I finally have what I consider a suitable response to the good people who call us at the Research Farm and say, “I want to garden organically. Where do I start?” My response comes in a format that I hope will prove memorable to you: a glimpse into the life and garden of a masterly Master Gardener, Brother Placid of New Melleray Abbey.
I’d like you to take a look with me at an organic vegetable garden on the edge of the prairie in eastern Iowa. Brother Placid operates the twelve acre organic garden at New Melleray, a Trappist monastery and certified organic beef cattle farm near Dubuque, Iowa that was founded 150 years ago by monks from Mount Melleray, Ireland.
Brother Placid’s garden feeds not only his community of Cistercian monks of the Strict Observance but the year-round visitors to the monastery’s guesthouse as well.
His credentials and history as a gardener command rapt attention. He is one of fifteen children born to a Polish farming family in northern Minnesota. He had a reputation among his brothers and sisters as his mother’s favorite, a status he attributes to his willingness to spend long hours helping her weed in the vegetable garden.
At the age of eleven, during the height of the Great Depression, Brother Placid left home to work on the threshing crews that followed the grain harvest north along the Red River valley.
He hopped freight trains out West and worked in the orchards of Washington state as an “apple knocker”, dug potatoes in the Oregon’s Clamitt Valley, picked peaches and harvested vegetable crops in the Willamette Valley, and then moved down into California’s central valley working the rice, cotton, and olive harvests.
After serving in the army, during World War II, he joined the monks at New Melleray and has been there ever since.
A brief look at Brother Placid’s garden. He divides the twelve acres into three sections, rotated in the following manner: One third of the garden is planted each year in alfalfa, which he mow three times over the summer and then turns under in the fall.
The following spring, that section is planted in sweet corn, a nutrient-hungry crop that benefits from the 125 pounds of nitrogen fixed by the alfalfa. The remaining third is devoted to innumerable varieties of tomatoes, melons, squash, cucumbers, spinach, beets, turnips, potatoes, and his beloved grapes and berries.
Here are a few of Brother Placid’s tips for beginning organic gardeners:
– Feed the soil, not the plants. This is the dogmatic theology of organic agriculture. If you are just starting out with a barren plot of ground, devote one year to growing nothing but green manures: quick-growing clovers, oats, and annual grasses that are successively tilled into the soil.
By planting and tilling under four different green manure crops and adding old chicken manure and rotting alfalfa bales, Brother Placid was able to increase the organic matter content of a plot of land from less than 1% to 18%. Brother Placid also adds fish emulsion and kelp meal to the furrow before planting to create a nutrient-rich environment for developing seedlings.
– Vigilance is the best form of pest control. Be in your garden every day, and be watchful. Brother Placid controls Colorado potato beetles on his potatoes by beginning to scout when the plants reach 12 to 14 inches high, and simply picking the bugs off and squashing them by hand.
– Learn the secrets of companion planting. The mutually beneficial relationships among certain crops can result in reduced pest problems and increased yields. Brother Placid interplants radishes with his melons, since radishes are known to deter cucumber beetles. He also recommends cosmos flowers for attracting pollinators to the garden.
– Welcome the snow, and use it to your advantage. Snow (as well as collected rainwater) contains small amounts of dissolved nitrates and is “soft,” unlike well or city water, which often contains dissolved salts and minerals that leave unwanted residues on plant surfaces. Brother Placid opens his cold frames to allow the snow in, and even shovels it into his greenhouse in the winter!
– Compost, both the noun and the verb. Brother Placid is lucky to have plentiful raw ingredients for his compost pile in the green refuse that comes from the monastery and guesthouse’s vegetarian kitchen, to which he adds oak leaves, pine needles, and old hay and straw.
He typically adds about twelve tons of compost to his garden each year. He warns vehemently against using walnut leaves or chips as a compost ingredient or soil amendment, noting that a previous gardener once added walnut chips to his soil and he is still observing, many years later, some localized detrimental effects of the allelopathic compounds present in walnut trees.
– Balanced mulching.While surface mulching generally helps to reduce weed pressure and lower disease incidence in the vegetable garden, Brother Placid has found that straw or chip-based mulches invite mice and voles to take up residence in his garden, so he limits his use of mulch to the one acre asparagus patch and to his berries.
Evaluate your varmint situation and adjust your use of mulch accordingly, or experiment with less rodent-friendly mulches such as biodegradable landscape fabrics.
– Water wisely.Drip irrigation is a much-preferred method of supplying water to plants, since the moisture left on leaves from overhead sprinkling can lead to foliar diseases.
– Remember that gardening is hard work, but good work. Brother Placid likes to think of the story of Adam and Eve, and what they were told when they were expelled from the Garden of Eden: “With suffering you shall get your food from the soil, every day of your lifeŠ it shall yield you brambles and thistles, and you shall eat wild plants.
With sweat on your brow shall you eat your bread, until you return to the soil, as you were taken from it.” He smiles as he thinks of this Genesis passage in the heat of the Iowa summer, knowing that he is doing God’s work.
I hope you also find in these words not a message of gloom but a glorious invitation to get out in the garden and get moving. Thank you, Brother Placid, for sharing your infectious enthusiasm and wisdom with me on this Sunday morning in March, and blessings to all you gardeners as you begin a new season.
Greenhouse Coordinator and Assistant Seed Cleaner
From Seeds of Change eNewsletter March 2005