Monthly Archives: May 2015

Roger B. Swain: Walking the Plank


Last winter, in a consignment shop in the next town, I spotted four squares of oak each bearing an odd iron clamp. The clue to their function was the impression left by a horseshoe in the wood. The horse that once wore these boards is undoubtedly long gone, but while it lived these “bog shoes” served to keep it afoot in soft ground. I am reminded of this now as I steer a wheelbarrow filled with compost along a narrow plank. It’s not myself I am trying to preserve but the integrity of the soil under my boots.

Frozen ground and dry ground both resist compaction, as does sandy ground and ground rich in organic matter. But the soil between these raised beds is none of these. It would only take a few trips walking back and forth on this path. even without a load, to transform it into hard-packed ground. The human heel reportedly exerts a pressure of 25 pounds per square inch about the same as the tire of a light pick-up truck.

The beds themselves are hardly less vulnerable to compaction from being trod upon. In my days as host of the Victory Garden television show, Kip Anderson, the show’s gardener, was always very tight-lipped whenever the director instructed me to climb into a bed so that I could face the camera while displaying a particular vegetable. Invariably Kip would get his spading fork when the shoot was over, and like the fellow tidying up behind circus elephants, he would carefully loosen up he ground wherever I had stepped.

The case for protecting the soil in the aisles is two-fold. First, the aisles are where water should be allowed to freely percolate as opposed to running off quickly. If your heat-loving eggplants are mulched with black plastic, this is how they will get their water unless they have a drip irrigation line under the mulch, which mine won’t. Second, how sure are you that you will never be planting in the aisle? To assure adequate wind pollination of corn, it may be necessary to periodically merge beds to allow for the planting of an adequate number of rows. Yes, the ground can always be re-dug, or re-tilled but why make work for yourself and tillage always results in a loss of organic matter.

And so one should always save scrap, untreated, lead-free lumber – the rougher the better – with which to lay out runways when the ground is wet. They will spread your weight in the spring, and if not picked up immediately will keep weeds from growing in the summer. The ground contact will mean that eventually, these boards will rot and no longer carry any weight, but they should rot and then they can add their own organic matter to the soil, like the horse that once wore those bog shoes, and as we who steer the wheelbarrows may someday do in turn.

P.S. One has only to write about trafficking on wet ground to create a drought. The spell of hot, windy weather that has followed will no doubt come to an end now that we have just set up an irrigation pump to draw water from the reservoir by the barn. It is the innate perversity of nature, my father liked to say.

Roger B. Swain

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