Topsoil Tales… …or Nourishment from the Ground up

weed it and reap

Discovering life in earth…
Growing up, I often noticed my father’s dog-eared copy of Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening laying about in handy locations with scraps of paper marking pages.  He was a devoted organic gardener who discovered the earth at the age of 30 and incorporated it into his life from then forward.  The key to his bountiful gardens was soil development.

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In the beginning, most of his prospective plots were full of weeds and clay, allowing no drainage. Within a year or two, each garden would become resplendent with vitality, full of color and abounding with supportive wildlife.  Early on, I enjoyed the simple pleasure of plucking herbs, lettuces, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini flowers and discovered the tremendous difference it made in the food.

scan0085Beyond the surface…

My father saw his gardens as something more than a source of food.  He interacted with them personally and even believed that a weed has the same beauty (and right) as chosen species and used them decoratively throughout his gardens.  Perhaps this was inherited from his mother who scoured the neighborhood every spring for wild dandelion greens and young tender grape leaves.  He encouraged bees, butterflies, frogs and other denizens of the land to join his garden community.  He planted food for foraging animals, such as rabbit and deer, to provide an alternative to his plot without denying their natural hunger.  Over the years, his gardens turned into lush havens and he could often be found admiring the beauty and life of the plants.  Sometimes he would speak to a plant, coaxing it along in a welcoming manner.  Most often he just enjoyed the contrasts in his cultivated spectacle, between light and color or scent and sound. In the last couple of years he was unable to maintain his own garden, but could often be found in my garden, picking weeds and waxing romantically about a flower, bird or flavor.  His legacy continues in my own gardens and my approach to food.  He taught me how to coax life from the earth and those residing upon it.

Picking weeds NJ 1991 Top of the soil to you…
Soil development is critical to growing  healthy food.  Decomposition,  side by side with fermentation,  are  how food products change through production of enzymes, thus creating compost.  Living organic soils contain key nutrients and minerals which are passed on to us through the food grown in them.  History has demonstrated time and again when civilizations over-cultivate the land, it becomes depleted of nutrients and results in societal decline.  Over the last 200 years in the USA alone, the average topsoil layer has shrunk from twenty inches to six.  The current rate of depletion is one inch every sixteen years.  At this rate, local production will not be able to sustain the population in a few short decades.  At its own pace, it takes nature 500 years to produce an inch of topsoil.  As long as we maintain methods of growing that strip the land of nutrients, healthy organic food will become an expensive commodity only the select few can afford.

For the love of compost…
Not long after purchasing Inn Season Café, I was able to buy the house across the street from the restaurant.  My parents moved into it to help with the restaurant as well as care for my son.  From the start, my father saw the challenge of a neglected yard and began plotting the gardens.  Excited by the source of nutrients nearby (my restaurant), the first thing he built was a giant compost facility with two side by side bins, each holding four to five yards of soil. Healthy development of soil relies on recycling food products back into the earth, primarily through some form of composting.  There is a direct link between nutrients and how the soil is tended. Consulting his Rodale book, he developed an ideal “recipe” for compost and requested buckets full of kale stems, lettuce trimmings and orange peels.  Soon, his bins were “cooking” and the following spring he began  hand-feeding the garden, turning compost into the soil one shovelful at a time.  The plants quickly responded and soon the ragged yard became a lush paradise resplendent with ever changing colors and plentiful herbs.  Years later, they moved out and I moved in, dismantling the compost bins, spreading them and re-landscaping with defined plots, patio, paths and two ponds.   The soil was so rich it did not matter what I planted, everything grew resplendently.  It was indeed my “secret garden” (see article below).

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In loving memory of Spyros Vutetakis

1921 -2009

www.spyrosvutetakis.com