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Building Healthy Soil, Training Young Gardeners

Stephanie Solomon in a field of buckwheat

Knowledge Is Power

Growing food for the Bloomington, Indiana community is great, but for the folks at Mother Hubbard's Cupboard, their true passion is for teaching people how to grow their own food. According to the Garden and Nutrition Education Program Coordinator Stephanie Solomon, their number one target is kids.

"When it comes to health issues that a lot of low-income children in Indiana are facing, food-related diet-related issues are amongst the top," she says. "Having a garden where kids are able to be active, connect with the earth and get excited about the fresh foods that are coming from the garden was something that met our mission."

Mother Hubbard's Cupboard's new hoop house and children's garden plot is located in the Butler Park Community Garden. Both projects were begun back in April, and it has taken a lot to turn this parkland into fertile soil.

Working With Clay Soil

Being that the park is within city limits and right next to a railroad track, she was initially concerned about soil contaminants. After the city conducted some tests, the soil was given a clean bill of health.

But, like most of south central Indiana, the soil is clay, which means it's dense, doesn't drain well and takes a while to warm up in the spring. Not the best news, although Solomon looks on the bright side.

"I always tell people in gardening classes that clay is not a horrible soil type to start with. There's actually a lot of nutrients in clay," she says.

The thing is you have to add enough organic matter to it to improve its soil tilth, or its suitability for accepting plant growth. Adding organic matter to clay soil helps it to drain better so you don't end up with a swamp for a garden.

Feed Me, Feed Me

Getting the organic matter into the ground in an organic way has taken them all season and will actually last through next spring 2012 which is when they hope to start planting with the kids.

In April they started with sheet mulching, which is a no-dig permaculture technique meant to mimic the activity in forests. First, they placed down a layer of cardboard which served as the weed barrier. Then they added manure, leaves and straw.

After that, they planted a cover crop of buckwheat. It serves as another method of weed suppression and it also attracts beneficial insects, which is probably partly why the community garden plots nearby are so bountiful.

She says they will be cutting down the buckwheat soon to feed the soil with even more organic matter and to get another cover crop in the ground while the temperatures are still warm enough.

Season Extension With Hoop Houses

It won't take quite as long to get things going in their new hoop house.

Hoop houses are greenhouses made of a sturdy frame with a special plastic covering. They absorb heat and light while protecting against wind, frost and extreme cold. Hoop houses can extend the growing season on both ends by allowing you to plant your seeds sooner in the spring and to continue to grow food for longer in the cold months.

Solomon says they performed the same sheet mulching procedure on this area to kill the grass and feed the soil. Volunteers then helped dig paths and beds in the hoop house. Another group of gardeners will be working in there today to add even more organic matter in preparation for the kids to plant leafy greens like kale, collards and Swiss chard.

They're not quite sure what to expect in terms of how much heat the hoop house will retain. One technique is to fill 50-gallon barrels with water to help heat the space; another is to compost inside the hoop house.

Perhaps the most effective way to protect their plants from the cold is by creating a low tunnel, which is essentially a hoop house within a hoop house. But that process is still many weeks away.

Stay tuned as we follow Stephanie Solomon throughout the winter and early spring to see how the garden and hoop house progress.

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