Jan Hall had a clear vision of her East Coast garden long before she ever set eyes on the house and land at Blackberry Farm in Bristol County, Massachusetts. She and her husband, Toby, knew they wanted a place with land after he left the Navy. “We lived in Washington, D.C., and I subscribed to an organic gardening magazine,” Jan says. During lunch breaks at her job in the admissions office of George Washington University, Jan would read and take notes, using a card file system, to prepare for their anticipated move.
In 1972, motivated to grow as much of their own food as possible, the Halls bought three acres tucked along a tree-lined street in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts, a short mile or two from Buzzards Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. But apart from the tangle of blackberries, no other plantings foreshadowed the 24 beds of vegetables, herbs and flowers that now flow effortlessly around their restored 1847 Greek Revival farmhouse.
Tackling the area behind the house first, the Halls cleared the land of a garbage pit and old barn foundations. They rebuilt many of the dry-stone walls along the perimeter of their land, separating it from the open, still-worked farm field behind it. That first summer, Jan recalls, “we created a vegetable garden and small herb garden. Many of the plants were given to me by my mother and great aunt, who was an early member of the Herb Society of America.”
Later, they added a second vegetable garden, grape arbor and blueberries to the side of the house. The Hall gardens are a pleasing mix of conscious design and free-form, natural growth. “I like to design the shapes of the garden areas first, then gradually find the plants to fill them,” Jan says. Over time, however, nature takes its own course, and Jan goes with the flow. Several areas that now contain herbs and flowers once were strawberry beds. When the Halls moved the strawberry plants to a new location to boost their production, “other plants took over the old bed and reshaped it with their own growth patterns.” Some once-separate garden beds have grown together as the plantings expanded.
The evergreen and deciduous trees that enclose the garden oasis look as though they’ve always been here, although the Halls planted many of them. “The trees we planted came either from the woods around us—mostly cedar and white pine—or from friends and family, who contributed hemlock, holly, tulip tree, dogwood, rhododendrons and several kinds of boxwood, including an English variety from my great aunt,” Jan says.
A garden this large, lush and visually appealing might seem to require the work of several full-time gardeners, but Jan has managed to maintain it herself while raising a family and running a retail business for the last 29 years. Jan’s secret?
“Mulch,” she says.
Mulch saves time because it prevents weed growth, and reduces the need for supplemental watering and fertilizing. In the beginning, she used hay from her own field but found it contained too many weed seeds. Now she covers the vegetable gardens with purchased straw and barn sweepings (a mixture of manure and wood chips from a local farm). In fall, Toby adds a thick layer of leaves and tills them under in spring. For the perennial herbs and flowers, she uses pine bark mulch, which is slower to break down.
Not surprisingly, soil building also is key to Jan’s garden routine, since healthy soil yields productive plants that are resistant to disease and insect pests. Mulch and generous additions of homemade compost provide the bulk of necessary soil nutrients in the Hall gardens. Jan’s simple, rock-enclosed compost pile consists of most any organic material available—garden and yard waste, as well as kitchen scraps—casually tossed together in a pile. “Our compost breaks down very quickly,” she says. “We never have to turn it; we just keep adding more stuff.”
Besides focusing on soil care, Jan also has learned to be selective about plants: “I’m getting better about not acquiring a plant unless I know just where it will go first.” Jan also encourages “volunteer” plants—those that self-seed and emerge on their own from year to year. Feverfew and herb Robert have scattered themselves this way throughout many of her garden beds, adding continuity and an exuberant, natural appeal. “If a plant survives,” Jan says, “it is welcome to stay as long as it is not difficult to maintain.”
Pat Crocker ( www.RiversongHerbals.com ) is a culinary herbalist, photographer, writer and lecturer. Her newest book, The Vegan Cook’s Bible, is available at bookstores throughout the United States and Canada.
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