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Field Trip

April 8, 2010

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A recent visit to Metzger Farms knocked my ideals about meticulous gardens down a notch or two. Randy Metzger, retired county assessor, and his wife Susan have lived on their ten-acre farm in the Sierra foothills since 1978. Fruit trees, vineyards, gardens, a pond, and outbuildings circle the couple’s log cabin home.

Randy has been gardening since 1951. His newest garden lot, secured from deer by a ten-foot high fence, lies north of the cabin, tucked out of view. Inside the fence, the grounds look like an unkempt prairie of weeds. I’m talking, thick growth three-foot high. However, what seemed out of control are actually cover crops. Tucked among them were some of last season’s overgrown cauliflower and cabbage. There were probably other vegetable varieties, but they were difficult to spot among the cover crops.

A gardener of medium to high standards would have dispelled a frown across the muddle swell. Much as I love gardens for their beauty (and fresh flavors), a recent horticulture class on cover crops gave me a sense of appreciation for what was actually happening in Randy’s garden. This feeling was liberating. It told me that something good and wonderful was taking place. Life was regenerating itself in a natural and healthy way. No chemicals. Whatever nutrients last season’s vegetation sucked from the soil was going back into it. The incoming plants would flourish.

“You can tell how good your soil is by how the cover crop looks,” Randy said, pointing to a lush area then to a dwarfed one. Cover crops improve the soil’s health and structure, naturally. They prevent erosion and can choke out weeds. Leguminous cover crops add nitrogen.

Randy also leaves some of last season’s vegetable stocks in tact. Many were dead . . . brown woody-debris-dead. Get them out-of-here, they’re ugly dead. Others were living, giant monstrosities with flower stocks shooting up, going to seed. About a month before planting new vegetables, Randy mows and tills everything into the earth to decompose and to amend the soil with organic matter. This is what professional horticulturists do . . . care for the soil first, before they plant. Randy sows everything from seed in his little greenhouse, and then sells his vegetables, fruits, cider (as well as plants), June through Thanksgiving.

Most likely, there’ll be a cover crop growing in my garden this winter. Copyright © 2010 Dianne Marie Andre

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