Danny Swan turned a vacant plot of land the size of a
football field owned by the Division of Highways into a community garden he dubbed
the “Children’s Garden.” The land runs partially under a highway that cuts through
Wheeling. From there Swan and a group of volunteers grew ten-thousand-dollars
worth of organic produce last year that they sold at the local farmers’ market.
He even has chickens.
“They’re a nice example of recycling and reusing because we
have never bought chicken feed for them. They live
|East Wheeling chickens
off of food that comes out
of the soup kitchens: moldy bread, apple pies, anything that humans eat,
vegetables, grains, bread—it all goes to the chickens. Then we get eggs every
day. We’re getting about two dozen a day which is what you’d expect from an egg
factory,” Swan says.
“These chickens are doing a pretty good job just living off
of refuse that would otherwise be going to a landfill. And not only are they
giving us eggs, they’re also dropping their manure on the ground in this pen
which we then collect and compost and that becomes the fertility for this whole
Another thing that makes this garden unique is that the soil
here has never been tilled.
Swan explains that tilling isn’t always a good idea- especially
in a post-industrial area like this. There used to be houses here. They were
torn down almost 40 years ago, and potential arsenic and lead in the ground can
be hazardous to disturb. So instead, he advocates imitating the tree and
letting earth worms take care of tilling.
“The mantra is to mulch. You mulch, mulch, mulch. Anytime
you see a weed coming up it’s just telling you that you’re not being a good
Swan points up to the forested hillside saying that under
those trees you can almost always find some of the richest soil because of the
trees’ built-in mulching fertilizing efforts.
“You’re trying to be a tree, more or less,” Swan explains.
“You’re trying to put down the mulch and keep a mulch
on the ground all the
time without ever tilling. And that mulch facilitates the life under it whether
it be microorganisms or worms or whatever. And all those things are working on
"They are being your Rota-tiller. They are coming up to the top and
grabbing those bits of decaying leaves and carrying them down to their tunnels.
They are mixing it all up. And the mulch is also having the nice effect of
keeping it moist underneath which is good not only for those microorganisms but
also for your plants who like to have a steady moisture.”
Swan says almost anything organic makes good mulch: leaves,
grass clippings, straw, hay, woodchips—anything that can decompose. He also
advocates alternating the types of mulch you use from season to season—creating
layers. Swan says if you compliment these naturally composting mulches with
some finished compost—like old horse manure or mature kitchen compost—yields
will be impressive.
“Last year after doing this for three years we’re pulling
eighteen inch carrots out of the ground. There are people who just don’t
believe you. They say, ‘You can’t grow carrots without tilling the ground,’ yet
you’re holding this eighteen-inch carrot that winning the prize at the county
fair, from ground that’s never been tilled. So it’s definitely possible and
we’ve been doing it here.”
Swan says the Children’s Garden grows things like tomatoes, rhubarb,
asparagus, wildflowers and butterfly bushes, snow peas and garlic. But most
recently, Swan’s been trying to think of staple crops like wheat, oats, and
beans that can be grown to help feed families year-round.
|No-till Baby Beans
He shows me a bed of what looks like discarded straw with a
small carpet of little bean plants growing randomly up through it.
“I grew a crop of wheat over the winter—a winter wheat crop.
That wheat grew up through the winter and in the spring it really took off and
it gets about waist-high. Then you’ve got this wheat crop in early June that’s
ready to harvest. So I picked off all the heads of wheat and I had a standing
crop of wheat straw. So I went to the local convenient store about two blocks
up and I bought three or four pounds of pinto beans that you make chili with. I
took handfuls out of the bad and threw them onto the ground into the wheat crop
that was still standing there waist-high. Then I came back and cut down the
“You can do this with whatever you have. You can use a
sickle or a scythe or weed eater—whatever knocks it down. The straw fell over
on top of those beans that are now laying on the ground. It rained a few times
and believe it or not even though nobody planted these bean seeds, they were
never even put under ground, look at all these beans seeds! They all
germinated. They’re all popping up. There’s pinto beans everywhere!”
Interestingly, there aren’t any weeds growing there. Just
Swan says he’ll do the reverse process in August or September
after harvesting the beans. He’ll broadcast his wheat seeds through the
standing bean plants before he cuts them down. Then he will see what happens
when he leaves the pinto plants on top of the wheat seed. Just like a tree drops
its leaves on the forest floor.