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On Gardening & Teaching: Turning Up the Soil & Putting the Garden to Bed

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2013 September Issue Newsletter

By Nicole Belanger, NOFA/Mass PR Director and Newsletter Editor

Christie Higginbottom’s work as a gardener and teacher spans decades. Growing up with a thriving victory garden and parents who enthusiastically tended garden space in every home in which they lived, it is a given for Christie that every home’s landscape should include a plot for food. As an adult she studied education, initially teaching high school literature. When she decided to stay home and raise her children, they spent a lot of time in the family garden. In the early 1980s, her interests in teaching and gardening found a comfortable connection when she began to work at Old Sturbridge Village (OSV). There she tended the gardens as a costumed educator, answering the questions of museum attendees of all ages.

At OSV she also coordinated special symposia on various historic horticultural topics, working with consultants and authors to maintain the gardens and engage the public in thinking about historical and modern horticultural issues. Through this work she learned much she was able to put to use in her own garden, as well as in her ongoing work as an educator.

Though she retired from full- time work at OSV in 2010, she still works there seasonally two days a week. When not at OSV or in the garden with her grandchildren, she provides hands on, learner-led, education opportunities and imparts a love of gardening teaching programs for adults at Charlton’s Bay Path Adult Evening School and afterschool programs at the Tower Hill Botanical Garden. “The best teachers are learning alongside their students,” she notes. Her passion for learning rivals her love of teaching. Past the lush green of high summer, she had just pulled out this year’s crop of onions as she showed me around her garden in early September. So many other crops were plentiful, like her dwarf heirloom apples, it was hard to believe her thoughts were turning to prepping the garden for winter. Preparing for an upcoming community class, “Putting the Garden to Bed” at Worcester’s Regional Environmental, she shared her thoughts on fall garden care and maintenance.

THE GARDEN Rochdale is an old mill village in Leicester, a town to the west of Worcester. Here Christie gardens a 33’ x 33’ plot on her property, on which her 200 year old home is situated. Using the traditional English kitchen four-square design, Christie’s garden is divided into four parts in which like plants are grouped together - 1) brassicas 2) solanaceae (potatoes, tomatoes & eggplants) 3) roots like carrots, beets, parsnips, etc 4) aliums (onions, etc.). Each year she rotates the crops to help manage disease and insects. She has a practical and fun approach to the garden. For her “the garden is not a show place.” She wants it to look nice but doesn’t sweat perfection.

She plants cold hardy crops like Brussels sprouts, cabbage and chard, and she sometimes will plant a second crop of broccoli later in the season. As her garlic and onions come out, she’ll put in lettuce plants – protected from frost and rain with a cold frame or hoops covered with remay. She leaves the parsnips to winter over and plants her garlic in October.

Fall Garden Care One important thing a gardener may overlook is the importance of cleaning up the garden before winter takes hold. Not only is fall a time with less going on in the garden, but clearing dead and diseased plants before winter is key to good garden hygiene.

Fall is also when she tests her soil to see what amendments are needed. Once the results are back, she finds fall an opportune time to add amendments, compensating for nutrients the garden is lacking, or too heavy in, noting that some amendments need time to break down or become less potent before the soil is ready for planting. She suggests testing the soil again before planting in the spring to see if the results are what you expected.

Compost care Once the garden is done producing, Christie pulls dead plants, leaving exposed the roots of some things like peas and beans, which are beneficial for the soil. She is carefully not to add to the compost weeds or plants that may have disease or insects. Some say that the bin will get hot enough to kill seeds, disease, or eggs, but as gardening is a hobby to Christie, she doesn’t pay close enough attention to the compost to guarantee.

She finds fall is also a good time to check in with the compost. If the pile is broken down and ready to be used, she suggests putting it on your garden soil before winter. Otherwise, the winter snow will melt through your pile, seeping many key nutrients into the ground underneath, a place it’s not helpful for your future food! She also will usecompleted compost in any perennials she splits and replants.

Turn it up Once amendments and compost are added, Christie turns up the soil. Rather than rake out nice rows for next year, though, she leaves the soil exposed and rough. By doing so, any insects, eggs, weeds and seeds present are exposed to freeze and thaw cycles and will likely not make it through the winter. She also folds into the bed leaves from garden paths. Having planned out the prior fall and winter what will go into the beds, Christie smoothes out the rough soil come spring.

Remembering her parents’ generations growing cucumbers in milk bottles, she and her grandkids were experimenting with growing a cucumber into the shape of a honey bear container for the upcoming Leicester Harvest Fair. Inspired by the 19th century ethos of “improving the time”, Higginbottom finds joy in tinkering, keeping knowledge alive, and hard work. An enthusiasm she surely has shared, and will continue to share, with many.

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