I’ve talked a bit about food and shared some projects, but I haven’t yet shared about another passion of mine: gardening! I’m not much into flowers apart from insectiary/medicinal flowers, so don’t ask me about how to grow roses or ranunculus well, but I do have some experience with vegetable and berry gardening. When we lived in Germany, we got our feet wet with a sizable garden where we experimented with corn, various kinds of squash, strawberries, grapes, raspberries, beans, peas, carrots, onions, garlic, lettuces, and even a banana plant (utter fail as you can imagine)!
So, how do you have a successful garden? You have to have good soil. Plants will grow in many different kinds of soils, and once you have some experience, you get a feel for which plants can survive in dry, clayey, or sandy soils. But until then, it’s always a good idea to try and plant in a loamy soil full of organic material. Since organic dirt is super expensive, if you have some time and access to cheap materials, you can make your own organic dirt while simultaneously building magnificent soil structure and biodiversity. The secret? Sheet mulching.
This graphic is what Toby Hemenway (author of Gaia’s Garden) calls bomb-proof sheet mulch. If you build this–in either raised beds or right on the ground–you will have the most beautiful soil, full of life and with great structure. So how does it work? Well, you’ve probably heard of compost, and that it’s supposed to be great for gardens. You’ve probably also heard that to make a really good compost you have to have a good ratio of green-to-brown components (too much green = wet, rotting smell; too much brown = dry stuff that won’t decompose). This sheet mulch provides the correct ratios of green-to-brown components, enabling a fairly quick, and nutrient-dense decomposition.
To get nutrients into plants/food, you need nutrients in the soil, obviously. You also don’t want your nutritious plants to be completely eaten by bugs, leaving none for you. Commercial farmers solve this problem by spraying pesticides to get rid of any bugs that would attack the plants (and thereby killing almost ALL bugs in the air and soil), and by adding fertilizers to the soil to compensate for the lack of soil life and structure that normally produces the nutrients (the soil life they just killed with pesticides). So what’s the non-chemical solution? Make a happy place for soil life, and they will come, inhabit, multiply, and create healthy soil structure. This will also attract beneficial predatory insects that can kill the bugs that want to eat your food.
Taking the time to do this up front means a whole lot less work for you in the long run: weeds will pull out easily (or not survive, because they don’t like rich soil), the soil will retain moisture so you don’t have to water as often, the beneficial insects will increase soil fertility in the ground so you don’t need to add fertilizers, and you’ll get delicious food right in your backyard.
We did the lazy man’s version of sheet mulching when we lived in Germany. We couldn’t do too much simply because the area we were covering was large and we couldn’t amass enough materials. But when my parents wanted to have a little hobby garden in northern California, complete with beautiful redwood raised beds, we wanted to go whole-hog and get them set up for years of fertility. We gave the above graphic to the guy building the raised beds and he complied with it almost exactly (I don’t think he added any soil amendments, but did include chicken wire to keep gophers out). It looks like it would be really high, but it decomposes quickly and shrinks to, oh, less than half the original height.
This kind of mulching is good for an area that you know you’ll want to plant in about a year. It will kill grass and weeds, and can even be placed on concrete! After letting the mulch do its thing for a about 8-12 months, we were finally ready to plant. You can definitely use seeds and plant directly in this, or use seeds to make your own plant starts somewhere inside your house, but since my mom had never planted anything before, we wanted to see results a little bit more quickly. So we went to a nearby nursery and picked up some organic starts to experiment with and planted them! You generally want to consider how high the plants will grow, and try to put those at the northern side of your garden so they don’t cast too much shade over shorter plants, but this area gets SO much sun most of the day, we didn’t really have to consider that too much.
So this is what the garden looked like when we planted the starts:
On the left we’ve got (front to back) kale, green onions, beets and an artichoke (one of the few veggies that is a perennial, which helps add to soil structure because it isn’t changed out multiple times a year). There’s a row of carrot seeds that aren’t visible in this picture. On the right we have a few different kinds of lettuce, arugula, spinach and another artichoke.
I’m back up at the house now after a couple of months and checked out how things look now!
See how huge the kale and artichoke have grown! You can’t even see the beet leaves! I’ve never grown kale before, so I didn’t know how tall it would grow. The kale and artichoke are probably overshadowing the beets a bit, but the beets seem generally happy. And the carrots just need another month or so and they’ll be just perfect! On the right you can see that the lettuce has just grown huge, but that the arugula and spinach have bolted (gone to seed). So we tore those out, cutting off the seed pods before throwing the rest of the plants into our compost pile (don’t want to be planting arugula and spinach every time we use the finished compost!).
So all of that grew without any fertilizer or pesticides, just sun and water, and whatever fertility the soil held! And the the soil is just TEEMING with life. We had thrown some old bolted radish on the beds, and when I picked them up, I saw probably about 100 different insects scurrying around trying to get out of the sun, and that was just in one square foot of space! And you wouldn’t believe the earthworms: large, plentiful earthworms…a gardener’s dream!
After a quick trip to the nursery, I picked up 3 different kinds of tomatoes, 2 kinds of bell peppers, some sweet corn, basil, and some romaine to fill in where the arugula and spinach bolted. Here’s how the garden looks now:
I’ve never had success with peppers or tomatoes before (it’s not hot enough in Germany for peppers, and it was too wet and cold the year we tried tomatoes), so I’m hoping SOMEthing will work out. With the soaker lines that are installed in the beds, I’m thinking everything will be just fine!
Is this the only way to garden? No. Is this a good, lazy way to garden? Yes. Over the years we’re going to need to add more compost from the pile out back, and in reality the soil should probably be mulched with straw so it doesn’t get dried out so quickly. But with that bomb-proof sheet mulch we have going, the plants are just super happy. If you want to learn more about lazy gardening (i.e. good garden design), do some research on permaculture, and check out Gaia’s Garden that I mentioned above; it’s a great intro to permaculture.
What’s your favorite veggie garden food? How many times did you fail before you succeeded?