I have written before about transferring knowledge about growing food from one generation to another and how this is just not happening in our modern society with its frenetic pace of life. This has been brought home to me this season when I been blessed with many volunteers wanting to help with the Food Bank and its many community garden plots.
It is not possible to assume even a minimum of knowledge. When I ask a volunteer to weed a row of peppers I can’t assume that the difference between a pepper plant and Lamb’s Quarters is obvious.
My aim is not to criticize or assign blame but to point out that there is a huge opportunity here to encourage and mentor a whole new generation of gardeners. It has become increasingly apparent to me that there is a huge gulf between those that are new to gardening and those that have been gardening most of their lives – in my case more than sixty years. Things that are obvious to me — my eye can easily pick out just germinated carrot seedlings in a bed covered with weeds — to a new gardener those seedlings are completely lost in a sea of weeds. This was expressed beautifully in a column a couple of years ago by Ottawa Citizen Columnist Steve Maxwell:
“I’ve never seen anyone learn to be a great gardener quickly. In my experience, getting good with soil, plants and sunshine is something that takes decades. That said, you can shave years off your learning curve if you keep your eyes open, keep your heart teachable and your mind alert to worthwhile ideas.”
I am also acutely aware that the growth of new gardeners can be fragile – they need careful nurturing. They can become overwhelmed or very discouraged when everything seems to fail. When leading workshops with beginner gardeners I try to keep it very simple with a few basic steps that I believe will guarantee at least a modicum of success – basic stuff such as focussing on the soil, planting at the right time and planting a diversity of vegetables.
And of course one of the appealing things about gardening is that it is just not possible to know everything. There are so many variables – new varieties, new techniques, new variations on the weather and new pests from other countries.
And once we think we know enough to guarantee success we go ahead and create an ‘experiment’ where the outcome is far from certain. The opportunity this year has been created by an extremely generous donation to the Food Bank of end-of-season seed potatoes and cucumber seedlings by the fine folks at Almonte Ace Country and Garden Store on County Road 29 south of Almonte.
The potato experiment has involved laying seed potatoes on lawn, covering them with some weathered mushroom compost and then a thick layer of hay. The cucumber experiment has involved placing hay bales on their side, cutting a hole in the middle of the bale, putting in a shovel-full of compost, sticking in the cucumber plant and then watering.
These experiments are based in part on the work of Ruth Stout – which will be a name familiar only to long-time gardeners. Ruth Imogene Stout (June 14, 1884 – August 22, 1980) was an American author best known for her “No-Work” gardening books and techniques in the 1960’s and 70’s. Growing extensive gardens in Connecticut she found that the manual labour involved in planting a traditional garden became more than she could handle by herself. In the spring of 1944, Stout decided that she wasn’t going to wait for the ploughman, nor was she going to plough on her own. Instead she planted the seeds and covered them, waiting to see what would happen, and discovered surprising success. As the years progressed, Stout refined her techniques, eventually adopting year-round hay mulch which virtually eliminated the labour associated with traditional gardening. Her minimalist approach spawned a long-running series of articles in Organic Gardening and Farming magazine as well as several books.