Category Archives: gardening

Waffle Beds, Part IV, August

Every summer I look out the front door in amazement at the sheer amount of green in the yard. It happens fast, growing from tiny sprouts in the cold, hard ground of March into mountains of thick stems and new fruit in  July, fast forward through August’s drought into September’s harvest and back to ground level in November, under a blanket of snow. This year I have a new element in “waffle beds”; depressions dug below ground level to increase drought tolerance. I began making raised beds into recessed “waffles” back in April but the technique has really proven itself during the last three weeks of searing heat and zero rainfall. Here is the waffle structure near the front of the house, photos taken once a month from May through mid-August:

Waffle bed tomatoes 1 Tomato seedlings waffle

Tomatoes July Maine

August tomatoes

We’ve had some precipitation this month but it has come as sudden downpours of heavy rain over a short period. My raised beds never absorbed much water because the deluge simply rolled off the dry, caked soil on top – although the recessed paths on the sides (where all the moisture ended up) generally looked great after a storm. This year, no matter how hard and suddenly it came down, rain pooled at the bottom of the depression where it would do the most good. After a week of sun and August heat the bottom of each waffle, shaded by plant foliage or mulch,  is still moist and friable.

Waffle cabbage bed

Pepper waffle

I have begun transitioning the entire garden over to recessed beds, mostly waffles but with an experiment in “swale” gardening on a south-facing slope (to be explored in a different post!). There are a few places where I’ve dug to a depth of 18″ and found ledge – very common in Downeast Maine. I’m using the same process of adding good soil to the bottom of the waffle, but will track these particular beds and see if drainage becomes an issue. I’ve also made a note not to plant root vegetables in these locations just yet! It may be that I eventually build higher walls around the ledge-prone areas to provide extra depth without digging, but soil is at a premium in this garden and the experiment will have to wait for now.

New waffle

Waffle beds, part III

Waffle beds are the opposite of the raised beds that have become a fixture in US gardens since the 60’s. Unfortunately, raised beds don’t work well in my micro-climate: mid-summer droughts make it difficult to get moisture to the plant roots, and our soil is light and sandy and doesn’t compact well in a heap. For years I’ve noticed that plants (mostly weeds) grow better in the depressions between beds but it wasn’t until this April that I began to take advantage of this. This is the first waffle bed I made almost two months ago, now full of well-grown celtuce and brassicas with a mixed cover crop around the edges.

waffle bed garden celtuce

The depression seems to have kept the seedlings sheltered from the cold winds and night frosts during our late spring. The waffles definitely increase water retention. Below are the first beds I dug near the house for our tomatoes and you can clearly see the color contrast between the dry walls and damp lower level.

Waffle bed tomatoes 1

The same seedlings, one week later and about twice the size. They evidently like the additional shelter and moisture, while the cover crop of Phacelia Tanacetifolia is drought-tolerant and sprouts well on the waffle “walls”. (I’ve planted 10 beds of at least 5 plants each – to the tune of 700 lbs of tomatoes as a conservative estimate of yield. Come September I may be posting extensively on tomato sauce production.)

Tomato seedlings waffle

This bed in the lower garden has been divided into five waffles: peach tree, cabbages, Provider bush green beans (still under row cover), BlueGold potatoes, and the far bed of celtuce and brassicas pictured above. Everything seems to be thriving. I’ve planted the poor soil heaped between waffles with nasturtiums and a low-growing cover crop mix, mostly to help hold the soil in place during the first year.

lower garden waffle beds

I’m pleased with this method so far! Next post will be on this weekend’s project:  swales as a solution for “depression” gardening on a south facing slope. Here is a terrific introduction on swale gardening from Tenth Acre Farm.

What is a Swale and Why You Need One

What is a Swale?

Garden waffles, Part Two

Yesterday I posted a little bit of history on the evolution of raised beds in American gardening (after finding many more scholarly articles on the subject than I could have imagined) and then I went outside and did a practical experiment on waffle bed gardening by digging holes in the ground. Well, that wasn’t all there was to it, actually.

I started by digging a trench and piling the soil up on either side. I was planning to save the good topsoil to a special spot and use it to top off the eventual “waffle” but honestly there wasn’t enough to bother with. I do have a bumper crop of roots, rocks, and yellow clay.

waffle beds prep

Here I’ve finished digging the bed out to below grade. I filled the bottom layer of the walls with old firewood and the rocks (many, many rocks) that came out of the interior, then piled soil and clay on top. One of the sources says to walk around on the walls to tamp them down; you’ll want to walk on them later so it’s a good idea to make sure they’ll hold your weight safely.
waffle beds step 2

I sat on one wall of the bed (very comfortable!) and planted celtuce and Brussels sprouts. The forecast is still for below freezing temps overnight this week but these seedlings have been hardening off for a few days and should be fine under row cover.

Waffle beds step 3

I covered the cell with wire hoops and some row cover. Now the forecast is calling for snow tonight (April 9th!) so I’m going to lower the floating row cover to the plant level and stretch some clear plastic vented material over the hoops for a double layer of protection. Fortunately I have plenty of seedlings!

Waffle bed finished

As I’m writing this at 11 a.m. the temps are still hovering around the freezing mark, although it’s pleasant enough if you’re standing in full sun. I plan to continue laying out new beds but refrain from planting anything else out until next week at the earliest. Questions or feedback, let me know!

Garden Waffles, part one

The title of this post drew you right in, didn’t it? My apologies. This isn’t a post about delicious breakfast treats served with maple syrup, it’s even better than that. This is a revolution in gardening technique and it begins with a rebellion against the most popular home gardening trope of the century – raised beds.

There are various theories on the origin of the raised bed in the American landscape, but most point to a series of very popular television shows that promoted them for their orderly appearance and ease of management. Digging over rectangular coffin-sized sections of the garden and segregating them into different plant varieties has advantages, but most of these examples were produced under ideal conditions with superior soil and abundant irrigation. Those of us with very little or very poor soil and irregular rainfall had less favorable results. In the long haul, root action forces salts to the elevated surface and the resulting crust sheds water down the sides of the bed. I don’t water or irrigate and rainfall is rarely gentle or consistent enough to work through the top layers – especially when it breaks a drought and the soil is very dry.

In this sense, it’s very much like I’m gardening in a desert – a desert of my own making! Waffle beds have been used for centuries in gardens all over the world to address just this problem. Instead of building up, and exposing more soil to air and sun (good for plants and bad for dirt) the waffle bed sinks the level of productive soil below a surrounding dike of poor soil, conserving water and nutrients as well as providing a wind break.

I’m planning on spending the day building my first waffles (well, after the dump run, visiting with my mother, getting the groceries in. . .) and will post Part Two of this saga shortly. Meanwhile, here’s a drawing from Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands, courtesy of Amarillo Tableland, who posted this in 2011 and has an excellent series on seasonal results.

Waffle bed

From Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands

 

Garden 2016 – the seed order

I’ve held off on ordering seeds this year in hopes it will keep me from starting the tomatoes too soon and having them grow into hedges under the lights down cellar. Looking back at 20 years of records this is my latest order to date and the earliest was in November of 2002, back in the bad old days when we filled out the complex Fedco orders in the cheap newsprint catalog. The ink bled through the pages and I got my maths wrong every year.

Now the order form is online and does all the sums automagically. After some judicious editing for costs and allowing for a few indulgences, behold the 2016 seed order, below. Indulgences include:

Good King Henry, an open-pollinated perennial used as a pot-herb. I had always assumed it was named for an actual monarch, but no: Henry comes from the germanic haganrich which is literally ‘king of the hedge,’ a gremlin with goose’s feet that helps around the house and puts things where they belong. I’ll be able

Balady Aswan Celtuce, I feel like this would make a good band name, or an unbreakable password in a sci-fi movie. It’s actually a variety of Egyptian lettuce that is “customarily allowed to bolt and enjoyed for its 12–14″ crunchy stems with creamy flavor”. This is just the sort of thing that should growing in my garden.

By Downtowngal - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10526787

230A – Jade Bush Green Beans ( A=2oz ) 1 x $2.30 = $2.30
298A – Windsor Fava Beans ( A=2oz ) 1 x $1.60 = $1.60
658A – Silver Queen White Sweet Corn ( A=2oz ) 1 x $2.50 = $2.50
818A – Oregon Giant Snow Peas ( A=2oz ) 1 x $1.60 = $1.60
916A – Dove Ananas Type ( A=1g ) 1 x $2.40 = $2.40
1312A – Marketmore 76 Slicing Cucumbers ( A=1/16oz ) 1 x $1.00 = $1.00
2058A – Red Cored Chantenay Carrots ( A=1/8oz ) 1 x $1.00 = $1.00
2093A – Yaya OG Carrots ( A=1g ) 1 x $2.20 = $2.20
2149A – Touchstone Gold OG Beets ( A=1/8oz ) 1 x $2.00 = $2.00
2425A – Bleu de Solaize Leeks ( A=1/16oz ) 1 x $1.50 = $1.50
2538A – Avon Spinach ( A=1/4oz ) 1 x $1.50 = $1.50
2715A – Balady Aswan OG Celtuce ( A=1g ) 1 x $2.30 = $2.30
2764A – Blushed Butter Oaks OG Leaf Lettuce ( A=1g ) 1 x $1.80 = $1.80
2768A – Lingua di Canarino (Canary Tongue) OG Leaf Lettuce ( A=1g ) 1 x $1.40 = $1.40
2773A – Hyper Red Rumple Waved OG Leaf Lettuce ( A=1g ) 1 x $1.70 = $1.70
2921A – Anuenue OG Batavian Lettuce ( A=1g ) 1 x $1.40 = $1.40
2985A – Red Carpet Lettuce Mix OG Lettuce Mix ( A=1g ) 1 x $1.80 = $1.80
3096A – Good King Henry Good King Henry ( A=0.5g ) 1 x $1.50 = $1.50
3218A – Senposai Senposai ( A=1/16oz ) 1 x $1.40 = $1.40
3223A – Yokatta-Na Yokatta-Na ( A=1/16oz ) 1 x $1.40 = $1.40
3226A – Early Mizuna OG Mizuna ( A=1/16oz ) 1 x $1.30 = $1.30
3309A – Green Super Broccoli ( A=0.5g ) 1 x $1.50 = $1.50
3327A – Piracicaba Broccoli ( A=2g ) 1 x $1.30 = $1.30
3339A – Gustus Brussels Sprouts ( A=0.5g ) 1 x $2.80 = $2.80
3397A – Wirosa Savoy Cabbages ( A=0.1g ) 1 x $2.00 = $2.00
3459A – Darkibor Kale ( A=0.5g ) 1 x $2.20 = $2.20
3461A – Red Russian Kale ( A=2g ) 1 x $1.00 = $1.00
3776A – Feher Ozon OG Sweet Peppers ( A=0.2g ) 1 x $1.50 = $1.50
4038A – Cosmonaut Volkov OG Tomatoes ( A=0.2g ) 1 x $1.40 = $1.40
4059A – Cherokee Purple OG Tomatoes ( A=0.2g ) 1 x $1.40 = $1.40
4146A – Blue Beech OG Paste Tomatoes ( A=0.2g ) 1 x $1.60 = $1.60
4253A – Jasper OG Cherry Tomatoes ( A=0.02g ) 1 x $3.60 = $3.60
4414A – Sweet Basil Basil ( A=4g ) 1 x $1.30 = $1.30
4510A – Bodegold Chamomile Chamomile ( A=1g ) 1 x $1.50 = $1.50
4588A – Lemon Balm Lemon Balm ( A=0.3g ) 1 x $1.30 = $1.30
4668A – Silver Sagebrush White Sage ( A=0.02g ) 1 x $1.40 = $1.40
4836A – Carnival Amaranths ( A=0.2g ) 1 x $1.50 = $1.50
5350A – Elka OG Poppies ( A=0.1g ) 1 x $1.30 = $1.30
5351A – Ziar Breadseed OG Poppies ( A=0.1g ) 1 x $1.30 = $1.30
5611A – Perennial Sweet Pea Sweet Peas ( A=1g ) 1 x $1.40 = $1.40

Total for seeds this year = $66.90, plus $4.00 USD that I’m spending on Heirloom Black Sea Samsun Turkish tobacco seed from Hart’s because I think the bees are going to go crazy over tobacco blossoms.

The Favorite Tree – Dawn Redwood

In 2010 I bought a Dawn Redwood tree (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) from Fedco Trees. Fedco specializes in small, very well-rooted specimens that are easy to ship and plant. True to form, what I unpacked from that shipment was the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree of redwoods: 2′ tall with a twiggy trunk and sparse, irregular foliage. I picked a likely spot in our swamp for a tree that would/might eventually reach 100′ and left it to fend for itself (which is my favorite philosophy for growing trees). It worked!

Metasequoia glyptostroboides

Yesterday I went out to visit what has become my favorite tree in the garden. The soft, deciduous foliage is turning bronze – equally as beautiful as the luminescent green color in spring. The trunk caliper has increased to 11″, showing off the striated golden-orange bark that will only become deeper and more colorful with age.

Dawn Redwood trunk

R. complimented me on picking a good spot. This is about 15′ from our driveway, which means that if it does get to 100′ (not likely in Maine) the buttressed trunk will probably not interfere with our carpark. Probably.

Might have room for a giant, prehistoric tree in your yard? Fedco has them in this year’s catalog:

Dawn Redwood 100′ One of the most spectacular of the ornamental trees. The wide irregular trunk looks like something out of a fairy tale with its iridescent golden-orange bark that becomes deeply grooved, hollowed and fluted with age. The bright green deciduous needles turn orange in the fall. Grows quickly, up to 50′ in 15–20 years, with many small-diameter horizontal branches and a uniform conical habit. Give it lots of space to grow! Highly adaptable, easy to transplant. Prefers moist deep well-drained slightly acid soil in full sun. Will tolerate wet or dry sites. Pollution resistant; good specimen or street tree, rarely needs pruning. Fossils dating back 50 million years have been found in Japan. Thought to be extinct until it was “rediscovered” in central China in 1941. Resembles California redwoods only vaguely. Metasequoia glyptostroboides Native to China and Japan. Z4. ME Grown. (1-3′ bare-root trees)
Item
525A: 1 for $15.00

Dawn Redwood foliage

Autumn bee maintenance – installing an in-hive warmer

This will be my first winter using an in-hive warmer and, as usual, I’m posting both to share the information and keep a history going for myself. I installed the Warmbees product in August during my last full hive inspection. (Note that Warmbees has changed the configuration on their heater from the one I purchased – the new model looks more compact and can be re-oriented for use in a top bar hive.)

in-hive heater

Photo credit: www.warmbees.com

Installation couldn’t be easier: select the temperature range (mine is set to low to maintain a temperature of about 40 degrees F), drape the wire ribbon with LED signal light and the cord over the edge of the hive box, and plug it in to an extension cord. Naturally, this requires the colony to be within cord distance of an electrical outlet. I haven’t quite figured out a battery/solar configuration yet. There’s no assembly required and you don’t need to know anything about wiring. The tiny LED makes a reassuring glow in the front yard:

hive box with heater

I used an Imirie shim installed with the opening toward the back of the hive to run the cord and ribbon through, and blocked the extra space with dry grass. When I wrap the hive with insulation for winter in November I’ll tape over the hole as the bees should be used to it by then. When I replaced the quart mason jar of sugar syrup for fall feeding today (they’ve been going through a quart every three days) I noticed that they’ve built beautiful, regular comb over the wires running on top of the frame.

The beauty of this device is that it is controlled by the internal temperature of the hive box. Other products that wrap around the outside of the equipment doesn’t sense the heat generated by the cluster of bees and by overheating them can convince them to fly in freezing weather. We had a frost last night but with a good sized cluster generating its own warmth the heater hasn’t needed to go on to keep the internal temp at around 40. I have high hopes that this product will help an otherwise healthy colony last through the long, cold Maine winter and the cold, wet spring that follows.

The garden in late September after the first frost:

September garden

 

On the easel – Blackberry branches galore

Sometimes I just want to paint structure and there’s nothing like a glass jar buttressed stems, leathery leaves and huge, recurved thorns to work out that urge. These blackberry bushes grow uncultivated along the edge of our gravel road but the blossoms are huge, white and surprisingly delicate for living on nothing but dust and neglect.

blackberries cherries

 

Blackberries and Cherries, drawing in progress, vine charcoal on gessoed panel, 40 x 32

Salad days – July in the garden

The garden in July is a nine-day wonder. Every year I’m amazed that the tiny seeds of March grow into a vegetable forest in only 100 days.

The dry gravel in the dooryard continues to improve with the addition of seaweed, hay, and now Bio-Char, a soil amendment of organic material heated in a low-oxygen environment. I find it changes the texture and moisture properties of the bed almost immediately. The early Romaine and Blue Lake green beans seem to like it very well.

lettuce and bush beans

I reclaimed a row of angelica as a new site for yellow, purple, and red raspberries this year but it’s impossible to get every plant – evidence below. Angelica makes excellent bee forage and, at 6′ tall, there’s plenty of forage on each plant. The basswood tree behind it didn’t flower this year and I miss the long golden racemes but I’m not surprised at the branch damage with the temps settling at 15 F below for days at a time last winter.

angelica

William Lobb, an old moss rose with intensely fragrant and sticky burr along each bud and branch, with a rugosa hybrid “Hugo” in back, both covered in bees.

hugo rose

One rhubarb plant is really all you’ll ever need. Seriously. To think I’d planned on three?

rhubarbOne of the new colonies, both of which are settling in beautifully. The bees are in the lower portion (or “deep”). The upper two boxes are empty and hold an inverted quart Mason jar with holes punched in the lid to feed sugar syrup during the colony’s transition to a new place. They’ve stopped taking the sugar so I haven’t refilled the jar. The bed of Phacelia (Bee’s Friend) directly in front of the hive is constantly alive with pollinator traffic of all kinds, not just the hived honeybees.

beehives

Phacelia is a new addition to the garden for 2015. I’ve sown it nearly everywhere I had bare ground this year. It sprouts generously and easily from seed under harsh conditions, the ferny undergrowth shades the soil to conserve moisture during these hot dry days, and the bees are on the flowers at all times of the day so the nectar flow must be near continuous. I think my next exploration is Nectoroscodum siculum, or Mediterranean Nectar Garlic – a fragrant allium that seeps nectar from drooping flower bells- wow.

New work: Quince Branches in a Tan Vase

So much is happening in the garden: two new hives of bees, new bee fodder (phacelia!), new green manure mixtures, and a foray into next-gen gardening with Bio-Char. I want to write about all of it but there’s still life material growing out there too. The Ruby-Gold ornamental quince put out flowering branches for the first time this year; combined with a new thrift store tablecloth it made an excellent color study.

Ruby Gold Quince

Quince in a Tan Vase, 24 x 18, oil on panel