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Leonard Moorehead, The Urban Gardener: Infinity Beckons

Saturday, October 03, 2015


Zinnias and turned soil Photo credit: Leonard Moorehead

Urban gardeners cannot abandon their fertile plots. The shoulders of the year offer gardeners plenty to do and some of us linger. We prune off leaves from leggy tomatoes expecting the many green tomatoes to ripen. Or we have pots of tattered coleus fearful of frost. The bean trellis somehow reveals all those Kentucky Wonder pole beans obviously just beyond reach from the ground. Do not mourn. 
I am steadily, like most gardeners, chipping away at refreshing garden chores. Autumn mimics Spring. Shorter days confine the gardener and fans a lust for weekend days. There is much joy walking the nighttime garden. The moon waxes and stars earn their divinity. The smell of leaves pervades the air, pungent and fecund. Busy people resort to their garden plots. Without much time on our hands labor saving techniques are useful when sunlight is scarce. 

My modus operandi is to regard the soil’s appetite for organic materials is bottomless. There are many worthy composting systems. Pressed for time and not at all fickle about what to compost, I consider the garden plot itself to be the primary composter. There is no doubt in my mind that soils contain myriads of beneficial micro-organisms developed over time. Their diet is whatever organic material is easy to come by, cheap, or seasonally abundant. Fortunately for urban gardeners we don’t have to look very far. Most garden plants thrive in highly organic soils, free of pesticides and chemicals. Cities generate a lot of organic material often free for the taking. 

Last summer’s growth is a fine place to start. Take a peaceful approach, breath deep and focus on the task at hand. With practice and to great effect, leave yourself at the garden entrance and move into action. I prune away the old tomatoes including the jute twine that mark last summer’s stages of growth. Keep a basket nearby for the sturdy green tomatoes. Snip, snip, leaves, stems, all snipped and dropped straight down onto the old mulch. Why tear up tied up, tangled, and twisted stems? Why lug them in a disparate mass to pile up somewhere? Don’t compound this error and throw branches or shrubbery all together and call it a compost heap. Relax, concentrate on the task at hand and snip away. Laborious? Not so fast.

There is much good in our hands. In our plots, pots, and garden strips, we learn best by handling the plant life. Smell the tomato plants. Try to remember to wear gloves. To begin the fall, I’m satisfied to simply continue cutting up the plants, harvesting the remaining fruit and reluctantly leave in darkness. The garden never really loses much organic mass. Rather, all that grew in the space are in the first stage of becoming ever richer humus. The garden soil microbes are ready and willing to begin the transformation of the former plants. Let them. 
Save your seeds! Zinnias are among my favorite seeds to save. I believe without much thought or effort I’ve created a zany pallet simply because I favor taller pastel blooms. Like zinnias, tithonia or Mexican sunflower, a cousin to the zinnia, offers many blooms and freely forms seeds. I use large manila paper envelopes to contain the seeds. Gather on dry days. Keep at it. Cosmos, lunaria, marigolds, Four O’Clocks, Morning Glories and many others are yours for the keeping. Label and date your envelopes. The overgrown beans are ready for dry storage. Snip, snip, all the summer growth falls to the mulch. Baskets, lonesome stakes, resilient wire trellis’s, and a swathe of rough green parts radiates in forward from the past. Let go, move on.  

Tithonia Photo credit: Leonard Moorehead

There is no pressure to entirely accomplish all at once in the garden. Free yourself from this tyranny. Each motion only facilitates transitions that happen anyhow. Change is a gardens license upon charm. Resume the grooming. Nature is willing and ready to instantly fall into action. Edges are important to gardening. For the annuals plant area I leveled out the snipped up plants and slowly began one of the garden year’s highlights, turning over the soil. One turn at a time I work from boundary to boundary. The Romans believed boundaries to have mystic strength, Janus deified. 
A long handled saw-toothed shovel is the supreme gardener’s tool. I fall into a trance working hand tools and rarely so strongly as I sink the spade through old mulch and chopped up summer growth. I gently, careful of the back, dig in and turn over the soil, topside down, bottom side up. Like nibbling a corncob I work from side to side. Once this was very laborious. Years however of adding shredded leaves compost and manure has made the soil friable and tillable. The shovel encounters less resistance each year. The soil is beautiful, dark and fragrant. 

It’s inevitable that daffodils, snowdrops, tulips, lilies, and other bulbs will be exposed. Don’t worry, simply replant and look around. I always plant trios of plants and always have fun planting in prime numbers. There are few random bulbs. Patterns emerge, each onto its season. Peel apart Asiatic lilies you’ve exposed and replant, the same with last year’s tulips and daffodils. Separate them and mix in a handful of the ever present bonemeal. Replant at the same depth as dug. Uncertain? Six inches is fine. 

For a short time the garden soil will be naked to sun, wind and rain. Not for long. Soon the leaves will turn and maybe you’ll have access to hay. Both are prime bio-mass to add to the garden. The net excess over anything removed as wholesome food, herbs or flowers remains to become ever more nutritious humus. Meanwhile the buried past growth is feeding the soil organisms and it’s certainly time to rummage through the seed box and find the kale, beets and lettuce seeds. Some of the bare soil will be planted into winter hardy vegetables. Other spots covered in thick layers of mulch for the winter. Once we manage to groom the garden we embark upon the journey towards beginning. We garden into infinity. 

Leonard Moorehead is a life- long gardener. He practices organic-bio/dynamic gardening techniques in a side lot surrounded by city neighborhoods in Providence, RI. His adventures in composting, wood chips, manure, seaweed, hay and enormous amounts of leaves are minor distractions to the joy of cultivating the soil with flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and dwarf fruit tree.


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