Old orchard to have new life at Discovery Centre

In the spring of 1956, Monica Oldham described her visit to Somenos Farm (today’s B.C. Forest Discovery Centre) in a full-page article in the Colonist’s magazine section: “Just north of Duncan, precise green rows of vigorous plants can be seen stretching from the road toward Somenos Lake. A stout log sign reads ‘Compost Gardens’ and close by is the roadside stall where the hungry may stock up or linger over a glass of apple juice and examine the produce…

“Possibly the biggest organic gardener in the province, [Cdr. Guy] Windeyer goes

in for breeding soil bacteria in a big way. ‘I don’t know why anyone wants to look at compost heaps any more than a manure pile,’ said the stocky commander… On this tour of inspection, it was obvious he regarded his mines of fertility with pride.

“They lie in three rows, 20 yards long, and a yard in height and breadth, and are composed of alternate layers of manure and sawdust, stalks, weeds, garbage, hedge clippings, etc.” She described how the fermentation process creates good compost and her host explained the importance of keeping the rows aerobic by constant turning them over or they could become little more than breeding grounds for germs.

To prove his point, he jabbed at one of the steaming piles with a fork and exposed some of the material underneath, with its large, wriggling earthworms and white strands that resembled tangled threads of cotton. This was the most important part of the process, said Windeyer, this mycorrhiza, a fungus-growth, acting as a conduit by attaching itself to the roots of plants and nourishing them with the goodness it extracts and digests from the earth.

He was convinced that plants fed by fungi, rather than by drawing directly from the soil or from artificial fertilizers, had more flavour and greater natural resistance to disease.

“But,” he declared, “I’m no crank on the subject-I am an organic gardener because it pays me.”

He hadn’t always been ‘green;’ in fact, his conversion came about just three years before his interview. Previously, he’d “consulted modern practices and poured sacks of commercial fertilizer onto the land”. Then he’d realized that, to grow a cabbage, he had to use eight different chemicals to combat dampening off, cabbage maggot, flea beetle and club root. It was somewhat the same story with his potatoes that, despite generous doses of barnyard manure, suffered every disease in the pest control manual but Colorado beetle.

He’d tried everything in the book: sprays, immersions, washes and powders, “mostly evil smelling and marked with the skull and crossbones”. He came to regard them as a gardener’s very expensive crutch; one that became drudgery when added to all the other gardening chores, especially during the summer sales season.

More than anything else, he said, it went against his ingrained sense of naval efficiency!

For millennia, farmers had grown their crops without these so-called scientific aids; how was it they had been able to nurture their fields to the point of harvest? In his search for alternatives he came upon the pioneering work of Sir Albert Howard (1873-1947) who’s regarded by many as the founder and pioneer of the organic movement. Somewhat warily, Cdr. Windeyer decided to give organic farming a try. He began by throwing his club root cabbage onto the compost pile. When he recycled this soil the following year in his cabbage patch, the result was a bumper crop-and no club root.

Other than some problems with little carrot fly and root maggot in his cabbage, “The gardens have been going strong ever since,” wrote an admiring Oldham. This wasn’t Windeyer’s only innovation. To weed his strawberry fields, his main fruit crop, he employed geese. They feasted on weeds but left the strawberry plants. The feathered gardeners were transferred to other duties three weeks before the berries ripened.

His second greatest crop was six acres of corn, followed by tomatoes. Another argument for the use of compost, he said, is that it helped protect plants from late frosts by warming them. At the time of Oldham’s tour he was experimenting with Russian Comfrey, valued for its use as cattle and chicken feed and as bulk for compost, and he fed his chickens with millet. It was cheaper than grain and yet another source of nutrition for the soil.

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