By Ralph Morini
Piedmont Master Gardener
There are gardens and then there are gardens. Fern and Cleve Campbell, two longtime Piedmont Master Gardeners, have created amazing edible landscapes on their property near White Hall that demonstrate their passion for gardening, perseverance in the face of challenges and effective use of the latest regenerative agricultural techniques.
A Work in Progress
Starting with an herb garden near the kitchen door in 1985, they then developed an “upper garden” of almost 5,000 square feet. Today it includes two 38-foot rows of asparagus and a 38-foot raised bed that can be covered with shade cloth for summer lettuce and with clear plastic for winter greens. Three years later came a “lower garden” for melons and potatoes, now expanded to more than 10,000 square feet.
In the mid-90s they expanded further with a 1,400-square-foot “fruit garden” to grow strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries. When disease took some of the plants, they removed any sick plants, covered the soil with compost and leaves for three years and replanted this year.
What They’ve Learned About Building Soil Health
To deal with the compacted red clay soil and wet areas that delayed spring planting, they began to build the soil with organic matter—compost, leaves and straw. Over time, they adopted practices that optimize soil health, and the red Virginia clay was slowly converted into the rich, black loam all gardeners dream about.
Eventually they faced a question: to till or not to till. From the mid-1980s until 2016, the Campbells mulched around the crops during the season, added more mulch in the fall, and tilled the gardens every spring. After learning about cover cropping and “no-till” techniques, they started sowing cover crops, but kept on tilling. Finally, a wet spring in 2016 made tilling impossible. So, they trimmed a cereal rye cover crop to the ground, let it rest for two weeks, and planted directly in holes, rows and beds. The Campbells are now convinced no-till requires less labor, weeding, watering, and digging than a conventionally tilled plot.
Their Recommended Best Practices
Soil should be covered at all times. Coverage can be organic mulch (including when crops are growing) or a cover crop.
Mulch should be at least 6 inches thick and left in place over winter. Broadcasting cover crops directly into this just before a rain works pretty well. Organic matter (chopped leaves, straw or compost) can be mixed into the soil in the spring with a broadfork. Or, leaves and straw can simply be parted to dig a row or planting hole and left in place to conserve moisture and control weeds.
Cover crops are the best choice to protect soil over the winter and on inactive plots during the growing season. Live roots reduce erosion, suppress weeds, improve water infiltration, and add organic matter to the soil, feeding the soil life that converts it to plant-available nutrients. Cut cover crops close to the ground after flowering and before seeding. Let the roots and crowns start to decompose for 10 to 14 days before planting right into the soil surface. After planting tomatoes, peppers and other starts, or when other vegetable seeds have sprouted, add 3-6 inches of straw or leaf mulch to minimize weeds. The Campbells’ preferred cover crops are buckwheat and sorghum-sudangrass in the summer and a mix of forage radish, crimson clover and annual ryegrass over the winter.
Loosen the soil with a broadfork or similar tool. Drive it into the soil as deeply as possible, and rock it back and forth to loosen without damaging the structure. Let plant roots and soil life aerate the soil over time.
Tilling harms the soil because it breaks apart the soil texture and structure, making the soil more likely to erode. Tilling also reduces the number of microbes (bacteria, fungi, etc.) that make soil nutrients accessible to plants, and it also accelerates breakdown of organic matter, causing a surge of immediate fertility at the expense of long-term reserves.
What Do They Grow?
Current crops include over 40 varieties of tomatoes, hot and sweet peppers (heirloom and hybrids), and white potatoes (Kennebec, Red Pontiac, and Yukon Gold). Sweet potatoes and butternut squash are grown in alternate years, due to space requirements. Other crops include squash, cucumbers, sweet corn, fresh beans, drying beans, okra, tomatillos, eggplant, peas, artichokes, carrots, candy onions, bulb fennel, melons and ground cherry. Fall crops include broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, Asian cabbage, collards, kale, garlic and shallots. Perennials/biennials include rhubarb and cutting celery. Every year they try a new crop. This year it is sesame.
The gardens also include strips of pollinator plants and a recently installed, mostly native wildflower plot along the perimeter of the vegetable garden. These flowers, plus inter-planted buckwheat, attract beneficial wasps and other pollinators.
Their Pest Management Philosophy
The Campbells avoid pesticides and manage rather than eliminate pests, tolerating some damage. Specific practices include:
Frequent scouting using the “squish, smack, and swat method”
Using a jar of soapy water in which to drop and kill Japanese beetles and harlequin beetles
Using a row cover or application of Surround (a kaolin clay product) on eggplant to prevent flea beetle infestations
Laying boards on the ground beside squash plants to trap squash bugs, and then stepping on them in the mornings; and
Using yellow sticky tape to catch cucumber beetles.
How They Use Garden Produce
The Campbells love fresh fruits and vegetables and harvest 12 months a year. They also can, freeze, dehydrate and ferment their produce. While they eat much of their harvest, they generously donate to food banks and friends, and avidly campaign against food waste.
Their Tips for New Gardeners
Start small. Don’t get discouraged. Gardening is a learning process and is never perfect.
Garden for your health. Fern quotes an anonymous sage: “Gardening is medicine that does not need a prescription… and with no limit on dosage.”
Keep a garden journal. Record: 1) what you planted where and when, 2) first and last harvest dates, 3) varieties that were successes or failures, 4) pests and dates when first seen, 5) weather conditions (including first and last frost dates), 7) crop rotation, and 8) food preservation amounts and inventory.
Find a mentor. Experienced gardeners love to give advice.
Research your gardening questions. Take advantage of the wealth of published information on sustainable gardening techniques, much of it online. (See accompanying list of resources.)
Tips For All Gardeners
Stay open to new methods. No-till, cover cropping, mulching and composting were not regular practices until fairly recently.
Adopt cover cropping. The trick to making no-till work is to cut the cover crop in the spring (as close to the ground as possible), to wait two weeks for the roots and crowns to soften and then plant into the surface.
Right plant, right place. Grow plants that are appropriate for the plant hardiness zone and your specific site. A mix of heirlooms and hybrids can help manage diseases and pests.
Be eco-friendly. Create a diverse ecology on your property. Use organic amendments and fertilizers, and resist pesticides.
Learn More About Food Waste, tips, strategies and options including food preservation to reduce food waste and keep it out of the landfills: The Piedmont Master Gardeners will host a free, in-person Garden Basics presentation by Fern Campbell on “Love Food, Hate Waste” from 2 to 4 p.m. October 15 at Trinity Episcopal Church, 1118 Preston Avenue, Charlottesville. Register by October 14 at piedmontmastergardeners.org/events/
The Campbells’ Recommended Reading
- Grow Great Vegetables in Virginia, Ira Wallace of the Southern Seed Exchange
- “Low and No-Till Gardening,” University of New Hampshire (extension.unh.edu/blog/2020/10/low-no-till-gardening)
- Managing Cover Crops Profitably, 3rd edition, SARE Handbook Series, Book 9
- “Mulch is the Key to No-Till Gardening,” Origan State (extension.oregonstate.edu/news/mulch-key-no-till-gardens)
- “No Till, Permanent Beds for Organic Vegetables,” Cornell (smallfarms.cornell.edu/2016/01/no-till-permanent-beds)
- The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution for Small-Scale Farmers, Andrew Mefferd
- The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast