Agriculture that's easy on the Earth

Special to the Union Leader
June 18. 2012 11:15PM

Bethann Weick harvests lamb's quarters, a wild edible plant that happened to be growing alongside a crop of “green manure,” plants that will be cut and left on the soil as a layer of fertilizer, at D Acres Permaculture Farm and Educational Homestead in Dorchester recently. (Brenda Charpentier)
DORCHESTER -- There's nothing like touring someone else's garden to give you ideas for your own. When that garden is the D Acres Permaculture Farm and Educational Homestead in Dorchester, the ideas are an intriguing mixture of down-to-earth methods for this season and long-term strategies for a more delicious, nutritious future.

I was glad I had a notebook when I headed out to the fields recently with Bethann Weick, one of the farm's staff members who has shared her expertise in organic, sustainable methods in Mother Earth News and other publications. She helps tend the four acres of farmed fields on the 180-acre property, located just west of Plymouth.

Begun in 1997 by director Joshua Trought, the educational farm and homestead serves as a working model of sustainable living, or living that relies as little on fossil fuels and as much in harmony with nature as possible. The three-member staff, along with long-term residents, interns, and apprentices, lives communally on the farm and hosts more than 5,000 visitors a year, including hostelers who stay overnight in the lodge or around the property in tents.

The farm runs a fall/winter CSA and hosts community breakfasts, pizza nights and other events to celebrate and promote locally-grown foods and develop a strong rural economy. It also offers workshops, ranging from afternoon-long sessions on useful crafts like carving wooden spoons, to a 7-weekend-long course on permaculture, in which participants are designing sustainable living projects for their own homes.

One of the goals of the farm is to show that it is possible to raise and eat good food locally, naturally and responsibly, without overly relying on fossil fuels and chemicals. 'We're trying to show there's another way,' Weick said.

So visitors will see solar panels, composting toilets, a greenhouse built with recycled windows, two oxen used to clear trees, and a litter of new piglets, raised for meat and to help clear new fields of roots.

As fun as it was to watch the piglets nestled against their grunting mother in the shade of a wooden stall, I was there to get a first-hand look at D Acres' organic, sustainable farming methods.

Layering a 'lasagna garden'

One of the surprises of my tour was the farm's no-till philosophy. Rather than digging, the farmers build up fields in layers. Called 'lasagna gardening,' the beds are layers and layers of organic materials built up over time.

Weick pointed to one of the newest fields as an example. Just a few years ago, it was a forest. After oxen had helped clear the trees, pigs and chickens were let loose on it to root around and eat roots and fertilize the soil.

Potatoes were the first crop, planted right atop the dirt. Compost was dumped over each spud. As they grew, more compost was added to create mounds around the plants (a method that Weick said yields up to 10 pounds of potatoes for every one pound planted).

In the field's second year of production, garlic was the crop, grown in more layers of composed manure and organic materials. In the third year, after still more layers of compost, the field could support cabbages and carrots.

The quality of the soil increases with each season of lasagna gardening, as does its ability to grow healthier crops with greater yields. The garlic in year two of the field was OK, Weick said, but the bulbs were small. The cabbages and carrots in year three rewarded the farmers' patience.

'They were large, beautiful and healthy,' Weick said.

In keeping with the no-till philosophy, the farm often uses layered, recycled cardboard and woodchips to kill grass and weeds in uncontrolled areas or around saplings and bushes. For this cheap 'sheet mulch,' D Acres collects boxes from area stores and piles the cardboard at least 3 or 4 and even as many as 7 layers thick.

Weick calls the recycled cardboard and woodchips 'slow-release nutrient packages.' After several years, they'll decompose and strengthen the soil while minimizing competition from weeds with no need for chemical weed killers.

(I used this idea to create weed-free paths in my garden. First I layered the cardboard, then I spread straw over the top. The result was clean, weed-free paths that make it easy to get to my plants.)

A long-term approach

At D Acres, much attention is given to what the farm will produce in the future. Pecans, beach plums, cherries and peaches are some of the crops that others will enjoy in years to come, represented by saplings today.

The farm's goal is to create a perennial food forest that will yield a higher concentration of food per acre with less reliance on annual labor.

'Future generations are going to have a little Garden of Eden here,' Weick said. 'It's a way to steward the land for the future.'

For the home gardener, the idea might translate into planting choices that result in a perennial, edible landscape. Looking for a bush that will turn red in the fall? Choosing high-bush blueberries will provide the bonus of home-grown fruit free from pesticides and chemicals if you choose to grow them organically. If you've got a sunny yard and want to plant a shade tree, crabapple, apple and pear trees can offer both shade and food.

Beauty, shade, color - 'all of those things can be achieved in an edible format,' Weick said.

Beauty has its place in the sustainable garden. At D Acres, many varieties of flowers grow at the end of vegetable rows. They attract bees and other pollinators, but practicality isn't the only reason to mix them into a vegetable patch. 'It's like a celebration of life. There are so many colors,' Weick said.

Even flowers traditionally considered weeds can be welcomed to the sustainable garden. D Acres sows clover in the rows between vegetables, because of its ability to fix nitrogen. A leguminous plant, clover's roots are able to draw nitrogen, making this vital element accessible in the top strata of garden soil. (If they get too big they can always be cut and left on the soil to degenerate into green fertilizer.)

By the end of my tour, I had a notebook full of ideas and a greater understanding of how a long-term approach to building healthy soil could create a high-yielding garden without needing to resort to Miracle Grow or other short-term strategies.

Weick summed up my take-away thoughts well when she shared the big-picture view of D Acres: 'We're always putting something back to the soil.'

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