A Riot of Useful Beauty

With sufficient affection and elbow grease, even a corner cursed with poor soil can become the loveliest of gardens.

| June/July 2006


In 1971, we moved our four children, a small Noah’s Ark of animals and ourselves to a rundown farm on a remote peninsula on Cape Breton Island, off the northeastern tip of Nova Scotia. We lived there for 30 years, farming on a small scale. It was a hard life, but rewarding — hard because Cape Breton is a marginal environment for growing; rewarding because we learned to surmount the difficulties of high winds, a short growing season and heavy, infertile clay soil using simple ideas and techniques that can be applied to any situation.


When we needed a sunny site to harvest herbs in quantity for Jo Ann’s growing herb business, our choice was limited to flat ground on the west side of the house. This had once been a strawberry bed but now grew nothing but grass where calves were tethered. This area was near a poultry house, and the unlikely juxtaposition of these humble quarters with what became known as the “Harvest Bed” proved to be a fruitful association. We laid out a raised bed 60 feet long by 4 feet wide using a no-dig technique that had proved successful for growing vegetables on top of soil we found too difficult to improve by traditional methods: We placed plastic grain bags over the sod, then enclosed the area with spruce logs, leaving a 6-inch outside edging of plastic, later covered with wood shavings, to discourage weeds from creeping into the bed. We filled the enclosure with rough compost (not completely broken down), stomped it into place and allowed it to settle for a week or so. Finally, we topped the entire bed with several inches of aged, composted manure, a rich, dark friable mixture. The completed bed was 8 to 10 inches deep.


Because the Harvest Bed was lined with plastic, we concentrated on growing annual herbs or shallow-rooted indispensable perennials, like chives and lemon balm. Because of our limited space, we enforced a strict criterion for the Harvest Bed: The plants had to be useful for flavoring, scent, seed production or crafts. As Jo Ann’s business expanded to include potpourri, vinegars, skin fresheners and dried posies, the range of plants in the bed also expanded. We planted deep-rooted lovage, an important ingredient in dried herb mixes, just beyond the end of the bed (in unimproved ground) by making a slit in the sod with a sharp spade, then shoving in the root and roughly closing the slit by stamping on it. We heavily mulched the area with a thick layer of compost from the poultry house, then topped it with rotted sawdust, all of which eventually broke down to become crumbly, rich soil. The lovage thrived there, producing two heavy crops of leafy stalks a season.

As we added more perennials, we had to adapt the plastic-lined bed to grow plants with more demanding roots, like echinacea, rue, ‘Moonshine’ yarrow, Russian sage, lavender and the artemisias. For these, we slashed a hole through the plastic before planting them, so their roots would have room to spread. We grew spreading types, like fern-leaf tansy (indispensable for rose bouquets), with garlic chives in an old iron tub. Around the base we planted lemon-scented costmary (a tall, rangy plant especially aggressive in rich soil), reducing it to a mat of ground-hugging foliage by cutting it back and harvesting the leaves several times during the growing season for simmering potpourri, skin fresheners and assorted crafts (their flat, perfect leaves make a delightful, aromatic bookmark).

We maintained ‘Silver King’ artemisia, which easily could colonize the whole bed if left on its own, as a wide, distinctive swath against the fence in the middle of the border. When it threatened to move ahead in any direction, we ruthlessly pulled its wandering roots.


As our garden expanded, we put up our first garden decoration — a 7-foot weathered slab board fence to mark the boundary between the poultry yard and the Harvest Bed. Although it served the practical purpose of protecting the plants from wind, the fence also proved an appealing rustic structure and gave us the opportunity to grow tall plants, such as hollyhocks and sunflowers. The notion of a strictly utilitarian planting of blocks of herbs for harvesting faded as soon as the first hollyhocks sent up their stalks to 13 feet, adorned all the way up with wide-open, flushed pink, dark-eyed trumpets. By the simplest means, the Harvest Bed had transformed a neglected area, integrating the disparate elements of poultry house and yard into a harmonious working and living environment.

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