Gardener works miracles on semi-urban lot

Submitted to The Dorchester Banner Chris Du Plessis in the amazing vegetable garden he created in a backyard lot, on the outskirts of Cambridge.

Submitted to The Dorchester Banner
Chris Du Plessis in the amazing vegetable garden he created in a backyard lot, on the outskirts of Cambridge.

Just east of Cambridge, on a half-acre lot in a peaceful development, one man has created a vegetable garden that encompasses twice as much space as his house and is well on the way to becoming a homestead.

Chris Du Plessis, a self-taught gardener with only three years of trial-and-error under his belt, feeds not only his family of four, but has produce left over for friends, neighbors and “pretty much whoever comes by,” he told The Banner on a recent morning.

In addition to gardening, Chris, who has an advanced degree in psychology, holds down a job and helps his wife Elena, look after their baby girl Sophie and 2-1/2 year old boy Liam. Chris is also an avid hunter and fisherman and the family eats a lot of venison and fish. “I’ve bitten off more than I can chew in some ways,” he confessed, “but it’s fun!”

This summer, he’s growing strawberries, raspberries, Jerusalem artichokes (a highly nutritious vegetable), chard, kale, tomatoes, peas (sugar snaps and snow peas), potatoes, peppers, cucumbers, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, potato onions (more on those later), kohlrabi, lettuce, radishes, spinach, sorrel, zucchini squash, eggplant, rosemary, parsley, sage, tarragon, dill, basil and coriander. Forgive me if I’ve forgotten one or two others.

The yard in back of the Du Plessis’ 1,800-square foot house resembles a small farm. Rows of potatoes are in bloom, butterflies flying over them here and there. Tomato plants stand about four feet high, asparagus fern waves gently in the breeze.

Chris chats animatedly about each of his crops. Concerning tomatoes, he has some advice for other gardeners: “Last year, I planted 15 different heirloom varieties, but this year I planted only Beefsteak and Better Boys. They taste much better than heirlooms!”

The potato onions he put in have a long, venerable history and were popular in the United States in the Great Depression era. But you can’t buy them just anywhere. Chris said he ordered them from a special website. “They’re supposed to grow like potatoes and they store for over a year. By the end of the summer, I should have enough to re-plant next year and have enough to eat – at least, in theory.” He adds: “Everything is a work in progress.”

His next project, he says – especially in the shady part of the yard — is to plant some wine cap mushrooms. “They’re the easiest mushroom to grow, apparently.” In addition to good eating, “then I’ll be able to make my own mushroom compost.”

The enthusiastic gardener emphatically denies having learned anything about gardening from his parents, grandparents or anyone else when growing up. But “several generations back” in his family, “there were farmers,” so maybe he inherited the cultivation bug.

His main teachers have been the Internet – specifically, videos posted by small-scale intensive organic farmers – and “a few gardening books.” He started gardening just three years ago and tries to keep as organic as possible, using almost no pesticides. His main weapon against bugs is to remove them by hand.

“Last year, I lost many crops because of weeds,” Chris says, but this year he decided to put down wood chips throughout the garden. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s a great system and it’s free!” A tree-cutting company delivered the chips at no charge (they consider the chips a “waste product”) and Chris spread them over his garden himself.

Wood chips, described previously in this column, work like mulch to inhibit weeds and retain moisture in the soil. As they decay, they enrich the soil and eventually turn into new soil. “The stuff breaks down pretty quickly,” Chris says. Last summer, he spread chips about three inches deep in one small part of the garden. By the end of the summer, they were just two inches deep.

In addition to the chips having dramatically reduced the number of weeds coming up, now “I don’t get on my knees anymore, I just hoe,” Chris said. Using a “push-pull hoe,” he knocks out the weeds that do appear. It takes about 25 minutes to weed the whole garden and he only has to repeat the process twice a week.

To further cut the amount of work needed for maintenance, Chris put in a drip irrigation system. Also, this year he didn’t till. “I plan to transition to a no-till system” of gardening, he explains.

Another secret of his success is chicken manure, which he gets from a commercial chicken farm for free. Wood chips pull nitrogen out of the soil as they decay, although once broken down, they will add nitrogen. So, for the meantime, additional nitrogen is needed in the form of manure.

The garden is not 100% organic, because the farm that provides the manure isn’t organic, but “Soon I’m going to have my own chickens!” Chris says. “I wanted to do it this spring, but things got a bit too crazy. Perhaps later this year or next year, I’ll get chickens.”

Another drawback of wood chips – at least, at first – is that if you plant seeds directly in the ground, the chips tend to reduce the rate of germination. One needs to pull back the chips in the area where one plants the seeds, then push back the chips once the plants are about eight inches tall, Chris says. And never, ever dig the chips into the soil.

On occasion, he’s had to sow several times. For this reason, he grows a lot of seedlings indoors under special grow lights, then transplants them to the outdoors.

In the learning-from-mistakes category, Chris explains that last year he planted a whole row of zucchini. When summer came, “We were drowning in them!” This year, he has only three zucchini plants. “I’m never planting more than three zucchini plants again in my life.”
Another mistake was planting 43 tomato plants last year. “It was a terrible idea!” This year, he has only 16. “Now, it’s all about moderation,” he says.

The family does “a lot of preserving and pickling” and Chris started pressure canning last year. “If I could, I would like to grow everything,” the gardener says, but “I run out of energy and crash all the time.” This doesn’t stop him from planning new projects, however. “Next year,” Chris says, “ I want to grow some unusual things…like peanuts.”

In the meantime, happy gardening – to him and to you!

Editor’s Note: Laetitia Sands is a master gardener from Dorchester County.


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