Shortcut tips for growing food

ON THE GARDEN PATH by Carolyn Herriot

portait of Carolyn Herriot

• Contrary to general belief, growing food doesn’t have to be a lot of work. Cognizant that most of us lead busy lives, this planting month of March I’m going to share some shortcuts for growing the maximum amount of food in the minimum amount of time.

Successful soil building: Mulch the garden with generous layers of compost, leaves, manures and seaweed. Make top quality compost using a diversity of materials that are well decomposed. Bacteria that decompose compost depend on air, water and heat so get oxygen and moisture into the pile, turning it to generate heat.

Tree roots penetrate widely through topsoil and deeply into subsoil taking up valuable nutrients, which are then stored in the leaves. When leaves break down, they return these nutrients to the soil. Stockpile leaves of tall trees such as oak, maple and chestnut in fall in circular wire cages or large piles and mulch with them once a year.

Find a source of animal manure that has not had inputs of growth hormones, antibiotics or genetically modified grains in livestock feed. Animal manures should not be added to food gardens when still fresh; they should be composted or aged first. You can also add nitrogen to the soil using green manure crops of fall rye, pea, fava beans, barley or wheat in winter and ploughing this under in spring. Tip: In summer, grow green manure crops using vetch, clover, buckwheat, alfalfa or phacelia.

Seaweed contains micronutrients and trace elements essential for healthy plant growth and can be added as mulch directly to the garden or layered as an ingredient in the compost (or use purchased powdered kelp).

Lasagna gardening: This is about growing soil and food at the same time! Build the bed any size or shape by adding two-inch layers of any of the following (uncontaminated) materials to a height of 12-inches: Manure (cow, sheep, horse, llama, goat or chicken), leaves, spoiled hay, grass clippings, woodash, sawdust (not cedar), seaweed, compost or topsoil as the top layer.

The high fertility of this growing medium as it breaks down means it’s possible to plant rows close together which keeps weeds down. It takes one cycle of production for the bed to decompose six inches so before planting the following crops renew the bed with another six inches of layered, organic waste. You can transplant or seed into the top layer the same day you build the bed.

Cool weather crops for now: Lettuces, chicory, leeks, onions, endive, parsley, peas, spinach, Swiss chard, kale, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, rutabaga, celeriac.

The pea gutter trick: Plant peas into recycled rain gutters filled with organic potting medium. Sow pea seeds one-inch deep and one-inch apart into the gutters. When well rooted, peel the strip of pea seedlings out of the gutter and place directly into a soil furrow, made using a hoe. Once the peas are nestled into their furrow simply scrape displaced soil back over the furrow to cover.

Hoe a row in five: The secret to growing other vegetables the ‘pea gutter’ way is to sow seeds sparingly into individual packs filled with potting medium. When established, tip the block of well rooted seedlings out of the pack, without disturbing the roots, and settle end to end into the furrow as described above.

Carolyn Herriot is author of The Zero-Mile Diet and The Zero-Mile Diet Cookbook (Harbour Publishing). She currently grows ‘Seeds of Victoria’ at The Garden Path Centre. Info and online catalogue at

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