Three-Day Gardening Extravaganza

February 24, 2012 at 7:21 am (Eleanor, goings-on, Other, Vancouver) (, , , )

Apart from a five-minute hail storm that caught me out yesterday, the Vancouver weather has just graced me with three consecutive days in the garden.  Days one and two were transplant-and-cover days.  I’m using bent heavy-gauge wires to support a layer of landscaping fabric that should protect the young plants.

In The Winter Harvest Handbook, Eliot Coleman writes that keeping winter crops covered with cold frames or row covers boosts their micro-climate by one USDA zone (two, if you grow them covered in a greenhouse).  Besides keeping crops warmer, cold frames protect them from drying winds and direct sun that can thaw frosted leaves too quickly and cause cell-wall damage.

On day one of the extravaganza, I transplanted young mixed lettuces, spinach, and some onions (to maybe deter a few of the buggies).  On day two (yesterday), I transplanted lots of leeks and a kind of romaine lettuce called Cimmaron.  I spaced them closely to quickly provide cover for the soil, as well as edible thinnings over a period of time.

On the left--interplanted cimmaron and leeks; on the right--spinach and mixed lettuces under cover.

Today, day three of my garden extravaganza, I finally got around to shoveling the last of the truckload of soil we had dumped in the driveway last spring.  It went on the hugel bed!

There wasn't enough soil to cover the whole bed; I'll have to grab a few bags.

The soil layer is only superficial for now, but I’m really pleased with how the bed is coming along.  I went ahead and sowed a cover crop of clover, which, if it gets covered with more soil later, will just decompose and add nitrogen to the soil.  I also have a tray of lupins started under lights in the basement to plant on the hugel bed.  (Lupins are said to fix nitrogen the way members of the legume family do.)

As I was shoveling soil onto the hugel bed, an older gentleman from the neighborhood stopped in the lane to appreciate my garden.  He was European and had such a thick accent that I barely understood him, but he seemed immediately to understand what I was doing.  He recommended adding manure, which I really ought to do throughout the garden…  One more thing for the spring garden to-do list!

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Creating Micro-Climates for Heat-Loving Crops

February 17, 2012 at 6:06 am (Gardening, permaculture) (, , , , , , )

There was a picture I wanted to post, but can’t seem to find in my photo collection… maybe I didn’t really take a picture; maybe the memory is just that vivid.

Picture this: Two winter squash plants growing side by side, organically, in the same soil.  One is pale in color, with leaves that are mottled with powdery mildew, and has but one small fruit.  The other, is vigorous, with bright green leaves, and boasts several fruits that are maturing rapidly. The difference between the two is marked.

I’m not making this up or speaking hypothetically.  These plants were grown on a test plot at the UBC Farm, where my PDC courses were mostly held.  The 24-hectare teaching farm is right by the coast, where conditions can be very cool and damp (yes, even in Vancouver, there are varying degrees of wet).

Besides sun, water, and NPK, some of the most popular garden veggies really prefer warm weather–squash, melons, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, basil, and corn (to name quite a few) really do best with some heat.

I hope the next time I grow corn, it turns out better than this. Obviously, it wasn't fully pollinated--a problem with growing too little corn for good pollen dispersal by wind.

In the squash example, the first one was planted in freshly-dug garden soil with a healthy dose of finished compost to get it started.  The other one, the vigorous grower, was planted on a mound of unfinished compost and soil, then covered with a tarp for moisture retention and insulation.  That the plant was raised a bit above the level of the surrounding garden, caused cool, damp night air to settle away from the plant on the mound, so it was less susceptible to fungi and molds.  And, the heat created by the compost continuing to break down kept the plant’s roots several degrees warmer than the outside air temperature.  When a plant is referred to as being “heat-loving,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to be grown in a hot climate or greenhouse where the air temperature is high; heating the plant’s roots can be enough to boost growth.

I failed to mention in my last post, Hugel What?, that heat is one of the main reasons for building raised garden beds in the hugelkultur style: heat from rotting wood, lawn trimmings, and compost at the center can give a boost to plants growing on the  mound.

Other ideas for creating a warm micorclimate: using black plastic or landscape fabric as “mulch” between plants because black absorbs and traps heat; use gravel and rocks in your garden design because they store heat and release it back slowly as the surrounding air cools at night; use pools of water or water-collection barrels for the same reason (heat-storage); position heat-loving plants against a south facing wall that will reflect light and heat during the day; if you’re container gardening, place plants on pavement and asphalt surfaces to reflect and store heat.

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Hugel What?

February 13, 2012 at 6:46 am (DIY, Gardening, permaculture) (, , , , , )

Hugelkultur…as in raised garden beds built, mound-like, of bramble and soil.

I’m expanding the garden once again with the addition of a hugelkultur raised bed on the rear of our property.  The project was inspired by and decided upon within an hour of finishing reading Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture, in which Holzer describes a method for establishing new and long-lasting garden beds by simply piling up raw materials and covering them over with soil.  Hugel is German for hill, or mound.

The inner-most ingredient in a Hugel bed is wood–branches and trimmings from the yard, old lumber if it isn’t treated or painted with lead, even entire fallen trees for a really long bed.  By design, the wood, as it decomposes in the center of the mound, should become like a sponge and hold a resevoir of water which plant roots can tap into and feed from.  The largest wood goes in the center, followed by smaller branches and brambles.  I didn’t happen to have any fallen trees at hand, just a sad Christmas tree the city kept missing on collection day and a fifty-year-old carpet that had sat outside in the rain for a year, molding and falling apart.  Into the Hugel bed they went.

Carpet and rotting wood form the foundation of the Hugelkultur garden addition.

The middle layer of the bed can be made of whatever organic materials are on hand… anything biodegradable, really.  I would put coarser materials on first, like straw and leaves; then finer, nutritive materials like manure and/or compost.  The latter will provide immediate fertility to initial plantings, while the longer break-down time of the former will ensure continued fertility and soil tilth.

Finally–and I’m not even to this step yet–the bed should be covered with topsoil and planted into immediately.  As plants get established and start growing, sending down their roots, the layers of the bed will be woven together so that the whole thing holds.  Mulching between plants will also help retain soil and water.  Alternately, you could sow the whole bed with a “green manure” cover crop like clover, vetch, or lupins which would hold the soil in place and fix nitrogen in preparation for planting a heavy-feeding crop like corn on the new hugel bed.

I think my new Holzer-inspired hugel bed will be planted with clover and lupins initially and, later, with sunflowers, peas, beans, squash, some heat-loving herbs, and the tayberry (which will be trained against the wall of the neighbor’s garage).  When completed, my hugel bed won’t be nearly as high as Holzer makes his, but with the addition of a trellis along its ridge for the vining plants to grow up, I think it will do double duty as a privacy screen blocking the view from the lane behind our property.  I’ll post more pics as it comes together over the next few weekends.

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