Starting Over (Sort of)

It seems like I’ve built, grown, and tended a million gardens all across the northern tier.  And then I move someplace new, and it’s start-over time.  I might be getting a little old for this, but once I dig in (yeah, pun totally intended), it’s exciting work–creation, restoration, breathing life into the soil and landscape.

I built three 4×8′ raised beds today–the start of a kind of kitchen/salad garden that will be close to the back door.  I don’t have them in their final pleasing configuration yet–I mapped it out in my farm journal and then realized once they were built that the initial layout is all wrong.

They’re going to form a little “nook” in the center, and the opening of that nook should point in the direction of the back door, so I can walk out the door and “into” the garden and have the bounty surrounding me.  If there’s enough space, I might make a little seating area and/or put some potted herbs there.

I’m going to have to remove the sod under them and probably under the whole space of the nook and maybe lay down some sand with some stepping stones on top.  The outside edges of the garden need to be dug out a few inches from the side of the beds and have a barrier of some sort.  I’m not a neatnik, but a clean edge sure makes mowing easier.

I’m not putting plastic or landscape fabric underneath because I’ve frankly had it with those synthetic materials. If a weed pops up I can dig it out or douse it with boiling water.

Speaking of having “had it” with synthetic underlays:

First of all, I get kind of miffed by landscape rock.  This is a perfectly good garden space that could grow lovely flowers for bee forage, color and scent, herbs for medicine or seasoning, or vegetable plants of many kinds.  But it has all this obnoxious rock in the way–and under that?  You guessed it–plastic.

Now I’ve gone and peeved off people who have landscape rock. Yes, I know–it’s low maintenance. And I do like rocks.  I just like them big and chunky.  As you can see, I have some of those to play with, too.

Anyhow, if the plastic is not too degraded, it should make it easier to get the bulk of that rock out of there.  Maybe I can use it to fill in some muddy areas along the side of my house.  I just mopped my kitchen floor this afternoon, and now I have a muddy trail of dog prints (um, OK, and a few me-prints).  Such is the life of the gardening household.

And BTW–Stattelman Lumber Company in Clinton totally rocks!  Not that everyone around here doesn’t know it, but those guys give some fantastic service–from giving me design advice to having my lumber delivered and neatly stacked in my garage a couple hours–not days–after I made the order. LOVE!

Anaerobic Decomposition

Fill one raised bed with animal manure and bedding mined from a foot-deep deposit in an old barn, hire two guys to walk on it for about a month to press out all the air, and what do you get when you dig it up?

A smell only a dog could love–equal parts old-fashioned floor-cleaner and soiled diaper sitting in a hot car.

I’m really glad my neighbors on either side have their houses shut up and their air conditioning going because my backyard is officially reeky.  I cleared the paint chips from the back part of the raised bed I built last fall and then started digging up the soil that had been seriously compacted during the house-painting process.

That “soil” was mostly the aforementioned mined brown gold, which didn’t smell bad when I got it–sure a little bit of ammonia odor, but it was mostly absorbed by the bedding contained in it, and the top part dried out pretty quickly and became completely odorless.  But once all the air got pressed out of it, the whole thing under that top crust turned into an anaerobic ammonia pancake.

I dug it out in three sections down to the landscape fabric I’d laid beneath. It was so tromped down, the texture of the fabric was imprinted on the underside of the big chunks I carved out with my shovel. Once I dug each section, I emptied a bag of hedge trimmings I offered to take off my neighbor’s hands (and keep out of the dump).

I’m hoping the carbon in those stems will serve to sequester some of the excess nitrogen contained in the manure/bedding mix. After the hedge trimmings, which also added loft (air–also good to avoid anaerobic stinkiness), I shoveled out the partially-decomposed contents of my compost barrel over the twigs, then pitched the manure chunks back on top, which broke them up at least partially on impact.

Out in the gardens, I often have more carbonaceous stemmy materials (from fall and spring clean-up) than nitrogenous green stuff–though the weeds I’m pulling are certainly helping bring that into balance.  Here in town, I’ve generally got plenty of nitrogen from all the kitchen scraps, but less abundant carbon unless it’s fall and I’m collecting leaves.

In Gardening When It Counts, Steve Solomon points out that the ideal C/N ratio (that of humus) is 12:1, and claims that spreading or composting with a lower ratio will burn off nutrients and kill microorganisms.

This is same thing that happens when you add nitrates as chemical fertilizer– it causes fast but weak growth (more susceptible to insect predation and disease) plus a lower overall nutrient value in the crop yield.

A higher C/N ratio takes longer to decompose, and the nitrogen is tied up as soil microorganisms need it to break down the carbon in order to reach that 12:1 balance. That’s why using wood chips (very high carbon) on paths works well to suppress weeds, but you should never use wood chips to mulch your vegetables because they simply won’t grow well, or sometimes at all.

Considering the low C/N ratio of the manure/urine-soaked bedding combo, I’m trying to add a little more carbon to my mix with the twigs in order to keep the nutrients in the bed from burning off as well as protecting my little buddies in the soil.

I’m tempted to mix in a little half-rotten straw, but I might not, as I’ve been tearing up lightweight brown cardboard cereal and pasta boxes and adding those to the contents of the compost barrel that’s now spread in the bed.

One good sign I noticed as I was carving out wedges of compacted manure and bedding was a great population of earthworms big and small–including some real lunkers. I haven’t seen earthworms that big in a long time.

They were happily tunneling their way through all that good stuff–now they’ll have even more tasty treats to make into good humus.

At any rate, that part of the raised bed, which wasn’t planted because it really wasn’t even close to full, will have to sit and get worked on by all the worms and microorganisms until next spring. The only thing I can foresee doing (if I can get my hands on any) is to throw a layer of topsoil over all the composting goodies.

It’ll be like icing on the cake!

Nearing Completion

I just finished unloading the second truck-full of manure into the raised bed expansion project.  I was hoping one more load after this one would do it–but it looks like it’s going to be two.  I also need to get about 18 or 19 more landscape blocks to finish the fourth layer of the wall along the backside.

Altogether, the project should come in under $100 total for four loads composted animal bedding, gas to pick them up, and a little layer of landscape fabric I bought in bulk at Tessman’s in Tea, SD.  The block was free, and the labor was me. We won’t count those chiropractor and massage therapy appointments.  😉

I could have got plain horse manure free as well, except for intensive labor of both loading and unloading it by hand, but the animal bedding with some straw mixed in is a better medium for planting in than pure horse manure, and the animal bedding from the barn doesn’t have so many weed seeds as a pile of horse manure sitting out in the middle of a paddock.  So, that saves some labor on the back end.

I’m in good shape at this point to start planting some garlic on the south side of the bed, below the sage bush.  I did put in one elephant garlic “golf ball” (the term I use to describe garlic that doesn’t form a head of cloves, but instead forms a single, enormous clove) in the hole where I removed my pot of rosemary when it started getting too cold at night.

I’ve got a few more of those elephant garlic “golf balls” to put in, plus I’ll plant a number of German White cloves all along the edges of the bed.  That might help keep the neighborhood cats out of there, though I’m probably going to have to start sprinkling cayenne along the edges as well to keep them out of their new favorite “litter box.”

I’m not sure if regular garlic ever forms those “golf balls” I’ve described–I’ve never seen them do it, but elephant garlic seems to do it fairly regularly, and those golf balls supposedly form the most enormous heads of garlic the next season, which is why specialty elephant garlic seed stock purveyors (Vito tells me) sell those golf balls at a premium.

A quick look at a Garden Web discussion on the subject tells me that the trigger for garlic to divide is cold, so mild winters might have this effect, and that elephant garlic is particularly susceptible to these non-dividing heads.  You can tell they’re going to be the “golf balls” before you dig them because they never form a central flower/seed head (scape).

Joining the Outside Wall

This morning, I finished cutting back the edge of soil left in the old herb bed after removing the old retaining wall.  I’d built that wall out of whatever I could find–broken bricks, cinder blocks, a few rocks–so this new wall looks much neater.  Still, I have a nice stack of materials–some of them not too shabby–to use on a future project.

Joining the Outside Wall

Joining the Outside Wall

After raking the soil and making it level (relatively speaking, as I’m working up a hill), I laid a strip of landscape fabric cut in half lengthwise, so it was about three feet wide before rolling the edges and fastening them down with landscape staples.  I’m thinking I’ll use the other half of the strip to line a path in the front yard.

Once the fabric was laid, I started laying the blocks along the handy yellow line woven into the middle of the fabric strip.  The entire bed is now joined, and I had enough blocks to do a double layer the whole way around the outside.  I plan on making the back yard part of the bed four blocks high, then tapering down to three and two as I work my way up the hill (and the bed gets more shallow).

I haven’t removed the old retaining wall on the inside by the corner of the house yet because I’ll need to sift through that soil a little more carefully to remove stray apple- and chocolate mint roots that I don’t want to distribute throughout the entire garden.

I’m sure I’ll miss a couple, but a couple are easy to dig out–I’m pulling some of the really big, deep plastic pots out of the basement to sink down into the bed to contain those invaders, as I’ve learned that the trade gallons you get at nurseries aren’t big or deep enough to keep their roots from sneaking out into the rest of the bed.

The plan at this point is to allow the big sage bush in the middle of the old bed to demarcate the end of the perennial herbs on the uphill side and the beginning of the vegetables and annual herbs on the downhill side.

I had to cut the sage’s foliage back a bit in the front to put the new wall in–I almost threw it all in the compost, but then went back, trimmed the nice tops, and threw them in the dehydrator.  That bush will make the whole project look more “finished” when it fills out next year–sending a few silvery branches just over the edge of the new wall and “softening” the aspect a bit.

Making the sage the dividing line will mean moving a few plants–the licorice mint (also in a few of my other gardens, so I can just pull it out if my son, who loves it, lets me), the lime mint, oregano, chocolate mint, chives, and the English thyme.

I might just compost the oregano, as it’s not a very good one, or move it, along with a couple other things that can stand a little more shade, to another one of the gardens around the house.  The rosemary will move as well, but I’ll just bring it inside for the winter now, and figure out later where its summer home will be.

The small bed to the south of my front steps needs some sprucing up–maybe some of those “homeless” herb plants and perhaps a small expansion in size based on where the natural path has formed (about a foot out from the bed’s border).

That seems like a reasonable place to put at least one of the mint plants–probably peppermint.  It gets a good amount of light–mostly morning and a bit of afternoon–and I need something perennial to camouflage the rosebush, that tends to look a little shabby around the base come late summer.


One project at a time, Rebecca!  One project at a time.

Further Progress

Yesterday, when I posted on the list of tasks still ahead for the raised bed expansion project, I forgot an important one: digging out the strawberries.

Bucket o' Berries

Bucket o' Berries

When we moved into this house in August of 2003, there were three strawberry plants along the otherwise barren south side of the house.  Two survived that first winter.  Five years later (and a few incidents of me ripping out the invading runners from all parts of the herb garden), I dug out and transplanted close to fifty strawberry plants into the country gardens.

I don’t know the variety, but they are an everbearing type, and their fruit is medium-sized and sweet.  However, the plants’ desire to take over the entire herb bed will not be fulfilled–I have other plans.  They’ve now got two whole rows in the northeast garden, and they’ve got three more rows to expand into after that.

Deconstructing the Edge

Deconstructing the Edge

This afternoon, after having transplanted the strawberries, grabbed a couple of tools and another load of blocks, I started taking down the retaining wall of the old bed and digging the edge back to lay the landscape fabric.  I didn’t get as far as I’d hoped (class work and a farmers market board meeting), but I’m hoping the have the bulk of the project finished by the end of the weekend.