The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

The Druid’s Garden Refugia Project – Site Preparation & Garden Map January 15, 2016

In my last two posts, I shared the philosophy of wildtending–the idea that we can nurture and regenerate the lands around us as a spiritual practice. In this post, I wanted to share the start of a new garden–a refugia garden–that I’ve been working on since the early summer when I moved to PA. It will show some basic strategies for taking a damaged piece of land, full of garbage, debris, and common plants, to a garden focused on biodiversity, rare and medicinal plants, and the developing of a “seed arc” for spreading these plants back into our native ecosystem. I’ll be updating you a few times on this garden as it progresses into its first season.

 

As I am currently landless in my transition from Michigan to Pennsylvania, I’m using a small chunk of land on my parents’ property for this garden. I thought it was an appropriate site, given that my father is very committed to replanting our lands with trees (which I shared in an earlier post), and that my father has been cultivating extremely rare woodland medicinal species (ginseng and goldenseal).  In fact, he was one of the people who inspired this whole series of posts and line of thinking!

 

The first step to designing any new space is what permaculture designers call “site analysis and assessment.” That is, we take a look at the site as it currently exists and examine what challenges and potential the site has.

 

The Site and its Potential: Like any good permaculture designer, I found the most damaged piece of land (the spot that nobody cared about) on my parents’ property.  Here’s a shot of the site in early June, before we got to work on it.  This is primarily in full sun at the bottom of a hill (that keeps on going down past the site), so that’s important to l keep that in mind when deciding what to plant (full sun, access to nutrients).  I’ll have a shady back area, behind the trellis I have planned, for some shady plants.  The house is about 40 feet away and on an uphill slope, so I also plan on digging an off-contour swale and a trench to help move the water under the driveway and directly from the house downspout into the garden itself. Finally, given the abundant water as a resource, I also am planning a small wetter area using the downspout off of my parents’ house for a few water-based rare plants (calamus and horsetail).

The future site of the refugia

The future site of the refugia garden

Challenges with the Site: The site was literally a garbage heap, where my father had been throwing in various brush and debris for at least 15 years. A very long time ago, this was where we once kept chickens and rabbits when I was growing up–now, it is nothing but an eyesore.  There was old rusty wire throughout the area, old animal cages, a huge buried pile of bricks, stones, and much more. One of the key challenges of the site was  the piles and piles of black locust bark that my father peeled there from the logs in his woodpile–the black locust bark resists rot and inhibits the growth of many other plants.  A second challenge was the soil, which was pretty much straight clay with little to no organic matter (this was once a potato field, and an airport before that, and clear cut before that).

 

Initial Site Cleanup: The site had some common medicinal plant allies growing (which I harvested as we were preparing the site: lots of yellow dock and poke, some black raspberry, blackberry root, and some goldenrod). Once we started clearing out the space,we also found a boatload of bricks and more bark…and more bark…and more bark. The locust bark took a long time to remove! We raked it out piece by piece!

A lot more stuff in there than we realized

A lot more stuff in there than we realized

In this photo, we are removing a small black cherry tree–the bark of which we use as medicine. In permaculture design, we work to produce no waste and see waste as a resource. As we were clearing, none of what we found in this space will go to waste.  The locust bark we can’t use was relegated to a small compost pile on the edge of the forest where there are black raspberries that can grow in the locust bark successfully. We’ll use the bricks either for edging the garden or for a small outdoor kitchen/pizza oven. Most of the other material we pulled out from the garden ended up back on the garden site to keep the cycle of nutrients flowing, in the compost pile for next season, or as medicine. Literally everything that could be used or saved, was used or saved.

Medicinal plant roots

Medicinal plant roots

After about 4 hours of work in mid May–and the site was starting to take shape.

Site starting to take shape!

Site mostly clear!

At the end of the day, we piled all of the non-seeded organic matter back onto the site to start to a sheet mulch. The last thing we wanted to do is remove any nutrients from the soil–and that’s what we would do if we simply removed it all (especially on poor soils like this one, most nutrients are in the plants themselves).

 

I’ll note that this initial prep work was done before I did my PDC, now I’ve learned a new sheet mulch technique and would have used all of the seeded material as well as the non-seeded material instead and kept everything except the locust bark.  Even so, we did pretty good. We also raked up the grass clippings in the area around the bed and added them as well.  Mom and dad started throwing in their fresh compost for added nutrients.

Adding organic matter

Adding organic matter

On another work day in June, my father procured a great pile of manure locally, and we added all of that on top of the site to help build the soil fertility. My parents’ land used to be a potato farm, and the soil is mostly clay, rocky, with little to no organic matter. A simple soil jar test confirmed this (as did just looking at the light brown color of the soil).

Adding compost

Adding organic matter is always the solution!

The site was starting to shape up by July. Dad said he’d be moving his woodpile, and sure enough, he did when I came back later in the summer to continue to work on the garden after my PDC. He also decided to cut down two of the locust trees for firewood bordering the site, which he had been planning to do even before my garden went in. At this point, I started shaping the pathways and added some free woodchips we got from the township (they give them away for free).

 

I had learned a lot about pathway management in my homestead in Michigan–namely, square gardens aren’t fun to maintain, because nature doesn’t work in square forms. Also, 4′ garden beds may be standard for many gardens, but they are way too big for me to comfortably work in (I think that someone who was 6′ tall with long arms came up with that as a standard garden bed measurement!)  In terms of the paths themselves, I wanted a more natural shape that embraced the sun and encouraged it in, and also was reminiscent of ancient mounds upon the earth–so I used an arc and a line. This gave me easy access to all of the beds without uncomfortable reaching and made a few paths to sit and to walk (I also considered a spiral here).  But really, this pathway choice was all about maximizing growing space using “keyhole” designs.

Establishing pathways

Establishing pathways

You’ll notice a few small patches of green in the garden.  There was a really lovely black raspberry that I decided to keep in the garden–its a bit rare in this particular area, and one of my favorites. I have also not found any stinging nettles in the wild, at all, in this area, so I put a few of those in after getting them at the Mother Earth News fair from a local grower.  You’ll also see my father’s giant brush “burn” pile behind the garden–I convinced him that burning it and releasing that carbon into the air is not a good idea and so, we are going to let it rot down for another year or two, let the blackberries stay on the north side of it and then turn it into a hugelkultur bed with a sheet mulch.  Hooray!

 

As fall approached and the leaves began to drop, I used a basic sheet mulching technique to extend the garden outward. It was the technique I described in this post years ago and involved beginning by garden forking the ground to address soil compaction (this spot has been run over with the mower for years and is super compacted).  Then I added a layer of cardboard and newspaper to suppress grass, wet it down, and then added thin layers of compost and maple leaves.  Maple leaves break down really quickly (as compared to say, oak) and they don’t mat as badly.  Worms will quickly make their way into these piles and by spring, they will be ready to plant in.  Even a month later, the piles had sunk by 2/3 in volume.

Sheet mulching with fall leaves

Sheet mulching with fall leaves

That takes me up to where I’m at today with the preparation work–the ground is now frozen (finally, after our delayed start to winter) and I am now looking at the seeds and planning for the next phase of the refugia garden.

 

Refugia Garden Seeds & Garden Design

So the other piece of this is the plants themselves–at this point in early January, I have my seeds ordered and am setting about a planting schedule.  I’ve also done a design of the garden, considering primarily the height of the plant and its role in the ecosystem.  There’s a lot I wanted to fit into this small garden–here’s my first rudimentary design!  Note that the south of the map is south-facing, and this garden is in full sun (except for the back part, which will be trellised and provide some shade.

Refugia Garden Design

Refugia Garden Design

Next up comes some seed starting–most of the seeds I will start in March or April for an early June planting.  Some of the seeds I already started – the ones that require cold stratification I put in big pots outside for the winter months.  In March and April, depending on how long the seeds need to germinate and get started, I’ll plant them by the moon (a technique taught to me by my dear friend Linda); where you start seeds on the new or full moon. I’ll also use some of the seed starting magical work I described in this post.

 

So there you have it–the first start to my small, yet diverse, refugia garden!

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Lawn Regeneration: Return to Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm October 14, 2015

Front yard view, mid September

Front yard view, mid September 2015

As I’ve mentioned on this blog many times before–the spaces where we live and work each day are prime places to begin the regenerative work and rebuild our relationship sacred connection with nature. For many, the land nearest to us happens to be a lawn, one small part of the 40 million acres of lawn in the USA; currently the largest crop currently grown. And the lawn is a great place to start, for so many reasons.  Back in April, I wrote about Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm, a project of my dear friend Linda.  Linda is a woman with deep spiritual connections to the land, and she knew she had to make a radical change to turn the lawn of her newly purchased home into something more in line with her principles. In my initial post, I shared Linda’s work in taking the initial steps in converting her entire 50′ x 50′ front lawn into a vegetable garden and showed some early plantings.  In this post, I wanted to check in with Linda to provide some updates and see how the season has gone for her.  Did she get in trouble with her town?  Did her project work? What happened throughout the season this year?  How did the veggies grow?

In Permaculture Design, one of the basic principles is to “obtain a yield” but the concept of “yield” is much more broad than just the fruit or vegetables.  So in this post, we’ll be looking at the many “yields’ that converting a lawn can give us,  including the vegetables themselves, community building, mindset shifting, education, exercise, meditation, health, habitat, and more. What Linda and her community have found through this process is that the yield of this garden goes far beyond  just the vegetables.

Community Building and Education

Linda began the process of converting her lawn to vegetables on October 2014, so her farm is now officially a year old. When I asked her how the last year has been, she said, “Its the best medicine I could have ever asked for. I didn’t know what to expect if I did this, if I was going to be called out or reprimanded. But everything went beyond my expectations.”

 

I want to start with the community aspects with Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm, because for a project like this to be successful and embraced, the community is probably the most important factor. Building good relationships with local government and neighbors is part of how a project becomes successful rather than finding itself in legal trouble. Linda has not had any legal issues at all surrounding her farm–and its now been in place, very visibly, for over a year.

 

In talking to others who *have* gotten in trouble for lawn conversions, the problem seems to stem from a few places. First, not being aware of the laws or working within the laws (which may have ordinances about things like “weed” height, etc). Linda spoke with officials in her town government prior to converting her lawn last year, and they verbally gave her the “go ahead as long as there aren’t any weeds.”  Second, trouble happens when you are not engaging with the neighbors in a positive direction; Linda says that lavender-lemon shortbread cookies and fresh vegetables get you far!  Third, trouble happens when the garden looks unmanaged, wild, or unattractive to neighbors. If you can address these three aspects: laws, neighbors, and beauty, you will have success in converting your lawn.  So let’s take a look at a few ways that Linda was able to engage her community.

 

Child helps harvest lettuce greens!

Neighborhood child helps harvest lettuce greens!

Linda has been amazed by how much the community has embraced her front yard farm. She says “this is the happiest I’ve ever been, especially in getting affirmations from the children in the neighborhood wanted to come and help harvest. They would come help and then take home fresh food.” Linda describes several children who were regular visitors to the garden, learning from her, wanting to do the work in the garden. This kind of interaction can only happen when you are out in the open, in a community, in a neighborhood, where people can easily find you.  But more importantly, Linda is teaching neighborhood children a powerful lesson about nurturing our relationship with the living earth and learning about where food really comes from.

Kids packing up produce!

Neighborhood kids packing up produce!

Linda describes another story where a neighbor was walking with her grandson down the street, and they came to the garden.  The boy ran over to the garden and came inside and didn’t want to leave the garden because he was so happy to be there.  Gardens like these powerfully attract children, who haven’t yet lost the wonder of being in such a sacred space. Children, certainly, can sense the difference.

 

In a third story, Linda describes how an older man was walking down the street and came to the front of the garden and sat on one of the stumps Linda had placed there. He sat on the stump for a good 20 minutes, just observing the garden. Linda said, “It kind of reminded me of The Giving Tree. That’s why I put those stumps there, so people could come by and take it all in.” In each of these cases, we see people of all ages being attracted to the garden–attracted to this welcoming and sacred space that Linda has created.

A place to sit....

A place to sit….

In terms of what kind of an impact she’s having on surrounding lawns, Linda’s newest neighbors are planning on converting their lawn next spring, and other neighbors have likewise expressed interest in doing away with their lawns.  Linda expects that in a few years, more and more gardens will be appearing!

 

Now that Linda has experienced such a positive response from her community and has “tested the waters,” she plans to do more direct educational and outreach events this year and in the coming season. The first event she’s planning is a fall harvest festival, where she invites all of the neighbors to the garden to come harvest the last of the vegetables before the winter. At this event, she will share recipes and food cooked from the garden so that people get a sense of how to eat locally and sustainably. In the spring, she plans on offering more classes on lawn conversion and organic vegetable gardening.

Beans on the trellis near the house!

Asian long beans hanging from the trellis near the house.

 

Growth and Harvest

Linda is an organic farmer with over 30 years experience, and it shows in her work and yields. Linda focused her farm this year on specialty greens: spinach, kale, minzua, arugula, tatsoi, salad mixes and lettuce as well as beans, herbs, potatoes, and cut flowers. Her farm has produced beyond her wildest expectations. When I asked her how her season went, she said “It was the best season I had ever had. Even better than my 10 acre farm.” In her front yard farm, she’s farming approximately 1000 square feet; her previous farm had about 6000 square feet in cultivation. We talked for a bit to try to understand what the difference was, how this small front yard garden was outperforming her previous farm, and she has no way to explain it. Others, too are trying to solve the mystery–she’s had visitors from the MSU State Extension office and other local farmers come to try to figure out how her small farm is producing so much, to test her soil, and so on.

 

Of course, I have an explanation that one can’t measure with scientific equipment: Linda poured her love into this land in a way she never was able to with her former land. Yes, she’s a fabulous farmer and knows how to grow good food–but in this case, she was growing more than food, she was growing community.  She was regenerating soil, she was regenerating her community’s relationship with its food and the land–and I think it was this interconnectedness that makes the difference.  This is a sacred space, a space that has grown care in the community in the same way it has grown vegetables.

The flower garden...

The flower garden

Linda is still calculating her exact harvest numbers for the season, but said she harvested between 1500-2000 lbs of food this season, mostly in greens. She said she was pulling out 30 bags (3oz each) of spinach and salad greens, 15-20 bunches of kale per week, even getting other farmers and friends to harvest as well. And still, the food keeps on coming! I want to note that greens are not a heavy crop, and the idea that anyone could pull almost 2000 lbs of greens out of one 50′ x 50′ space in one season is just incredible.  Its doubly incredible considering that Linda is also doing very low carbon farming–she uses no power tools of any kind–everything is

 

Linda used various pest methods and did not have difficulty with rabbits or deer.  She lined the garden in various alliums (shallots, onions, garlic, chives) and also used herbs (lavender and rosemary). She tucked in bits of dog fur, procured for free from a local dog groomer, around the edges. She said she saw a few rabbits come in, but they went back out quickly and wouldn’t stay around to eat. The deer didn’t enter the garden.

Sunflowers!

Linda reaching up to the sunflowers!

And yet, birds and beneficial insects flock to the garden. The sunflowers are now providing good seed for the birds, the plants, even this far into October, are still producing nectar and pollen for the bees. She described seeing numerous beneficial insects such as honeybees, bumblebees, butterflies, and even dragonflies–all in this space that was once almost entirely devoid of life.

Insect life on the marigolds

Insect life on the marigolds

Although we had a wet summer, Linda did use drip irrigation as an additional aid for the garden soil.  In her drip irrigation lines she added fish emulsion and kelp meal for regular nutrition to the plants.  These are ways of getting more direct nutrition right to the roots of the soil.

One of the benefits of a front-yard garden compared to a traditional farm (which Linda was on prior to this) is proximity, or what permaculture designers call a zone. In Linda’s previous farm, all of her vegetables that she was tending were fairly far from the house, some beds quite far from the house (Zones 2 – 4). In her front yard, they are there right where she lives, where she parks her car, when she gets her mail, as soon as she steps outside (Zone 1). This, and this alone, makes the urban farm quite distinct from its rural counterpart–its not “away”, rather its “right here.”

 

Healing and Regeneration

As I mentioned in my first post on Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm, Linda had left a very bad personal situation, and she came to this new land hurt and in need of healing. Her land, likewise, was hurt and in need of healing in the way that so many modern lawns need healing: it had soil compaction, it was chemically ridden, and it was devoid of any habitat or life beyond the grass. Linda and her land came together for their mutual healing, and through that healing, have grown together to create the most sacred of spaces.

 

Linda describes her activity in the garden not as work but as meditation.  Certainly within druidry, we recognize different kinds of meditation, including movement meditation.  This movement meditation is one that brings Linda to the garden each day, and allows her to see her interaction with the garden not as “work” but as peaceful and engaged living.  I too, have experienced this movement meditation through the practice of gardening–sowing seeds, moving compost, raking leaves, weeding–all of these quiet, repetitive movements allow for deeper thoughts and introspection.

 

Linda also talks about the garden as her place of healing: it allows her to be outdoors, it provides her with exercise, it gives her interaction with her community, it provides her with vitamin D, it gives her nutritious food (food is medicine) and of course, continues her healing work.

A beautiful shot of the farm

A beautiful shot of the farm

 

Next Steps

In addition to the community education plans, I spoke to Linda about her fall preparation in the garden.  She explained that she’s going to add in more perennial crops this upcoming season (like blueberries, if she can get the soil PH low enough–its quite high in South-East Michigan) and start planning her crops for next year.  She plans on adding layers of leaves, pine needles (to help the soil PH) and another 5 yards of finished compost to her beds in preparation to the spring.

Nature's Harvest Permaculture Farm

Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm

 

Converting Your Lawn?

If you are considering converting your lawn or part of the lawn, a good place to begin is to examine the laws in your town.  Some people choose to defy the law to plant their vegetables, just be aware of the laws prior to beginning your journey so you understand the ramifications of your choices.  Second, have a plan going in of what you want it to look like and what you want to grow.  Third, start doing some sheet mulching! This is how Linda, and many others, convert lawns easily: layering organic matter with a weed suppression barrier.  Fall is a perfect time to do this as organic matter (in the form of leaves) is easily accessible and in large amounts.  Fourth, I’d suggest starting small.  Linda is a very experienced farmer–for someone who hasn’t grown much, consider converting a portion of the lawn and building up to a full lawn conversion over a period of years.  I, too, learned the lesson that bigger isn’t always better and smaller is more manageable as you are learning.  Above all–have fun in the work of regeneration!

 

Soil Regeneration & Lawn Reclamation: Creating a Sheet Mulch Bed from Seedy Garden Weeds September 16, 2015

As I’ve discussed recently on this blog, one way of rebuilding and deepening our relationship with the land is through the intentional act of regeneration. This regeneration work, in many cases, starts with the soil. The soil is the web of all life, and without soil, we cannot traditionally grow anything (I say “traditionally” because aquaponics and other systems do have soil-less approaches, but those aren’t really useful to say, converting your front yard into vegetables). Our soils globally are degraded, and most estimates suggest that if things keep going the way they are going, we have only 60 years of topsoil left.  Topsoil takes an extremely long time to recover naturally–about 2″ every 1000 years.  What is happening in the case of industrial farming, growing of lawns, and so on is that material that should be cycled back into the soil them now ends up blown away, in rivers or in landfills. Ninety percent of our food depends on soil (even animals we eat depend on soil, as they eat grains). Healthy ecosystems cannot thrive without soil.  And so, from my perspective, if we want to begin the work of regeneration, we begin that work with soil.

 

Soil....the beginning of life and abundance

Soil….the beginning of life and abundance

Even if you grow nothing in your soil, sinking carbon and nutrients into the soil is a practice worth engaging in. One soil building technique favored by permaculturists is sheet mulching.

 

Sheet mulching allows us to recycle otherwise “waste” products (cardboard, newspaper, yard waste, grass clippings, wood chippings from tree work in the neighborhood, etc). It allows us to quickly build soil fertility (speeding up that 1000 year process to maybe 5 or 10 years!). Sheet mulching mimics the natural process of continual layering of organic matter on the top of the soil, and not doing much to disturb the lower soil horizons. And of course, sheet mulching rebuilds our soil, adding vital nutrients and organic matter.

 

Therefore, sheet mulching has a few benefits over other kinds of garden bed prep:

  1. It allows you to mimic nature and use a variety of plant matter and other “waste” ingredients
  2. It allows you to suppress weedy material or grass to have relatively weed-free beds
  3. It allows you to quickly build soil mass
  4. It does not disrupt the existing soil web of life, but adds to it
  5. It allows us to quickly sequester carbon

 

Fall is the perfect time to begin planning your garden beds for next year and for doing any large-scale lawn conversions–and for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, fall is just about here.  Fall is the best time to work because  its much more enjoyable to work in the cool autumn air compared to the hot July air; for existing gardens, this is when things die off; and when the fall leaves drop, a lot of free and available nutrients for gardening activities!

 

When I was doing my PDC this summer, we visited Ryan Harb’s front-yard garden in Amherst, MA and did a permablitz including a sheet mulch (I will also do a post on Ryan’s front-yard garden sometime this winter after my “harvest” posts are concluded for the year!) I’m going to share his sheet mulching technique, which was a little different from the sheet mulching I used on my Michigan Homestead that I used this in conjunction with other composting techniques. The method I presented on this blog several years ago requires that you have a lot of weed free organic matter (like fall leaves) which may not always be the case.

 

Ryan’s sheet mulch technique presented in this post is really good when you have weedy/seedy material (like say, from weeds in a garden bed) and you want to use that plant material but not have weed seeds popping up.  This technique is also good if you have some woody material, like say some small vines or something.  When I began all of my garden beds in my Michigan homestead, I used a very as my primary technique which involved loosening the soil, adding a suppression layer of cardboard, then layering organic matter (mostly weed free) several feet high in the fall and planting in it in the spring.

 

Materials needed for this technique needed are:

 

  1. A huge pile of weedy or non-weedy material (woody material ok), so material you pulled from your existing garden; even things like manures often contain weedy material (I learned this hard way the year after my first sheet mulching); fall leaves (preferably shredded) or other organic matter. You’ll need a good deal of this to build soil.
  2. Access to a hose/water source
  3. A lot of cardboard or newspaper or both; enough to cover the pile fully with overlaps.
  4. Access to finished compost; enough to cover the pile to a depth of 3-4″.
  5. Some friends to help. Sheet mulching can be a lot of fun with a bunch of people, and not as much fun without them!

Sheet Mulching

There is nothing quite like the thrill of sheet mulching to cover up lawn–it feels very subversive (to the status quo) and empowering (hey, let’s get some veg in here!).  So let’s get started!

 

After a good 2 hour harvesting and weeding session, the PDC group had a large pile of weeds.

Some of the weedy material!

Some of the weedy material!

And so, to make use of this material, we converted another 4′ x 20′ part of Ryan’s lawn to a productive growing space. We began by laying down the layer of weedy material–the layer was probably about 1.5 feet thick when we started.

Laying down the material in a pile

Laying down the material in a pile

After each step you water the pile. The water helps the material break down faster. After reading the Liquid Gold book, I would probably, at this step, also encourage everyone to pee on the pile to add additional nitrogen or add some saved urine for the pile….but we unfortunately skipped that step during the permablitz :). After wetting the pile, we began adding compost. We added 3-4″ of compost the whole way over the pile.

Shoveling compost with friends (note shady location of compost pile - wise placement!)

Shoveling compost with friends (note shady location of compost pile – wise placement!)

Adding compost to the pile

Adding compost to the pile

As we added compost, we used the back of the rake to evenly distribute the compost.

Ryan smooths the pile

Ryan smooths the pile

After that, we worked to flatten the pile by dancing on it. The dancing is critical–I’m not sure this method will work without dancing at some point.  Get in there in your bare feet and go to it!

Dancing and stomping on the pile!

Dancing and stomping on the pile!

After this step, we add the cardboard and newspaper.  This functions as a weed suppression layer–we need to suppress any weeds that may want to poke up through that rich compost!  So while some of us prepped cardboard, others laid it down.

Preparing the cardboard by removing all plastic tape, labels, etc

Preparing the cardboard by removing all plastic tape, labels, etc

Larger pieces of cardboard were added first....

Larger pieces of cardboard were added first….

Smaller cardboard pieces and newspapers fill in the gaps.

Smaller cardboard pieces and newspapers fill in the gaps.

You can get cardboard and newspaper readily–most big stores will have so much cardboard every day that they are generating from materials coming in. Furniture stores or Appliance/TV stores have really large boxes that work well for this. Last week’s newspapers, also, can be readily available. Or if your neighborhood has paper recycling, just go pick boxes up on the curb.  Regardless of how you procure your newspaper and cardboard, lay down a good amount. We laid down a full layer of newspaper, paying close attention to the edges.

Newspaper on edges

Newspaper on edges

Then we watered the whole pile quite well, again.

Wetting down the pile

Wetting down the pile

The next step is to add the wood chips–this will provide the plants to be planted in this pile next year some mulch, which retains water.  Bare soil is not typically found in nature and so we want to mimic nature by using mulching materials.  The wood in the chips will eventually break down as well, further adding humus and nutrients to the soil.

Adding wood chips as mulch

Adding wood chips as mulch

Wetting down the pile – we’ve finished!

Completed sheet mulch!

Completed sheet mulch!

This sheet mulch area won’t be planted in right away–we made this pile in July, and Ryan planned on planting in it in the spring.  That’s usually how it works: prepare the piles prior to planting.  The reason for this is that the sheet mulch pile can get pretty hot as the green plant material is breaking down and that can be too hot for plant roots to survive.  By letting the pile sit, the pile will break down naturally and create an awesome growing medium.

 

In my own garden at my homestead, in early spring, some of the material from my fresh sheet mulch piles still hadn’t broken down when I went to plant the spring. I added additional compost for around the plant, and the plants did just fine.  By the end of that first summer, there was no more cardboard or material–all was beautiful, rich, black soil.  Nature does try to slowly reclaim your soil and piles–if you find yourself in a thicket of plants you no longer want, sometimes its easier just sheet mulch over them again. So you sheet mulch, grow a few years, get a bunch of creeping weeds, and then just sheet mulch over it again; this doesn’t harm the soil, and continues to add organic material.  Yay for soil regeneration!
PS: If any Druid Garden blog readers are planning on attending the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, PA this weekend, do comment and let me know so we can meet up! 🙂

 

A Guide to Composting with Tumblers, Sheet Mulching, Worms, Chickens, and Piles June 8, 2013

Composting is a very easy way to integrate natural processes and nutrients into your garden, flower beds, and life.  While various statistics exist, most commonly, I’ve seen statistics that suggest that up to 50% of what we throw away in the USA is food items or items that are biodegradable.  These are items, like vegetables or stems, that come out of the nutrients in the system.  Americans also like  to rake up/bag up and throw away their lawn clippings, “weeds”, etc.  By sending them into a landfill, we lock those nutrients away and don’t allow them to cycle through the system again.  So composting is an important part of shifting to a more sustainable practice and allows us to build great soils in the process.  By composting, I was able to reduce what I threw away/put on the curb by almost 50%–and now I know how much I was wasting.

Over the last three years, I’ve been experimenting with a number of composting methods.  I currently am the composting site for three families (including my own).  As such, I’ve worked to develop a number of different composting strategies.  All of the strategies that I’ll present here work in combination with each other for different kinds of composting at different speeds.

The final product!

The final product!

Sheet Mulching – Direct Composting in Garden Beds

Materials you can compost: Fall leaves, yard waste, leftovers from last year’s garden (corn stalks, tomato plants, etc.).  Grass clippings, provided they come from a pesticide-free yard (get them from the one that still has dandelions)!

How to do it: In a previous post, I detailed how sheet mulching (preparing new garden beds or adding nutrients to existing garden beds).  Sheet mulching is a great approach because it really only requites you to move the material once–you just lay it in place and the beds make themselves over time.  I really like this approach and use it throughout my homestead.

Finished sheet mulched beds--planted with potatoes, kale, and garlic!

Finished sheet mulched beds–planted with potatoes, kale, and garlic!

Compost Tumbling- Keeping the Critters Out and the Nutrients In!

Materials you can compost:  Any food waste (except meats and cheeses), yard waste, garden leftovers.

How to do it:  For compost tumbling, you’ll want to get a compost tumbler.  You can make one relatively cheaply from an old barrel (fill it up and roll it around the yard) or you can purchase a nice one.  I bought one that is insulated, which theoretically allows one to compost in the winter…..or not.  In hindsight, I would have just made one myself out of recycled materials, such as an old 50 gallon pickle barrel.  I find that my compost tumbler takes about 2-3 months to produce a nice compost (and mine has two sides, so you let one compost down while filling the other one).

Leaf pile and compost tumbler!

Leaf pile and compost tumbler!

The Traditional Open Compost Pile

Materials you can compost:  Any food waste (except meats and cheeses), yard waste, garden leftovers.

How to do it: A compost pile is the simplest form of compost.  You just pile stuff up, wait, and if you are feeling really ambitious, turn it over every once in a while.  I started with a compost pile, but my neighbors dog started coming over, eating out of my pile, and then pooping all through my yard.  So I bought a compost tumbler.  You can prevent your neighbor’s dog from engaging in his nefarious behavior by using palates or scrap wood to create a bin that isn’t accessible from the outside.

Traditional open compost pile (about 50% of previous size, composting for 8 months, no turning)

Traditional open compost pile (about 50% of previous size, composting for 8 months, no turning)

Improved "open pile" with wire cage to keep out neighbor's dog.

Improved “open pile” with wire cage to keep out neighbor’s dog.

Worm Composting (Vermicomposting)

Materials you can compost: Food scraps, mainly.

How to do it:  In February, our permaculture group had a skill share on vermicomposting (and this is the link to a video). Since I provided the materials for the worm composter, I was able to get it at the end of the skill share.  I placed it in kitchen and  its been working really well.  The best thing about it was that I was able to find all of the materials in my garage, and the worms were donated to me by my friend, so it literally had no upfront cost.  You *can* go out and buy expensive worm bins, or you can just use the methods that are in the video (which consist of two opaque tubs, drilling some holes, adding some wet shredded newspaper, adding some worms, and adding food scraps).  The best thing about it is that you can compost this way year round, and you get AWESOME worm castings.

Vermicompost bin - yes, you can also add cardboard!

Vermicompost bin – yes, you can also add cardboard!

The Chicken Method: Let the Birds Do the Work!

Materials: Food scraps, old moldy bread, yard scraps, pretty much anything. We’ve given ours moldy cheese, old sauerkraut, leftovers from going out to eat, even the carcasses and bones of chicken, pork, etc.  They eat it all.

How to do it.  This last method is now my preferred method of composting! For this, you need Chickens in an enclosed coop.  I had my chickens free ranging, which means they help keep the bug populations down.  However, they were destroying the mulching around my perennial beds and I also lost the two bantams (smaller breed chickens) to hawks.  So I built them a larger coop, and with the advice of a friend, started “chicken composting.”  Basically the way it works  is this–you put whatever you want the chickens to compost in the coop.  Most of this they eat, and in a matter of hours, produce a nitrogen-rich dung (which needs to sit about 6 months or it will burn plants, its so high in nitrogen!)  What they don’t eat attracts flies and worms, which they do eat.  I also throw a ton of unshredded fall leaves in there, especially ones like oaks that are harder to compost down.  What you end up with is a wonderful tilled up hummus, straight from the chickens, with minimal work.

Chickens in their enclosure (note the enclosure was built with 90% repurposed materials!)

Chickens in their enclosure (note the enclosure was built with 90% repurposed materials!)

Chickens working the compost!

Chickens working the compost!

 

Gardening into December: Hoop House Updates, Chickens, Composting, and More! November 17, 2012

I wanted to post another update about the progress of the hoop houses and other gardening activities in mid-November in my Zone 6 climate in South East Michigan.  As I wrote about in earlier blog posts, I have been experimenting with hoop houses for season extension.  I posted a picture of my mid-April harvest in my earlier post; now I’m going to show you what is going on in the hoop houses in late November.  Most of these crops would have gotten zapped by a 20 degree evening about two weeks ago, but they are going strong in the hoop houses!  So here are some photos from today (its a bit warm today, so I lifted up the hoop houses to see what is growing inside).

Cabbage, kale, and spinach...oh my!

Cabbage, kale, and spinach…oh my!

Most of the veggies in these photos were planted in late August (except the Kale and Leeks, which have been going since spring).  Next year, I think I’m going to start them even sooner, as once the weather gets cold they don’t really grow.  Hoop house gardening extends the harvest season moreso than the growing season.  Here are a few more photos.

Arugula, Minzua, and more spinach!

Spinach is amazing this time of year!

These are a little small...I planted them too late, I think!

These cabbages are still a little small…I planted them too late, I think!

So yes, there will be fresh greens through December. I will be serving a salad at our Thanksgiving meal next week, and even with me picking some greens every few days for a meal, I should have enough greens to last till Yule!  The hoop houses last year made it till New Years (when I stupidly forgot to close them and the arugula and spinach I was growing got zapped).  We had such a mild winter that I wonder if they could have lasted longer.  This year I will do more experimenting and find out!

A family that I am friends with asked for some garden space, so we also got their garden established this fall.  They’ve planted winter wheat in part of it as well as some garlic. We are also in the process of laying down some newspaper and cardboard as weed suppression for the rows.

Winter wheat!

I also have some winter rye growing as a cover crop in part of the garden (one one of my newer beds to help establish the soil).  I’m going to get my chickens to till it under in the spring for me :).  The chickens enjoy nibbling on it this time of year.

Winter Rye - chickens love it!

Winter Rye – chickens love it!

A lot of what I’ve been doing in the last two months, especially now that the leaves have dropped, is composting and preparing my beds for next season.  I drive around the neighborhood and pick up as many bags of leaves as I can.  Most of these go directly into the garden, but I also save some for projects I know I have planned for next year (since fall leaves happen but once a year).  Fall is an excellent time to collect yard “waste” (and its anything but waste to a gardener).  My neighbors are always so kind to bag it up for me, stick it on the curb for me to pick up, and sometimes, even mulch it.  This year I collected about 40 bags of leaves as well as raked up a massive pile of my own.  These will all be used before next fall–for mulch, for sheet mulched beds, etc.

Garden beds with layers of compost and shredded leaves--ready for next season!

Garden beds with layers of compost and shredded leaves–ready for next season!

Lots of composting happening!

Lots of composting happening!  The pile to the right is my main pile for next year; it has coffee grounds, leaves, yard waste, food waste, etc.  Its about 5′ high now.

I’m also just about finished establishing a few new beds and tree planting.  Fall, again, is a great time for this because of all of the copious amounts of material for your new beds.  Trees that are planted in fall can have time to establish their root systems over winter before the hot, dry days of summer come back.  I’m also doing some experiments with other kinds of garden beds, such as the hugelkultur bed.

Hugelkulture bed in progress

Hugelkulture bed in progress, complete with chicken inspection.

New trees planted, protected, and mulched (mulch will be planted with beneficial plants like comfrey, mints, in the spring)

New trees planted, protected, and mulched (mulch will be planted with beneficial plants to help the tree, like comfrey, mints, false indigo, in the spring)

I also do a bit of indoor gardening, mainly for plants that can’t handle being outside in Michigan winters.  Here are my three citrus trees (one has oranges, very tart!) and a lemon-scented geranium.  The geranium I found at the bottom of a big bag of leaves, along with some other plants on the curb.  Fall is also a great time for what I call compost diving.  In addition to neighbors putting out leaves,  I find all sorts of stuff, and surprisingly, a lot of live plants :).

Citrus in south-facing window

Citrus in south-facing window

Lemon-scented geranium

Lemon-scented geranium

The chickens enjoy free-ranging every chance they get (which is anytime that either I or my husband are at home).  They are now all grown up (hatched mid-July).  We also took in a stray rooster who was kicked out of a neighbor’s flock.  I’ve had hens before, but never a roster.  But for free ranging chickens, the rooster is a great protector of the flock, not to mention being beautiful to look at, and I’m happy to have him with the girls!

Lentil and Pinto pecking and scratching

Lentil and Pinto pecking and scratching

Chickens near their chicken tractor/coop

Chickens near their chicken tractor/coop

Anasazi, our stray rooster that is now part of the flock

Anasazi, our stray rooster that is now part of the flock

 

Sheet Mulching / Lasagnia Gardening – Instructions and Experiences October 12, 2011

Last year, I reported that I started my garden beds using a Sheet Mulching (aka Lasagnia Gardening) approach that I found in Gaia’s Garden and select places online, such as here, here and here.  A year later, and I’d like to add to the Sheet Mulching discussion with some necessary tips and feedback from the garden.

Why sheet mulch?

Sheet mulching allows you to create wonderful garden beds while using natural processes–no chemicals, no sprays, and no tilling.  Basically, with a sheet mulch method, you are replicating the process that you find on any forest floor where new material is continually added to the old, and a rich bed of black soil is formed.  This process is a wonderful way of adding garden beds and enriching a poor soil.

Traditional Sheet Mulching for Garden Beds

Traditional sheet mulching, permaculture style, has the following steps, also outlined in the links above:

1.  Mow down or flatten the grass in the area that you want to mulch.

2.  Lay down a weed suppression layer (cardboard or newspaper, no colored dyes, as these dyes can contain heavy metals).  Wet this stuff down.  Some instructions call for a layer of compost or manure placed under the weed suppression layer (but I didn’t do this).

3.  Next, layer different materials in thin layers on top of the cardboard.  These materials might include: manure, compost, grass clippings, yard waste, wood chips, fall leaves, etc.  Wet down each layer good as you are layering.

4.  Pile these up a good 2′ – 3′ or so, and then cover with straw and allow the sheet mulch to sit over winter.

5.  In the spring, plant in your beds and enjoy your garden!

If you might recall, this is exactly what I did last year.  I used about 10% compost that we had generated throughout the summer (pictured) and then 45% fall leaves (mulched up with the mower a bit) and 45% composed horse manure from a local farm.  And overall, it was fairly successful, but I think I have some revisions to this process and additional suggestions which can make a good process even better.  The photo to the right shows my sheet mulch in its early stages, after laying down my compost and newspaper in Fall 2010.

Successes and Limitations to the Traditional Model

Since my sheet mulching to establish my first three garden beds (4′ x 20′ each) last year, I’ve had a year to work with these beds, grow veggies, and get a sense of their limitations.  Here are the four successes of this approach:

  • Success: A rich luxurious soil.  When I planted my veggies in the spring, the mulch was still breaking down.  I had to add some pockets with finished soil to compensate.  But as the summer progressed, the soil that had been leaves and manure became a wonderful, spongy, soil.  So I’d say the soil sheet mulches produce, given time, is wonderful.
  • Success: Weed suppression.  If you are looking for weed suppression, the cardboard and newspapers certainly did the trick!  I also tried sheet mulching another area with a thick layer of wet leaves–this worked less well, but I also didn’t add as many mulch layers on top.
  • Success: Sourcing Local Ingredients: Sheet mulching allows you to recycle ingredients such as cardboard and newspapers and use locally produced materials rather than purchasing expensive soils that have been shipped from who knows where using fossil fuels.  I used four main sources for my sheet mulches: 1) my own organic compost; 2) horse manure from 1.5 miles down the road; 3) fall leaves that fell on our property and some of the neighbors properties; and 4) other “yard waste” from the neighbors that I would drive around and pick up.  (Note on this last issue–you have to be very careful about what you pick up–lots of neighbors like to use nasty chemicals, so I only picked up tree clippings and fall leaves, which I knew were less likely to contain chemicals).
  • Success: Fantastic Veggies (for the most part!)  The veggies, tomatoes, lettuce, and kale, especially, really seemed to enjoy the soil that was created as part of this process.
  • Challenge: Inadequate Soil Composting in one winter: I established most of my beds in the fall – late October and early November (this was based on when I could get my hands on that great horse manure!)  I started planting veggies in mid to late April.  We had a fairly typical winter for Zone 5 in South East Michigan in the 2010-2011 year. So in about six months, I had hoped for some really great soil.  I didn’t quite get that. When I started planting, much of the leaves, manure, and grass clippings weren’t composed down quite enough.  To compensate, I added potting soil (also locally sourced) into the beds in an area around the plants.  This seemed to work well.  If you want really great soil, you’ll need to establish the beds and wait a longer time (or do what I did).
  • Failure: Soil depth.  Now I understand the point of a raised bed is to have your bed raised out of the soil.  But after 3′ of mulch (which composts itself down to about a foot or less), I was really surprised by how little soil I really had.  This caused issues with my garden, especially in plants that needed root depth.  Specifically,
    • I found that the cardboard, and resulting hard-packed dirt underneath, caused the roots to spread wide rather than deep.  When we had 2 weeks with no rain, my plants in the sheet mulch areas dried up.  My plants (same varieties) in the non-sheet mulched areas that I dug up later fared much better.
    • Veggies that need thick soil also had difficulty. My carrots, when they hit the bottom of the mulch, went off in odd directions.  My corn, after getting about 4′ tall, all fell over.  Both of these issues could have been avoided with a modification to the basic sheet much instructions(and I’ll describe how below). I didn’t even attempt potatoes in this bed–I dug out a separate potato bed by hand the old fashioned way, lol.
    • Because of the problems with the soil depth, I ended up removing all the rich sheet mulch soil, removing the remaining cardboard/weed suppression layer, and digging out all those beds this October.  More on that below.

The Revised / Improved Model of Sheet Mulching!

I am proposing that you make two changes to the traditional sheet mulch method if you are using this for a vegetable garden.

1.  I know it is much more work, but I strongly suggest digging out or turning over your soil before you start your mulch.  Those veggies that you have that need deep root depth will sincerely thank you for it, especially down the line.  I found that the hard packed dirt, combined with the weed suppression layer, pretty much made an impenetrable barrier, even to things like carrots, which have strong roots.

2.  This may not work in heavy weed areas, but in part of my garden, rather than use cardboard or newspaper, I used a very thick, wet down, mat of leaves.  The leaves worked great–and these are easier for veggie roots and worms to penetrate through.  I had a few pesky pieces of grass and dandilons growing up through that one section, but it was quite minor and nothing a 5 minute weeding job couldn’t take care of.

So enjoy your fall garden time, and remember that sheet mulching is a fantastic way to use up those fall leaves! 🙂