Wednesday, December 3, 2008

About Paths

In my stumbling sort of way, I'm slowly coming to a deeper appreciation of how important paths are to a garden.

I have to admit that historically my garden planning habits have been really pathetic. I would basically clear a patch, spade the earth, put in seeds, and hope to somehow muster enough focus to keep it weeded and watered long enough to harvest something. Beds were mostly square or rectangular and usually too large to work from outside the had to stand in the middle of it.

Times, they are a changing. I'm starting to recognize how much a path can contribute to the ease with which I maintain a bed. If I place a garden along a route I walk for other reasons, it tends to get more of my attention and hence does better. Attention means weeding, watering when necessary, minding problems, etc. Beds that are out of my way tend to become work and usually don't perform well.

Last year I took a new turn and put in a keyhole bed. It worked great! Easy to access, optimized space, etc. That started me thinking more about the relationship between paths and gardens. In a subtle way, this has also transformed how I 'see' gardens in my yard. Whereas a garden used to have to be a certain size for me even to recognize it as a garden, I now try to put something in along my walkways wherever there's a square foot or two of space. Small beds rule! I'll only offer the caveat that borders also invite encroachment by weeds, etc. and that small beds mean more borders. So, as with everything else, there's no free lunch....except when it comes to zuchinni.

Sheet Mulching

I don't like grass. I really don't like grass in my garden. Unfortunately, the lot began as a grassy area. More generally, the Willamette Valley is home to the grass seed capital of the world! So, it often seems that I've got a fight to the death on my hands.

One of my best weapons in this epic struggle has been 'sheet mulching'. For the most part, it works pretty well, though it's not a panacea.

Sheet mulching is simple: you wet the grass, put down a layer of cardboard, add a few inches of soil or manure, and then top off with at least a foot of leaves. Clearly it's a thing most easily done in the fall.

Last year I sheet mulched the blueberries and artichokes in the traffic strip on the north side. It worked fantastically...even without cardboard in some cases (just used extra leaves). This fall, we busted out with a huge sheet mulching effort in what will be the largest area of cultivation in the garden. We covered about 1200 square feet by schlepping in five pickup loads of manure, lots and lots of big cardboard, and about 10 loads of leaves we scavenged from the neighborhood. I'll post a picture of this soon for those who get silly about staring at manure and leaves!

This will be somewhat of an experiment owing mainly to the presence of a particular species of grass here which has super tenacious roots. I've found that sheet mulching mostly works if I attend to the borders of the mulched area by digging all of the grass out where the mulching ends. Failure to do so usually allows the roots to re-invade over time. In all cases, some maintenance is required and mulching needs to be done each fall to keep airborne or otherwise seeded grass from encroaching.

I leave the mulch on for about four months or so and then simply apply soil over the top to create a new garden. I do not remove the leaves. They simply rot away to compost, resulting in a really nice and loose bed.

In permaculture terms, my interpretation of what's happening with my successful blueberry-artichoke mulched bed is that the leaves basically replicate what happens on a forest floor. Grasses and other annuals are supressed by leaf fall from the canopy. In my case, I just bring the leaves in since I don't have enough tree cover to provide it on site. The effect is the same.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Site

The lot in question is a 50 X 60 parcel located on the east end of Eugene, Oregon and sits on gently sloping land toward the mid-point of the Amazon Creek watershed.

The lot used to be the site of a small creek that ran down from a nearby hill toward the slightly larger Amazon Creek which in turn eventually finds its way into the Willamette River via the Long Tom Creek. Nowadays, the old creek is gone, but the lot remains fairly wet for 6 months of the year.

The riverbottom soil in the lot is pretty good, though can run to clay in spots. We have good west and north sun, partial east and south sun. We get about 40 inches of rain here every year, mostly between the months of November and June. There are very few trees on the lot currently, except for espalliered apples I put in about three years ago along the West and North fence lines.

Basically, it's a blank slate!


I come from two families of farmers, so using words like 'permaculture' and thereby occasioning questions from people who have vastly more time growing food than I do is a little embarassing to me, but I like the idea enough to stick it out there for consideration nonetheless.

Permaculture is shorthand for a way of food gardening which prioritizes perennials and seeks long-term sustainability using a minimum of inputs such as water, fertilizer, etc.

By contrast the type of gardening I've done for most of my 46 years has been based upon annuals and (much to the chagrin of my aching back!) has also involved lots of moving of earth, weeding, planting and replanting, watering, etc.

In nature, ground left to do as it will over a period of years naturally undergoes a succesion from annual species such as grasses, 'weeds', etc. through to perennials and finally to taller woody plants and trees. By contrast, most farms and vegetable gardens involve annuals: peas, carrots, beans, grains, etc. This means that each year ground that would otherwise mature through a natural succession ending in forest, must be artificially kept in a state of successional immaturity. Not surprisingly, keeping it that state of unnatural immaturity takes a lot of effort in the form of weeding, fertilizing, watering, etc.

Here's the good news: there's another way to grow food!

Gardening using permaculture principles involves creation of more 'natural', mature plant and animal communities centered on perrenials. The result is less need for the inputs (labor, water, fertilizer) required by traditional annual gardening. The plant communities or 'guilds' used in permaculture ideally work together to create self-sustaining systems. Overstory plants, for example, offer shade which reduces need for watering. Big leafing, deep rooters like comfrey pull minerals up from below and then leave them on the surface in the form of mulch to feed shallow-rooters above. Nitrogen fixing perrenials like locust trees make the soil richer for annuals. Flowering plants attract polinators for all species, etc. etc.

I'm strongly attracted to any model of gardening which means less work! My interest in permaculture arose largely from recent years of experience building and watching native plant based (non-food) gardens grow. I saw how they required so much less input than my traditional beds and how they had a special wild grace of their own. Permaculture offered a way to do that with food crops, so I thought I'd give it a try.

You can read a lot more about permaculture here.

A Permaculture Adventure Begins!

Actually...the project began a few years ago, but we seem to be getting ready to make some fun moves, so I thought it'd be neat to share the process a little in hopes of encouraging other people interested in similar garden adventures.

The adventure: transformation of a small ( 60 X 50) vacant lot into a beautiful and hopefully bountiful, family sustaining food garden based largely on a permaculture approach to gardening.