The corn tassles are dropping pollen; cross-pollination is required to set ears. (Mary Lowther photo)

Mary Lowther column: Starting a new garden: it all begins with the soil

The land David bought six years ago was subsoil

By Mary Lowther

Gardening on new land is like getting married: if you think the initial outlay was expensive, wait until you see how much effort and expense it takes to keep things going. Mind you, you don’t inherit an entire family who turn up for Christmas dinner ready to explain why the government is making a mess of things.

The land David bought six years ago was subsoil, sand clear down to China, and bereft of nutrients because after it had been logged to oblivion the topsoil was scraped away and the poor stuff left could only support alder, blackberry and Scotch broom. After three years spent clearing the land and another three years of growing and plowing under various types of cover crops to nourish the soil, we figured we’d better spend a few bucks on manure and other amendments to compost and build garden beds if we wanted to see a harvest in our lifetimes. David did all the heavy lifting and I just cooperated with the inevitable.

We got our first crop in this year. With all the additions, plus organic fertilizer, I expected our garden would be more productive but it apparently takes a long time to build up nutrient levels in the soil. Granted, our crops took a toll enduring the dry spring and early summer, so perhaps we can lay some of the blame on climate change.

Nevertheless, my burned and stunted peas and potatoes have me thinking that they could have used protection from the sun. We have an area partially shaded by trees that I plan to try these crops in next year, as well as seeking for more heat and drought resistant varieties.

The corn is faring as well as can be expected in this soil, but each succeeding year should produce better harvests as I gradually add amendments. I didn’t realize this back in the day when I took over an allotment garden from a previous tenant. My garden grew terrifically and I patted myself on the back for being such a knowledgeable gardener, until a fellow gardener mentioned that I had inherited great soil from the previous fellow.

Back to the corn: about half of the plants are up to my shoulders, forming ears and the tassels are dropping pollen. Because corn cross-pollinates and requires pollination to set ears, I grouped them together to encourage pollen to drop on the ears, but only two rows span each bed, so I think they aren’t close enough for the best pollination. Next year I’ll follow Solomon’s advice, dig up the path between two beds and sow the whole block in several rows of corn. In the meantime, this year I run my hand along the tassels, brushing them to drop pollen onto the ears below. I hope this works because David considers corn to be the ideal delivery vector for butter. After all the clearing, plowing and (especially) manure spreading he deserves some reward.

Please contact with questions and suggestions since I need all the help I can get.