I was an innkeeper in the Catskills. My time was limited and the ground was mostly rock; digging a garden was not a choice. Thousands of gardeners and farmers had come before me and had been successful but they had plowed, dug and tilled the earth in order to grow. I just wanted to grow a few herbs for the kitchen at my inn and my pitiful efforts in digging had resulted in less cultivated soil than I desired.
Innkeeping was the hardest job I ever had; bed and breakfast guests, bar and pizza guests, lunch and dinner guests and catering guests by the hundreds. My preperation for this job was being a mother of seven children where I had experience in keeping house, making beds, cooking three meals a day and lots and lots of laundry. However, like being a mother, it was one of the most rewarding jobs also. I wouldn't trade my years there, and all the wonderful people I met, for a less hetic and calm life.
My life was also frustrating at times and it was my habit to "run away" for a walk in the woods to calm myself. It was on one of these walks I found a way to have my gardens without the hard work usually associated with gardening in rocky soil. I tripped over a root and fell down hard, knocking the breath out of my lungs. As I lay on the ground I looked around me for the first time in several years. What I saw was Mother Nature at work; dropping leaves, twigs and even whole trees where they lay breaking down and creating a layer of rich humus. Seeds had fallen and germinated in this out-of-the-way spot and a new generation of trees, wildflowers and brambles had come to life. Mother Nature had done this without the help of man, or bossy women.
As I sat on the ground I moved a layer of leaves aside and scooped up a handful of humus to smell. As I breathed in the pungent scent it took me back to my grandmother's cellar. I remembered what that dug space had smelled like and how a raw potato had tasted. As I sat there remembering sweeter times I thought if Mother Nature had created all these wonderful growing conditions by chance what could I do with all the resources I had at hand but using her example.
I picked myself up, dusted off the leaves and turned to retrace my steps. The inn was my home and I had gardens to make on the grounds surrounding the inn. I couldn't wait to see what I could use to help me make a garden like Mother Nature had.
The first things I saw as I came out of the woods were the rows of cut grass left laying on top of the fields. I walked by the neighbors barn and stopped to rub the nose of Kate, their horse. As I stood stroking the smooth velvet I saw beyond her to piles of composted barn litter. It was a beginning and the cut grass and barn litter, rich with manure, would be layers in my new gardens.
It was near dinner time and I had a job to do before I could think of gardening. I changed to whites and began preperation for a night of a hundred diners ordering chicken, fish, veal and pasta dishes. As I pounded veal, diced vegetables and boiled water for cooking pasta I let my mind wander to a place where I could have a garden; one with lots of sun and located on level ground. I could see it best located beside the store building and I would actually be able to see it from the inn's kitchen window as I worked.
The next morning I walked the proposed area and got out my wheelbarrow. I began by loading and hauling several loads of cut grass from the fields. This I placed right on top of the garden area. I didn't weed, dig or till the area; just covered it up. Next I asked for and got permission to remove the oldest of the piles of barn litter from my neighbor's field. I used this to cover the layer of cut grass. By the time I was finished for the day the layered garden area looked like a plowed garden. I went to work that night feeling pleased with my efforts.
The next day I emptied the contents of a large composter onto the garden then hauled more grass clippings from the fields. The "garden" layers were about a foot high at this point and ready to have plants inserted into the layers. I was tired but happy at the way things were going and looked forward to the next day and buying plants.
After a trip to the farmers co-op I had enough plants to begin but a day of rain delayed me. When the rain cleared and a new day had begun it was time to plant. I pulled the layers of grass, compost and barn litter aside and inserted my plants. As I pulled the layers of organic material back around the roots of the new plants I imagined they would appreciate the rich material they had been given to grow in.
During the days that followed I tended the new plants, keeping the roots moist. It seemed to me I could sprinkle seeds in and around the plants and see what they would do. I planted seeds of annual flowers and herbs and marked where they were. My thoughts were of the days of summer and of mature tomatoes, peppers, basil and edible flowers.
It was not to be as my duties as an innkeeper took more time and energy than I had expected and the garden was left to fend for itself. I would stand at the kitchen window and imagine the weeds growing tall as I watched but it was "the season" and I needed to work. There was no strength left to garden after my work day was done. It was late summer before I could go back to the garden.
Imagine my surprise when I found bits and pieces of the plants and seeds I had planted in and amoung the weeds. I waded in and pulled enough weeds to see the over-ripe tomatoes, rotting peppers, over-grown cucumbers and stalks of basil. Instead of time-consuming weeding I lay down cardboard on the paths between the rows, leaving the rows of vegetables and herbs standing. These I weeded by hand until I could see where the fruit was. By the time I had to leave the garden I had gathered several baskets of good fruit and handfuls of herbs. I was elated that the simple layering method of organic material had supported the plants and seeds I had sown but knew something had to be done about the weeds.
A couple of weeks later that answer was revealed to me. Come back for that story.