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The Forest Garden at the Solstice

This is the view from my front porch just over a year ago, at the start of the first sheet mulching project.

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That area to the left was at one point a beautiful rock garden under the living room window. By the time we moved in, it was a weed-covered gravel nightmare. We paid a landscaping company to come and remove the top 4″ of gravel, most of the old plastic sheet underneath, and remove that ugly podocarpus. We also had friends come and take the useless boxwood hedges.

Here’s the house from the front when it was all scraped away. Those leafless sticks in front are the peach trees.

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The next month, the sheet mulching began.

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We completed most of the sheet mulching by November, and the whole bed sat and composted through the winter. I planted a few more fruit trees but not much else. Here’s what it looked like in early March, when I was ready to start planting the spring vegetables and adding the rest of the layers. Basically a giant stretch of mulch. The neighbors must’ve been so nervous.

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And this is today.

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The forest garden* now contains peaches, plums, persimmon, strawberry guavas, pineapple guavas, pomegranates, tomatillos, pumpkins, various chile peppers, duranta, eclipta prostrata, codonopsis, eggplants, cantaloupes, ground cherries, daylilies, snow parsley, milkweed, and cow peas.

Sometimes when I start berating myself for not doing “enough” in the forest garden, I need to look at these pictures to see how much I have already done. As tempted as I am to continue to add plants at the fast & furious pace, I want to let this area settle for a while and see what happens with the trees and perennials. One peach tree has died and been replaced, and I’m already questioning some of my spacing decisions.  Time to just observe this area, at least until fall planting time.  This is only one bed and one year. I wonder what another year will bring!

*A note on terminology. I am not sure this will ever be a “food forest” since this is my very suburban front yard. The scale, management, and especially aesthetics will probably always be more garden-like, so “forest garden” it will be.

Learning From My Mistakes

One of my gardening philosophies is Try Everything. I am constantly trying to overcome “paralysis of analysis” where I get so caught up in the planning and research stages I never feel ready to implement. If I view all of this as an experiment, and the implementation is the research, then I free myself to make mistakes without guilt or shame. So in the spirit of recording the outcomes of an experiment, here are a few of the mistakes I’ve made this season.

1. Bush beans + sprawling cantaloupes= tangled mess

mistake1This is what the bed looked like a month ago. Neat, orderly. I was excited because this was the first time I ever used inoculant on my beans and I was sure it would contribute to healthier plants and greater yields. I prepared the bed carefully so the plants could survive pest pressure… remember, no pesticides here.

This is what the bed looks like now:

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A verdant but extremely tangled mess. I’ve never grown cantaloupes before. I knew they sprawled so I gave them plenty of room from each other… and then planted beans in between, expecting to lose 50% of the plants like I did last year. I’ve lost TWO. The inoculant really worked! So. Mistakes here: planting too closely together, not paying attention to mature plant size, and forgetting the permaculture rule of “lumpy texture” in polycultures. Two twining, sprawling plants together in a limited space is poor planning.

2. Tomato cages are not just for tomatoes

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I decided not to grow tomatoes this year at all. Everything eats tomatoes. I decided to grow tomatillos and ground cherries instead, more “primitive” nightshades with fewer pests and disease concerns. They are healthy and vigorous plants, but they’re just as “tipsy” as tomatoes. They grew tall quickly and then fell over. I put cages over three of the tallest plants a few weeks ago as a precaution before I left for the weekend. By the time I got back, the rest of the plants were already too sprawling to try and add cages.

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The three tallest tomatillos in the bed are caged. The others have sprawled, smothering their companion ashwaganda in this bed and eggplants and cantaloupes in the other bed. Mistakes here: planting too closely and not caging them while young. From now on, cage all tomato-like plants.

Overall I think the garden is doing quite well. I have been keeping notes in a loose garden journal for the past year, but I think I need something more structured. Keeping a card file of plant notes, one plant to a card, is an idea I am adopting from one of the permaculture books I read last year. Keeping notes on each plant, taking measurements, I think will help me remember all of these lessons from season to season.

Not really a “prepper”

I do not consider myself a “prepper”.

I do consider myself a “cautious libertarian with kids who has read too many dystopian-future novels”.

That being said, I was surprised to find out that I’m already doing or planning almost everything on this list. The philosophy of “plant everything and see what grows” is very important with our fluctuating weather. This dovetails nicely into my vision of “the garden as living laboratory”. Everything I do is a grand experiment, continually working towards greater diversity. I never thought of permaculture as something that would resonate with preppers, but it makes sense. It was interesting to see where I am on this author’s list:

1. Plant Perennials

Yup. Ten established fruit-bearing trees already here when we moved in. Another dozen fruit trees planted in the past year. Other perennial food-producers planted in the past year: elderberry, flatwoods plum, rabbit-eye blueberry, Mysore raspberry, Kiowa blackberry. There’s also the culinary herb bed with at least a dozen perennials in it already. This year will plant sunchokes, sweet potatoes, and cassava.

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2. Plant polycultures.

Beyond the idea that my entire yard is a polyculture, I have worked hard planning specific polyculture “beds” to grow within the food forest above and in the raised beds in the back. The “fedges” are also polycultures mixing perennial food-producers, medicinal herbs, and natives to attract pollinators and predatory insects.

3. Breed your own perennial varieties.

Any time you save your own seed for more than one generation and plant it, you are breeding your own micro-variety. The plant is supposed to adapt to the particular conditions and become stronger. I’m trying this theory with my speckled butter beans, the first crop I’ve saved seed from!

4. Include animals.

This is the only piece missing, the piece that will continually keep my experiment from being self-sufficient. I cannot have farm animals or any pets due to the conditions of our lease. We can’t even have a cat. I currently drive 45 minutes each way for horse manure- not sustainable. Finding a regular and affordable source of animal manure closer to home is a big goal this year.

5. Manage rainwater.

Adding rain barrels and drip irrigation is the project for April, before monsoon season starts.

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6. Process, preserve, add value, and store on site.

The only crop of significance we have right now is citrus. I juiced pounds and pounds of fruit and candied the peels. I made marmalade, syrups, and liqueurs. We buried the peels instead of throwing them in the garbage. I have several gallons of fresh unpasteurized juice in the deep freeze and many jars of marmalade.

7. Don’t forget annuals.

How could I? Without annuals there is no salsa! I’ve already started tomatillos, eggplants, ground cherries, pumpkins, and beans. The fact that I work at the farmers market keeps me from feeling much urgency to grow a lot of annual vegetables, so I’m only growing the weird, interesting, or expensive varieties that we eat in quantity already.

8. Become a wild plant gatherer!

Oh yeah. Done that. I can now identify a bunch of wild edibles, but most of the wild edibles growing in my immediate area are definitely starvation foods… they are there and edible and at least somewhat nutritious, but they don’t taste very good. I haven’t branched out into mushrooms yet.

9. Become a tracker/hunter.

This is my big reveal. Ready for it? I am 38 years old and I have never shot a gun in my life. Never. However, I also believe strongly that as a meat-eater I should be willing to kill and butcher my own meat, so my birthday present this year will be a rifle. Husband and I have already talked about teaching me and all three kids to shoot pistols and rifles. This fall, I am going hunting.

10. Start now!

Yeah, I got this. There’s this weird sense of urgency lately, despite my innate skepticism of the world-enders. I do not fear climate change… it is only our own hubris which wants nature to never change. I can only control my own behavior and live as lightly upon the earth as I can, pay attention to the land, and try to convince my kids to do the same.

More fruit trees!

Planting trees is a bit daunting. It’s a long-term commitment with a real chance of failure and a slow rate of return.

How do I know if I’m doing it right? What if I change my mind? What if the tree is in the wrong place? What if it grow too big for this space? Am I planting too close to the house? Too close to the other trees?

Huh. Kinda like parenting.

I’ve been staring at this patch of sheet-mulched ground sketching out guilds, plans, and planting diagrams to use the available space, sun, and water to the greatest efficiency. Then I happened on great deals for two feijoa trees and two pomegranate bushes. After a month of dithering and watching them slowly wither in their too-small pots, I finally just screwed my courage to the sticking-place over the weekend and put the damn things in the ground.

Each hole was cut through the mulch and cardboard to the earth below, filled with half a bag of mushroom compost, and then the trees planted in the compost. Then each tree was watered in thoroughly, gently shaking the trunk to make sure there were no air pockets. And now, looking at it all together like this, the trees are following a rough spiral shape, which is one of the planting shapes recommended in permaculture books.

I can’t wait to see what this is going to look like a year from now.

And of course, what comes in at the library the day after I put these trees in the ground? Edible Forest Gardens by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier. Volumes one and two! I haven’t even opened them yet, for fear of finding out that I’m doing it all wrong. But I still have guilds to build between the trees, and three plum trees and a persimmon to complete the spiral.

Blueberry Bed Almost Finished!

This is a big yard and we’re always finding empty nooks and corners. Finding the best uses for the empty or underutilized spots in the established parts of the yard is interesting work; each spot is a long-term experiment.

One of the larger empty spots is in the back, just off the north edge of the patio. There was an untrimmed and unhealthy azalea in the middle of a large mulched area, about 10′x12′. After trimming the azalea back and digging around, I realized that there was 2 layers of thick landscaping felt under the mulch. The landscaping felt has been there a very long time, the roots of the azaleas were growing through it searching for nutrients. Since the mulch wasn’t in contact with the soil, the mulch wasn’t decomposing and releasing nutrients back to the plants, and no one had fertilized back there in a long time. So we pulled back the landscape fabric, raked the mulch back, and let everything rest for a few months. With the azaleas all around I thought the space would work well for rabbiteye blueberries.

About a month ago I planted a few small and scraggly “Brightwell” rabbiteye blueberry bushes I got for a really good price from the Edible Plant Project. One succumbed almost immediately from some leaf-spot disease, leaving an empty hole and three unhappy-looking blueberry bushes. I bought two much larger and more robust “Alice” blueberry bushes at the farmer’s market a few weeks ago and decided to try a one-time application of chemical fertilizer to give all the blueberries a good boost before the first freeze. My husband went to the garden center for fertilizer and they sold him a sulphur acidifier for azaleas and blueberries instead. I almost sent him back- I detest being “sold” on something I didn’t want- but decided to give the garden center employee the benefit of the doubt. I spread the acidifier and watered it in well. I gave each plant a good shovelful of compost, put down some thick shipping paper for weed suppression, and I’ll be mulching deeply with pine straw as soon as I can get to the park with a rake and some bags.

Zone 1- The Herb Bed

I’ve talked before about how permaculture theory divides your property into zones according to human use. Zone 1 is the area closest to people, the areas that get the most traffic. Zone 1 should include what we need/want to interact with or use on a daily basis. Since I use fresh herbs on a daily basis I knew I wanted the herb bed close to either the front door or office door and close to water for irrigation. I decided to split the butterfly/native bed and use the third closest to the house for culinary herbs. In the original plan, the herb bed was to the east of the front porch, but after longer observations of sun/shade patterns on my property, that whole area has been reserved for fruit trees. This is the corner that was heavily sheet mulched in June, and is now almost weed-free. I’m simple dumping more composted cow manure and leftover potting soil on top of the mulch to plant seeds, and digging through the mulch for the plants.

So far I’ve planted:

marjoram, parsley, and cilantro seeds
3 each sage and rosemary
2 lemongrass plants
There’s already basil and Thai basil bushes directly across the sidewalk, I’ll leave those in place but move the thyme plants to the edges of this bed. 

The sunken corner of the herb bed is reserved for the “rain garden” and soon should be planted with various irises. This is where the runoff from the driveway should be directed now, but I’m waiting for the next heavy rain to make sure it’s working before I plant anything. I can’t wait to finish the stone border. I love irises so much and I’m hoping they love this sunny spot with lots of heat and occasional flooding.

Reaching Beyond the Choir

A few months ago there was an inspiring twitter thread on a weekly #foodchat that I’ve been turning over in my head ever since. Someone asked “How do we reach beyond the choir?”

Most of you, my dear readers, are already in the choir. You already are interested in local food, or permaculture, or butterfly gardens. I write this blog both as a personal “This is how and why I do this” but also “This is how you can do it, too” for other people. All of this started as a way to develop my religious practice by making a deeper connection with my immediate environment in as many ways as I could, literally getting my hands into the earth. Ten years later these passionate interests are on the way to becoming my life’s work.

Last night I took another step towards reaching out to an audience outside the local food/urban gardener/sustainable agriculture “choir” but who  have a great deal of overlapping interests… the Pagan community in Florida. I’m often surprised at the lack of Pagan voices in that choir so I submitted three workshop proposals for Florida Pagan Gathering in October. I have never taught at this festival before and have no idea if my proposals will be accepted, but I have high hopes. I want to offer my experiences, ideas, and knowledge to anyone who shows up and wants to learn.

So, how did you get interested in local foods/sustainable agriculture/gardening/permaculture in the first place? Was it in a book? Was it a friend? Was it a workshop?

Progress on the Food Forest

After weeks of waiting all of the planets finally lined up correctly to get some more of the sheet mulching done. I was desperate to cover the bare sand and weeds left by scraping off the top 2″ of gravel and start building soil. I didn’t have much manure left so in the spirit of “no wasted resources” I went on a major weeding frenzy and then just dumped all of the weeds on top of the soil, chopped them up with loppers, and then spread out what horse manure I had left.

I once again took advantage of an excellent source of cheap labor- hungry teenage boys. A group of my sons’ friends come over on Friday nights to game and I offered to buy them pizza in exchange for some physical labor. They really got a lot done! Totally worth every penny.

This section will be able to sit and compost for the rest of the winter. I have a couple of small feijoa that I might put in now to let them establish over the winter just to get them out of the pots and put something in this bare expanse of rough mulch. Mostly I just want to leave this all alone and let the soil build so I can do the serious planting in the spring. This spot gets full sun, is warmed by the sun reflected off the white walls of the house, and is protected from cold winds by the house too.

I think this would be the perfect spot for my trial avocado guild:

1. a trio of avocado trees
2. feijoa
3. tender hibiscus and roselle
4. Not sure here- something to contrast with the hibiscus but big enough not to get smothered by the Seminole pumpkin.
5. This guild won’t have an edible root layer since avocados seem to have lots of shallow feeder roots so I don’t want to be digging anything up.
6 & 7. possibly Seminole pumpkin as a vine/groundcover, since they’re so sprawling.

The Movement of Water

Directing the movement of water across land is a tough permaculture design concept to grok for this novice. There are always pages of diagrams in permaculture design books showing swales, dams, terracing, and ponds, but those diagrams are for large farms not suburban or urban yards. I don’t have any technical training for taking measurements and I still can’t figure out how to measure a slope.

But none of that really matters. Permaculture as a philosophy doesn’t care if you’re trained or not. Permaculture as a philosophy says “you can figure this out just by really seeing“. Observing your environment closely and using that to guide the design is one of the aspects of permaculture as a philosophy that draws me the most strongly.

In heavy rains, my front walk becomes an arroyo.

I try to walk all the way around the yard every day, pulling weeds here and there, checking under trees, looking at the bugs and flowers and lizards and life. During and after the last hurricane I walked around in the yard a lot. I was trying to only be a passive observer at that point, trying to see the land for what it was, the details and the big picture. I didn’t look at the movement of water specifically but it was there in the background. What I didn’t grok at that point was that every change I made to the landscape over the next 2 months would alter the very thing I was trying to observe. Removing the large boxwood bushes from the front of the house, adding the 3′ strip of 8″ deep sheet mulch across the front, and piling up the mulch at the front corner of the yard & driveway has significantly altered the flow of water across the yard, unfortunately not in a good way.

Now the water that falls on the driveway sweeps down the front path and, blocked off by the mulch piled up against the edge of the driveway, pours into the low spot left by removing the big boxwood bush to the right of the porch. On the other side, the only downspout to the gutter pours water into the other low spot from the removal of the left boxwood bush. Water here is feast or famine- half the year is very dry and half is very wet. The key to water management on a home scale is capturing as much water as possible during the rainy season to soften the impact of the dry season. We don’t have rain barrels (yet!) so my goal is to capture as much in the ground as possible without creating areas of standing water. Standing water = mosquitoes. Mosquitoes are bad.

My first clumsy attempt at a diagram. Probably not my last.

I’m not sure how to redirect this water yet. The water flowing down the driveway needs to be directed away from the front walk. I’m sure a swale would be appropriate here, but where? The flow of water from the gutter downspout needs to be redirected and softened, somehow, so it doesn’t dig holes in the ground and sweep away mulch or plants.  French drains are tempting, but they just drain the water into the ground. I want to capture it where the plants can use it. Fortunately there are landscapers coming Friday, I’ll ask them for a professional opinion and go from there.

Beltane Thoughts and Garden Plans

Sundown yesterday was the end of Beltane. My Beltane evening included fire, a nice glass of red wine, and writing lists.

Beltane is often described as the beginning of summer, but that is only a part of the explanation. Beltane is the beginning of the light half, the planting half, the growing half of the year that ends on Samhain.  Much of these past months leading up to Beltane have been full of planning and dreaming and preparing. What you sow during the light half of the year, you reap during the dark. I am ready for some sowing!

I am always amused that the Eat Local Challenge starts on Beltane. That’s so fitting. We are putting our money where our mouths are. Literally! We are putting our ethics into action during the Eat Local Challenge. Since my challenge to myself is finding and trying new food plants for my garden, two of the lists were Have & Wish lists- what do I already have that’s coming with me to the new house, and what plants do I need immediately?

What I have: lemongrass, 2 different figs, 4 blueberries, 2 yuca, oregano, rigani, thyme, and a strawberry guava.

We have to start in the front yard. It’s been neglected the longest and is literally a huge area of unsightly weeds (sand spurs must die), two badly-placed tulip poplars, and some disconnected daylilies and roses. Those go on the “have” list, too. Much of the front yard will be native flowering plants and butterfly/bird food, but some plants that produce human food will be mixed in, too.

There are so many things to consider for the wish list: permaculture techniques, the state of the soil, budget. Permaculture design advocates lots of perennial food plants, native plants to attract pollinators, and combining plants to make “guilds”- plants that work well together.

I also have to consider water usage. Rain here is seasonal, almost monsoon-like, and I’m not willing to do more watering than a rain barrel can provide for. Anything planted in the front has to be able to tough out weeks with no rain after it’s established.

On the wish list so far for the front yard: more blueberries, Mediterranean herbs that will survive the heat (rosemary, definitely), sweet potato, sunchokes/jerusalem artichokes, roselles, and possibly globe artichokes.

This spot may become a tropical bed. It’s on the south-west corner, against a fence, and gets serious sun all day, but is protected from north wind. I thinking of trying bananas, edible gingers, turmeric, pandanus, and under-planted with Okinawa spinach and beach sunflower. This might also be a good spot for an African Keyhole bed since bananas are heavy feeders.

Winter is for thinking, dreaming, learning.  Summer is for doing. Summer starts today.