Putting the Garden to Bed (compost, adding new beds, bulbs, and there’s no place like home)

Gardening need not be expensive nor incredibly difficult.  By necessity I have come up with ways to make widespread, prolific gardens quickly and easy on the homestead pocket.

The first thing that is imperative to a great garden is compost.  Compost is one of those things that still baffles folks a little.  You do not need a fancy, turning contraption to make compost.  Doug screwed together five pallets to make two open spaces and it is tucked into a far corner of the yard.

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The chicken coop certainly adds to it.  In the fall the chicken bedding gets changed and the soiled straw goes into compartment one.  For six months I add leaves, coffee grounds, lint from the dryer, food the chickens don’t like, and it builds up.  Repeat in the spring, only use compartment 2.  Put on the garden beds what you began six months ago and do this in the spring and fall.  I do not turn the compost or water it or do anything to it really.  It just does it’s thing.  If it smells, add dry material like straw or newspaper or leaves.  If it is not decomposing at all, add more wet items like food scraps or grass.  Let the chickens play in it, they scratch it up nicely.

Time to clean out the garden beds.  I let the plants go to seed.  Next year Mother Earth will grow dill, basil, carrots, spinach, arugula, and many other plants for me.  Everything is pretty well frozen and quite deceased so out they go and into the compost.  Perennials and winter greens stay put.

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Add a layer of compost.  Then a layer of warm straw.  Not thick enough to suppress weeds (because the water won’t get in) but enough to keep the soil cozy.

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When we first moved in.

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Now

I have a third of an acre here and I am only gardening a quarter of it.  But, we haven’t even been in this house two years; the changes in this property over that time have been impressive.  As always, I want more garden beds!

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These easy beds create abundant crops and very few weeds!

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This is my own design; a very easy gardening bed that combines many great techniques.  Lay out cardboard where you want your bed.  No need to rototill or disturb the beneficial guys underground.  Ring with wood you have on hand, rocks, bricks, anything really, use your imagination!  Then top with a 2 inches of thick straw.  You can add your compost and soil now or wait until spring.

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I am adding a bed that runs alongside the other one and putting an arbor over them.  Next year I will grow pumpkins over them (and will try to outsmart the squash bugs).  It will create an enchanted walk through that leads to the house or the gardens while freeing up space in the garden.  Pumpkin Hollow Farm is moving up!

Plant tulip and daffodil bulbs and lots of garlic cloves.

Everything looks great!  The garden is put to bed, the new spring beds are ready for next year, and the perennials are snug in straw.  Bulbs are planted, muscles are tired, and the farmer is happy.

All this wondering what to do now that I don’t have my businesses.  Should I go to school?  Should I get a job outside my writing?  Should I…?  And as I spent the day hauling compost, designing beds, standing in the next herb garden, dreaming, being present, working hard, I realized that this is what I want to do.  This is where my heart is happy.  At home.  Creating home.

The New Farm (starting from scratch)

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I always have good intentions.  I spent the winter learning everything I could about Permaculture and how to incorporate it into our new farm.  I was on fire about it!  The inner garden we did not dig.  We piled on six inches of straw.  To plant I opened up part of the straw along rows to fill in with organic garden soil and plant in that.  The beds will stay well mulched.  The new garden soil will be covered around the plants as soon as they are up and strong.  Eventually the whole garden will settle in and each year we will just add new layers of soiled straw and leaves and let the years work themselves into great soil.

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I saved boxes all winter and threw them into the garden.  Once they were all broken down they sure didn’t cover much space between the beds.  The weeds are peeking around it.  I would need a lot more boxes, and a box cutter to cut them to size, and a lot more patience.  More straw, I think, is the answer for the remaining paths (that is my answer to everything).

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Then I looked out upon the large pumpkin patch we are creating.  It will be a Three Sisters garden complete with five different kinds of pumpkins crawling along the ground and three different heirloom beans climbing organic sweet corn stalks.  The grass is now thick and I am sadly lacking in time or cardboard boxes.  I think we will have to rototill.

The thing about Permaculture is one starts slowly.  Creating one bed at a time.  We now farm for a living.  I have a half acre of vegetables, fruit, and herbs to finish getting in.  I don’t have time to build raised beds for ridiculously long rows of pumpkins or wait six months for a lasagna garden!

I won’t be able to do the whole farm in Permaculture this year.  Some lessons are best taught over time.  Long, windy initial rows will be rototilled into the never before planted area of the yard.  I will add aged horse manure and gardening soil and plant.  I will mulch well.  We will have a good comparison between the inner no-till garden and the traditional tilled rows this year.

Next year I hope not to have to till.  I will keep working up and adding layers of compost.  This year though, we will just do what we know, pray for Mother Nature’s blessing, light the candle for San Isidro (the patron saint of farming), and enjoy all the blessings that come from our humble patch of rented land.

Thank goodness it is spring.

Empowering Young Farmers and Humbling the Farmer (and how to design garden beds)

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I received a message wondering if I could use the help of twenty girl scouts.  The farm they were supposed to help out decided they didn’t need volunteers.  Not only can I use volunteers, but I always jump at the opportunity to reach out to kids.  It is staggering to me the minute amount of people who have chosen to grow food and the even smaller amount of women that have opted for this job.  I don’t remember in school it even being an option.  I was told I could be anything I want, a stay at home mom, a doctor, a lawyer, a nun, but never was the word farmer uttered.

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I think it is so important to show kids that living simply and farming is indeed a real career and lifestyle choice.  So I stood there thinking of all the ways I would inspire and encourage troop 2251 to do great things as they pulled in.  My breath caught and tears threatened to come.  Two cars of smiling girls were followed by a truck and trailer.  Stacked a top that trailer were twenty bales of straw for mulch and twenty bags of organic potting soil.  They had raised money to help out a farm.  What a blessing, what a group of angels that descended on our humble farm!

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I welcomed them to Pumpkin Hollow Farm and told them a bit about our simple lifestyle.  I introduced them to the animals.  They swooned over the baby lambs and my granddaughter, Maryjane.  They looked for all the kittens in the house and I showed them the wood cook stove.  We then set off to work.  We had a daunting task, turn the barren patch of dirt that was once a thriving garden at one time into a ready-to-plant plot.

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We gathered all the cardboard boxes that I had thrown in there over the winter, flattened them, and laid them beneath the paths.  I explained how we would make a one foot path, then a four foot bed, and repeat that all the way across.  They didn’t have to be straight beds.  Gardening is art, I told them, so they could make the beds wavy like little rivers, or use interesting items to line the path.

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The girl scout leaders, the girls, and I worked diligently under the first hot day of spring to create a masterpiece.  We brought over loads of bricks from the side of the outbuildings and made wavy streams of paths.  Discarded wood and branches lined the way.  I dared the girls to find the most creative piece to line the beds with.  My Christmas three that the goats stripped clean now lines of the beds!

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We had lunch beneath the pine trees and took in the views.  The little girls took turns carrying Maryjane around.  She has been in heaven this week with so many kids around.

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We then laid the twenty bales of straw thickly onto the planting beds.  All I need to do is lay a thick layer of wood chips on the paths and place stepping stones at strategic places across the beds to get across easily.  This plot will feed many, many people.  I am ever so grateful for their help.

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They taught me about generosity and hard work.  They helped a farmer that they didn’t even know.

Planting Trees and Rented Farms

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We are quite out of room but I found yet another spot to grow things.  In another part of the driveway, lining the raised bed garden, we prepared four spots for trees.  We put down cardboard in a 3×3 square and topped it with three inches of mulch, namely soiled half broken down straw from the chicken and goat pens and coffee grounds.  We watered it but Mother Nature has taken over the watering and each day gives it a good soak.

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Two weeks ago the ground was hard.  Only a few inches of ground could be disturbed.  The wet cardboard and breaking down compost is creating a wonderland beneath the soil.  The moisture is staying in and the ground should be cool.  Tunnels of earth worms might be frolicking about and creating air and fertilizer beneath.  In a few months we will plant four fruit trees.  We will cut through the center and dig just deep enough to set the bundle of roots in then quickly cover it again with more wood chips, mulch, and compost.  The cardboard will continue to break down and the nutrients will feed the trees.  In the meantime, groupings of mushrooms that look to be homes for fairies are growing in the mulch.  (Does anyone know what kind they are?)

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We are renting a farm.  This makes us vagabonds in a sense.  A feeling of permanence is never with us.  An underlying worry plagues us if we are not careful.  Will we need to move?  Should we move?  Is there a better farm?  Is there a place in the city that we could farm and help more people?  Should we stay where we are because we love so many folks around here?  Would I even be able to get a hold of the landlord to ask?  These questions can usually be shhhed with a glass of wine.  I try to not think and let the pieces of our life fall into place as they may.  In the meantime, we are planting trees.  Permanent?  Yes, but a gift to the earth and the next occupants of fresh apples can only be a positive.  And perhaps if we are here long enough, we will enjoy a few harvests.

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If you rent a space, do not rule out about making improvements or planting trees and perennials.  They will gift those that come after you, the wildlife, the bees and birds, and yourself while you live in that spot.  The world is ever changing, as are our lives, and there are no guarantees that we will stay in one place, even if one owns a piece of property.  For it is never really ours.  Everything on this planet is on loan and our lives are in constant change, so enjoy where you are now and perhaps plant a tree!

Year Round Greens

You know you are a homesteader when things like poop that doesn’t have to be composted excites you.  Alpaca poo isn’t “hot” like other types of manure so it doesn’t have to be composted for six months.  We filled a wheel barrel full of alpaca droppings and took it over to one of the raised beds to spread.

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Now in November I had every intention of getting every bed cleaned out properly, covering them with compost then mulch for their long winter’s nap.  A good kink in my shoulder decided otherwise.  It would have been nice to have it all done, but it will surely wait for me, I decided.  So, on the bed that we started putting manure on, I noted emerald green from the patch of otherwise browned kale, chard, and collards.  Tiny Swiss chard leaves, two inches high were trying with all their might to grow.  It certainly was an epiphany for me.  If I cover the greens well with loose straw next year, I could be harvesting well into January!  That is without the help of a greenhouse, hoop house, or cold frame.  An easy way to extend the season.

Since I did not expect any more greens after November, I had been diligently snipping greens and freezing them.  No blanching necessary.  I have no desire to eat slimy food…ever.  All you do is pack sandwich bags with greens, release the air, and zip closed.  Put in freezer.  Now, the next day it will be frozen solid.  Don’t let it thaw!  Just crush it between your fingers so that the greens are crumbles.  When you need greens, crush the ones on top more and sprinkle handfuls into whatever you are cooking.  Replace the rest in freezer immediately.

I have been putting greens in all kinds of soups, in omelets, scrambled eggs, on potatoes to be roasted, and in sautés.  There are innumerable ways to use greens and the nutrients are especially desired this time of year.  The perfect blend of calcium and magnesium to make it bio-available, iron, A, C, E, and K, full of anti-oxidants and cancer killing properties.

Greens are one of the foods that I would have with me if I were trapped on an island…along with margaritas.  Is that a food?

To Mulch or Not to Mulch

…That is the question.  Shakespearian cliché, I know, but gardening brings out the drama in me.  Oh, whoa is me, doth that weeds?  Crap.  I thought I just killed thy evil heads a fortnight ago.

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I mulched the potatoes as I placed hills over them, keeping their little round orbs out of sunlight.  Green potatoes not being the most appealing, or healthiest, and covered them with straw.  I haven’t had to weed them a bit.  They keep snug in their golden carpet.

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I looked at the carrots and didn’t want to mulch between every single feathery stem.  I didn’t know if all the seeds had come up yet in other beds and didn’t want to smother new seedlings.  However, as you can see, I have lost the row to the pumpkins as the purslane and everything else has decided that compost and daily waterings are divine and they have taken up the property.  Mulching around pumpkins would be very smart indeed.

Combined with the trenching technique I told you I was going to try, I think I have a fine idea for next year’s garden.  (I know, I know, it’s September, why on earth am I planning next year’s garden?….It’s just what I do, can’t help it.  My heart doth lie in the beauty of the flower’s face, in its tines of leafy elegance, and in its delicious enslavement of promises of food.  I think on it all year.)

The trenching technique works great.  I planted some things in a two inch trench.  It is incredibly dry here and we are not at risk of fungal diseases or overwatering.  I simply fill the trench with water in two seconds to the top, and it soaks down into the roots, no run off.  The wind just hits its tops as the plants try to grow and they are strong by time they get out of the trench.  The roots are kept in a bit of shelter and are so easily watered.  Now, if I mulch around the trenches, I will cut down on work, water, and weeds (my nemesis).

Tis beautiful to plan, and so beautiful to behold, the garden’s ever changing beauty and demure, as well as its challenge and careful planning.  I say mulch!