the farmer; these three crops are no longer able to reproduce themselves lastingly without human help. That fits perfectly with what I feel about my gardens; we have a genuine relationship and it’s not all one sided. When I tend my soil and my plants, I feel tender towards them, and as I offer water on a hot, dry day, or add some organic fertilizer to a struggling plant in less than ideal soil, it’s easy to see their grateful response. Noticing my own kindly tenderness feels good, and watching my plants strengthen and flourish feels lovely too. Listening to Braiding Sweetgrass always reinforces my feeling that conventional gardening and farming is too often about control, celebrating ‘the hand of man’, and ‘getting the most out’ rather than creating a respectful, reciprocal relationship which includes appreciating and giving back. As Robin Kimmerer notes, most indigenous gardeners are women, and those relational gardens are nurtured by the hand of woman. Just like mine.
I love your posts and look forward to sitting down and quietly reading each one of them. I always learn something from you.
Thanks for being a “messy” gardener.
I’m right there with you sister!😀
Thanks for the sweet comments, Sharon, and I’m so glad you’re a wild woman gardener too!
I couldn’t agree more that traditional vegetable garden places too much emphasis on control rather than creating a system that feeds plants, soil, and the gardener. Nature is not tidy and her abundance is usually more beautiful to my eye than anything grown mono-culturally. I am exceptionally lucky to have a good sized plot where I intentionally do not mow half of the grass and never water it, and have been surprised (and a little vindicated!) when my neighbors comment how lovely it is to see a little wildness. So far all of these comments have come from women.
Amanda, totally agree that nature is not tidy, at least not in the manicured way humans too often prefer. I’ve always loved the way natural plantscapes change over time, with wave after wave of foliage and flowers, all sharing the same soil, all blooming and fading in natural sequence. I want my gardens to develop a similar rhythm, but it can take time to discover how to assist! And I’m not surprised that your garden admirers are all women, as I’ve had much the same experience. Maybe the age of wilder women is arriving at last, despite the opposition?
Thank you for another informative post.
Will humic acid granules increase the soil pH?
Hi Collie, adding humic acid (and/or compost, as humic acid is one of compost’s ‘active ingredients’) lowers soil pH, nudging acidic soils closer to neutral levels, at least somewhat; it’s what makes compost a buffering agent. Humic acid isn’t a nutrient as such, but it helps soil absorb nutrients, improves both moisture retention AND air holding capacity (whuich roots like), and boosts microbiotic soil life and activity. I’m adding it to improve soil texture and help plant roots access nutrients better.
What a wonderful writer you are – bringing us full circle into your ‘messy’ garden. Peaceful, satisfying, productive.
So lovely. Thank you. I have always used a heavy mulch of bedding straw mixed with fall leaves for my garden. Never read about it anywhere else, just an intuitive thing as I tried to stay away from the mulch America seems to prefer ~ wood mulch or cypress mulch, which is devastating the cypress swamps.
Barbara, I think you would enjoy reading some of Ruth Stout’s gardening books, if you can find any. My favorite was called How To Have A Green Thumb Without An Aching Back, even more relevant today than when I was in my 20’s and didn’t actually HAVE an aching back. I do use arborists’ chips as top dressing, but NEVER use bark, which sheds water and is often dyed with toxic coloring agents(!!).
I get the most push back on my deep mulches and generous, interlaced plantings from tidy minded people (mostly but not entirely male), but the bees and birds love to hang out in my gardens, which makes me very happy.
Ann. I have followed and purchased your books since you started in Seattle when we were both much younger. This article you shared is a special gift to gardeners. I have lived on this corner home in Ballard for over 50 years and as the girls left home the casual country garden took over, but I like your ” A sprawl of Abundance “.
What fun to try to find the onions under the eager pumpkins. On and on the joy of gardening. Thanks for being you. Helen
Thanks, Helen, but that wonderful phrase, ‘a sprawl of abundance’, is actually from the Braiding Sweetgrass chapter on The Three Sisters that I quoted. Isn’t that just a perfect way to describe the overflowing fullness of a happy, productive garden?
Messy is just another word for exuberant and passionate! Gardens sing with life – color, texture, flavor, structure, fragrance, birds and bees – and humans to savor it all. The more the merrier – thank you!
You’re so right, Beth, a good garden is a wild party for all participants!
Good read Ann! Feed the soil. Hunt for nutrients and spread them lavishly on the garden. On a side note I am leaving some garlic in the soil this year and starting a perennial garlic bed. We’ll see how that goes. Thanks for your thoughts.
Thanks, Dean. I’ve left fall- or winter-planted garlic in the ground for a couple of years, and harvested really nice bulbs. The only caveat I know of is that if I let garlic bloom, the bulbs don’t get as large as the ones that have bloom stalks removed regularly. The good news is that the bloom stalks can be sliced into stir fries and used like green onions, grilled, braised, you name it. So harvesting the stalks before the flowers open seems to be good practice.
Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom about the joys and benefits of “a sprawl of abundance.” I’ve been hosting/assisting (only when requested) a sweet little, mostly native plants garden for many years now. I’ve learned so much from witnessing the way the plants have intermingled and spread; each year the springtime beauty that overflows from Bleeding Heart, Inside-Out-Flower, Goat’s Beard and a non-native Columbine brings me such joy…as well as many pollinators. It is a wonder to witness big, bumble bees hang onto the Inside-Out-Flowers which are half the size of the bees, working to get all the pollen, while their buzzing is magnified magnificently by the shape of the flowers. IT IS SUCH A JOY TO WITNESS all the beauty and life and splendor that the plants have shared with me over these many years.
Oh Lauren, you are so right about the JOY! After the long cold spring with so few bees around, the sight and sound of a host of happy bees is soul nourishment
Ahhh, loved this Ann!
I so enjoy you devil-may-care attitude! You Go Girl!
I need to take you advice on amending my poor soil that struggles with close-by tree roots sucking up every little nutrient around!
Hope to see YOU around!:-)
Thanks Diane! Maybe consider growing in raised troughs? Tree roots don’t give up easily!