Photos by Alexandra Marks/The Christian Science Monitor
ROSIA, ITALY – For years I have admired my Italian neighbors’ vegetable garden. It’s a shared plot, enclosed by a wire fence (they don’t have moles, as I do back home, but they do have wild boar) and bordered within with irises and flowering chives.
Like many Italian vegetable gardens, some of the plots also have a series of crisscrossed saplings over the beds that the tomato plants can lean on and beans and other climbing varieties can crawl up.
But this year, something was different. Two of the plots were scattered with straw not only along the walkways but also over the beds.
When I asked my neighbor Ahrata about it, she sent me two doors down in the old stone farmhouse to speak with Bashir LaMaestra. He is the neighborhood’s garden master, and not simply because of his last name ("maestro" is "master" in Italian). Almost every evening, he can be found out in the garden in a straw fedora, working away.
Turns out, last year he decided to experiment with a gardening technique called “permaculture.” It was based on the work of a Japanese master Masanobu Fukuoka, who wrote “The One Straw Revolution.” The technique was later adapted to European climates by Emilia Hazelip. (Our garden blogger-in-chief Judy Lowe tells that permaculture is a favorite among many organic gardeners.)
The gist, according to Bashir, is fairly simply: Replicate the natural processes that produce such rich soil in a forest. “The leaves fall, they rot, and this layer, which gets bigger and bigger, becomes more and more fertile,” he says. “Because there are worms, caterpillars, and other creatures that work through it, it also remains aerated.”
The straw spread over the beds takes the place of leaves, but you can also use grasses, the stalks of last year’s plants, or whatever is organic and rich in nutrients – including the straw that this year lines the walkways. Covering the beds with organic material also helps preserve moisture, which is critical here in Tuscany, where, despite the magnificent and apparently lush landscape, it can get very hot and dry during the summer.
Two other things are also key: “It’s very important not to step on the ground, you want to preserve the air within it,” says Bashir. “Emilia Hazelip also determined that it was very important not to stir up the soil, which is the contrary of what we have been doing traditionally for centuries.”
Indeed, Bashir doesn’t even yank out the roots once plants have finished their season.
“You leave the roots in the ground as much as possible because they’re very rich and nourishing for the soil,” he says. “Again, it’s contrary to what we’ve done for centuries. But then, it’s not necessary to fertilize because the garden bed fertilizes itself naturally.”
For pest control, Bashir simply soaks nettles in a tub for about a week or so. The result, in short, is water that stinks. He bottles it and sprays it on the plants. Then he uses the soaked nettle stalks along with the straw on the beds.
“Initially, the transition to using permaculture takes some work,” Bashir adds. “But then you let nature take over.”
As a newbie gardener, I was in awe. It all makes such perfect sense, and the proof of its success was evident in the rows of thriving green lettuce, red strawberries, radishes, peppers, and tomatoes.
The challenge once I get back to my greenhouse will be to see if I can adapt some of the Bashir’s organic techniques to my own raised beds – provided they survived my abandoning them for Italy just as they were getting started!