New labor-saving method of composting

Some 60 miles south of Boston, on that vacationer's delight known as Cape Cod , the natural soils make for glorious beaches but pathetic vegetable gardens. Still, there are some master soil-builders among the Cape's gardeners who have been able to turn the Sahara-like sands into oases of fertility. One of them is Hilde Maingay.

The Dutch-born former researcher for the New Alchemy Institute here developed a composting-in-the-pathway system that is simple and very effective. It involves some soil-turning late in the fall, but it avoids the need for a compost pile and is generally labor-saving.

During her decade-long work at New Alchemy, Ms. Maingay found that her one-tenth-of-an-acre garden (72-by-60 feet) produced a year's supply of vegetables for 10 people during a 10-month growing season (lengthened with the help of season extenders). The workload fluctuates, depending on the season, but averages two hours a day over the whole growing period.

Under the Maingay system, raised beds are established three- to four-feet wide, separated by foot-wide paths. Unique to this system is the annual sideways movement of the beds in the fall as this year's compost-filled paths are incorporated in the growing bed for next season.

This is the way to go about establishing a Maingay gardening system:

1. Spread such soil amendments - compost, manure, rock powders, leaves, and the like - as you might want incorporated in your soil over the whole garden area. Hand dig or, using a rented Rototiller (you will only need it this once if you follow the Maingay system), till the soil to a depth of about 12 inches. At the New Alchemy Institute only hand tools are used.

2. Mark off the four-foot-wide beds, leaving a foot between each bed for the paths. Shovel the loose soil from the marked paths and scatter it evenly over the adjacent bed. You now have a series of raised beds with the pathways 12 inches below the growing surface.

3. Scatter any leaves, hay, straw, or other composting materials, even some shredded or crumpled newspaper (black-ink pages only) that you have on hand, in the pathway. Don't worry if you have none immediately available, because they will turn up naturally as the season progresses. The point is, the sunken paths double as compost pits.

4. Plant your garden as usual, but every time you pull a weed or remove vegetable residues, throw them into the path, where they will help enrich the soil for the following year's vegetables. Throughout the season, any additional organic matter - leaves, lawn clippings, manure - that can readily be procured is brought in and added to the waste in the paths.

5. When the garden is put to bed for the season, dig a new path directly alongside the old one. The soil that is removed to form the new path is used to cover the organic matter in the old path. In this way, the beds move to one side by the width of the paths each year.

6. Finally, the beds are raked level in preparation for the next planting season.

The system has several things going for it:

* The raised beds warm up faster in the spring, making earlier planting possible.

* Drainage is improved. Excess water drains into organic matter in the paths, where it is stored and gently released back into the soil through the sides of the bed during dry periods.

* All season long, as the pathway material slowly decays, it gives off carbon dioxide. This, in turn, is used by the growing plants through photosynthesis to form new tissue.

* Labor is saved. Garden waste does not have to be gathered up and taken to another area for composting; it is simply tossed into the adjacent path.

* The buried organic matter provides a feast for earthworms, and their numbers increase dramatically under this system. Their castings provide readily available plant food, while their tunneling aerates the soil.

Two points to note: Do not grow over-winter vegetables (carrots, parsnips, and leeks) in that strip of bed that will be turned over at the end of the year. Also, it is not considered wise to compost cooked food wastes in the pathways (they attract animals).

Records at New Alchemy show that the garden produced the equivalent of three servings a day for 10 people for the whole year and that, on average, it took less than a minute's labor for each serving.

The Maingay system is covered in detail in New Alchemy's Gardening for All Seasons (Brickhouse Publishing, $12.95), available through bookstores or from New Alchemy Institute, 237 Hatchville Road, East Falmouth, Mass. 02543.

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