Thanks, Microbes! Or, Easy Garden Preparation

cactus watermark 2I inherited a love of growing food and flowers. My grandparents grew amazing tomatoes, lush lettuce, and other vegetables on the perimeter of their small city lot. My parents’ garden grew all of our summer vegetables plus enough broccoli and green beans to eat all winter (from the freezer). I’ve been growing vegetables since I was a college student, when I suddenly had an urge to plant lettuce and tomatoes in pots.

Time in the yard for me is unscheduled, relaxing, and usually uninterrupted. I can work on one area and, in passing another, see that some weeding is needed, and do it right then. I can work with focus, and change the focus whenever needed. This is in contrast to the uncontrolled nature of many jobs, where we have to follow priorities and can be interrupted at any time for an urgent task.

When we moved to this suburban third acre, it was nearly entirely grass, clearly tended with Weed & Feed. There were a few shade trees planted, and a few crabapples. In the front of the house there were some random, overgrown shrubs, too large for the space. I smiled when I saw the cactus in the front yard, planted in too shady a location. It turns out that various prickly pear cactus are native to much of North America, including cold and snowy Minnesota.

In 15 years, the yard has been transformed from a tidy green stamp of lawn into a wildly landscaped place, very far from a formal garden, that supports numerous birds and pollinators. The first small patch that I un-tamed was in the front yard. I had bought some perennials and, naturally, the weather turned unseasonably hot the weekend I wanted to plant them. I removed the sod with a shovel and created a landscape bed. It was such tedious and backbreaking work that it took me a couple of years to tackle another area, when I rented a sod kicker to remove the grass on a large area. It was faster than a shovel, but very hard on my body.

What I’ve done since then is exercise patience and mulch. I pull the worst of the weeds from an area to be landscaped, then cover it with cardboard (undyed boxes), newspaper, and worn-out natural-fiber clothing, depending on what I have available. This is true recycling! I remove buttons, but otherwise lay the clothing down as it is, zippers included (they can be retrieved later). Over this barrier layer goes a generous layer of mulch, and then I’m done. The following year I reap the reward of a new, weed-free planting bed with fantastic soil, as not only the barrier layer but also the grass and weeds beneath it have composted into soil. This is vastly different from the soil that lies below the areas of lawn, which seems to be devoid of life.

Our trees work all year to pull nutrients from the soil make leaves and then feed themselves from the leaves. The fallen leaves of autumn are precious landscaping material, so they never leave our yard. I rake the leaves onto an old sheet, pick it up from the corners, and haul it somewhere in the yard to dump the leaves. They are great mulch for the vegetable garden, where I can rake them off the garden beds into the paths when I’m ready to plant. They will decompose by June. They are even better mulch for the garden if I take the time to chop them, because then they decompose by planting time. Most of my leaves have been dumped, unshredded, in the far back area of the yard in a shady landscaped area where they have produced the best rich loam imaginable.

The cactus has been moved several times and now it is thriving, sending up new shoots in its dry, sunny location. It rewards me each spring with these flowers.

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