By Heather Jo Flores
It's that wonderful time of the year when leaves are falling, plants are decomposing and moisture is in the air. A perfect time for mulching! There is never a bad time for mulch, but with so much surplus organic matter available, it makes sense to harness those resources and use them to warm and protect your garden for the winter.
Mulch builds humus. The word "human" comes from the same roots as humus, meaning earth, and in fact our bodies do contain many of the same elements and microorganisms as fertile organic soil. Soil health is linked to our own health, and soil communities bear remarkable resemblance to the flora and fauna in our own guts.
A diverse, thriving intestinal community keeps us humans healthy, and the same goes for the soil ecosystem.
A layer of mulch, whether up around perennials and fruit trees or as a cover for next year's vegetable beds, serves several important purposes. Mulch covers topsoil, keeping it dark and moist, which encourages soil organisms to come to the surface where they eat, breed and poop. Mulch provides habitat for worms and larger insects that travel across the garden in search of shelter. If they find your mulch, they'll move in, further increasing your soil diversity and in turn, garden health. All of this micro-activity is akin to having a teeny-tiny compost machine that cultivates every inch of your soil, increasing organic matter and aeration and building a nutrient-rich foundation for the garden.
Mulch retains water. It acts as a sponge, soaking up the rainfall and slowly releasing it into the soil below. Larger mulch piles can be shaped into mini-berms and used to direct water away from the storm drain and back onto your site. Or dig small swales — shallow trenches on contour — and fill them with a thick mulch to create water-retaining borders all around the garden.
Mulch keeps plant roots warm, which is especially helpful for those varieties that do OK in a temperate climate but would probably prefer a slightly warmer climate, like pomegranate, lemon, bananas and many fancy flowering bulbs. For these plants, I like to use larger rocks and river gravel under a leaf mulch. The rocks retain heat, the leaves insulate. But be careful not to pile the leaves too high up the trunk because they can cause rot. Focus on warming the roots just below the soil surface, spreading out from the plant.
In addition to rocks and leaves, there are several other types of mulch that are easily found in the area. Straw bales can be purchased at any farm store, or try the fairgrounds after an event — they often use bales for temporary seating and in parking areas, and you might be able to get them for free.
I like a thick cover of straw mulch over the top of my compost pile and on vegetable beds. I am not crazy about the aesthetics of straw, however, and so I don't tend to use it on perennial beds. It does make a wonderful insulator, because each of those little pieces of straw is a hollow tube filled with air that gets warmed by the slow decomposition. Excellent for covering garlic beds over winter, or around winter brassicas. Don't use hay! Hay is green and has tons of grass seeds that will grow all over your garden! Make sure you ask for "straw."
Cardboard and newspaper can be good options for mulching larger areas, especially if you want to kill grass or weeds. Peel the mulch off in the spring and dig beds, or cover the paper mulch with a thick layer of organic matter (leaves, straw, wood chips, or a blend of them all) and plant right into it. Be careful that you don't mulch over bindweed or Bermuda grass, though — it won't kill them and they'll make a thick mat underneath that will choke out your plant roots later.
Wood chips, sawdust and bark can be beautiful under perennials, but they can be expensive to buy. You can sometimes find free sawdust at a local wood shop. I like to use it for blueberries and strawberries, because they love that extra acid. You can also get free wood chips through www.chipdrop.in, where you can register your house, indicate what type of chips you prefer, and make yourself available as a drop site for local tree services that need to dump their shredded surplus.
A final word of warning: Some mulches, especially straw and leaves, can harbor slugs and snails. So watch out for that, especially around baby vegetable plants. In another post, I discuss natural ways to deter these slimy pests. Until then, happy mulching!
#permaculture #freepermaculture #permaculturewomen #growyourown #foodnotlawns #DIY
By Heather Jo Flores
There are plenty of good reasons to develop a skill set for growing food in small spaces. Maybe you only have a tiny balcony with sun for half the day? Or a hot, paved driveway but no other yard? Perhaps you're in student housing? Or maybe it's more of a time constraint: You'd like to have an expansive garden but you really only want to work on it for an hour a week. Or perhaps you just don't really eat that many vegetables and you'd rather just keep it small and simple.
Thoughtful, specific design is the primary way to get the most yield from the least square feet. Once you understand the principles of building living layers in time, space and function, you will be able to pull more out of gardens of all sizes. When it comes to designing small and/or container gardens, the three most important strategies are using microclimates, creating vertical space and avoiding waste.
Make use of microclimates.
A microclimate is a spot that is hotter, wetter, cooler, sunnier, drier, shadier, more sheltered from the wind or a combination of any of these. This information is crucial to the design. For example, when you have determined where the hot spot is in your space, you will know where to plant the tomatoes and other summer vegetables like squash, beans, peppers and basil. Into the shady, cooler spots will go the peas and salad greens. Spots with mottled sun? That's where I'd put the kale.
Learn the microclimates of your site. Don't assume that a sunny patio is sunny in every spot, or that it's all the same temperature. The shady backside of a large south-facing rock will be a different microclimate than the space on the other side of the rock, and plants of different needs will thrive in each spot. Or not. You can also change microclimates by painting things white (to reflect the heat), or by placing rocks, bowls of water and other sun-absorbing items next to plants. You can make shade or build a wind break. Use your imagination to create new opportunities.
Maximize margins and vertical space.
Google "vertical gardens" for a fun-filled evening of geeked-out garden inspiration. Build shelves, boxes, hangers, free-standing salad walls. Make note of microclimates up high, in corners, hanging from trees. Make vertical plans. Make plans in every direction. That tiny ledge you didn't notice before might be the perfect spot for a pot of oregano.
Think of the garden in 10 layers: roots, ground-covers, annuals, biennials, canes, vines, herbs, shrubs, small trees and tall trees. You don't have to use every layer but it helps to consider them all. Remember air circulation is just as important as soil and water, so don't congest the vertical space, just use it the same way you would a horizontal garden, leaving plenty of elbow room for plants to mature.
If you already have a garden and are revamping it to make it more efficient, clean out as much as you can so that you can come close to creating a blank slate. Be experimental but don't waste space or time. Make realistic attempts to raise food that already grows in the area. Keep the garden weeded, swept and free of clutter that infringes on the growing area.
In an urban area or a college housing situation, you might discover that gardening in built boxes and found containers is the best approach. You can grow food in just about any kind of container, as long as it has drainage and isn't made of something toxic that could leach into your food.
I do NOT recommend growing food in tires, railroad ties, painted lumber or treated wood for that last reason. I also do not recommend using terra-cotta pots unless you paint both the inside and the outside of the pot with a water-based latex. (Spray paint works great.) The clay pulls water away from the plants and, unless you live a super rainy place, you don't want your containers to dry out so quickly.
There are many pros to container gardening. They're temporary and easy to move, they can be done on any porch, patio, terrace, rooftop, houseboat, flatbed or driveway. If you include beneficial herbs and flowers in your containers, they will beautify your life year-round. I don't see any actual cons to container gardening but there are a few important things to consider:
Soil and Fertility.
The more yield you pull out of a section of soil, the more often you need to replenish that soil with fresh nutrients. This is especially true in container gardens because they are isolated and don't have access to the subtle yet powerful and extensive microbial network in the ground. Top-dress containers twice a year with fresh, finished compost and/or composted horse manure, then mulch on top of that with a mulch appropriate to the crop. (See "Mulch Much?" Nov. 26, 2015.)
Container plants need excellent drainage or the soil will get anaerobic. Drill holes in the bottom of the container and spread a layer of gravel to help the water percolate. Then layer in your fertile soil, plants and mulch. Containers dry out quickly, as do hotter microclimates, so keep that in mind and water about twice as often as you would with plants in the ground.
It might seem like you can get away with it, but container gardens that don't get enough water will not yield. Visit them daily with the hose and tune yourself into the needs of your little garden. And that's one of the great benefits of having small gardens: You have the time to really get to know each plant.
Weeds and Companion Plants.
It makes sense to plant a few different things next to each other in a pot, to create growing guilds that complement each other. Try tomatoes, marigolds and carrots together. But keep in mind that too many plants in one pot will cause all of them to suffer. As a general rule, try to provide at least two gallons of soil for each guild of three to four plants, layered in space and time. Meanwhile, all containers should be weeded meticulously so the chosen crops don't have to compete for water and nutrients. We'll get more into guilds and companion planting next month.
#permaculture #freepermaculture #permaculturewomen #growyourown #foodnotlawns #DIY
with Rowen White
Excerpted from our double certificate design course.
The focus of this mini class is to walk through the planning of the seed garden as it is integrated into your larger farm or garden. Integrating seed stewardship into an existing garden isn’t difficult or complicated, but it does take a bit of foresight and planning.
If you are a beginner on this seed keeper path, it is best to keep it simple and make the commitment to grow one or two varieties of seed in the season. I will be offering guidelines today on how to steward varieties with care from seed to seed.
Today, following this worksheet, we will create a constellation of all the considerations that we must understand as we lay the groundwork for our seed crops. Some seed crops are grown in the same manner as their food components. These are crops like tomatoes, peppers, squash, and dry beans. With these crops that double as food crops, the only considerations that you need to make is the timing of planting, to ensure that the seeds ripen in the fruit. You also need to consider isolation strategies that may be needed to ensure varietal purity. I will cover these topics briefly today, but you can dive deeper into them as part of the Plant Midwifery lesson in my season long distance learning module, Seed Seva.
I suggest you pick a seed variety that has special significance to you. This seed work is about restoring relationships, and the process of following a seed crop through the cycle will deepen your connection and relationship to these plants.
Part of drawing out the map of intentions for following a plant through the life cycles is to begin to learn what I call plant midwifery. You will be learning the many layers of the plant’s reproductive cycles, as you work with and help steward life from one generation to the next through the stewardship of seed. You will only touch the surface of these reproductive cycles today. As you plant and move into the sprouting and flowering phases of the season, you will learn more about the diversity of ways in which seeds create seeds from their blossoms, and how we can learn from such expressions and patterns.
But first, I want to walk you through my own process of planning my seed stewardship projects.I would recommend that you get yourself a copy of The Seed Garden by Lee Buttala and Shanyn Siegel, and Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth. Both books will be a great reference for you throughout the season.
This is a good time to remind you that there is a lot to learn in this mentorship path of seed keeper. I have been stewarding seeds for 19 years and I still learn every single season. Don’t let the abundance of information overwhelm you. Allow it to seep in slowly, like water on thirsty soil. You may find yourself going back over these lessons and books in years to come, to find new perspective and insight. Be patient with yourself.
Things that may be helpful for you to have as we begin to fill out the seed garden plan are maps or layouts of your current garden or permaculture site. If you are just beginning, just sketch out a dream garden map, as a visual that we will use for this exercise. Get out your garden journal and begin to make a map of your current garden, and where you intend to plant different crops.
It’s also helpful at this point if you have maps of your garden from the last year to refer to so that you can take into account crop rotation. You will want to plant heavy feeding crops in areas where legumes or light feeders were grown last year. Ensure that you don’t plant the same crop type in the same bed or soil the next year to prevent disease and viral buildup.
Please print out your seed garden plan worksheet, and use it to follow along with my inquiry in the video.
The key is to start slow and steady, and to make sure you are always set up to handle stewardship of the varieties you have been given. This is a long-term relationship that you are beginning with these plants, and it’s better to be more focused than to have more than you can handle.
I always begin my planning with my field map, my inventory sheet, and the seed garden plan worksheet. I start with sketching things out, but innovative digital garden planning software is available.
Begin to fill it out with the basic information, including variety, name, etc. I suggest that you put both of these worksheets in a garden journal or 3 ring binder, as you will be referencing this and filling in more areas of the sheet as you go throughout the season.
Don’t skip this step!
This is a good place to catch details you will be writing in your garden journal, and will help you establish good habits around recordkeeping.
Growing for seed and growing for food is sometimes very different. You will be thinking through a number of different variables to assess if there is anything different you will need to do for your specific seed crop varieties. Plants for seed often require more space than for food production.
What is a good population size for healthy seed?
There are a couple rules of thumb for figuring out how many plants of each variety you need for good healthy seed. For seed varieties that are self-pollinated, you need less plants, usually between 1-20 for good varietal maintenance. For cross-pollinated varieties, you need usually between 15-500+ for healthy seed.
Again, you don’t need to worry too much about this at this very moment, and you can see how it's much easier to begin with self-pollinated crops, depending on the size and scale of your garden or farm. With selfers, you simplify and decrease the number of variables that affect your seed. That said, some of my most treasured seed relatives are cross-pollinated, and they are not much more difficult, they just require a little bit more planning.
You can see in the seed garden chart that they have two columns for population size, one for home varietal maintenance, and a higher number of genetic preservation. I would in most cases be guided by the home varietal maintenance numbers.
Do I need to consider varietal isolation?
If your seed variety is a cross-pollinated species, you will need to consider isolation. The simplest form of isolation is to make sure that no other variety of the same crop type is grown in close proximity. For instance, if I am growing a sunflower or a corn variety, I want to make sure they are grown far enough away from another variety of the same crop type.
You will also see guidelines for isolation distance in the chart.
I will note here that these charts are rough guidelines. I can grow two varieties of corn much closer in distance because of tall tree hedgerows which block the pollen drift and also taking into consideration the hillside and the way that the wind blows consistently. I have had great success growing corn only 1000 feet apart, but there are trees and a prevailing wind that goes away from the corn crops and not between them. Over the seasons you will begin to read the lay of the land and see what works well within your landscape.
Another strategy that we use is to space out the planting timing of each variety. We do this with corn, and it works wonderfully.
Ask yourself, do I need to consider how much space each mature seed plant will need?
As I said before, some plants produce edible fruit and vegetable at the same time the seed is ready. Things like watermelon, tomato, dry bean, pepper, etc. These don’t require different spacing for food and seed.
But some seed crops extend beyond the normal stage of edibility, and you may need to increase spacing. For lettuce, I normally plant four heads 4-6 inches between plants, but for the seed phase they need more like 12-14 inches. In this case, I simply harvest every other one, and allow the remaining heads to go for seed.
Seed crops get rather wild and unruly!! See these mustard green seed pods spreading out all over! Note the stakes and trellis twine! We will be learning all methods of handling seed crops as they grow. In your seed garden plan and your seed record, fill out with how many of each plant you will need, and what sort of spacing they will need in your beds.
For your own personal homework make a list of ten varieties of either flowers, vegetables, herbs or grains that you have an interest in learning to grow from seed to seed. Grow things that have been historically grown in your region. Look for heirlooms that have been grown in your bioregion. Seeds are not one-size-fits-all.
Out of the list of ten, narrow down to one variety that you feel drawn to steward this coming season. These may be seeds you already have in your home.
This miniclass is excerpted from the Holistic Seed Stewardship module of our double-certificate design course, taught by Rowen White.
Rowen White is a Seed Keeper from the Mohawk community of Akwesasne and a passionate activist for seed sovereignty. She is the educational director and founder of the Sierra Seeds, an innovative organic seed cooperative focusing on local seed production and education, based in Nevada City CA. Rowen is the current National Program Coordinator and advisor for the Indigenous Seed Keeper Network. She teaches creative seed training immersions around the country within tribal and small farming communities. She weaves stories of seeds, food, culture and sacred Earth stewardship on her blog, Seed Songs.
Further reading on this topic:
Breeding Organic Vegetables, Rowen White. (This is a FREE e-book for you!)
Seed to Seed, Suzanne Ashworth. The seed saver's standard reference that gives information on saving all the common vegetable seeds. An important book to have if you're saving seeds of heirloom varieties.
The Seed Garden, Lee Buttala and Shanyn Siegel. An important book to have if you're saving seeds of heirloom varieties. Published by Seed Savers Exchange.
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