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There’s No Tilling
It may be counterintuitive, but these choices are actually much more logical than, say, apples. Reich stresses that it’s virtually impossible to grow apples organically around here; the pests are simply too many. Other traditional trees, like plum and peach, are a bit better, but still require diligent pest control. Pears—Western and Asian—do very well, and Reich is an even bigger fan of the American persimmon; easy to grow, attractive, prolific, and tasting like “dried apricots dipped in honey and spice,” is another favorites Currants, which should be much more popular, are another excellent choice for producing copious fruit in limited space. They come in a dazzling variety of colors, and can grow in partial shade, making them ideal for planting under larger trees.
Reich’s secret to low-maintenance gardening of all kinds is a no-till approach to the soil. It’s a literally top-down approach that he explains in his 2001 book Weedless Gardening (Workman Publishing Company). The main premise is simple: Nature fertilizes the soil from above, without tilling, and plants don’t require any further interventions on our part. All we have to do is prepare the ground—layer newspaper to kill grass or weeds, add a couple of inches of compost, plant, and then mulch. He proudly points to the beds in his garden, saying “for 25 years all these have gotten is an inch or two of compost every year, and they’ve never been walked on.” (Walking would crush the delicate crystalline matrix that exists in healthy soil.) The soil is black and crumbly, and the vegetables are prospering. He estimates that he spends about five minutes a week weeding, and the garden is roughly 2,000 square feet. Besides being harder work, tilling also activates weed seeds by exposing them to air and light. Tilled soil uses 60 percent more water than untilled and burns organic matter faster, requiring more applications of fertilizer. “Tilling the soil is a major source of CO2 entering the atmosphere,” Reich explains. “If you really want to dig, go mark off a piece of ground somewhere and go dig in it when you feel the need.”
Ethan Roland teaches and practices permaculture at the Epworth Center in High Falls. His goal is “to establish local food security and deliciousness in a time of dramatic change.” He talks about each separate polyculture planting as a metaphor for the movement as a whole; as they grow and spread outward, he will mow less and less space between them until they connect to form a complete fabric. Diane Greenberg is co-owner of the Catskill Native Nursery in Kerhonkson. She agrees that people should grow more fruit even if they don’t plan on eating it: “Why would you not want a hedge that flowers, then fruits? It’s so much more interesting to look at, and if you don’t eat it, the birds can.” Instead of using invasive plants from big-box stores for our foundation plantings, she encourages people to come and explore the many beautiful and edible alternatives.
These and other experts provide advice, classes, and assistance in making some positive changes to the flora around our homes and doing it in a way that works for us. We don’t all need to become self-sufficient overnight. But if we make choices that gently move us in that direction, relying less on imports, spending more time (and less money) connecting with our food—and enjoying luscious fruit along the way—we can spend less, eat better, and have enviable yards. What’s not to like?