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    Microhomestead Experiment: Pastured Vegetables

    May 14, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    Iwas going to write another Charlotte Mason post, but due to actual interest in my clover project, I thought I’d change directions for today. This project is experimental and should not be taken as gardening advice. I have never heard of anyone doing what we are attempting to do, but we do think that it makes sense, and I’ll explain the logic in this post. If you are wanting gardening advice then maybe it would be worthwhile using someone like Treequote who can help provide you with a service that meets your gardening needs. Other than that, that’s all the help I can give you regarding gardening because like I said, what I’m about to do is very experimental.

    What Are We Doing?

    First, I’ll quickly explain the Microclover Project. Microclover is a lawn substituted that is very hard to find in isolated seed. Typically, it is mixed in with a bag of various seed grasses. The idea is that you have a mixed lawn with Microclover functioning as a natural fertilizer, keeping that lawn green year-round. Microclover is a true clover, meaning that it is deep-rooted and nitrogen-fixing. However, it was bred with a lawn in mind, meaning that it stands up to traffic better than the more traditional clovers.

    I was lucky to find a supplier for isolated Microclover seed. I knew it had to be out there somewhere, for years ago Si and I attended a Bible study at the home of an acquaintance, and their next-door neighbors had a full clover-only lawn. This is ideal for our area: less water, less mowing, less maintenance, but it looks beautiful and green and you don’t know it’s clover until you are up close. It just looks like a lawn from a distance.

    I tried to convince Si to put in a Microclover lawn, but he wants a true grass, plus the seed is pricey. However, he did agree to plant it in…almost all of the garden beds. The only area without clover is the strawberry patch, and that is because we weren’t sure what would happen when combining clover with berries. We aren’t done with the planting, yet.

    To make it clear: we are going to grow pastured vegetables. This means that we will have {hopefully}permanentclover pasture in all of the beds {plus around the trees in the orchard}, and we will just plant those vegetables right in the midst of the pasture.

    Why Pastured Vegetables?

    A good solution solves more than one problem, and it does not make new problems. I am talking about health as opposed to almost any cure, coherence of pattern as opposed to almost any solution produced piecemeal or in isolation…A good solution will satisfy a whole range of criteria; it will be good in all respects. A farm that has found correct agricultural solutions to its problems will be fertile, productive, healthful, conservative, beautiful, pleasant to live on.

    –Wendell Berry in his essay Solving for Pattern in The Gift of Good Land

    Our property has a number of challenges which may or may not be peculiar to itself. It was interesting to move from one property, where what we were doing “worked” {i.e., grew vegetables when we planted them and with relative ease}, to one where what we were doing did not work {i.e., it grew foliage with little or no fruit, seeds often did not germinate, etc.}. This alone was a huge lesson to me. I now begin to understand why Wendell Berry treats the land as an organism. Each plot of land, even the tiniest city lot, has its own quirks. It has a past which has, usually, taken its toll. It has its own potential.

    When I walk around our property and survey it, I feel I am getting to know our land–even though it is a small space, as these things go–and I also feel that there was a bit of audacity involved in thinking that we could formulate a five-year plan without really knowing our place first.

    Below are a list of considerations involved in opting for ourpastured gardening experiment. Some of them are broad, general principles which apply to any land {more or less}, and others are specific to our own backyard.

    1. The ground is modest. These are Si’s words, but he’s paraphrasing something we learned from Wendell Berry’s essays, and possible Gene Logsdon’s blog as well. The ground does not stay bare for long, does it? We spend our lives battling weeds! Instead of thinking of war imagery, we have learned to think like caretakers by acknowledging this key truth about the nature of the earth: the soil does not want to be bare. This is actually protective. Even weeds keep the top soil from eroding. They help moisture stay in the ground, rather than evaporating away. They fiberize the soil, which basically aerates it a bit. Some weeds can even indicate the condition of the soil. Once we realize the benefit of a covering, then {generally speaking, for there are a few weeds which are horrible, will kill trees, and so on} a weed simply becomes a plant growing where we don’t want it to grow. Well, the lady needs some clothes, so to speak, no matter what. We decided to replace the clothes we disliked {especially the foxtails!} with some clothes we do like.
    2. Poor soil isthe problem. Our soil is far too alkaline, for starters. But beyond this, there was little to no topsoil when we moved in. My father explained to me that in many neighborhoods, fill dirt from elsewhere was trucked in during theconstructionperiod, especially for houses like ours, which are built up from the street. The hill our house is on is a manufactured one. Subsequent to construction, our soil had nothing planted on it for years. The alkalinity was so bad, that hardly anything wild grew at all {few weeds}, and in the meantime, any topsoil it did have was weathered away.
    3. Top soil can be grown. In The Gift of Good Land, Wendell Berry included an essay called A Rescued Farm which changed my perspective on our project. I loved it so much, I read it aloud to Si one evening. The essay details Wally Aiken’s farm, which is an old strip mine that Aiken purchased for $18 per acre, and then began to recover. Near the end of the essay, in which we learn about Aiken’s process of restoration–beginning with a bulldozer, covering a number of steps, and ending with a legume mixture–Berry writes:

      How wouldthis pale mixture of subsoil and gravel ever support a sod? Who, after so much work, could be encouraged by this result? By the time we reached the oldest of the reclaimed plots, my doubts were gone. The ground was covered everywhere by a dense, thriving stand of pasture plants comparable to the best you would see anywhere. And underneath the sod was a brown, duffy layer of humus, where topsoil was building again. I was impressed to see that this layer was already thicker under a six-year-old sod than it was under the thirty- or fourty-year-old thicket growth on the spoil banks.

    4. Fertilizer can be grown. Well, not all fertilizer, but work with me here. Most commercial fertilizers contain a combination of potassium, phosphorous, and nitrogen. Clover is an amazing plant in that it takes nitrogen out of the air and “fixes” it into the soil. Now, nitrogen can be released back into the air if you till the soil. But, if you keep tilling to a minimum, and let the clover alone, it’ll make the soil nitrogen-rich. One of our long-term goals is to become less reliant on store-bought solutions for our garden. Growing clover can be a piece of that puzzle.
    5. We can’t thrive on compost alone. When we first moved here, I thought that compost would be our biggest asset. However, once we added the ducks, I found that the vast majority of our kitchen scraps ended up as duck feed. Now, duck manure is a fertilizer on its own, but since we try and keep the ducks out of the garden {because they will eat the plants}, our lawn benefits from this more than anything else. I also realized that our soil is so desperate for nutrition that I couldn’t possibly grow enough compost, even though composting isa useful thing to do.

    Can Pastures and Gardens Peacefully Coexist?

    This is the main question surrounding the experiment. I mentioned in the comments that my long-term plan for garden paths is clover, but I suppose that wasn’t a precise way of explaining what we’re attempting. Really, what we are doing is gardening within an all-clover pasture. This idea came to us bit by bit over a period of months, but the starting point for this train of thought was definitely Wendell Berry’s {surprise!} essay An Agricultural Journey in Peru. In it, Berry describes the farming practices of Peruvian nationals which have been handed down to them since antiquity, up in the Andes mountains, where soil erosion is a large concern due to the hilly nature of the land. Berry found that the people divided the land up into very small plots which could be managed with individual care. But, more importantly for our purposes, he describes a crude form of what I’ve termed pastured gardening:

    Many of these highland fields are still broken with the foot plow…Weeding occurs only after the plants are well established {six to eight inches high}; the weeds are thus left undisturbed to hold the soil until the roots of the crop plant can take over the job. In some fields, the potatoes are planted directly into the sod; a planting hole is opened with a foot plow, and the seed potato and a little manure are dropped in and covered, the ground not being worked until about six weeks later. In any talk of soil conservation in the Andes, it is necessary to consider the quality of Andean sod, which is extremely tough and fibrous, much harder to shake apart than the sod I am familiar with in Kentucky. In cultivating, the chunks of sod seem often to be merely inverted and left more or less intact during the growing season.

    I had already been researching no-till farming practices, and the home version, Lasagna Gardening{you can read the history of Lasagna Gardening online}. I was convinced that one of the primary causes of our excessive effort in our home gardens is because we are driven to keep the ground bare. I am reminded of the Butchart Gardens, which Si and I visited on our honeymoon, and how the plants were grown in layers, with a ground cover underneath, and no soil showing at all.

    When I think about Berry’s admonishment that a good solution solves more than one problem, I think of the possibilities of Microclover for our property. It has the potential to crowd out weeds and help us grow topsoil, while also partially fertilizing the soil. It is short, shorter than the vast majority of vegetables, and so I don’t think it’ll cause any problems as far as coexistence in the garden. Just like I saw at Butchart Gardens, I expect the clover to be my “bottom layer.” Yes, I’ll cut a large enough hole into the clover growth when I plant a seed, just to make sure that the new plant’s life isn’t stifled by the pasture growth, but all of my reading leads me to believe that planting a beneficial plant will be exactly that–beneficial.

    Many other versions of no-till farming {especially on large farms} are unattractive. Yes, one can plant this year’s corn right on top of last year’s decaying sunflower stalks, and yes it is even beneficial, but do we really want that to be the view from the kitchen window? In our situation, Microclover has the added benefit of being aesthetically pleasing. It is nice to look at. It looks fine with flowers or vegetables or whatever. It is soft on feet when walked upon. I can put a light layers of organic matter one top of it {coffee grounds are my favorite}, and it’ll fall below the little leaves and be incorporated into thetopsoil.My list of what I like about it grows with time.

    The Barren Wasteland

    And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand; When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.

    Genesis 4:11-12

    For a long time, I had in my mind that the ideal garden consisted of vegetables, yes, but lots of barren ground in between them. Square Foot Gardeningencouraged me to put them closer together, but still the idea was to have nothing on the floor of the earth. I now think about this differently. The wilderness which grows nothing is a curse upon man, not a blessing. Spraying my yard so that “she yields not her strength” is bringing about an objectivelynegative situation, not a positive, however convenient it is to be weed-free for a time.

    As I begin to view myself as a caretaker of the garden, I begin to see Berry’s sense:

    And if we understand the farm as an organism, we see that it is impossible to sacrifice the health of the soil to improve the health of plants, or to sacrifice the health of the plants to improve the health of the animals, or to sacrifice the health of the animals to improve the health of the people.

    As we nurture the soil, we nurture our plants, our animals, ourselves.

    Of course, this is all an experiment.We don’t know yet that it’ll work. It is not yet a true solution. As Mr. Berry said, “Good solutions exist only in proof.”

    We are {very slowly} building an organic farm in the Berry-ian sense:

    An organic farm, properly speaking, is not one that uses certain methods and substances and avoids others; it isa farm who structure is formed in imitation of the structure of a natural system; it has the integrity, the independence, and the benign dependence of an organism. Sir Albert Howard said that a good farm is an analogue of the forest which “manures itself.” A farm that imports too much fertility, even as feed or manure, is in this sense as inorganic as a farm that exports too much or that imports chemical fertilizer.

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  • Reply Gautier Gras March 7, 2015 at 11:26 am

    Hey Brandy, this article sums up what i’ve been thinking about for the last 6 months. I would be so interested to hear about how the micro clover has performed for your pastured gardening experiement. Any thoughts? Photos to share? Thanks!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 7, 2015 at 4:43 pm

      Well, it performed well while we had it. About six months into the project, we purchased goats, and moved to mostly pasture. Right now, we are gardening in a different area than we had planted the clover, and instead of covering the ground with clover, we use discarded hay and straw. When we did the microclover, I didn’t have those things, and so it was a good — and living! — substitute.

      I wish I had done it longer so that I would have more to report back. πŸ™ The main thing I learned was to clear enough space for a seed to germinate and have a chance to gain some height before the clover smothered it…

      • Reply Gautier Gras March 8, 2015 at 5:10 am

        Thats great, thanks for the reply. Do you have any pictures to share of the groundcover in action with the vegetables growing? What technique did you use to inhibit the clover growth? Did you seed or transplant the veggies? Again, thanks a lot. Its a system i think ill be putting in place this year on probably 1000-2000sqm of market garden.

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts May 20, 2010 at 4:00 pm

    Kimbrah, I actually have a number of things I need to discuss with you, too! Goodness, if we could just all stay well for any amount of time, that would help. Thankfully, this last bout actually enticed me to go to the doctor, and she said she is trying to help me because I apparently had something underlying that was giving me difficulty. Anyhow, life is going to be better starting Friday! πŸ˜‰

    Jen, We’d love to have you guys over sometime this summer. The children could run in the sprinklers and we could finally meet your handsome Roman!

  • Reply Jennifer May 17, 2010 at 5:43 pm

    Wow, Brandy. I so admire all of the thought and research you put into every area of your life. I can’t wait to hear more about the microclover! What an interesting living thing that must be. I would love to get to see your backyard in person sometime soon. πŸ™‚

  • Reply Kimbrah May 16, 2010 at 2:09 am

    I had been meaning to pick your brain about this for quite some time, so I am glad that you posted this. I plan on having Eddie read this when he gets time (or I might just tell him the digest version, my lovely long-winded friend:) We are probably going to start looking for a house in the next year, and I want to make sure we do things right from the start. πŸ™‚

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts May 15, 2010 at 11:52 pm

    GJ, I am just now learning to love the soil. I really thought that dirt was all the same. I am amazed at what soil is and does. It makes me appreciate the genius of our Creator more and more!

    Mystie, fun, hm? I am not a natural outdoor person, but learning all of these things has made me love gardening.

  • Reply Mystie May 15, 2010 at 5:10 am

    Fascinating! You have given me much to think about.

  • Reply GretchenJoanna May 15, 2010 at 2:51 am

    I’ll be really interested to hear how this goes! It’s been a long time since I had enough land to experiment with myself, but the love for the soil remains.

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