Inclined to garden

By Jean English | Sep 04, 2011
Photo by: Jean English Pole beans growing on the contour of Jeff and Arlene Leighton's hillside garden in Lincolnville.

An article called “Ending the Hunger Season” by Fred Brahnson, in the Energy Bulletin (http://energybulletin.net/stories/2011-08-10/ending-hunger-season), discusses SALT: Sloping Agricultural Land Technology. The growing technique is fascinating and promising.

SALT alternates rows of perennial crops with rows of annual cash crops growing on hillsides. Trials at ECHO — the Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization in Fort Myers, Fla. — show that the SALT system produces more than does simply growing annual crops on contours on tropical hillsides, says Brahnson.

The hedgerows consist of four or five species of perennial woody plants that support birds that eat insects, that fix nitrogen, or that offer other benefits to the farming system, including intercepting and accumulating any soil that might inch down hillsides.

I saw this type of cultivation in the mountains of El Salvador, where pinal, a type of pineapple, an herbaceous perennial, was one of the main crops growing as a living fence on the contours of mountainous farms. A milky beverage called atoll is made from pinal fruit; plantlets are eaten like artichokes; and the flower is eaten raw or in soup.

And I saw a similar type of cultivation in my hometown of Lincolnville, where Jeff and Arlene Leighton grow an abundance of vegetables, fruits and herbs in their hillside garden on the Youngtown Road.

The perennials here include raspberries, blackberries, grapes, apple trees and herbs.

The annuals include most of the usual vegetables. Jeff makes coldframe-like structures from scrap lumber or from hay bales for many of his annuals, growing, for instance, squash in a frame that’s covered with plastic early in the season. The plastic is removed in June, and then the wooden frames help support the plants.

Sometimes the Leightons make compost in these frames the year before planting in them, enriching the soil for subsequent crops.

Jeff has found that with these frames, he can direct seed crops that others often transplant, including celery and leeks. He also thinks that these upright growing crops can be planted closer together than recommended when they have a rich, moist, well drained soil – and his hillside is well drained. He grows his leeks about two inches apart instead of the usual four inches within rows, thinning and eating every other plant as they grow; he believes he gets equal yield this way while tending a smaller area. He grows celery about three inches apart within rows.

The Leightons planted spinach, lettuce and other greens in framed boxes in March and by May or June had more greens than they could eat.

On a small, flat area on their hillside, Jeff built a greenhouse from recycled windows. Here the couple grows tomatoes for long-season yield, tying them to stakes with strips of old bed sheets.

Jeff says of the sloped site: “It’s not Kansas. Gardening on the side of a hill makes me think of Indonesians.”

The Leightons’ bountiful Eden, lush with annual and perennial foods crops, brings me back to Brahnson’s words about ECHO’s SALT gardens: “Here nature is not a series of problems that stand in the way of human agriculture, but a model — a standard — on which to base that agriculture. Places like this will become tiny arks to which people will turn when the waters of trouble — climate change, fossil fuel depletion, and the resulting food shortages — start to rise.”

Jean English lives in Lincolnville.

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