Volcano Garden Farmer
By Anne Allbright Smith
From Issue 15: Summer 2012
You haven’t heard of a volcano garden? Then you haven’t met Insook Cheon. On the slopes of her “crater” are a mixture of Asian mustard and tatsoi plants (mixed by accident!), with butternut squash planted almost at harvest time on the “caldera.” In order to avoid many potato bugs she will wait until June to plant potatoes all around the base. (The potato bugs that sneak in are fed to the chickens.) Manure is placed in the middle of the cone for fertilizer and, to prevent weeds, cardboard from feed store pallets will also surround the plants. Among the advantages of a volcano garden are easy access from all sides and roots established in deep soil. The chickens love to scratch in the garden after the fall harvest.
The volcano garden is one of half a dozen or so vegetable gardens that Insook has established over the last twelve years, occupying 3,000 square feet of space. The gardens are spaced for animal control (most animals do not come close to the house) and for cross pollination, with duplicate crops in case one fails for some reason, such as inclement weather. Ingenuity is shown in each case. Next to the asparagus/sesame leaf bed, sweet potatoes and cucumbers are care-fully organized on a trellis that shelters mid-summer lettuce below while a slippery plastic covered slope discourages rabbits. Mint has a small circle of its own in the middle of the lawn where, since it spreads readily, it is frequently mowed to keep it fresh and disperse its lovely scent. Chamomile shares a plot with buttercup squash. Rabbits collect the straw mulch in the leek/garlic garden for nesting material, but Insook’s llama fertilizer helps keep them at bay. Insook acquires the straw in winter and lets it germinate in order to prevent weeds, and then mulches with goat manure.
What to do with old leaves? Insook collects them, soaks them to drown unwanted creatures and applies about three inches of them on top of water soaked newspaper around her tomato plants. They disintegrate and make very good soil for the next season. The plants don’t need to be watered! She does have slugs, which she drowns in a salt water jar and will be experimenting this year with copper sheets to deter them. Cherry tomatoes are planted nearby for the wild animals to enjoy. It is interesting that none of these gardens are fenced (except for one rabbit fence) and that Insook has no problem with deer. Maybe they are put off by the goat, llama and chicken manure? No pesticides are applied.
Insook works on her gardens eight to ten hours a day, through fall harvest until late winter seedling cultivation. Her only true time off is three months in winter, but even then she is busy crumbling lettuce and other seed pods to collect hundreds of tiny seeds —a tedious, time consuming process. Her interest in gar-dening began when she and her husband lived in Queens, where a downed tree in their yard provided good soil for a small box she built for six tomato plants. Upon moving to Gardiner and discovering our lack of Asian markets, she soon realized that she would have to grow Asian vegetables herself. Then, with the help of books, the Cornell Extension and former Gardiner Librarian Peg Lotvin (“my answering box”) she began growing everything. Gardening is meditation for Insook.
This year she experimented with grafting a Japanese momotaro tomato and an heirloom brandywine tomato because they are healthier and have a high yield. Now she is out at the crack of dawn, walking around, picking and eating breakfast. Her future plans? Insook smiles in reply, “Every year I get greedier and greedier!”