Omohundro is Distinguished Teaching Professor at the State University of
New York at Potsdam. He teaches cultural anthropology and environmental studies. He is the author of Rough Food: Seasons of Subsistence in
Northern Newfoundland (ISER Press, 1994).
In northern Newfoundland, Dr. Wilfred Grenfell observed, back to the land simply means face to the sea (1932:270). Residents of the Great Northern Peninsula face many natural, technical, and economic obstacles to growing food. Nevertheless, gardens have been a fixture of rural life since settlement began there in the eighteenth century. For the last 26 years my wife, Susan, and I have been visiting northern communities such as Plum Point, Conche, and Main Brook to track how Newfoundland gardening has been conducted and why it is effective. Northerners' ways of gardening merit attention not simply for antiquarian purposes but for ideas about how to garden in other places where natural and cultural obstacles are also substantial. One practice still common in the north-planting in "lazy beds"- deserves to be appreciated.
Main Brook. (The town's houses are ranged along its roads rather than clustered along the shore like a fishing outport.)
On the Great Northern Peninsula, where fishing, logging, mining, and tourism predominate but are unreliable sources of income, gardening is widespread. In more than a dozen outports that we check on regularly, about half the households are growing vegetables, and almost all are making lazy beds. Fish and seaweed fertilizers have often been replaced or supplemented with commercial products these days, but otherwise Northern Peninsula gardeners are preserving the lazy bed tradition much as it was practiced two hundred years ago. Visitors can confirm these remarks because many northerners set their gardens along the roadsides, sometimes many kilometers from their community.
The lazy bed gardening method is often referred to as old-fashioned and indeed it is rare now in North America, but it was once practiced in scattered coastal settlements in New Brunswick, islands in the St. Lawrence, and Maine. Aboriginal farmers in the Andes Mountains grew crops in raised beds and fields for millennia (Wiest 1959; Salaman 1949:47). In most of these locales, the soils are shallow and infertile, and the poorly drained turf is difficult to turn. The intense but brief growing season (in some places as brief as ninety days, with no month safe from frost) makes collecting and holding adequate warmth a problem.
In the Old World as well, gardeners and farmers have made lazy beds for planting potatoes, cabbage, and parsnip since the seventeenth century (Salaman 1949:232). Lazy beds are probably so-called because the English called the potatoes commonly grown in them the "lazy root" (Salaman 1949:524). In Ireland, there is archeological evidence that Celtic farmers grew crops in lazy beds long before the potato (Joyce 1913:345). By the late eighteenth century, highland Scotland, Wales and most rural gardens in England's west country also spaded their potatoes into beds (Joyce 1913: 232,416,487,586). . Raised beds like Newfoundland's are also found in the Faro Islanders' "letivelta" or "lazy fields" (Williamson 1948) and the Swiss Alps (Netting 1981). Most of these Old World regions have now abandoned the lazy beds, either by mechanizing or by curtailing horticulture altogether. The Newfoundlanders' lazy bed, hand-made and supplemented with seaweed and fish, is therefore a survival of a once widespread gardening tradition.
What, exactly, is a lazy bed, and is it a useful tradition?
As the northern Newfoundlanders make them, lazy beds are 3-5 feet wide, of varying lengths, and separated by trenches one foot wide and up to a foot and a half deep. They are re-made each year, sometimes at right angles to the previous beds or by switching the trenches and beds. The ground is rarely tilled, usually only smoothed with a rake. Many gardeners use line and stakes to mark out straight and uniform beds and trenches. Stable manure, seaweed, or commercial fertilizer is spread in swaths where the beds will be raised. The vegetable seed is laid in close rows on this fertilizer, all of which is covered with loose soil spaded from the strips of ground between the beds, thus simultaneously forming the trenches and raising the beds.
Even though the building of roads connected settlements to new and imported goods, it also opened new opportunities for home production such as these potato gardens in a highway gravel pit.
When the potato shoots emerge in mid-June, gardeners "trench" their crop and fertilize again, sometimes with whole fresh fish. Trenching involves banking up the new plants by spading additional soil from the trenches onto the beds. When trenching, buckets full of caplin are sometimes spread around the plants to be covered. Except for occasional weeding through July until the potatoes are bigger than the weeds, the potato patch receives little attention until harvest in early October. "Small seed," meaning the turnip, carrot, and cabbage, are also grown in lazy beds.
Lazy beds are well suited to locales lacking warmth, deep soil, and drainage. In Newfoundland and other north Atlantic gardens, the advantage of raised beds is that they are drier and therefore warmer than the moist flat ground around them. The beds warm up more quickly in the morning and retain heat longer (Denevan and Turner 1974:27). At night they protect crops from frost by draining the denser cold air into the ditches.
Another soil problem in the north is water-logging due to frequent fogs and dews, which leaches essential minerals out of soil levels that the roots utilize. Mid-season trenching (and annual alternation of beds and trenches) compensates for this by breaking into the layer of soil to which the minerals drained and returning them to the plants (Evans 1957). Many of our gardening acquaintances plant on hillsides, which offer additional wind protection or solar gain (Omohundro 1985).
Lazy beds have other advantages, as well. They reduce soil compaction. Spading up the beds loosens the soil while chopping any green manure. Movement in the garden is confined to the trenches, so plant roots are undisturbed. Very dense planting is possible under these conditions, effectively stifling weeds and increasing the yield per acre. Smaller, denser gardens are also easier to fence, relocate, manure, or weed. Intensively cropping a poor soil is possible by massive application of fertilizer. Lazy beds have been heavily fertilized with stable manure, kelp (genus Laminaria) or rockweed (genus Ascophyllum and Fucus), like their Old World antecedents (Mannion 1974:62). The seaweeds are collected on the shoreline when the sea ice is breaking up and laid over the beds in layers up to several inches thick. The plants contain colloids which raise the pH of the acidic soil and add potassium and nitrogen. Also, the rockweed contains growth hormones and an ingredient which may confer some frost resistance (Stevenson 1974:90,121).
This Newfoundland fisherman and his family set great store by their garden atop a cliff, and its potato crop. The wheelbarrow is necessary to take the crop to the main road leading to the village.
Newfoundlanders built on Old World practices by making heavy use of fish as fertilizer. Since at least the seventeenth century fish fertilizer enriched some Breton, Jersey, and Scottish gardens, but it was in the New World that fish was most abundant and favored, from the lower Mackenzie River in the Yukon to Cape Cod (Ceci 1975:27; Stephenson 1974:42; Russell 1976). Many northerners have been giving up on fish fertilizer because what is harvested these days mostly disappears into the fish plant. Fish are not spread on roadside potato patches deep in "the country" either, because bears and birds dig them up. But in outports like Conche, whose gardens are away from the houses in the meadows but near the settlement, fish fertilizer is still a valuable supplement to seaweed. Shoals of caplin spawn on the beaches in June just when trenching and transplanting chores can profit from them. Decaying fish release calcium and phosphorus, balancing the potassium in the seaweed and further raising soil acidity. The nitrogen released as the whole fish decay slowly is the only fertilizer the gardens receive in July and August months when gardeners are busy at other tasks. The salt in marine fertilizers improves nutrient uptake in these salt-deficient soils.
Compared to flat fields, according to both researchers and farmers, the lazy beds yield more per acre with greater consistency. Lazy beds reduce gardeners' labor time and raise the yield per acre. One year when we went to great lengths to count and weigh everything carefully, Main Brook and Conche gardeners harvested an average of 353 kilograms of potatoes from an average garden only 193 square meters in size, after investing 54-67 hours total in labor and from nothing to $78 total in cash. This yield-in a region notorious for poor farming within a province importing many of its potatoes-is more efficient with land and labor than some subsistence potato farmers elsewhere in the world (Omohundro 1994).
The lazy bed gardening complex in Newfoundland and other north Atlantic coastal regions has been criticized as old-fashioned and flawed by agronomists, development officers, and even anthropologists. But our research indicates that it is effective, useful, and a valuable supplement to the cash economy. In the current atmosphere of economic uncertainty combined with pride in regional culture, there is renewed interest in helping small communities use their local resources more effectively. Having always been the outport family's insurance and an element of self-reliance, lazy bed gardening is a tradition that appears to be surviving contemporary changes and enhancing the quality of life in the outports.
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