To prepare the land for planting, we decided from the beginning to follow the same process as UMass Amherst Permaculture (our inspiration), and sheet mulch the entire area. The first layer would be compost to add organic matter and beneficial soil biology to the system. We were lucky that the Horticulture Centre at McGill had generously donated a literal mountain (about 100 cubic meters) of compost to us, which was more than enough for what we needed to do. The only downfall was that it was all the way on the other side of the overpass, and it seemed like an impossible task to move it all.
That has been our main task since we started this project three weeks ago, and there has been a lot of trial and error in completing it.
Method 1: Bags
Our first attempt was to shovel the compost into plastic garbage bags, which we could then drive over and distribute around the field. Flaws in this plan quickly arose when we realized that in order for the bags to be movable they could only be filled about halfway, and even then, the bags often weren’t strong enough and developed holes when we tried to move them. One box of bags was justifiable, but using hundreds of plastic bags that could not be reused afterwards seemed far too wasteful and not in line with the permaculture spirit.
Method 2: Truck
In an effort to cut out bags, we rented a truck for the day, thinking we could fill it directly with compost and then empty it at the site. Unfortunately, this ended up being much more labour intensive than we had predicted. Not only did we have to spend hours moving compost into the truck, with three people shovelling and one person raking the compost to the back, we then had to spend almost an equal amount of time shovelling it out on the other side. We then had to clean out the compost from all the nooks and crannies in the truck before we returned it. After a whole day we had only moved a fraction of the pile, and were daunted by the prospect of moving the rest.
Method 3: Front Loader
I have never felt so relieved as when Mike Bleho from the Horticulture Centre showed up at the garden site one morning and announced that he would have someone move the compost for us. A weight was lifted off our shoulders, but it was almost too good to be true. After a weekend of rain the compost was too wet to be moved without sticking to the truck, and after a couple of loads, the deliveries stopped.
Method 4: Bins and Bags
In the end, we went back to the bags. We salvaged the bags that were still intact from our first try, and supplemented them with woven bags that were much more durable, reusable, and easier to move than the garbage bags. We also were given a collection of second hand bins that we could put the bags in, making them much easier to transport without tearing or dirtying a car. In five trips we had the compost we needed to fill the field.
An important Permaculture Principle for this week is “Use and Value Renewable Resources”. Renewable resources are usually associated energy production, but can be much more than that. For us, it was trying to stay away from single-use solutions, and finding something that we can repeat as many times as we need to without exhausting our supplies, our budget, or ourselves. People can also be renewable resources. Valuing and not overworking our volunteers, the people who help us, and ourselves is extremely important for the sustainability of a project, even if it means going a little slower.