When I took a walk down to the Eagle’s Nest Garden this week to see how progress was coming for this summer’s growing season, I half expected Bella to thrust a pair of work gloves or a tool into my hands. For all that she has been doing this semester to prepare for the sunny days of the western North Carolina summer, Bella was just as eager to pause and talk about the work that has already been done and the many projects that lay ahead.
For those of you who have not heard, Bella Smiga joined the Eagle’s Nest community over the winter as our Foundation’s Garden Manager. After wrapping up an undergraduate degree in Environmental studies at the University of Colorado, Bella worked in the solar energy industry. During that time she started exploring gardening on her own, found that she enjoyed the simplicity of growing food and the sense of self-reliance it brought her, and began dreaming about a career of feeding people without further damaging the earth. Last year she completed a Master’s degree in Sustainable Food Systems at Green Mountain College where her education focused on both the practical application of low-impact farming and using sustainability-minded agriculture systems to build community.
Since her first afternoon at Eagle’s Nest, Bella has been working with the weekly Outdoor Academy garden work crew on projects to prepare the land for spring plantings. These projects have included trimming back and rebuilding trellises for the raspberries and blackberries and pruning locust trees to let more light onto the growing beds. As we stepped through the willow fence and out onto the fields, Bella explained her next steps. The garden is at the transition point between the winter and the summer. Cover crops, meant to replenish the soil with nutrients and stave off the erosion of rich topsoil, still cover most of the fields. Seedling plants, including peppers, beets, broccoli, yellow squash, onions, several varieties of tomato, eggplant, zucchini, watermelon, and many herbs are being carefully nurtured in their infant stages as they await planting.
As winter fades and the threat of the last killing frost disappears, Bella is starting to experiment with new growing methods. “One teaspoon of healthy soil contains more living microorganisms than there are people on the planet,” she reminds me. Most farmers till the soil every spring to integrate new nutrients and prepare the land for new crops. Yet, Bella fears the damage tilling can do to the soil life—healthy dirt makes healthy vegetables, after all. While she explores no-till growing methods, Bella also has plans to refurbish the raised planting beds used to grow crops. These are great teaching spaces for students and summer campers to relate back to a growing scale they might have seen in a home garden.
Bella will continue to plan planting and harvesting schedules, track growth of the plants, and weed rows of crops. Throughout the year, different young people experience different parts of the farming process. During these last two weeks of spring at the Outdoor Academy, Semester 44 will continue to enjoy some of the early plantings that are ready to be harvested, such as lettuce, kale, garlic, and radishes.
Eric McIntyre, Resident Wilderness Educator