Category Archives: permaculture

Finished, and off the easel

Snowberry Branches in a Tan Vase, 36 x 24, oil on panel

The native Symphoricarpos, commonly known as the snowberry, waxberry, or ghostberry, is a small genus of about 15 species of deciduousshrubs in the honeysuckle family, Caprifoliaceae. Most of the species are native to the eastern and midcoast of the US. In our yard the birds descend on the berries when they’ve turned soft and brown after a hard frost.

Snowberry Branches

Snowberry Branches, detail

Snowberry Branches, detail

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 revolution

There are a few articles floating around out there about a garden revolution in the front yard, but somehow I feel they don’t go far enough. I understand that swapping out a lawn for raised beds is already a sea-change for many folks (and their Homeowner Associations) but I’d like to encourage us to make that extra step toward welcoming everything that lives in a garden, even the ones we can’t see. Maybe especially the things we can’t see. It’s difficult to structure a raised bed to readily welcome fungi, soil organisms, minute insect life, and opportunistic seed growth, but any old patch of dirt will prove a living welcome mat for all those things if you just leave room.

I’ve come to understand that organized garden beds are really for the humans. We like to keep inventory and we’re easily distracted so we plant what we want to keep in neat rows and discard the rest. Moving toward the idea that our choice edibles grow best when hidden from predators and mulched against extremes of weather, here’s a set of photos matched up with a list of what has been planted amidst the chaos in my yard.

Gardening front yardThis section of the front yard contains: amaranth, Kentucky Pole and Scarlet Runner beans, daylilies, witchhazel, rhubarb, peas, crabapple, tomatoes, potatoes (4 varieties), sweet corn, persimmon, pumpkins, cucumbers, winter squash, willow, sour (pie) cherry, quincy, lingonberries, cranberries, plum, comfrey, grapes, and allium.

garden inventory side yard

The side yard, and along the path to the driveway: dill, madder, strawberries, tomatoes (5 varieties), parsley, carrots, leeks, garlic, one pumpkin plant (I guess I lost track), grapes, willow, elecampne, hosta, gunnera, astilbe, blueberries, cecephalus, and just off to the right of this photo, plum, apple, tree peony.

garden inventory dooryardIn Maine parlance this is the dooryard – just down the steps from the front door: edible dandelion, calendula, columbine, mullein, anise hyssop, golden beets, Bull’s Blood beets (grown for the ruby-red foliage); yellow Australian, Red Sails, Winter Romaine, and Thom Thumb lettuces, assorted mustards, bergenia, feverfew, tatsoi, senposi, minutia, poppies, and honeysuckle.

Therefore, a manifesto to gardeners everywhere (and with apologies to Freemasons), chao ab ordo!

Dandelion time

We had our first rain in nearly a month yesterday, and the dandelions developed really stunning height and heft practically overnight.

yellow rules

Taraxacum is native to Eurasia, and was introduced to North America by early settlers. The entire plant is edible. It makes excellent bee fodder, especially here in Maine where the only other blossoms out right now are the maple buds. The thick tap root and lush leaf growth also increase the soil depth considerably every year on these thin hillsides.

taraxacum oMore rain is predicted for tonight and tomorrow. Soon the forget-me-nots and Centaurea montana will catch up and turn the hillside blue. Meanwhile, early and drought ridden, yellow rules!

dandelion closeup

Changes in the garden

Sometimes gardening is very subtle, nothing a traveler on our gravel road might notice passing by. This weekend Billy Guess from Eagle Aboreculture came by and took down the 45′ double-trunked spruce that grew right in the middle of the garden, and people have been screeching to a halt in the middle of the road all day.

It was a beautiful tree, the last one standing from a stand of conifers between the house and road. It was so tall that I can’t really find any good pictures of its entire length, but this is the base rising up from the middle of garden.

spruce before

 

big spruce before

As much as we thought it was too nice to cut down with the original clearing (thanks, Richard!). it had become weakened by standing on its own. The ground turned soft during the rain storm last weekend and I watched as the whole plate of roots around the tree rose and fell with the wind. It would have taken out the wires and possibly the southwest corner of the house if it fell, so we called Billy and he brought his crew around on Friday.

big spruce down 1I wasn’t around to witness the work, but R. said it was amazing to see someone all the way at the top, cutting huge chunks of (very heavy) tree trunk and dropping them strategically around the yard. Not one plant was damaged, and I have a lot of plantings right around the base of that tree.

big spruce down 2The view from the house: I had no idea the size of the shadow this tree cast against the house and garden beds. We have a lot more sun at all times of day now!

big spruce down logs

Big, heavy pieces of tree stacked neatly and waiting to be used as foundation for new garden beds. Great results – thanks, Eagle!

Over time

Late in 2009 we cut down a dozen spruce trees and a lot of scrub in the front yard. Over the course of just a few days we went from a dark, 40′ tall forest screen to a flat front yard in full sun, dotted with huge stumps and torn wild raspberry bushes. There isn’t much soil here and dirt is expensive to truck in, so we made set out new garden beds with seaweed gathered from a local beach, 3 yards of biocompost, and a lot of cardboard and small deadwood in our first attempts at hugel-kultur. This photo was taken in early June 2010. The spruce tree stumps are clearly visible, as are all the rocks that were too big for me to collect in a wheelbarrow. The  boulder at top left looked even bigger after we took down all those trees.

garden before photo in 2010That year I started to read about “macro-culture”, sheet mulching and the practice of planting the entire garden to a purpose – including the paths and surrounding areas, not simply the beds. Over time the sheer plant density builds soil, holds moisture and insect life, and provides shelter for root systems. It is a popular system for marginal soils in desert areas and eroded hillsides, and I thought it might be helpful on our mix of never-cultivated rocks and clay. I stood in the same spot to take this photo yesterday and I think the idea might be working. . .

garden after macroculture

 

In the gloaming

I have a post nearly finished about Sunday’s hive inspection, but I was out in the garden tonight and it was so beautiful that I took dozens of photos. The combination of a wet spring (groundwater tables are finally above drought levels) and my 2012 resolution not to mow or weed-whack where it wasn’t absolutely necessary has produced a really lush environment, especially for Maine.

The valerian jungle hasn’t quite spread to the entire yard, but it’s a near thing.

valarian fields forever

This is a very photogenic patch of Fedco’s “Freedom” lettuce mix.

Freedom!

The view down the south hill, with newly clipped withy and a row of elecampne in front of the bog garden.

withy in the gloaming

Red oakleaf lettuce growing through garlic and chives.

garlic forest

The view out back, into the alpine garden.

alpines

Au naturel

I’ve decided to stop mowing, clipping, shearing and trimming, and to let it grow. The dandelion crop is impressive for sheer bio-mass on our poor soil.

dandelion harvestInstead of mowing we’re trampling the vegetation where we walk regularly. I thought I was familiar with the garden, but new paths in unexpected places show up every day.

tramp tramp trampPoppies, wode, matronalis, and iberis are popping up all over now that we’ve gone freestyle. Guess I’m retiring the string-trimmer this year!

iberis rampant

poppies

tomatoes and carrots