Debra Prinzing

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Growing Vegetables Organically: an old technique for new gardeners

Saturday, June 20th, 2009
The layered, above ground, "no-dig," organic vegetable bed

The layered, above ground, "no-dig," organic vegetable bed

Here’s a sneak peek at a story that I’ll be reporting for an upcoming issue of Organic Gardening magazine.

I stopped by Pat Marfisi’s house in the Hollywood Hills last evening to tour his unusual “no-dig” veggie patch and to say hello to Pat and my colleague Jack Coyier, who’s photographing Pat’s prolific garden for my piece.

I arrived around 5:30 p.m. The late afternoon light was beautiful and warm. Pat’s dog “VaBene” (Italian for “it’s going well”) came down the street to greet me, followed by his owner: A grinning face under a broad-brimmed straw hat; strong gardener’s arms, emerging from a soft green T-shirt; functional jeans and black sneakers. He was in his element with vegetables, soil, and a harmonic convergence of pollinating native bees darting around to their heart’s content.


With apologies to Jack, who with his camera was preoccupied with artistic portraits of young squashes and pole beans, I launched into “interview mode” with Pat. Every word that emerged from his mouth was inspiring – practically prophetic. This was just a meet-and-greet visit. It wasn’t supposed to be an interview. I grabbed my notebook and pen and started scribbling furiously to capture our conversation. 


His face hidden under a brim, Pat demonstrates the layering method

His face hidden under a brim, Pat demonstrates the layering method

A central pathway cuts through the narrow garden with no-dig beds lining each side

A central pathway cuts through the narrow garden with no-dig beds lining each side

Pat was profiled last summer in an article by Lisa Boone for the Los Angeles Times Home section. Willi Galloway, west coast editor for Organic Gardening, saw the piece and tracked Pat down to learn more about his unusual method of layering newspapers, alfalfa, straw and compost – with a bit of blood meal and bone meal stirred in – to grow edibles above ground. He plants straight into this towering medium, which is a good alternative to tilling up poor soil or back-breaking “double-dig” methods. As I was trying to understand the process, I jotted this explanation down on the page: He creates rich soil while at the same time grows food in it.  


When Willi asked me to interview Pat and write the article for Organic Gardening, I was thrilled! I remember reading Lisa’s piece when it came out and learning that this practice of sandwiching organic materials (some also call this the “lasagna” technique) was decades old. Pat picked it up during an early retirement trip to Australia and New Zealand, where he volunteered on organic farms. He’s refined the scheme in his own LA garden and now teaches it to schools and community groups. He’s a modern day vegetable gardening Pied Piper.

kalesquashetcAs I’ve mentioned here before, some people learn by reading or doing, but I tend to learn by writing about something. I fall in love with each tree or flower I find myself writing about. I become fascinated with a style, a material, a project as I craft the narrative piece that will be published and read by others. 

I suspect it will be the same when I learn more about Pat’s process of growing food with abundance – in a very small area with few resources, natural or physical. I can’t wait to actually write this story (after returning to spend more time with Pat), and to see how it turns out in print with Jack’s photos.


Until then, the photos you see here are some of my snapshots to illustrate what Pat’s up to in his few hundred square feet of level land on an otherwise very steep 1/5th-acre urban lot.

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