An eager crowd of 25 gathered at Café Books last Saturday to hear from Dr. Ralph Behrens and his decades of gardening wisdom.
The turnout belies the recent upsurge in spring fever that has already seen Rosslanders digging the snow off their garden beds and planting seeds in their window sills.
Over the last couple decades, Behrens has worked hard on his property in Happy Valley, building an amazing system of rock walls around outdoor gardens, a greenhouse, and an orchard planted with the help of resident expert Scotty Miller.
The rock walls aren’t just beautiful, but function to “trap” the sun’s heat, creating hot and dry microclimates for his seedless grape vines and espaliered fruit trees that he prunes onto hooks embedded in the concrete mortar. In general, Behrens doesn’t rotate his crops very much as he has matched each of his gardens many microclimates with the specific needs of different plants.
His favourite herbs are basil, parsley, and savory, and he takes a Rosemary bush into the greenhouse each winter, then moves the pot outside again in the spring. He likes to use mulch on many plants, but was clear to distinguish hay from straw: Hay, which is harvested green and often with seed heads, will lead to weeds.
Down below in his fields, his orchard has plums, cherries, apples, and both bartlett and anjou varieties of pear, which he highly recommends.
He warns against bosc pears, however, that failed to ripen even in front of his rock walls, and he also warns against apricots which, after 10 years of effort, he abandoned as “too futile.”
His greenhouses are unheated but well-situated so plants such as his brown fig tree can give him a good yield.
Snow may still carpet the ground, but Behrens already has tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, celery, and leeks seeded in pots, and onions direct seeded in his greenhouse to later transplant to outdoor beds.
Behrens recommended glass and a light agricultural cloth known as reemay to increase soil temperatures at both ends of the growing season. Even the hardiest plants won’t grow at all until the soil warms above 10 C.
When the time comes, he will direct seed many more plants in his beds, and some he recommends sprouting first, particularly large seeded species such as peas, beans, corn, cucumber, and squash. Planted as sprouts, the plants grow up quickly and are less likely to rot in the ground.
Once the snow melts, Behren’s will amend his soil with a handful of basic products: manure, wood ashes, dolomite (a type of limestone), kelp, feather meal, and whatever compost he has on hand. He no longer uses fish fertilizer, which “attracts varmints.”
His compost also attracts varmints, something that doesn’t bother him. He tried valiantly to keep the bears out with an elaborate Fort Knox of a composter, but the bears smashed it in. Now he has an open concrete-lined compost and lets everyone in.
He put’s everything in as well, from table scraps and yard waste to chicken bones and dead squirrels. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “[My neighbour] Cheryl is on my case when it starts to smell!”
It doesn’t smell now, and an addition of high carbon material such as wood chips or straw quickly solves the problem balancing the compost and turning it into a healthy soil.
Behrens doesn’t bother tilling in his soil amendments, but just sprinkles them on the surface.
Dolomitic lime, for example, helps increase the pH of our acid, glaciated, sandy soils, and also makes other nutrients more available. Dolomite, as opposed to regular limestone, has magnesium that is literally a central component of chlorophyl, the molecule that makes leaves green and captures energy from sunlight.
Rather than worry about nutrient ratios, Behrens just remembers that leafy crops need more nitrogen, while roots and fruits need more potassium and phosphorous.
Garlic, for example, is a bulb so loves phosphorous. Scotty Miller, Rossland’s garlic expert was on hand to confirm what Behrens learned the hard way, namely that garlic should be picked before the leaves turn yellow, usually in mid to late July, and they should be dried in the shade or dark, not in the sun where the bulbs turn to a translucent mush.
One nutrient that sometimes gets overlooked is boron, an essential micronutrient that is often deficient in our region’s soils. Boron is available in kelp meal, but minute quantities of diluted borax (boric acid) every few years can also do the trick, something on the order of a teaspoon in a gallon of water for one tree.
Some of Behrens’s information was starkly personal, inspiring participants to eat more home-grown fare: For example, more than half the nitrogen in North American bodies comes from synthetic fertilizers. Nitrogen, a basic building block for proteins, is most stable as a gas in the atmosphere, but it can be “fixed” for plants either naturally — by soil bacteria — or synthetically through a great expenditure of energy in the Haber process.
Behrens doesn’t have an elaborate irrigation system. He just waters with a simple sprinkler, using it “less and less every year” as he learns that his plants don’t need as much water as he used to believe. He doesn’t wait so long that the plants wilt, however. Some, like onions, never recover from that.
Now he waters roughly every other day, sometimes testing how much water has fallen by putting a rain gauge, such as a clear cylinder, in the middle of the garden. He lets the sprinkler run until about an inch of water has fallen.
Sometimes he may dig a hole and squeeze some soil from a few inches down. If it holds together, the soil is wet enough; if it crumbles, it’s time to water.
Finally, after all his hard work, what he doesn’t eat straight away he stores in his root cellar, an uninsulated partition in his basement that’s relatively humid, with an air intake at the bottom of the room and an air outflow at the top.
Different vegetables require different treatment. Behrens loves leeks, for example, and plants a zillion, which he harvests, cleans, and keeps upright in five gallon buckets with a couple inches of water in the bottom and a loose-fitting lid.
Squash, however, are an exception to the storage rules. Behrens recently learned from Happy Valley farmers Bob and Judy Kerby that squash is best stored warm and dry, such as on shelves as decorations until the day they’re eaten. Now he knows, after years of rotten root cellar squash.