Rejuvinating tired soil

  • Ducks eat the clover and deposit their manure. They also do a good job of digging and breaking up the soil with their beaks. For the Recorder/Pat Leuchtman

  • The chickens and ducks spend the night in the movable coop which was made from salvaged materials. Volunteers open and shut the coop door in the morning and evening. The shelter and the fencing, and the birds, all are moved further along the garden space every week or so. For the Recorder/Pat Leuchtman

  • Martin Anderton with his hen, Princess. The person who closes up in the evening gets to collect and keep the eggs. For the Recorder/Pat Leuchtman

Published: 9/20/2019 10:05:07 PM
Modified: 9/20/2019 10:04:52 PM

The Pleasant Street Community Garden in Greenfield provided garden plots for over 20 people until the entire site was razed a few years ago. Davis Street School, the pavement surrounding it and the gardens all disappeared. There was disappointment among those who enjoyed the garden. That was somewhat alleviated last year when the John Zon Community Center, also on Pleasant Street, was completed. Hedges and trees were planted and a “meadow garden” was planted by volunteers.

Still, there wasn’t a community garden.

One could imagine the former garden was sleeping because there was a working group of gardeners preparing a space for it. Recently, I spoke to Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener, who had joined the remnants of the community gardeners who were thinking about ways to give it renewed life.

“It was an unhappy time for the community gardeners. We had to be patient,” she said. Cohen-Kiener told me that she came to this project as a way to simultaneously do her rabbi work and find her place in the regional food system.

“To reach out to the broader community and the ‘old’ community gardeners, we held a community walk. We visited neighborhood gardens to see how people could garden in small spaces,” she said.

I was on that walk and remember that not only did we see small gardens, we also saw new gardeners who were finding their way with seeds and weeds and bugs.

Cohen-Kiener and the working group of gardeners kept things moving last year. The garden plot was approximately 180 feet long and 40 feet wide. The soil in the back of the center was very poor and not ready to be gardened. Because of that, soil amendments were added.

This year, the soil improvement work continued.

“With advice from the UMass Extension Service and NOFA (Northern Organic Farmers Association) we planted rye but had to cut it down before it went to seed. We also planted clover, vetch, peas, oats and sorghum,” Cohen-Kiener said. Because of that, Cohen-Kiener continued, those special crops had to be incorporated into the soil to improve it.

Martin Anderton replied to a notice that was posted in the John Zon Community Center about the need for a wheelchair accessible flower bed. Building the raised bed was his first contact with the center. When he heard about the new community garden that was being cultivated, he connected with Cohen-Kiener. He explained that he rented out chickens and ducks that could help with the garden’s soil improvement.

This was certainly a unique project. Anderton built a moveable coop from salvaged materials. When I spoke to him, the coop and an electrified fence surrounding it had been in place for a week. By the time this is published, the coop will have been settled for more than a week. In that time, it is amazing how much scratching and eating of clover and other plants five ducks and four chickens can do — not to mention the amount of manure the birds can produce. 

“Fresh animal manure introduces beneficial microbes and bacteria directly into the soil,” Anderton said. “Manure can also be composted with other materials, of course, but having both is very good.”

Anderton manages a business called Homestead Habitats. Through it, he rents ducks and chickens to people for a variety of reasons. Some of his customers rent the birds to test whether they want to raise fowl. Others don’t want to keep fowl through the winter. He also sells fowl, sometimes as chicks, and sometimes as pullets because people find it difficult to care for tiny chicks. He also builds shelters and coops.

Dorothea Sotiros serves as treasurer of the working group that meets and makes decisions about what happens next.

Sotiros said that about five people have signed up for garden plots so far. There is room for more.

“We are also welcoming community groups to claim a plot,” she said. “You could garden in a plot with a friend, or an organization like The RECOVER Project might like to take advantage of this opportunity. Inmates of the county jail used to work at the earlier garden.”

Currently, a workshop is being planned, possibly for mid-October. There will be a talk and also a practical element. The plan is to cover the whole community garden space with cardboard and then cover the cardboard with mulch. In the spring, the garden will be ready for planting.

This cardboard-mulch system is sometimes called “lasagna gardening.” I have used it myself in my new Greenfield garden. The method kills the weeds. In the spring, gardeners move aside the mulch and find the cardboard has disintegrated and disappeared. What is left is wonderful soil, rich with worms, ready for planting. It seems like magic. I can attest to the reliability of this system.

Watch for an announcement about the date of this workshop. I will be sure to include it in a future column.

Pat Leuchtman has been writing and gardening since 1980. Readers can leave comments at her website:


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