In simple terms, Tom Earle defines himself as an organic gardener, acknowledging that his methods are a synthesis of many techniques that fall under that broad heading. "I'm not altogether convinced of the superiority of one of those techniques over the other, anyway," Tom remarked. "It depends largely on what you're trying to achieve. My experiences have allowed me to create a blend."
Those experiences range from an early interest in plants and gardening, and a teenage involvement with macrobiotics and organic food that led to an eventual job with the Erewhon Company in Boston. Later, Tom traveled to Europe, and gravitated to the Findhorn community in Scotland where he spent most of the years between 1973 and 1979. These days, however, Tom has resettled near his family's farm in South Conway, and he and his wife Elizabeth are experimenting with numerous innovative gardening techniques on the three-quarters of an acre they have under cultivation.
Tom's efforts are currently centered around a 30' by 60' plot, an old family garden that he is refashioning into "double dug" beds. The technique relies on the Biodynamic/French Intensive method developed by English agriculturalist Alan Chadwick, who for many years studied the intensive gardening methods of farmers in France. Today, Chadwick demonstrates his theories on a farm in Virginia, where he also operates an apprentice program. Tom has visited his school and termed it, quite simply, "awe-inspiring".
Chadwick, in turn, draws from the Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiners's Bio-Dynamic method. Very basically, bio-dynamic farming and gardening regards the soil as a living organism, and the maintenance of soil life and health as essential. Out of this sentiment, a host of cultural and composting techniques have been developed.
Chadwick's method of double digging is actually very simple in practice, though labor intensive. There are two major aspects involved, the first being the actual excavation. As Tom explained and demonstrated, a trench is dug the width of the bed desired, anywhere from two- to four-feet wide, and a space's depth, setting the soil to one side. then the bottom of the trench is redug to remove any rocks, an essential step since it allows for deep aeration and facilitates extensive root development. Several inches of rotted manure and wood ashes are then spread in the trench, which will spur growth once the roots reach that level.
Next, the soil is thoroughly screened through wire mesh or hardware cloth to remove rocks, grass or weed roots, or other debris, and returned to the trench. What results, as Tom explained, "Is a fine tilth up to a foot deep."
The second part of the process is seeding the beds, which are planted in blocks - lettuce interspersed with carrots, spinach, parsley and various other combinations of vegetables and herbs. "It's an attempt to recreate a natural environment, rather than a monoculture," Tom elaborated. "Companion planting in blocks recreates a symbiosis - plants living in close proximity to their mutual advantage and a healthy environment.
"The advantage of the involved soil preparation is that you can depend on the young seedlings thriving in the medium, and the seeds can be broadcast thickly," tom added. the most tangible advantage however, may be increased productivity reportedly four times that of conventional row methods.
There are several other benefits as well. Once the plants are up and growing, the foliage spreads to form a virtual canopy, shielding the soil from the drying effects of sun and wind. "It's a living mulch," Tom stated. "The moisture is sealed in, and weeding is eliminated." In addition, the soil shouldn't have to be disturbed for several years, aside from surface cultivation and tip dressing with compost, and as Tom noted, "The soil becomes a living, breathing organism."
Another essential part of the French Intensive method is compost, making and utilizing the resulting humus to revitalize the garden soil. Tom views the physical process of making compost as a flexible one, adaptable to an individual's situation and available materials. On the other hand, he feels strongly about the philosophical implications of the cycle itself. "The secret to good compost is not so much in the exact ingredients or order they're put together, it lies in understanding the compost cycle," he said. "It's an overlooked facet - death and renewal. Out society resolutely avoids decay and waste, though the whole process is natural and inspiring."
This holistic view extends throughout Tom's agricultural practices, and is the basis of his feeling about organic farming. "I have come to feel that organic is the only truly suitable relationship with the earth. It is obedience to the laws of nature," he explained. "And I think it is becoming evident that what appears to be a short cut often is not."
No aspect of intensive gardening methods could be termed a shortcut, but then it's evident that shortcuts don't hold much interest for Tom. "Our region of New England is suited to intensive programs, rather than heavy equipment or applications of chemicals," he noted. "It's a balance of understanding the needs of the soil, its natural fertility and where it's coming from. My interest in agriculture has always run parallel to my spiritual growth, and I think in the end, attitude is fundamental and comes before technique. After that, methods are adaptable to one's creative nature."