Posts Tagged ‘Cubic Foot Gardening’

Mad Scientist Gardening Results

Well, it’s the end of the Summer and early Fall growing seasons as we move ever closer to our usual first frost date of October 10. I’m procrastinating the removal of an enormously prolific cherry tomato plant that has now invaded my asparagus and two other garden beds. These sweet little tomatoes delighted a lot of people this Summer, and I suspect they have at least one more round of salsa canning in them. Nonetheless, it’s time to clean up the inaccessible beds, as the plant has blight, and I now have dozens of calendula plants sprouting up through the wood mulch. Time to neaten things up before it gets too cold to work outside! As I finish a raw cacao-maca-ho shou woo smoothie, what better way to procrastinate ripping out a renegade tomato plant than sharing the results of this year’s Mad Scientist Gardening?

I’m just going to list each experiment with a few comments and observations for anyone interested in trying this at home. If you’ve experimented, too, please feel free to share your results in the comments below.

Wood Mulch in Culinary Herb Beds

A+: Awesome for water retention! I only watered my front herb bed twice all summer, and those herbs thrived. Well, all except the chamomile, which eventually died back. I think that was more due to other herbs encroaching on it than dehydration, though. We had a rich period of rain in early July, but otherwise, it was a fairly dry season. The wood mulch kept my herbs carefree.

herbs and asters

B+ for weed control. I didn’t really know what to expect in terms of weeds, since our landlord had mulched the front bed for four evergreens he planted before we arrived. We knew he left some “weeds,” because he didn’t know if they were edible and thus of interest to us. They turned out to be some kind of vinca and a rather aggressive mint-like plant. In addition, some other vining blue flowered plant took over any shady spots along the house and is currently attempting to take over our yard. The weed control might actually be an A for how aggressive this plant it, but I did spend one morning per week yanking dandelion flowers and pulling back various vines. For the most part, the front herb bed was trouble free. I intend to use the wood mulch on my medicinal herb bed when I plant it next Spring.

Squash in Crates

F for fail! They looked gorgeous for the first few weeks of their lives, and then the squash in all four crates died a quick and wilted death. Squash bugs and wilting virus played a role, but I suspect the crates lined with landscape cloth and filled with a mixture of potting soil and topsoil did not drain properly. Signs of powdery mildew and root rot weakened the plants and likely made them more susceptible to whatever insects wanted to attack. Not recommended at all. If you must use this method, then I would suggest using Mel’s Mix from Square Foot Gardening — equal parts peat moss, compost (five different kinds) and vermiculite, mixed thoroughly. Whenever I added compost, my crates retained too much water, and my plants looked extremely unhappy. The vermiculite may help with drainage, and make sure to poke holes in the bottom of the landscape cloth.

Melons in Crates

C: this was a mixed bag. We got about 1-2 cucumbers per week, and they tasted great! The plants themselves embarrassed me. The leaves kept getting brown spots, and I could never find the right balance between too wet or too dry. That said, these produced until last week when the weather turned colder at night. I did need to fertilize (organic material) several times throughout the season.

UPDATE: As I was pulling out the cucumber vines today, I found that we had another two cucumbers growing — one ready for harvest. Those guys are soooo sneaky! And they continue to grow despite my utter neglect. πŸ™‚

The Pride of Wisconsin Cantaloupe in crates fared almost as well as the cucumbers. We got four unbelievably delicious cantaloupe from two plants, which I tried to trellis up the combo hog/cattle wire fencing we installed. Lots of powdery mildew issues, likely from the drainage problems, as well as the rainy spell in early July. They never quite recovered from that. Still, from what I understand, cantaloupe can be a bit tricky to grow, and, while certainly not prolific, we did get fruit.

Watermelon in crates was a bust. We got four very small fruits on the Jubilee, and one small fruit on the Moon & Stars. Squirrels or rabbits fanged and drained each of our Jubilee’s right as they ripened. Unfortunately, the thieves recognized the ripeness before I did, because the fruits were so small that I didn’t think they could possibly be done. The Moon & Stars just plateau’d and hasn’t grown for about 5 weeks. It’s still alive, but it’s not going anywhere. I suspect the crates just don’t provide enough soil to feed typically massive and thirsty watermelon plants. Ours remained petite all season compared to my friend, Kimber’s, in the ground. She actually got delicious watermelon, which she kindly shared, so our watermelon season did have one bright spot. πŸ™‚ Next year, I will plant in the ground, use a very short season (Russian) variety, and attempt to trellis these smaller fruits to keep slugs and bunnies away from them. I’m not sure what to do about the squirrels, who also just dug up all my carefully planted garlic. Grrrrrrr!

Leaf Mulch for Vegetables

A: This worked well for the second year in a row, especially in the raised beds. Even though raised beds dry out faster than soil on the ground, I needed to water the raised beds less than the unmulched sunflower and bee-friendly patch up front, which turned out to be the highest maintenance of any garden spot this year. I definitely prefer leaf mulch to straw, since the straw I got for our fourth raised bed has required me weeding out grass pretty much every day. It wasn’t weed free straw as implied when we bought the straw bale. Oh, well, live and learn. The leaf mulch lasted most of the season and kept things moist. We did get some of that gross looking (but harmless) “dog vomit fungus” earlier in the season, since decaying, wet matter and rain can produce some rather funky colors! Dog vomit fungus also loves wood mulch, but I still think the leaf mulch is better for veggies in a raised bed. I might experiment next year with wood mulch around plants in the ground, a la Back to Eden.

Tomatoes in Raised Beds

B+ The tomatoes tasted great, and we got a lot of tomatoes, so in that sense, this experiment was a success. On the other hand, our raised bed setup with landscape cloth underneath prevented strong and deep enough anchors for trellis attempts. I spent most of my garden maintenance trying to deal with overgrown, toppling or otherwise unruly tomato plants. We lost a lot of our crop to slugs and squirrels when I finally gave up and let the plants block my access to the back of the beds. When I finally removed four of the plants, I couldn’t believe how many tomatoes I had let rot on the ground. Can you say “volunteer tomatoes” next year?! Ohhhhh, dear. Anyway, I can’t complain about the harvest, as we had way more tomatoes than I could keep up with, but they required a lot of water, which they otherwise drained away from my less greedy plants. They also took a lot of annoying time to fiddle with. Deadheading flowers is kind of enjoyable; constantly cutting tomato branches or jerry-rigging yet another trellis? Less so.

Next year, they’re going in the ground, because my ground planted tomatoes — even neglected ones in poor soil — have been largely carefree. The main advantage of the raised beds is that mine are black, so the soil warmed up much faster. I had tomatoes weeks before other people in town, even people growing Early Girl, Early Boy or Early Chalk varieties. Speaking of which — I do prefer Early Chalk to Early Girl. Again, live and learn. Our beefsteaks were tender and flavorful, and as I’ve already said, the cherry tomatoes were amazingly productive and tasty. Our Amish paste and Yellow Germans in the ground are just ripening now, but I planted those about 5 weeks after the others when we got a bunch of plant rejects from David’s (then) job at Whole Foods.

[UPDATE: a note on the photos of various raised beds … I used photos that actually show the beds, rather than more recent ones in which you can barely see the beds. The 18″ chard and kale are not pictured, since at this time, zinnias, overgrown tomatoes and other plants completely obscure the frames.]

Insta-Bed’s (Cubic Foot Gardening Beds)

Our black cherry tomato plant has taken up residence  away from the rest of the InstaBed, kindly giving sunshine to the calendula and marigolds it was formerly shading. I love when plants play nice!

Our black cherry tomato plant has taken up residence away from the rest of the InstaBed, kindly giving sunshine to the calendula and marigolds it was formerly shading. I love when plants play nice!

I was beta testing these this year, although the feedback mechanism and community sharing feature on the website disappeared mid-Summer. I would give these an A for productivity and I’m not sure how to rate them for aesthetics and holding form. I messed up, because I misunderstood the assembly instructions and failed to realized that backfilling them with organic material would result in significant sinking.

Pro’s: cheap, recycled, highly productive due to the round design and triple tiers. The black color warms the soil and extends gardening season by perhaps a month on either side of the season.

Con’s: kind of ugly until you have larger plants growing, at which time, the black plastic fades into the background. If I assembled them again, or if I can figure out how to reassemble them without making an enormous mess, I would definitely do so in concentric circles instead of the cascade. The back side of my beds is about four inches lower than the front, despite numerous attempts to refill the sinking soil. This is partly my fault for adding so much compost back there, but partly a possible design issue, in that the tiers with very thin supports may just sink. I’m not sure if several years from now, even the concentric circles will have sunk into just one larger circle. Time will tell.

In the meantime, the triple tier has saved my back a lot of grief, and I have the most productive small space veggie garden of any I’ve seen on my walks around town — walks that typically involve alley walking to avoid traffic, but mostly to peak at others’ backyard gardens. Hey, I like plants! πŸ˜‰

Reclaimed Sleep Number Bed Frame

A- Although this is my favorite of the beds in that I finally feel like I got something useful out of that disappointing and expensive gimmick known as the Sleep Number Bed, our “Bed Bed” did require more frequent watering than the InstaBeds, mostly because it had significantly less soil. Six inches quickly sank down to about four inches, and I needed to refill this bed with compost at least as often as trying to backfill the InstaBeds. In the early part of the season, the water starved plants at lower level also suffered significantly more insect damage than the happier ones on the InstaBeds. Adding compost and the favorite fertilizer of my plants (a diluted mix of water and, yes, my own pee), those babies recovered and then some. I now have 18″ chard leaves, giant zinnias, gorgeous nasturtiums, marigolds, prolific sea kale, “dwarf” Siberian kale (haha — it’s almost two feet tall!), lavender and other plants. The parsley is insane!

Other side of the "Bed Bed" with another lush InstaBed

Other side of the “Bed Bed” with another lush InstaBed

IMHO, this is the best use for a Sleep Number Bed. It just took awhile to get the right mix of predator insect attracting flowers, extra compost, and water, water, water.

The Guarden

A (I think!) It may be too soon to tell on this one, since I only installed the Guarden in late July/early August. We have also yet to assemble the cold frame that comes with it.


Pro’s: Easy assembly, although I still managed to mess it up! David managed to salvage my goof. Hint: do read the instructions. “Easy to assemble” does not necessarily mean “so obvious that you can just toss aside the directions without even glancing at them.” Made from recycled milk containers: I like this because I always enjoy repurposing discarded materials. This also means it’s food grade plastic.

Con’s: It’s white instead of black, so it doesn’t go with my other raised beds or rain barrels, and it won’t trap heat in the soil like the others. That said, the frame is way thicker than any of my other raised beds, so it may insulate just as well or even better. Again, time will tell. For some reason, the animals seem bolder with this bed than the others, even the lower “BedBed.” You can see in the photo above where squirrels have left holes from digging up my garlic, planted among the very small sprouting carrots and parsnips. It may be the season, too, but earlier, the chipmunks were quite bold with my cilantro, as well! No one messed with my cilantro in the InstaBeds. Fortunately, I can put the cold frame on and try replanting if it stays warm for just a little while longer.

All in all, I’m excited about this raised bed. The greens and radishes are already growing well now that I realized this bed holds a lot of soil — 600 pounds! — that takes awhile to wet thoroughly. Once it rained, things took off.

Fertilizers and Compost

As mentioned above, (my) plants prefer (my) pee. I use mushroom compost, composted cow manure, rotting leaf mulch, “Chickety Doo Doo” (pee-ew!), have our own compost pile rotting away, and used some leftover worm castings from our garden in Madison. I saw the greatest results from a) introducing worms into the soil to make their own worm castings underneath and around my plants and b) diluting my own urine anywhere between 5:1 and 20:1 with water as the higher number. We tried this with David’s pee, and the plants didn’t like it as much.

It sounds gross, but various gardeners have told me about this for years, and I read an article last year in Mother Earth News, comparing different organic fertilizers. Diluted urine came out on top as the best overall tonic for plants. I also find my plants like the idea of me giving back to them. Because of the gross factor, I tend to resist doing this, trying any and all other compost or organic fertilizer options I can imagine. Time and again, my pee makes the difference even if nothing else will. I saved my dwarf Siberian kale that way — it shot up six inches in two days both times after nearly dying twice, once from insect damage and once from a toppled tomato plant.

Other useful things: coffee grounds provide nitrogen and a slightly acidic mulch. Supposedly, they deter slugs, too, although my slugs are the hard working, hard playing kind. They enjoy coffee, and they drink beer without drowning in it. Party hardy! Next year, I’m getting some toad houses. I even saw one yesterday at Ten Thousand Villages. Toads eat slugs and all the right kinds of bugs, but I digress …

Breaking down leaf mulch is slightly acidic, but does feed the soil. Unfinished compost forms a layer in my front yard lasagna gardening efforts, and I used it to back fill the InstaBeds; therefore, I know it breaks down! LOL, but seriously … unfinished compost is free and easy to acquire.

Milk for tomatoes. I had a blossom end rot problem the first year I grew tomatoes. It was so frustrating that I vowed never to have such a thing again. Blossom end rot happens in calcium deficient soil, which you can remedy with crushed egg shells and milk. I’ve never heard of anyone else who does this, but when we lived in Madison, I got a couple batches of nasty smelling raw milk that I just couldn’t stomach. It was fine stuff; the farmer had just changed the feed and it smelled like cheese to me. Blech. I was a very happy vegan, except for my teeth, and the raw dairy helped a lot. I didn’t want to waste it, so I added it to my soil. No blossom end rot issues! When I saw signs of blossom end rot on the first couple tomatoes this year, I bought a half gallon of organic milk and watered the tomato plants with a half and half water and milk mixture. No issues for the rest of the season, and I had the sweetest tomatoes anyone had ever tasted! Calcium in soil makes things sweet. Now I know to add lime at soil prep time, but the milk did the trick last year and this year.

Companion Planting

A+ Yes! Not only will those flowers make your garden gorgeous, attracting faeries, bees and butterflies, but they will also bring in predator insects who eat these things that eat your plants. Highly, highly recommended. Herbs work well in a garden bed, too.

Pest Repellants

Clover for rabbits: the garden guy at Lowe’s told me about this, and it worked! Let clover grow (or plant some) near your garden. The bunnies will go for that instead of your greens. Plus, clover fixes nitrogen in your soil. Win, win!

Companion planting to attract good bugs: lots and lots of flowers! Fragrant ones, stinky ones like marigolds, different colored ones … the more variety, the stronger and more balanced your ecosystem.

Moringa sprayed on leaves: not the best. 😦 I ordered moringa as a vegan calcium source for my teeth, and every time I drink even a tiny amount, I get major stomach cramps for 48 hours. Not the best. Soooo, I thought maybe this super nutrient rich plant would be a good foliar spray. I looked it up online, and sure enough, people have had good results. I did not. All I have now are a bunch of ants on my chard, as well as ants in the garden bed. I hear ants eat — and farm — aphids, so I’m not sure how this will work out. Will they increase or decrease my aphid issue? Will their marching aerate my soil? Do I need to research good ant predators for next year and plant attractive plants for them? Probably. In the meantime, I won’t be using that moringa in the garden.

Diatomaceous earth: this is a mixed bag. It works on soft bodied insects and is non-toxic to humans. Unfortunately, it can also kill your predator bugs and paralyze your bees. A little drifted from a kale plant onto some oregano flowers and I cannot tell you how horrible I felt when I saw a bee moving in very slow motion on that oregano. I sent him Reiki and apologized, but I’ve not used diatomaceous earth anywhere near flowers since. I also found that it kept away predator bugs from the Guarden bed, so I pulled some extra marigolds and geraniums from the other beds and interplanted them for a short season in the new bed. Things have balanced out much better since then. I prefer companion planting to sprays.

Row covers: I just purchased these to insulate crops in the winter when it gets really, really cold even under the cold frame. They let in water and light, but keep out bugs and frost. I will likely employ these during leaf hopper season next year, although I’m hoping a special, secret organic farm treatment I’ve manifested this Fall helps to balance the soil and ecosystem here next Spring. Maybe we won’t have such a leafhopper mania next year.

Beer or coffee for slugs: again, I’ve heard this works, but not for mine. An occasional “underage” slug will drown, but all the big, burly guys just drink up and party on, then enjoy their coffee before morning light. Grrrrrr …. toads! I’m telling you. Next year this garden will have toads. πŸ™‚

Alright I’ve been typing for over an hour. The smoothie is long finished, and those tomatoes want harvesting before lunchtime. I hope my experiments encourage and/or save people some time, money and effort. Got to get myself back to the garden on my day off from sessions …

Mad Scientist Gardening

So many people have privately asked me for photos of our very much a work in progress garden and yard that I have decided just to post the photos all in one place.

Last week, I planted Moon & Stars watermelon seeds. Here’s trusting they will take, even with the recent near-freezing temperatures at night. They’re so very pretty, but we never had a long enough season in Madison, Wisconsin, nor did we have enough space. We’ve got plenty of space in Goshen, Indiana! Not to be outdone, Wisconsin is well represented, too, by Pride of Wisconsin cantaloupe for David’s mom.

Heirloom Melons. Sorry, the photo absolutely will not turn right side up!

Heirloom Melons. Sorry, the photo absolutely will not turn right side up!

I’ve also started some cucumber seeds from a delicious variety I grew in 2011, and then some Boston Marrow squash. Apparently, Boston Marrow used to be the winter squash of early America, with exceptionally tender flesh and no fibrous strings. I’ll be using some of the melon and squash plants as weed deterrents, while trellising others into a vertical garden. I planted them all in lime green milk crates lined with landscaping cloth and will eventually trellis some and leave others to spread across the yard.

I’m excited about the milk crates. We got 10 of them for only $3.57 each. Quite the bargain, and they look so cute with their brown landscape cloth inserts! I filled them with a half and half mixture of top soil and an organic compost and marine blend. Below you can see six of the crates huddled together, including some Acorn Squash starts I purchased from the new Whole Foods Market in Mishawaka.

Melons in Crates

Our yard has turned into a gardening laboratory. I’m testing so many different soil types, alternate in-ground and raised bed arrangements, and leaving my huge crop of dandelions largely untouched in the backyard. It’s too funny that I’ve turned into the mad gardening scientist.

Cubic Foot Gardening with the InstaBed ... and protective gnomes

Cubic Foot Gardening with the InstaBed … and protective gnomes

The above photo shows two of our three InstaBeds, which I am BetaTesting this year. I’ve already learned one important fact, which is that my “brilliant” idea of a modified hugelkultur (wood chips and compost instead of logs) in the unusable grow space under each successive tier was not the best forethought. The surrounding soil is definitely warm and rich; however, the under-tiers have begun to sink at a rate of approximately 2 inches per week. I’ve managed to add some additional soil to the top two tiers, but I have yet to figure out how to add more to the bottom layer, underneath the other two tiers. As a result, our backyard garden looks even more chaotic and hodgepodge than anticipated. In the future, I would recommend keeping a balanced ratio of soil under the tiers or else using actual logs for hugelkultur, since they will break down much more slowly.

I will say that I’m happy with the beds so far, though. The soil is dramatically warmer than that of the milk crates, and I barely need to water the InstaBeds, because the wood mulch inside has retained so much of the rain water. In that regard, they are a definite success. I do have them heavily leaf and wood mulched, because any uncovered soil in the garden would invite yet another dandelion takeover. I also have enjoyed the microclimates afforded by the round beds.

If I did it over again, I would have assembled them as concentric circles rather than a cascade. I think that might have helped with the sagging, uneven appearance, and I have found that this part of our yard gets so much sun that I really could have planted some happy plants on the dreaded North side. Watercress, for example, would have enjoyed the partial shade, and sometimes requires me placing a gnome on the tier at the sunniest point of a hot day. For colder weather crops, the black, foot deep, tiered InstaBeds will likely live up to their promise of extended growing seasons by warming the soil. I also like the Cubic Foot Gardening potential of staggering the plants so that the beds allow for more intensive growth. Larger plants can branch out in the different layers but still allow for a lot of expansion without as much overlap.

More Raised Beds and the Compost Bin

More Raised Beds and the Compost Bin

The above photo shows the other InstaBed, plus what I refer to as the “bed bed,” the repurposed frame of a retired (and very disappointing!) Sleep Number Bed. That bed only offers about 5-6 inches of soil, but we filled it with “Mel’s Mix” from Square Foot Gardening — a combination of 1) peat moss, 2) vermiculite and 3) five types of compost, all mixed together in equal amounts. That was quite the task! Thanks to David and my friend Susannah for their help on that project:

Mel's Mix on a tarp

Mel’s Mix on a tarp

Everything else is in partial or total disarray right now. Take a look at our driveway:

Our third batch of free mulch

Our third batch of free mulch

I spent yesterday mulching the side and front beds, including the front bed that will eventually be our herb garden:

Partially Mulched Front Herb Garden with echinacea, lavender, yarrow, creeping thyme, Fall asters, feverfew, chamomile, some kind of groundcover, forsythia and some evergreens planted by our landlord last Fall

Partially Mulched Front Herb Garden with echinacea, lavender, yarrow, creeping thyme, Fall asters, feverfew, chamomile, some kind of groundcover, forsythia and some evergreens planted by our landlord last Fall

On the other side of the front yard, I’ve got this partially completed adventure:

Front soon-to-be birds and bee friendly flower garden, partially mulched over landscape cloth

Front soon-to-be birds and bee friendly flower garden, partially mulched over landscape cloth

I planted a Bee-Friendly Blend and Lemon Queen Sunflowers in the front flower bed.

I planted a Bee-Friendly Blend and Lemon Queen Sunflowers in the front flower bed.

I’m pleased to say that the yard shows evidence of some kind of progress, despite the massive mess right now. The InstaBeds already have various types of kale (dwarf, winter, and lacinato) growing; plus ruby red chard; zinnia, marigold and calendula sprouts; several types of tomato plants jalepeno and red pepper plants; a perennial called Turkish rocket; a perennial known as Egyptian Walking Onions, “regular” arugula; watercress; a collard tree (also perennial); several types of basil, oregano; parsley; cilantro; chocolate mint and peppermint; dill; green onions; chives; as well as dwarf jewel nasturtiums, New Zealand spinach (heat hardy), and Swiss chard, which have yet to sprout.

For in-ground, perennial planting, I’ve got Russian comfrey (which doesn’t spread as much as traditional comfrey) for soil/compost enrichment, lovage (think of a 6-foot tall, intense celery), and purple asparagus. I’ve already planted two goji bushes and have one surviving blackberry transplant. A farmer friend has also promised me some nettle transplants, which I will likely put in another lined milk crate, since our dry, sandy soil is not too nettle-friendly, and on the flip side, I’m wary of introducing another highly invasive plant to the out of control dandelion mix. This way, I can monitor the nettle growth a bit better, as well as take them with us should we ever decide to leave the laboratory!

Despite the extensive sounding nature of the garden(s), this perennial and annual experiment remains just that — an experiment. I have no idea which methods, soil types, locations, mulch types and plants will thrive and which will refuse to cooperate. I have no idea if the Lemon Queen Sunflowers will grow in that little soil out front, and I’m reluctant to pull back the landscape cloth due to some majorly aggressive dandelions out front.

I’d love to plant some 12-foot tall sunflowers behind the backyard beds so that I don’t need to look at a neighbor’s caved in garage roof, but I have no idea if those seeds will sprout in the ground, competing with well-established dandelions and wild violets. I had planted an “Elves Blend” of shorter sunflowers in the “bed bed,” but something already ate those sprouts. I may try again in large pots, or I may scrap the Elves Blend until next year. Some neighbors grew radically different sized sunflowers one year and wound up with mutant ones the following year (huge heads on small, short stems and giant stems with little, itty, bitty tops)!

I’d love to get some aronia berry bushes and fruit trees started, but I think the soil needs at least a year of deep wood mulch to clear some reasonably weed free spots for starting trees. I have a medium sized pile of pine needles out front in anticipation of making an acidic bog-like environment for yet to be acquired blueberry bushes. We’re also still in observation mode — an important step in permaculture. I will feel better about planting perennials when I know all the varieties of plants already occurring in our yard. One person, for example, insists that we probably have mulberry trees already growing here, because they’re like a weed. David and I have got to learn how to recognize some of the stump grwoth already happening, since we may want some of those old trees, rather than taming the wild yard with an occasional heavy duty lawnmower (David) and frequent weed whacking (me).

Oh, yes, I’ve graduated to a rechargeable power tool! I’m probably the only person I know who warns the plants and apologizes to them before I chop off their soon-to-seed heads, reminding them that we could avoid this ritual if they’d just kindly grow only in the backyard, away from car fumes and my intentional gardens. And, LOL, you should hear my faery negotiations: “Look, I’m planting lots of flowers. The dandelions are great out back, and I’m replacing the bee food out front. Work with me here…. I’ll give you goji berries and zinnias if you keep the dandelions out of my raised beds and the front yard.” So far so good on the raised beds — some progress on the front yard. πŸ˜‰

Right before my 1998 brain injury, I got a clear message to “quit my job, withdraw my graduate school applications, do spiritual work and become a poet landscaper.” I haven’t written much poetry since 2005, but it appears I’m on a crash course, wild experimentation, natural landscaping, permaculture and gardening extravaganza. We. Shall. See. I’ve always felt I would have avoided that car accident had I embraced the message rather than running from it. Curiously enough, the more I garden, the more Life continues to magically unwind any remaining bonds from the past 15 years of life. Nature appears to be hitting reset buttons on all the direct ties related to taking a wide detour from that spooky message in 1998. Kooky, crazy, and bizarrely true…

So, there you have it! When I say it’s a lot of work and a work in progress, I mean what I say and say what I mean. I’ve put in a hundred plus hours of hard labor, and the yard still “is what it is.” I love it, though, and I look forward to more learning, beauty, growth and harvests.

Happy Earth Day!

I’ve often noted that for me, every day is Earth Day, but I do enjoy spending some extra time and effort honoring Gaia on and around her special day. This past weekend, I attended an intensive Permaculture Design Course, which included hands-on training. Yesterday, we planted fifteen fruit trees! I was surprised how easy it is to calculate root requirements. Hint: dig the hole twice as deep and twice as wide as the roots. Shovel in some compost, mix it with topsoil, water, add more compost/soil mixture, spread out the roots, water more. Continue until just below the graft or to the soil line of a true tree. That’s it! We also put plastic guards around each tree to protect them from deer or other nibblers. It felt good to plant so much life that will continue to grow for decades.

planting trees

A couple weeks ago, I made a seed inventory and started about twenty plants indoors. Below you’ll see a portion of the seeds I have on hand. Some are for Fall planting; others for late June. I’m just getting organized for Spring right now:

Seeds 2013

Seeds 2013

I’m particularly excited about my Medicinal Herb Garden seeds and can’t wait to get some of those in the ground:

Medicinal Herb Garden 1

Medicinal Herb List

I ordered some other medicinal seeds as well. Things like Yellow Maca, Meadowsweet, Munstead Lavender and Hyssop will also grace our lawn. I don’t know that I’ll get all these seeds in this year, since I continue to observe where sunlight hits, as well as design more permanent locations. This year I will be happy to get our four raised beds assembled for a Four Season Vegetable Harvest:

Cubic Foot Gardening

Cubic Foot Gardening

I bought three of these Cubic Foot Gardening tiered raised beds, and we’ll also be creating what I affectionately call a “Bed Bed” from the black frame of an old Sleep Number Bed. From what I’ve researched, using black raised beds increases growing time by at least one month on either end of the traditional gardening season, because the soil remains warmer due to the black gathering heat. I’ve got some special seed blends for late season plantings, as well as a gourmet greens variety that I can start as soon as we have the beds assembled and filled with the Square Foot Gardening recommended mixture of 1/3 compost, 1/3 vermiculite and 1/3 peat moss.

I’ll plant plenty of wild flowers, zinnias, marigolds and sunflowers to increase the aesthetics of the black plastic. I’ll also mulch around the beds and plant a sunflower backdrop. Our landlord just began putting in a wooden fence along the Western edge of our yard, and he’s already cleared me to use nylon trellises to train watermelon, cantaloupe, cucumbers and squash up the fence.

Our front yard has a preliminary hugelkultur started — basically a big pile of sticks mixed with dried leaves, pine needles, compost, watered and then mulched over with wood chips. I’m creating a blueberry-friendly spot, since pine needles and leaves are quite acidic, and the branches hold water. Blueberries like moist, acidic soil. I’m not sure if I’ll finish that project soon enough to get the three bushes I want in there this Spring, or if this will remain a next year project. Some initial fruit trees and hopefully Aronia berry bushes will go into the yard this Fall.

Meanwhile, my specific Earth Day 2013 activity after today’s sessions will be continuing to create pathways through the yard. I’m using cardboard and mulch to tone down the weeds and create winding paths to the soon-to-be-constructed raised beds and around our rain garden. Once the soil warms up and I’ve cleared the giant mulch pile in our front yard, I’ll plant a sunflower “fence” with a bee friendly blend of flowers in front of it. I’ve already spent so many hours out there moving mulch and explaining my plans to curious neighbors that we’ve noticed some of our neighbors have begun preparations for their own gardens. Their first ever!

And so, while the rest of the world continues to wrestle with the dragon throes of coup/counter-coup, I’m getting back to the garden, right where I want to be. In our permaculture class this weekend, we discussed how everything can be solved with a garden, and I really believe it’s true. Gardening provides more than food sovereignty — although local, organic food security remains such an important issue these days! Permaculture gardening also allows us to observe Nature and to participate with Nature in the creation of mutually beneficial systems of Life. Flowers feed bees and butterflies; plant guilds support each other and wildlife; and those with awareness also get to engage the Otherworld of faeries, elves, devas, Nature Spirits, gnomes and otherwise invisible partners eager to heal and cherish the Earth as well.

From sunshiney Goshen, Happy Earth Day! May you find at least some small way to honor our Mother on this, her special day.

Happy St. Gertrude’s Day!

A couple weeks ago, David and I attended a Michiana Master Gardener’s 14th Annual Public Seminar led by Mother Earth News contributing Editor, William Woys Weaver. The topic? “Heirloom Vegetable Gardening: Cooking for the future, how to grow and use heirlooms creatively.” He gave us a virtual tour of his own gardens, where he cultivates and preserves some of the richest variety of heirloom seeds in the world.

He also shared the cultural, environmental and human survival importance of maintaining organic, non-GMO, regional, heirloom varieties, as they will save our health, local/family histories, and our food supply from the potential decimation of mono-crops and weak, genetically modified strains. We learned about superior taste and disease resistance, quirky histories of plants, his own family stories of how they came to collect heirloom varieties, and an amazing breadth of knowledge about setting up historical (yet also practical and edible) gardens. We learned about Weaver’s work as a young man and how his connection with Julia Childs helped launch the culinary demand for heirloom vegetables. We learned all these things and more.

Perhaps most relevant for today, however, we learned that we can celebrate March 17th in a way that honors the Earth instead of celebrating “St. Patrick driving all the snakes out of Ireland,” i.e. murdering and persecuting all the Earth-loving Druids. Yes, March 17 has another saint, and she is the patron saint of gardeners! Meet St. Gertrude. She’s also the patron saint of herbalists, cats and those who love cats, and “travelers in search of lodging.” (She’s against rats and mental illness.) Since I spend every day of my life attempting to honor the Earth and helping people reclaim their own sanity and sovereignty from our insane “civilization,” I can, in good conscience honor someone like St. Gertrude. So, thank you, William Woys Weaver. Not only have you provided this planet with incredible information, inspiration, resources and preserved heritage, but you’ve liberated March 17!

In honor of St. Gertrude’s Day, David and I have spent this entire weekend in garden-friendly endeavors. Yesterday began with a trip to the local farmer’s market and local food co-op, followed by a homemade butternut squash soup topped with windowsill grown chives, then followed by attending the first Open Space event for Transition Goshen. As described on their site:

“Transition Towns initiatives are part of a vibrant, international grassroots movement that brings people together to explore how we – as communities – can respond to the environmental, economic and social challenges arising from climate change, resource depletion and an economy based on continual growth.

“We don’t look for anyone to blame or anyone to save us, but believe our communities have within themselves the innovation and ingenuity to create positive solutions to the converging crises of our time. We believe in igniting and supporting local responses at any level and from anyone – and aim to weave them together into a coordinated action plan for change towards a lower energy lifestyle. By building local resilience, we will be able to collectively respond to whatever the future may bring in a calm, positive and creative way. And by remembering how to live within our local means, we can rediscover the spirit of community and a feeling of power, belonging and sharing in a world that is vibrant, just and truly sustainable.”

I love, love, love the concept of Transition Towns, and I am thrilled we already have people organizing this movement in Goshen! Here’s Rob Hopkins, a founding member of the Network who founded the Transition Town, which began in Ireland:

As of February 2013, “Transition Goshen is officially the 134th Transition Town in the US.” Yesterday’s Open Space gathering drew people from Goshen College, Goshen, nearby Elkhart and Southern Michigan. People brought different perspectives, skills and knowledge, but we all shared a common interest in:

“Expanding the Garden:

“How can we grow more food in our own backyards and gardens?

“What techniques, ideas, and local resources should our community be aware of?

“Why might we look beyond growing annual hybrid vegetables to cultivating perennial produce, heirloom varieties, fruit trees, and bees? What else might we produce?”

We broke into diverse groups focused on things like expanding urban farms to include more local opportunities to feed the hungry, reclaiming “brown fields” (land no longer in use for industry but still too “toxic” for gardening), developing a community garden at Goshen College, involving Boys and Girls Clubs in community gardening projects, wild food foraging (David’s topic), and edible landscaping and Urban Food Forests (my topic). So many groups covered so many topics that we all agreed to take copious notes and post our information on the Transition Goshen website, since there simply wasn’t time for all of us to participate in all the discussions.

In addition to brainstorming ways to make our dreams of greater local food abundance, sustainability and natural beauty a reality, we also met tons of like-minded or complementary-minded individuals. Our group on Edible Landscaping and Urban Food Forests discussed ways of bridging the gap between environmentalists and politically savvy people who are (rightfully) wary of Agenda 21 and UN-dominance disguised as “sustainable development.” We discussed ways of overcoming public resistance/pre-conditioning to the idea that edible landscaping can also look attractive and require minimal intervention. Smart planning and proper plant selection make a huge difference! We learned whom to contact regarding local regulations, as well as the name of our local “brown field coordinator.” We brainstormed ideas for speeding up the process of repurposing toxic land. Ideas included a particular type of fir tree that can safely reclaim such land in 15 years, possibly lobbying to make industrial hemp legal (as it can detoxify fields fast), and “clay capping” to create a “very, very large raised bed on the scale of an entire field.”

In addition to sharing ideas for selling such concepts to city planners and voting citizens, we also recognized the power of “being the change.” Several of us realized we live very close together, and we agreed to invite each other over to see what we each have going on in our own yards. We shared plans for raised beds, experimental “cubic foot gardening” in round, tiered, raised beds, as well as gardening techniques and tips to circumvent yard regulation issues. We met some really incredible people yesterday! I’m so excited to continue collaborating, and we’ve even agreed to help each other set up raised beds and other projects, in order to make lighter, faster work at each address.

I’ve posted this Pam Warhurst video before, but it serves as a model of possibilities for town-wide edible landscaping, so I’ll share it here again. “How we can eat our landscapes”:

I love Pam’s motto, “If you eat, you’re in!” To me, that sums up the solution to so many potential fears and objections to this sort of grassroots change. Ultimately, it’s not about our politics. It’s about our communities, our health, our quality of life, our local economy, and our very survival. Yes, we face big issues (or hide from them), but we also stand to develop new ways of being and living that far surpass the way things are. Inability to sustain an insane civilization isn’t such a bad thing, imho. We can dare to dream, imagine, and plant things into being. We can do so on a local level, with old and new friends, and we can organically grow our abundance to address social justice, feeding the hungry, keeping money in our own communities, and healing Mother Earth.

Happy St. Gertrude’s Day! I’ll leave you with one more inspirational video, “Guerilla Gardening” for beautifying and refreshing your neighborhood: