On November 10, I spent a day volunteering at Fresh Roots Urban Farm’s incubator site in Richmond. It was Fresh Roots’ last work party of the year, and, as Co-Founder Gray Oron explained, time to “put the farm to bed”.
Fresh Roots had invited a wide range of volunteers to come and help out at the farm. We were incredibly lucky to get an rare snap of sunny, crisp November weather, the kind of day that makes you want to go outside and play around in piles of leaves – which is exactly what we did.
The incubator site is situated on low-lying land that, prior to Fresh Roots’ residency, had been neglected for several years. The soil was so compacted and prone to winter flooding that earthworms tended to drown before they could aerate and fertilize the soil. Still, the crew at Fresh Roots managed to grow a successful first crop there last year for their CSA. Even at this late time in the season, the farm was lush with winter-hardy crops including rainbow chard, kale and mustards. More leafy greens inhabited the farm’s two large hoop houses.
In preparation for next year, Fresh Roots is now working on the big task of increasing drainage and fertility. This means laying down LOTS of organic matter, in any form they can get their hands on.
There were around ten of us volunteers. Our first task was to cover several rows of the farm with discarded vegetables donated by Quest Food Exchange – cucumbers and butternut squashes and eggplants that were just a tiny bit too blemished for human consumption. Armed with wheelbarrows and pitchforks, we piled the veggies right on top of the soil in a layer that was at least six inches thick, a giant rainbow salad in anticipation of next year’s crop. It was tough, glorious work.
Once we had covered as much surface area as possible with veggies, it was time to tuck the rows under their duvet blankets. We all felt like little kids as we grabbed armfuls of leaves from a large pile that the farmers had saved up, threw them into our wheelbarrows, and dumped them into the fields. Avid composters often talk about the amount of heat that decomposing matter generates, but I had never really experienced it until now. As we overturned the leaves, steam rose from them. I stuck my hand into the pile and discovered that it was almost hot.
The technique of layering vegetable waste and leaves is a form of what’s known as sheet mulching. The idea is that, over the winter and spring, the vegetables will start to break down, attracting worms, increasing drainage and strengthening the fertility of the soil. Without mulching, any nutrients would be washed away by winter rains, further creating a compacted, crusty, poor soil. Sheet mulching protects the soil and mimics nature’s processes, the way that fruit and leaves fall to the ground each autumn, restoring fertility.
After several hours of work, we took a break to eat a well-earned meal of barbequed potatoes mixed with carrots, rutabaga and kale grown at Fresh Roots, along with a generous helping of cheese. Volunteering at Fresh Roots was a wonderful chance to learn about winterizing gardens and an even better opportunity to make new friends.
Visit Fresh Roots’ website: http://www.freshroots.ca/