Terry Fowler

Monoculture Doesn’t Work Even in a Small Urban Garden

For years we had a long driveway that stretched all the way from the street to the garage at the back of our narrow city lot. Shovelling snow off that expanse of asphalt was a genuine chore each winter. We had only one car. And – most important – there was little room left over to grow anything. I had a small vegetable garden, but I yearned for more space that could be both green and productive.

So we decided to tear down most of the big two-car garage, leaving only a four-foot section at the back, which we enclosed. This created a tidy shed. Into a container went 400 square feet of concrete and 80 feet of asphalt driveway. Underneath it all was an ocean of gravel, with which I filled another container. It took months, but finally we reached good old Toronto clay, so hard you could have made pots with it.

Then I ordered 40 cubic yards of the finest triple mix, which arrived early the following spring. It was spread over our back yard like a luscious black cloak.

I couldn’t wait. The garden had tripled in size, and there were so many things I wanted to grow.

Especially broccoli. We’d always had room for three or four plants, but now we could grow as much as we wanted. So in went 15 or 20 plants. In that rich soil they grew so big and fast that by midsummer we had enormous broccoli trees, with far too many huge heads to eat. We gave some away and froze the rest. As always, after the first cuttings, we sat back and waited for the smaller flowers to start – they could always be picked until frost.

One day in late July or early August I noticed an unpleasant odour in the garden, quite similar to that of rotting meat. At first we thought someone had forgotten some garbage out in the hot sun, but every day the stench grew stronger. I started to poke around. It didn’t take long to discover the problem: the joints of the broccoli plants, just where the branches left the main stem, had started to turn into a rotten mush. Some fungus was destroying those big healthy looking broccoli trees!

I tried insecticidal soap, but it was useless. In the end I had to pull up all of those gorgeous plants (well, they weren’t quite so gorgeous any more), put them into garbage bags, and get them off the lot.

The following year neither broccoli, nor kale, nor Brussels sprouts – no brassica at all – survived past a pathetic, stunted, twisted six inch stalk. OK, I thought, I’ll wait a couple of years, and that fungus will give up and seek greener pastures, so to speak.

Still no luck. Twenty years later, if I wanted broccoli, I would put in three or four plants and spray them every day with a soap solution for the first two months.

Here was a direct personal experience with the perils of monoculture. All this was done organically. I didn’t try any chemicals. But the lesson is the same. Plant too much of one vegetable and you attract bugs that love it. If you want a healthy garden, plant it with lots of different things.

I got really sick in April 2010 and could not garden that spring. But a local organization called Yes In My Back Yard paired me with a strong and intelligent young man named Rui to look after my garden. Hardly anything had been planted yet, although I had some seedlings underway. Rui told me his plans for filling out the rest of the beds, saying he wanted to plant Brussels sprouts.

Although I love Brussels sprouts, I told him of my problems with brassica. He was undeterred, and by June the back quarter of one of my beds sported four small Brussels sprouts. They did well. By early October I was starting to pick some, but the pickings were slim. Although the stalks grew thick and leggy, I mostly ignored them because there had been such a meagre beginning to the crop.

In late November we got snow and then a couple of good hard frosts. I’d given up on the garden, but one of my caregivers, an infectiously energetic woman named Estela, suggested one cold December day that we check out the Brussels sprouts. We rooted around in the snow in below-freezing temperatures and cut the stalks with my heavy duty clippers.

Rui had given us a bonanza! We carried the stalks in triumphantly and dumped them on newspapers on the dining room table. Estela and I spent almost two hours clipping three or four quarts of luscious sprouts, making a total mess but laughing delightedly at this unexpected cold weather harvest. We split it in half and spent the next two weeks phoning each other to rhapsodize over the sweetness of these small, light green miracles, granted to us in the dead of winter.

This year I’m going to plant some Brussels sprouts – not too many – and celebrate the lessons my garden teaches me.