Arcadia Farms

  (Portage, Michigan)
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Spring 2013 Video Update

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 garden…


Did you enjoy this article? Visit www.arcadia-farms.net for more info on eating healthy, saving money and buying locally.  

 
 

Seasonal Family Garden Plan

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.

The Space

This raised bed is surrounded by chain link fence to the North and West and a custom gate on the other sides.

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 beneath it.

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.

Veggie Preferences

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:

  • Lettuce
  • Spinach
  • Broccoli
  • Carrots
  • Sweet Peppers
  • Cherry Tomatoes
  • Summer Squash

I also threw pie pumpkins and cabbage into the mix as recommendations.

Spring Garden (8’ x 8’)

Spring Garden 2

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.

      baker creek berlicum carrotbaker creek spinachBaker Creek Rouge d'Hiver Lettucebaker creek calabrese green sprouting broccolibaker creek waltham 29 broccoliBaker Creek Tom Thumb Lettuce

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 to broccoli.

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’)

Summer Garden

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.

roma tomatoesbaker creek black beauty zucchiniBaker Creek Crookneck Early Godlen Summer Squashbaker creek california wonder pepper  baker creek dragon tongue bush beans   Baker Creek Golden Wax Bush Beans

If the Heiligs are feeling adventurous, they could try substituting Golden Zucchini for the traditional green variety.

Fall Garden (8’ x 8’)

Fall Garden

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 some distance.

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 the winter.

Seed Savers Exchange Tommy Toe tendergreen bush beans Baker Creek Mammoth Red Rock Cabbage Baker Creek New England Sugar Pie

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 them sautéed.
  • Trade some greens for kale or swiss chard.
  • Swap a cabbage or two for cauliflower.

Note: Many of the selections I made for this garden came from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. You can find the same or similar varieties from other companies like Hart’s, Seed Savers Exchange, Sustainable Seed Company, Victory Seeds or Annie’s Heirloom Seeds.

Challenges

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.

Basket Full of Strawberries

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 boost, they 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.

 
 

Shady Vegetable Garden Plans

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.

So what can you grow in shade? Here are ten veggies that can grow in 3 to 6 hours of sun.

  1. Salad Greens (leaf lettuce, arugula, endive, cress, and radicchio)
  2. Leafy Greens (collards, mustard greens, spinach, and kale)
  3. Broccoli
  4. Cauliflower
  5. Peas
  6. Beets
  7. Brussels Sprouts
  8. Radishes
  9. Swiss Chard
  10. Beans

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.

Click here to read the rest of this article, including 6 tips for a healthy, shaded vegetable garden and free, printable pre-made garden plans.

 
 

Winter Gardening Confessions (An Update)

garden in January

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.

Winter Update

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.

This lettuce seedling hasn’t had any noticeable growth in over a month.

Peas growing in January

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 taste.

This kale is growing under a blanket of fall leaves and snow.

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.

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.

This bed has chard and which have shown no noticeable growth in over a month. The spinach in this bed however has germinated nicely over the last few weeks.

This 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.

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 spring.

This spinach seedling germinated in late fall. There are many more like it under this layer of leaves.

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).

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.

raised beds in 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.

SAMSUNG\

SAMSUNG

 

So in summary, while things aren’t growing like I thought they would, we still have a few winter delights to nibble on and I’m optimistic that I’ll have several early crops in the spring.

Did you enjoy this article? Visit www.arcadia-farms.net for more info on eating healthy, saving money and buying locally.  

 
 

Is Hugelkultur Sustainable?

leavs in hugelkultur beds

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 – little/no watering.

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.

Any Naysayers?

The one negative commentary I could find on hugelkultur was the purported idea that hugelkultur is not sustainable. Why? Click here to read on about what we found and our answer to the question "Is hugelkultur sustainable?"

 
 

Update: Hugelkultur on a Micro-Farm

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.

Hugelkultur Update

Recap

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, luka@i2k.com]

Bring Wood!

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.

This 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.

Dirt Dilemma

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 bit… maybe.

 
 

Square Foot Gardening Planting Spacing

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 foot).

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

So 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.

 
 

Hugelkultur on a Micro-Farm

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 below).

Woman harvesting from tall hugelkutur bed

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:

  1. Create a pile of logs and branches that fits the dimensions of the bed you want.
  2. Add other organic matter such as grass clippings, leaves, kitchen scraps and manure. This step is option but highly recommended.
  3. Water thoroughly.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 one above.
  • 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 mound.
  • 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

As 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 am??????)

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, luka@i2k.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…)

Resources

Interested in creating your own hugelkultur beds? Here are some resources you might find helpful.

Hugelkultur: The ultimate raised garden beds by Paul Wheaton (start here!)

The Art and Science of Making a Hugelkultur Bed – Transforming Woody Debris into a Garden Resource

Hugelkultur: Using Woody Waste in Composting

Hugelkultur: Composting Whole Trees With Ease

Half-Ass Hugelkultur

Hugelkultur on the Prairie (Or Learning from Our Mistakes)

Here are some photos of progress so far. I’ll be back with more soon!






 
 

How to Use Leaves in Your Yard and Garden

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.

  [Read More]
 
 

October 2012 Update

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]
 
 

The Fruit with a Thousand Names

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]
 
 
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