Despite the fact that I’ve been planting tons of seeds, the garden
still looks a little barren. For this week I wanted to give you a video
tour of what the farm looks like this spring. It’s not very glamorous
right now (especially because I nee to do some picking up and mowing!)
but in high summer it is going to be wonderful! Here’s a little peek
into what the farm looks like today and what we’ve been up to in the
Did you enjoy this article? Visit www.arcadia-farms.net for more info on eating healthy, saving money and buying locally.
One of the things I’m enjoying most
about this year’s growing season is the opportunity to help others with
their home gardens. Last week I had a chance to chat with a friend and
former college roommate – Sara Heilig, about the garden that she and her
husband Nick would like to grow this year. The garden is driven by
three major factors: The family’s veggie preferences, their space and of
course Assistant Gardeners – Emma and Hailey.
This raised bed is surrounded by chain link fence to the North and West and a custom gate on the other sides.
The Heiligs currently have an 8’ x 8’
raised garden bed in place. The bed is surrounded on two sides (North
and West) with a 4’ high chain link fence and on the other sides with a
custom-built gate. The sides of the bed are made of three landscape
timbers stacked on top of each other. Also the bed was filled with
commercially mixed garden soil about five years ago and has clay earth
In addition to this 8’ x 8’ bed, the
Heiligs are also planning to build a 4’ x 6’ cedar raised bed inspired
by a picture Sara saw here.
Both beds get (or will get) excellent
sun. While bunnies are a concern, there are no other potential critter
problems (such as deer, raccoons or pets). Also, the 8’ x 8’ bed has a
path of stepping stones running through it to allow Sara to harvest the
hard-to-reach sections of the garden without compacting soil as she
steps into the space. I don’t know exactly where those stones are, so
please keep in mind that the plantings for this garden will need to be
adjusted slightly to accommodate those stepping stones.
Because they have two distinct garden
spaces, this seasonal family garden plan calls for planting each space
for a different season. The larger garden will be planted now for spring
and early summer veggies. The smaller garden will hold summer veggies.
Meanwhile, since the early veggies will be gone by midsummer, the large
garden will be replanted for a fall harvest. We’ll talk about this more
in a minute, but crop rotation and well-planned companion planting are
key to this second round of veggies.
The Heiligs (especially the little ones)
love snap peas and beans. This plan provides them with a whole heapin’
mess of beans and peas! They’re also fans of zucchini and would like to
try summer squash. Sara is interested in canning or freezing tomato
sauce this year so the plan also calls for some roma tomato plants. (Her
father is a tomato connoisseur with tons of plants each year so there’s
no need to plant slicing tomatoes.) Here are the other plants they’d
like to grow:
I also threw pie pumpkins and cabbage into the mix as recommendations.
Spring Garden (8’ x 8’)
The Spring garden (8’ x 8’ bed) features
sugar snap peas (Sugar Ann) growing along the North and West side of
the garden. Since peas grow on vines, they can be trained up the fence
and no additional trellis is needed. Because the climbing peas are to
the north and west, they shouldn’t block much sunlight. All the same, I
designed the garden so that the sun-loving veggies are to the south
(carrots, broccoli) and the veggies that can handle (and sometimes
welcome) a little shade are planted to the north (spinach and lettuce).
The wee bit of additional shade from the peas may even help the lettuce
and spinach to last longer into the season before they bolt (grow a
flower and become bitter tasting). The carrots are furthest south in
this scheme because they are the shortest and that way their sun won’t
be blocked by the taller broccoli plants.
Fortunately all of these cool-weather
veggies play nicely together so companion planting is not a large
concern. (There are no “bad” combinations to look out for.) Here are the
varieties I selected for this garden:
Sugar Ann Snap Peas. This is a common garden pea that matures early.
Tom Thumb Lettuce. I just loved the idea of little girls being able to pick cute little lettuce heads from their own garden.
Rouge d’Hiver Lettuce. I was initially drawn to Rouge d’Hiver
lettuce because of striking purple-red color, but reviews indicate that
this variety is also very low maintenance and tolerant of a wide array
of growing conditions.
Bloomsdale Long Standing Spinach. This is a common variety of spinach that resists bolting and has a great taste.
Berlicum 2 Carrots. Just a good old fashioned orange carrot!
Calabrese Green Sprouting Broccoli. The majority of the
broccoli is this Italian heirloom variety because reviews indicate that
it is easier to grow than other varieties and produces earlier.
Waltham 29 Broccoli. This is the most common home-garden broccoli variety. Reviews indicated that this one grows well too.
All of the veggies I’ve talked about so
far have high yields per square foot. The exception is Broccoli on the
other hand has low yields per square foot (only one plant). Because of
that, and because this family loves it, I devoted the bulk of the garden
This plan calls for a lot of greens. If
you wanted to add some variety, good choices would be beets (the baby
greens are delicious!) arugula and chard.
Summer Garden (4’ x 6’)
The summer garden is smaller and
contains all heat-loving veggies. For the most part these guys play well
together with one exception: Beans. Tomatoes and peppers don’t like
beans so I designed the garden to keep them as far apart as possible.
The end result was that I wasn’t able to plant very many beans (which,
remember, the girls love) but don’t worry – we’ll make up for that in
the Fall Garden.
Because there is no trellis here, the
beans are bush beans. Using bush beans also helps to avoid a shade issue
since these are all sun-loving plants. The tomatoes, however, will need
some manner of trellis. Here are the varieties for the summer garden:
Golden Wax Beans. These are also a common garden vegetable with a creamy yellow flesh and a sweet taste.
Dragon Tongue Beans. I will grow these for the rest
of my life. I love the flavor and they are so beautiful! For a family
that loves fresh snap beans, this one is sure to be a winner.
Roma Tomatoes. These tomatoes are also known as paste tomatoes because they are great for sauces. We also like them for fresh eating.
Black Beauty Zucchini. A classic home garden zucchini plant. It’s a bush variety so no trellis is needed.
Crookneck Early Golden Summer Squash. Also a classic. Matures at the same time as the zucchini.
If the Heiligs are feeling adventurous, they could try substituting Golden Zucchini for the traditional green variety.
Fall Garden (8’ x 8’)
June doesn’t seem like the time to be
thinking about fall. After all , the summer is just getting started! But
by the middle to end of June, the sugar snap peas will be in decline
and other veggies like lettuce and spinach will be on their way out too,
depending on weather conditions. What a shame it would be to leave this
8’ x 8’ space laying fallow when there is still so much fair weather
left to the year. Here’s the plan for making good use of that space to
continue the harvest well into Fall!
Peas are legumes, and legumes are
nitrogen fixers. That means they add nitrogen to the soil. We’re going
to take advantage of that by planting a second crop of “heavy feeders”
in the place where the peas used to be. (Heavy feeders are crops which
“eat” large amounts of nutrients from the soil.) On the West side of the
garden, we’ll plant cabbage. Cabbage might not sound like the most
appetizing of garden vegetables, but trust me, you will LOVE the taste
of homemade coleslaw from home-grown cabbage! Along the north we’re
going to plant two cherry tomato plants and another zucchini plant. (The
family loves zucchini and unfortunately I wasn’t able to squeeze as
much into the Summer Garden as I wanted to.) There’s also an option to
plant pie pumpkins or winter squash (such as acorn squash) here… or
another zucchini plant. The nice thing about planting these on the North
fence is that the climbers (tomatoes, pumpkins) have a built-in trellis
and all of the shade issues I mentioned above apply again. Keep in mind
that any large fruit (bigger than cantaloupes) will need slings to keep them from slipping the vines.
The placement of the cabbage and
tomatoes is important. These guys don’t like each other, so we need to
keep them as far apart as possible. Another tricky thing about this
garden is that tomatoes also don’t like beans so we need to give them
However, remember that whole
thing about “heavy feeders”? The broccoli that was in this garden in the
Spring has “eaten” a lot of nutrients from the middle of the garden. A
great way to replace those nutrients naturally is to plant legumes –
like beans! Sweet, delicious, snap, bush beans. And tons of them! To
keep the beans and tomatoes happy, I’ve placed two rows of carrots
between them. With lettuce and spinach to the south of the garden,
essentially now we’ve swapped the “root vegetable section” with the
“leaf vegetable section.” That’s important because you should never
succession plant (plant a second time in the same soil) crops from the
same family (because they “eat” the same nutrients).
The varieties in the Fall Garden are the same as the Spring and Summer with a couple of additions:
Mammoth Red Rock Cabbage. Beautiful and delicious. What more could you ask for?
Tommy Toe Cherry Tomatoes. I grew these last year – they were my best tomatoes!
Tendergreen Bush Bean. These beans are supposed to
be excellent for preserving – both canning and freezing. If the girls
don’t eat them all before frost comes, there will be plenty to save for
If garden success through the year
brings on a desire to try some more “exotic” crops, here are some
suggestions for alternatives:
Trade carrots for parsnips
Trade some carrots for turnips. Just a few – turnips have a very
distinct, almost spicy flavor. The greens are also edible and I like
The Heiligs’ garden has some other
challenges to address. In the last few years, Sara’s gardens have
produced wilty vegetables – or some things have not produced at all.
After talking with her about the garden, it sounds like the space is
just in need of a nutrient boost since the soil has never been amended
in the last five years. Adding a layer (4” thick) of a combination of
quality plant-based compost mixed with manure-based compost should do
wonders. If necessary, a natural fertilizer like fish emulsion would
help during the season. You can find other natural, organic fertilizers
(as well as compost) at major home stores like Menards and Home Depot.
Follow the directions on the packaging for success.
The garden also has a current, perennial
occupant: Strawberries. Sara would like to keep the strawberries,
however, they have only produced tiny, colorless berries the last couple
of years and clearly need a boost. Once we give the strawberries a
are aggressive enough that they may take over the whole garden! To
combat both issues, this plan involves transplanting the berries into
containers full of rich, organic soil (same compost mix as the main
gardens). For more tips on successful container planting for
strawberries, click here.
Another challenge is how to kill some
resident grass that just won’t go away. A safe, natural, effective way
to kill wayward grass in (or around) the garden is (drum roll) vinegar!
The acetic acid in vinegar – especially as it interacts with sunlight –
is able to destroy plants without unnatural chemicals. Because vinegar
used for household purposes has a relatively low amount of acetic acid,
boiling the vinegar in advance may help to concentrate the acid. Some
people also say that you can use boiling water to kills weeds (I tried
it and didn’t have success) so perhaps boiled vinegar has double the
power? Either way, I recommend that Sara apply the vinegar before
planting veggies as the vinegar will be just as harmful to desirable
plants as it is to weeds and grass. It’s also recommended that the
vinegar be applied on a sunny day.
And lastly, we need to talk about a
garden pest: Cabbage worms. These guys stink. I ended up picking them
off my broccoli by hand last year and it was a stinky way to spend my
time. I found that they were also fans of non-cabbage-family things like
leafy lettuce. This year I’m going to try placing nylons over my
cabbage heads as a physical barrier to keeping the cabbage worms (and
white moths that lay the eggs initially) off my cabbage. For more
thoughts on keeping cabbage worms at bay, click here.
To download the complete Seasonal Family Garden plan (including info on varieties selected and where to buy them) click here.
A few weeks ago I shared on our Facebook page that I was getting
excited about ordering seeds for 2013. Our friend and CSA customer Joli
Lorion-Fytczyk commented asking about what sorts of plants to grow in a
shaded yard. What a wonderful question! She got me thinking about what
types of things they could grow at home. If you have a heavily shaded
yard, these tips could help you too.
Salad Greens (leaf lettuce, arugula, endive, cress, and radicchio)
Leafy Greens (collards, mustard greens, spinach, and kale)
After talking with Joli about factors that influence her garden space, I’ve put together a few Shaded Vegetable Garden Plans
that with any luck (fingers crossed!) will bring her and her husband
Josh some veggies this season. (Because they are also our CSA customers I
tried to choose plants that we are either not growing at all or are
growing in limited quantities. That way, they’ll get more variety out of
their summer rather than heaping amounts of the same thing.) The
varieties I selected were chosen either because they are especially
shade-tolerant or because of their beautiful color. Here are some of the
factors we discussed and that you should consider for your garden.
Seems like anytime I’m making small talk these days I’m asked “How’s your garden?” (No complaints here; I’m happy to share!)
So, let me just tell you how the garden is. It’s good. But not as
expected. I just paid the garden a visit yesterday for the first time in
a couple of weeks. (A couple of weeks?? Hmm… I feel like this post is
part confession…) Here’s what I found.
The peas still look green and healthy. They’re a wee bit larger and
beginning to tangle about each other, but otherwise there’s no change.
The lettuce in this bed looks healthy but is essentially the same size
as in November. This is also the bed with an outdoor thermometer inside.
Here are the stats: Under the row cover, it was 65*. Outside the row
cover, it was 34* and sunny. The high temp was recorded at 96* and the
lowest recorded temp was 18*.
This lettuce seedling hasn’t had any noticeable growth in over a month.
The peas are (barely) growing under a row cover on this January day.
Confession: The kale bed has never been covered (for several
reasons). Despite being buried under several inches of snow, half of the
kale looks good still. The other half was transplanted from the
Fenceline Garden in late fall and never did look terribly healthy. I’m
going to sample both tomorrow (perhaps in an omelet?) to see how they
This kale is growing under a blanket of fall leaves and snow.
The cover over the carrot bed was partially collapsed and covered in
some major ice chunks. After I remedied that situation, I crawled inside
(yup… I confess I was too lazy to open the iced-to-the-ground side) and
plucked a couple of carrots from the center of the bed. In fact, I ate
them while I wrote this post! They’re pretty small (maybe three inches)
but they sure taste good! Can I tell you a dirty little secret? (More
confessions…) These carrots were transplanted from a different bed. I
know, I know, you shouldn’t transplant root vegetables… but there were a
bunch of small carrots still hanging around this fall and I was curious
to see what would happen if I transplanted them to another bed for
winter growing. If these two carrots are any indication, they haven’t
grown at all, but they sure are tasty!
Hard to believe it, but there are carrots “growing” under those leaves. More like “stored” under those leaves.
Next I checked the bed with beets and chard growing in it, both crops
still there from fall. They don’t seem to have grown much but I did
pick a few beets for dinner. However, my favorite part of this bed isn’t
edible… not yet anyway. Late this fall (November?) I direct seeded
spinach to this bed. I’d given up hope that they would ever germinate,
but there they were today smiling up at me! These are about the only
plants that have actually shown growth during the winter. It will be fun
to see if they continue to grow to a harvest-able state during the
winter or if they simply overwinter till we hit springtime.
bed has chard and beets which have shown no noticeable growth in over a
month. The spinach in this bed however has germinated nicely over the
last few weeks.
Spinach seedlings grown under a row cover in December and January.
And speaking of overwintering spinach, yet another bed had a layer of
teeny baby spinach plants sleeping under a blanket of fall leaves (and a
canopy of plastic). No growth, but I’m pretty confident that they’ll
overwinter for a spring harvest. Same deal with the turnips; no growth,
but they look healthy under their leaf-mulch and hopefully will take off
This spinach seedling germinated in late fall. There are many more like it under this layer of leaves.
Turnips waiting for spring under a bed of fall leaves (and a plastic row cover).
I didn’t get a chance to check on the newly seeded carrots and
parsnips which are under several inches of leaf-mulch and several more
inches of snow.
The story of ‘looks-healthy-but-no-growth’ is repeated in the
greenhouse. I have many (100?) seedlings that I was going to plant out
in the garden which are frozen in time. Some of them were destined for
beds that have row covers and I probably should go ahead and transplant
them. (Confession: With the busyness of the holidays I didn’t get around
to it.) I did bring one lettuce plant into the house which is beginning
to grow as it thaws.
We recently incorporated several large hugelkultur beds into our
market garden. For those who have not yet heard about hugelkultur, you
can learn more about the how and why of this gardening practice in my
original hugelkultur post. In short, hugelkultur is a German term that roughly translates to “mound culture”. The hugelkultur gardening
method has been used in Eastern Europe for centuries and is essentially
a sheet-composting method that involves burying woody debris (logs,
branches, sticks) and other organic matter under a mound of earth to add
nutrients to the soil and retain moisture.
Hugelkultur boasts some pretty audacious benefits: Dramatically
increased soil aeration, increased soil fertility, creative use of what
would otherwise be ‘waste’ (the brush/burn pile) and biggest of all –
No watering? Hard to believe, right? As I did my initial research
into hugelkultur, this claim caught my attention most. I read all about
the benefits of hugelkultur, the science behind it, the how-to
instructions for making it happen and the first hand experience of those
who’ve given it a whirl. Everyone had great things to say and claimed
that these audacious benefits were legit.
Digging for Disses
I was convinced that hugelkultur raised beds were the way to go for
expanding our garden… well, almost convinced. As I concluded my research
I decided to search for one final thing: Naysayers. I purposely
searched terms like “hugelkultur fail” or “hugelkultur myth” or
“hugelkultur doesn’t work”. After quite a bit of digging, the only thing
I found was a handful of articles about people who doubted the process
would work and were amazed at the results; converts. From all my
reading, it appeared that hugelkultur has a whole slew of fans and no
foes. In fact, through all my digging I only found one diss, and it has
to do with sustainability.
Christmas is one week from today… but I’m still digging in dirt! Ever
since the end of our CSA season I’ve been planning to double the size
of our garden for 2013. The initial plan was to tackle this in the
spring with a day full of volunteer help and free food! But then I
learned about a new-to-me gardening method that requires a significant
amount of fall preparation to be ready by spring – hugelkultur.
Hugelkultur is a German term that roughly translates to “mound culture”. The hugelkultur gardening
method has been used in Eastern Europe for centuries and is essentially
a sheet-composting method that involves burying woody debris (logs,
branches, sticks) and other organic matter under a mound of earth to add
nutrients to the soil and retain moisture. For more details on the
definition, benefits and challenges of hugelkultur, hop over to this previous post.
If I had known earlier that I was going to want to implement
hugelkultur principles into our expansion, I would have begun planning
and implementing it back in October. Tackling this endeavor in November
and December has provided its own set of challenges, but all the same,
here’s an update on how things are going.
First a recap: I wanted to create 10 hugelkultur beds. Because we
live in a suburban neighborhood, I felt it was important to partially
bury the beds for the sake of appearance. The plan? Make them two or
three feet deep, four feet wide and 12 feet long. That. Is. A. Lot. Of.
Digging. I was already sooo tired of digging after creating our hotbeds
that the thought of moving that many hundreds of cubic feet of earth one
shovelful at a time made me want to faint! On top of that, I knew that
time was of the essence since (at least in theory!) cold weather is on
the way. So to avoid frozen earth and aching backs, I hired Luke
Schemenauer and his bobcat to do the dirty digging work! [Luka (Luke)
Schemenauer, 269-214-0837, firstname.lastname@example.org]
Within a week of creating the pits, we had them all filled with old
or rotting logs. The lumber came from our own property, including logs
that had been lying around since we bought this house and wood from a
dying maple tree we had to cut down a few years ago. We were also
fortunate to develop a win-win situation with a number who has a brush
pile that needed some clearing. We hauled off many logs and now he has
that much less work! (Don’t worry – I asked first!).
This was an interim shot… they ended up more full than this.
How to Deal with Nitrogen Drawn-Down
Most of the wood we used is well-rotted, so it should retain moisture
well and have a minimal incident of nitrogen-drawn down because it has
already decomposed so much. (Because logs are carbon rich, they need a
lot of nitrogen to decompose. Plants also need nitrogen and thus the log
decomposition can ‘rob’ the plants of nitrogen they need.) There were
three beds however that had somewhat newer wood (from the maple tree).
From what I’ve read, nitrogen drawdown during the first year of planting
can be an issue, but I’ve found very few people who actually
experienced the dilemma. As a precaution, I did my best to add
nitrogen-rich materials to these beds. This was one of the points where I
wished I had developed my hugelkultur plans sooner – it’s hard to come
by green, nitrogen-rich material at Christmas time!
The first bed received a modest helping of freshly cut grass
clippings. (Yes, I mowed my Michigan lawn in December!) Despite having
mowed about ½ an acre, this is all I got for my labor.
wheelbarrow load of grass clippings came from mowing less than 1/3 of
the lawn in December. I got about this much again after mowing the ‘Back
40? around the garden.
The second bed received all of the compost I could gather from this
summer’s compost pile – around 9 cubic feet in all. I also continued to
toss table vegetable scraps onto this bed right up until I covered it.
And the third bed got nothing. Not because the spirit of Scrooge came
on me but because in the spring I’ll be planting beans in this bed.
Since beans actually add nitrogen to the soil, I’m hoping it will be a
sufficient defense against nitrogen-draw down.
All of these beds would have benefited from a layer of composted manure if time and my budget had allowed.
Add the Leaves!
With the beds full of logs and branches, I moved on to adding our
fall leaves. I have to say I was a little hesitant about this since dead
leaves are also carbon-rich and I feared they may contribute to
nitrogen draw-down. But in the interest of adding other trace nutrients
to the soil of my hugels, I took the leap. (Big thanks to my hubby for
helping me with this!)
These beds are filled with rotting logs and branches, as well as a layer of fall leaves.
Hugelkultur beds that are partially buried. So far they’ve been filled with rotting logs and leaves.
To Water or Not?
My next challenge: Watering. The primary purpose of all this work is
to develop raised beds which need little or no watering. And as I read
online instructions for making hugelkultur beds, many people recommended
‘thoroughly wetting’ the logs at this point in the process. My
challenge? It’s December. For a few hours a day, it’s warm enough to run
a hose, but the freezing that happens to that hose after its use is a
pain in the butt to deal with. Also it had rained during the week the
logs had been in the pits (less than ½ an inch) and I wondered if that
would be sufficient. I spent a morning researching and didn’t get any
direct answers. One person commented on my question in the forum at www.permies.com
that he thought the beds would probably retain more moisture from a
good rain after being completed than from being hosed down in the midst
of the process. With all of this in mind, I made the judgment call not
to hose them down. *fingers crossed*
The logs had already been rained and snowed on several times, but with less than 1/2 an inch of precipitation.
Last but not least, we (hubby helped again!) worked on filling the
holes back in with dirt. I knew it was going to be a major task to put
that mountain of dirt back where it came from, but Ryan had an idea: We
borrowed his father’s four-wheeler and used the snowplow to push the
dirt back! In some cases, it worked really well. But then there was the
awkwardness of figuring out how to fill the beds closest to the existing
fence without driving over the beds on the outside. And then once all
the small piles were gone, we realized that a snowplow is just not going
to efficiently move a giant mound of dirt around.
Enter shovels. And a visit to the chiropractor. And then, well… I did something I hardly ever do. I gave up.
If I even see another shovel before spring, I may need therapy.
I owe you some ‘after’ pictures. Meanwhile, I thought I’d share a few shots of a little someone who came out to survey the work.
Marley came out to oversee our work.
Marley the Foreman.
I wonder if he approves?
Just before I gave up, I happened to look down a few lots and noticed
that one of our neighbors has some manner of machinery with a big scoop
on the front (a front loader?)! I couldn’t say for sure, but I think
there were angels ascending and descending on it… I promptly walked over
to see if I could pay him to move some dirt, but no one was home. I’m
planning to stop by again today and very much hope that he’ll be able to
help us before (if?) the snow comes. If we haven’t been able to move
the dirt before then, at spring time we’ll mound some up over the beds
(six inches), add a layer of compost (six inches) and advertise the rest
on Craigslist as free (come and get it!) fill dirt.
As it stands now, 8 hugels are level with the ground and filled with
logs, leaves and dirt. Two more are dirt-less but otherwise level. And
then there’s a would-be hugel pit that isn’t quite in the right spot so I
plan to fill it in. So other than Mt. Dirtmore towering in the tree
line, I think things look acceptable enough for the neighbors to
tolerate through the winter. (As I’ve mentioned before, we want to be
good neighbors!) Who knows, if the weather stays this mild, maybe I’ll
eventually pick up a shovel again and chip away at that mountain bit by
Our first garden was a Square Foot Garden. We’re talking about an
authentic by-the-book (written by Mel Bartholomew) SFG. There are so
many reasons why Square Foot Gardening is a great method for growing,
especially for those who are new to gardening (that was me!) or have
modest-sized gardens. As we’ve continued to grow vegetables, we’ve made
some changes to our methods. For example, we no longer use the Mel’s Mix
gardening soil recipe and we’ve exchanged six inches of soil in a box
for hugelkultur mounded beds. But one thing has remained constant – we
follow Mel’s concept of intensive planting. This intensive planting
method follows the logic that if a plant can handle certain spacing in a
row (i.e., 2 inches apart) the same spacing should apply in all
directions (2 inches to the side, but also above, below and on the other
side). So if you look at your seed packet, you can use the recommended
spacing to determine how many plants will fit per square foot (1 foot x 1
But who wants to stand around doing silly math when they could have
someone else do it for them? Maybe I’m just lazy, but I can’t tell you
how many times I’ve been about to plant something in the garden and
thought “Oh wait, can you plant four or six heads of lettuce per square
foot?” Invariably, I pull out my smart phone and fire up Google so that
someone else can remind me. I did this so often that it occurred to me
that others might be doing the same thing. And that if they (and I!)
were going to be searching for this info frequently, it sure would be a
handy service for Arcadia Farms to provide a lickity-split answer.
Square Foot Gardening Plant Spacing Cheat Sheet
here it is – a SFG Cheat Sheet to let you know how many plants to sow
per square foot. As a bonus, its designed to be easy to read from your mobile device. Bookmark this one – trust me, you’ll need it later.
If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know that we’re
planning to double the size of our market garden this coming spring. The
plan is to have one or two volunteer days in the spring where we can
build raised bed frames, move compost from the front of the house to the
beds and put up the fence. Might sound like a lot of work but with five
to ten volunteers (and a farm provided lunch!) it’ll go by super fast!
Then something happened that put a kink in my plans. I learned about a
new-to-me gardening method called hugelkultur which requires a
significant amount of fall work to implement in time for spring.
What is Hugelkultur
Hugelkultur is a German term that roughly translates to “mound culture”. The hugelkultur
gardening method has been used in Eastern Europe for centuries and is
essentially a sheet-composting method that involves burying woody debris
(logs, branches, sticks) and other organic matter under a mound of
earth. This gardening method mimics nutrient cycling that occurs in
nature. When trees and branches fall to the floor of a forest, they act
like a sponge as they decay. That sponge-like property allows the wood
to soak up rainfall and then release it slowly into the soil use by
surrounding plants. Hugelkultur beds are designed to take advantage of
this natural water-retention cycle – so much so that some gardeners who
use this method claim they never water at all. (Others say they have to
water every few weeks or just once per season.) Wouldn’t that have been a handy drought-fighting benefit this year?
Click here for a video explanation and examples of low- or no-watering hugelkultur beds.
Benefits of Hugelkultur
In addition to water retention, hugelkultur has other benefits. The
composition of the bed helps to improve drainage. The use of rotting
logs and brush provides a way to turn what would otherwise be a yard
work nuisance into a naturally occurring resource. As the wood breaks
down, it adds nutrients to the soil and it also leaves behind small air
pockets which are essential for root health. (Think of this as the
‘self-tilling’ benefit of hugelkultur.) Decaying wood also attracts
worms to the bed, which help to till the soil and leave behind more
nutrients as they eat. And in the first couple of years, the bed may
provide for longer growing seasons since the massive amount of
decomposition happening below will warm the beds slightly. And don’t
forget that this is still a raised bed, which means all the benefits of
raised beds come into play as well – no soil compaction (you don’t walk
on the bed and squish out the air pockets), warms faster in the spring,
is more ergonomically accessible (don’t have to bend all the way down to
the ground to tend it) and allows for intensive planting (i.e. square
foot gardening). [For source info for these proposed benefits, see the list of resources at the end of this post.]
So – at least in theory – using hugelkultur can dramatically reduce
my irrigation needs, help me fight back against drought, improve my site
drainage, improve my soil fertility, avoid tilling, continue intensive
planting and get rid of several unsightly piles of rotting logs that
can’t be used for anything useful otherwise? Sign me up!
Challenges of Hugelkultur
So this gardening method has a hip-sounding foreign name and a long
list of potential benefits, but there are two sides to every coin. What
are the challenges?
First, there’s the initial work involved. Lots of digging and moving
of resources like compost, grass clippings, leaves, logs and manure.
(Does your back hurt thinking about that, because mine does…) But like a
lot of gardening methods that are popular today, the purpose of all
this upfront work is to setup a system that can maintain itself going
forward with minimal gardener intervention. In other words, more work
now and less work later!
Next, there’s the size of the beds. In essence, the bigger they are,
the greater the water-retention benefits. And I’m talking B.I.G. –
upwards of six or seven feet tall! That size requires a lot of resource
(logs, soil, organic matter, etc.) and could be considered unsightly by
neighbors. Of course smaller (2-3 feet tall) hugelkultur beds still
have water retention abilities (weeks between watering)
but those who claim to go without any water at all love to be called
Big Poppa. The enormity of the height can be decreased by partially
burying the bed. It is also mitigated by the fact that the bed will shrink in size as decomposition takes place, although I’m not sure how much. You can read more on all of that in the How To
section of this post. I know we’re talking about challenges here, but I
do want to point out that although there are challenges to a six-foot
tall garden bed, the benefits are that you have more surface to plant in
and the height makes for super duper easy harvesting (see picture
One advantage of a tall hugelkultur bed is that harvesting and generally tending becomes much less of a back-straining task.Image credit: The Permaculture Research Institute of Australia
The next challenge has to do with the type of deciduous (woody)
matter used. First, in most of the reading I’ve done, it is recommended
that you use big logs rather than a large amount of smaller branches or
brush. I presume the bigger logs retain water better. Also, some types
of lumber work better than others. For example, you would want to avoid
black walnut as it contains a natural herbicide. Other lumber like pine
or oak may contain significant tannins that might ‘sour’ the bed. And
still others like cedar take a loooong time to decompose and would
significantly delay the benefits of hugelkultur. In the case of lumber
that contains tannins or takes a long time to decompose, you can avoid
most (possibly all) of their drawbacks by using well-rotted wood. For
example, pine that has already rotted substantially has probably lost a
lot (most?) of its tannin. You would also want to avoid lumber that has
been treated as this will introduce chemicals to your garden bed.
The last challenge I’d like to discuss has to do with nitrogen
drawdown. Nitrogen drawdown refers to the fact that the logs (which
contain much carbon) will need lots of nitrogen to decompose. That means
during the first couple of years of a hugelkultur bed, the decomposing
logs may rob your soil of some of the nitrogen that would otherwise be
used by the plants growing in it. There are ways to mitigate this as
well. For starters, using wood that has already been rotting for a while
helps. This wood will
likely have already taken on a significant amount of nitrogen – so much
so that it may now be carrier of nitrogen rather than a taker! Also,
adding lots of nitrogen-rich matter to the bed along with the wood will
help to feed both decomposition and plant growth. This includes adding
manure or ‘greens’ (like grass clippings and table scraps) to the bed.
Another way to add nitrogen to the beds is to plant nitrogen fixing
crops in it during the first growing season. These plants include crops
like alfalfa, clover, rooibos,
lentils, beans and peas. And lastly, you can fight back against
first-season crop nitrogen deficiencies through natural fertilizers.
How to Build a Hugelkultur Bed
So now that you’ve read the benefits and challenges of hugelkultur,
want to know how to build one? It’s pretty easy. The basic steps are:
Create a pile of logs and branches that fits the dimensions of the bed you want.
Add other organic matter such as grass clippings, leaves, kitchen scraps and manure. This step is option but highly recommended.
Cover the entire pile with soil/compost to create a mound and then
mulch the top. Use a mulch that will add nitrogen as it breaks down,
like grass clippings or compost, rather than a carbon-rich mulch like
wood chips that might take even more nitrogen out as it decomposes.
If desired, you can use logs, rocks, boards, etc. as retaining walls, but these are not necessary.
Here are some optional steps you could insert.
If a super high mound doesn’t work for you, consider partially
burying your hugelkultur bed. Dig 2-3 feet down and then start at step
If you’ve dug a trench for your bed, add the freshly dug sod face
down on top of the logs as step 3½ before adding soil to create the
If you know where your walkways are going to be, consider digging up
that sod as well and placing it on top of your logs. Double bonus – you
add nitrogen rich material to your bed AND you don’t have to worry
about controlling the grass and weeds in the aisles! (I would mulch the
pathways after you dig up the sod so that new weed seeds can’t make your
freshly cleared walkway their new home.)
Although you can plant in them directly after creation, hugelkultur
beds work best if they cure for a while. As a best practice, build them
in the fall for use the following spring. This allows time for some
decomposition to take place before you begin planting.
Hugelkultur at Arcadia Farms
I’ve mentioned, I planned to double the size of the garden in the
spring of 2013. I’ve been focusing most of my efforts on converting our
existing raised beds to hotbeds for winter growing, and let me tell you,
that has involved no small amount of work! I could care less if I ever
dig another 2 foot pit again!! (I’m thoroughly sick of digging!) But all
this fall as I’ve been digging up earth and replacing it with manure,
I’ve been learning about hugelkultur and came to terms with the fact
that it would be a beneficial method to use in our garden expansions.
Yeah, that’s right – in mid November I decided that it would be a good
idea to dig up 1,728 cubic feet of earth before the ground freezes, then
fill all the holes with logs and move the dirt back. (Have I mentioned
how thoroughly sick of digging I am???) I was convinced this was the
best way to expand our garden for all the reasons I’m about to share
with you, but I practically fainted at the idea of doing all that
digging by hand. (Have I mentioned how thoroughly sick of digging I
Enter Luka Schemenauer of Schemenauer Farm! Looking at the enormous
task before me and the reality of my time constraints, I realized I
needed some serious earth-moving machine power to make this work. I
looked into renting a bobcat but it would have cost $200 and with my
non-existent experience, I imagined it taking ten million years to get
the job done. So I hopped onto www.craigslist.org
and found Mr. Schemenauer listed as someone who could do bobcat work.
He was accommodating, pleasant to work with and has very reasonable
rates. (He got the job done for about half the money as it would have
been to do it on my own and in considerably less time than ten million
years!) If you need similar work done in the southwest Michigan area, I
highly recommend him. He also shared a little bit about his farm with me
– you should look him up during blueberry season for a great deal on
u-pick berries! [Luka (Luke) Schemenauer, 269-214-0837, email@example.com]
I think hugelkultur will be helpful at Arcadia Farms because it:
Is a helpful defense against drought, which was a significant burden in season one
Can potentially reduce our water usage and expense
Can increase our soil fertility
Provides a way to get rid of lots of rotting wood we inherited when we moved here
Costs less than building conventional raised beds because we have
most of the resources on hand and don’t need to build retaining walls
Is overall more sustainable than our conventional beds (will require fewer resources in the future)
Some of our site-specific challenges include:
Lumber type – our logs are primarily maple (good) and pine (not as good)
Suburban setting – I imagine that six-foot tall mounds would draw some unfavorable attention and we desire to be good neighbors
Nitrogen draw down – because it’s December already, we have a very
limited amount of ‘greens’ to add to the beds to reduce nitrogen draw
down. In addition, I don’t have enough manure to add to the beds. The
time it would take to find and get more manure is desperately needed
just to finish the beds.
Time. It’s December for Pete’s sake! Thank God for unseasonably warm
weather, but I’ve got to get a move on if this thing is going to
happen, mainly because the ground could start to freeze any day now.
Here’s my plan to take advantage of hugelkultur benefits while addressing our site-specific challenges:
Beds will be buried three feet below ground and raised up
approximately two feet above ground. This results in a five foot deep
bed that only appears to be two feet tall and that can be added to over
time with new organic matter.
Most of our pine lumber is well rotted (at least seven years old,
but probably much older) and our maple is two or three years old. This
should decrease the amount of nitrogen draw down. Also the tanning
should have leached out of the pine many moons ago. Four beds will
contain only very rotted wood so that hopefully nitrogen draw down is a
non-issue. After that I’m out of really old wood. The remaining six beds
will contain newer (2-3 years old) wood so that I can concentrate the
limited ‘green’ organic matter I have to those beds that need it most.
Planting in the fall (winter?) rather than spring should get the
process of decomposition going, which hopefully means a portion of any
nitrogen draw down will take place before I plant in them.
Beds will consist of logs and branches on the bottom, leaves and any
greens we have next, topped with upside down sod (from digging up
trenches and from the aisle ways) and then a layer of dirt from the
holes. In this spring we’ll add composted manure and plant compost for
planting in and to add nitrogen. I may also plant some nitrogen-fixing
plants in the beds this winter. If we have a mild winter (which I
actually hope we don’t!) these will add some nitrogen to the beds as
they grow, even if there is no harvest.
To address the time issue, I enlisted the help of an experienced
contractor with a bobcat to save me from the dreadful task of hand
digging 14 holes that are each 144 cubic feet in size. (Ohh… the thought
of it makes me ache…)
Interested in creating your own hugelkultur beds? Here are some resources you might find helpful.
I’m pretty sure we’re the only family on the block whose lawn is
still covered in leaves. Why? Because leaf pick-up happened at least a
week ago. In our suburban neighborhood, leaf pick-up is where everyone
rakes or blows their leaves into the street and on a specific day the
city comes along and sweeps them up. And what does the city do with
them? They contract with a local waste management company which composts
them and then sells the compost to individuals and organizations. But we have different plans - We can use leaves for so many
other things on our micro-farm. And that means there are many things you
can use your leaves for as well.
As much as I really dislike being cold I
have managed to drag myself outside several days and accomplish some
goals. (And thankfully we’ve also had a few sunny days in the midst of
all this rain!) Here’s a quick update on what’s happening at Arcadia
Farms this October. [Read More]
This week I was hoping to provide you with a video tour of the
gardens. But as I type this it’s raining… and has been for almost an
entire day. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining! I’m grateful for
the cool weather and rain. Instead of a video tour, I thought I’d share
with you about our Cucuzzi plant. [Read More]