Arcadia Farms

  (Portage, Michigan)
Eat healthier. Save money. Create local jobs.
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2013 Farmer’s Report

At the beginning of this month I delivered the final round of produce for our 2013 season. Now that the season has ended, it’s time for me to provide you with our second annual Farmer’s Report. The annual Farmer’s Report is an exercise that helps me analyze what went well, what went wrong and – most importantly – what I’ve learned so that I can apply those lessons to improving subsequent seasons. It’s also a great way for me to share important information with our members and readers.

No One Can Stop You

Before I get too far into the ups and downs of our second season, I want to re-share a little something that inspires me to keep moving forward with this crazy idea of living sustainably.

If you are not willing to learn, no one can help you. If you are determined to learn, no one can stop you.

In 2012 I wrote that:

I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of supportive, adventurous people in my life that didn’t have to pick their jaws up off the floor when I first started talking about quitting my well-paid HR job to start a farm in my suburban backyard. But just like any entrepreneur, I’ve encountered my fair share of naysayers who could come up with all sorts of reasons why I should be afraid. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” No, I’m not. “You should probably know more about gardening before you do something like this.” I probably should.  “Won’t that be a lot of work?” Yes, it will. “What if it fails?”

I decided a long time ago that I can choose not to stretch beyond my comfort zone because I’m afraid of failing (and then spend my life wondering what would have happened) or I can take the risk of actually putting myself out there and knowing what would have happened. Innovators don’t change the world by being safe and normal. Everyone with a special skill started somewhere – no one is born an expert. People we revere as world-changers are people who realize that if you are determined to learn, no one can stop you.

When I left my full time job to begin Arcadia Farms, I told friends and family that I knew there would be both successes and setbacks ahead of me and that I was looking forward to the opportunity to grow from both of them.  After studying some of the great innovators of history, I’ve come to believe strongly that ‘failing forward’ is a recipe for success. After two years of operating a start-up business, I’ve become more convinced that this is true, but also, I’ve become acquainted with the harsh reality that failing forward is painful. Painful… but worth it.

2013 Recap

This year has been full of new improvements and endeavors. Here are four areas that played a huge role in shaping our year.

Chickens

chickensIn April I brought you Chicken Week, during which I not only revealed our beautiful birdies for the first time, but I also discussed the case for backyard chickens, how to care for baby chicks, how to design space for chickens in a suburban setting and how to build a low-cost, high-quality chicken coop. Few of you know this, but our chicken ownership actually teetered on the edge of causing both a Right to Farm legal battle with our municipality and the potential of losing our farm entirely. I felt it was best to keep the situation private until resolved but it was a major time, resource and energy suck that occurred right at the onset of our CSA season. Thank God that is behind us! Despite the initial legal stress, life with chickens has been pretty darn good! (Who wouldn’t love six eggs a day?)

There is so much follow up information to share about the chickens that they really deserve their own post. I trust that the details of our actual experience compared to our initial expectations will be helpful to those of you who have considered suburban or urban chickens. Look for this soon!

Locavore90

In 2013 we did this wild and crazy thing called Locavore90. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Locavore90 is (was?) a free program to challenge and equip families in Southwest Michigan to incorporate more local foods into their diet for 90 days.

Buying local has been one of three major focus areas for our farm. Add to that the fact that a locavore (local-only) diet can have significant health benefits for both bodies and economies (click here for an explanation) and you can see why I was really stoked about putting this program in motion! I envisioned Locavore90 as a way to have a positive impact in the community, expand the readership of our blog and to find some fellow locavores who could encourage us (and each other) along the way.

The program began with great enthusiasm and effort. However as the season went on, the Locavore90 posts (and posts in general) became fewer and farther between. I can’t say for certain why things tapered off but here’s my best guess. My initial vision for Locavore90 was to create all of the meal plans long before the season ever began. However, our legal issues regarding chickens in the early winter and spring days drained so much time and energy that I was not able to prioritize the task. After the season started, it was difficult to find time to focus on creating quality meal plans. The time and creative energy invested in the meal plans essentially used up the creativity and time I would normally have used for blogging. I also chose to invest a significant amount of time into family relationships this summer. Mathematically, there should have been enough hours in the day to do everything and do it well. In reality, there just wasn’t enough of me to go around and although I wish Locavore90 had ended on a stronger note, I have peace (in fact, I’m pleased) about the choices I made with how to invest my limited energy and time.

Having said all of that, Locavore90 was still good! I personally gained a lot of valuable information about things like sources for in-season food and the value of raw milk. I also discovered some great recipes which will forever be go-to staples for our family. And lastly I was blessed to get to “meet” so many of you online and expand our readership. Thank you, thank you, thank you for participating! I’m not sure what Locavore90 will look like next year, but just like everything we set out to do, I’ll take the lessons learned from this experience to make it simpler and better the next time around.

Brokered Vegetables

apple boyThis spring I also had the pleasure of announcing that we would be partnering with two other small-scale growers to form a group known as Arcadia Growers Group. This group aims to sell produce to commercial customers such as schools, restaurants, small grocers, and childcare facilities. Our first customer (a local childcare facility) has provided us with an excellent initial experience. We had a slow start due to the unseasonably cold weather this spring, but once deliveries began in July sales have been working like clockwork. Our brokerage work has been very profitable for our partners and has been a good source of supplemental income for our farm.

This endeavor has been personally enriching for me because it helped me realize something: I love sales and marketing! Or more specifically, I love selling and marketing something I’m passionate about and enjoy. This epiphany moment is helping to shape our business plans as I decide who I want to be when I grow up.

If you are a small-scale grower who uses natural methods and you’d like some help selling your veggies to a broader market, please let me know (katie@arcadia-farms.net). We’re looking for more partners to expand our growers group and intend to add additional customers in 2014. Likewise, if you manage an organization that could benefit from local, naturally-raised produce, please contact me. I’m sure we can help you!

CSA

Our second CSA season has been a good one. In 2012 I learned several lessons from both our successes and failures and I was eager to implement solutions that evolved from those lessons. Those solutions resulted in larger shares (more veggies each week), less supplementing, reduced waste in packaging, consistent labeling, improved pest/disease control and more consistent application of customer preferences.

Lessons Learned in 2013

Just like last year, I’m walking away from this season having learned several lessons. Following this list will be a more in-depth discussion of what I experienced and the conclusions I’ve drawn from those experiences.

  1. Newspaper pots are not as effective for seed-starting as other options.
  2. Hugelkultur works… I think.
  3. I need to do a better job of managing weeds in my aisle space.
  4. The chicken paddocks need to be improved.
  5. I learned more about specific pest and disease management tools.
  6. There is a certain disease that significantly impacts several of my crops each year. I need to determine if it is really anthracnose and find a way to effectively deal with it.
  7. There is no end to this worry: “Will there be enough and will it be ready when I need it?”
  8. I have to choose between small-scale simplicity and large-scale income (profit).
  9. I need to decide who I want to be when I grow up.

No More Newspaper Pots

kale seedling in newspaper potThis winter I spent a significant amount of blogging time focused on the seed-starting process. I learned lots of tips that I’ve found to be effective, such as soaking seeds, chitting potatoes and planting by moon phases. Another solution I presented to you involved creating newspaper pots for starting seeds. The premise is that you turn waste into a resource by folding an origami-like pot out of newspaper, fill it with potting soil and plant your seed. Later when you’re ready to transfer the seedling to the garden you can place the pot directly into the soil since it will decompose. I also liked the fact that you can label each pot since I have had issues with being diligent in labeling. After reviewing several options for seed starting media, I decided that the benefits of newspaper pots sounded like the best solution. Hundreds of them. I folded hundreds of newspaper pots… I even paid my nieces and nephews commission to help me make some of them! Turns out that this solution didn’t work so well for me. Here’s why…

First, the soil in the pots dries out quickly and requires frequent watering. On the flip side, the pots definitely need drainage holes/slots on the bottom otherwise they get bogged down. Also there was a noticeable trend that the seedlings growing in newspaper pots were less healthy (smaller, more fragile) than seedlings grown in other ways. My presumption is that this issue is caused by a combination of the too dry/too wet conundrum and becoming root-bound. Once these limitations  are added up, the fact that it takes a considerable amount of time to fold and prepare the pots becomes another negative.

I did, however, discover this season the method for seed starting that I plan to use for my future gardens. On several occasions I ran out of newspaper pots and opted to sow seeds directly into trays (like these) filled with potting soil. In every case, the seedlings grown in trays were healthier than those grown in pots. This approach takes up the same amount of space in my greenhouse. Since I have lots of trays (purchased here) and can use home-grown compost for seed starting, I now have the resources I need to operate a self-sufficient seed starting operation. Woot!

Hugelkultur Works… I Think

Hugelkultur trenchesWe have made large financial and time investments into implementing hugelkultur on our farm. The 2013 expansion of our garden is comprised entirely of hugelkultur beds. For the uninitiated, hugelkultur is a German concept which roughly translates to “mound culture.” The overall idea is that woody materials (i.e. logs, brush) buried under a mound of soil will provide both nutrients and water retention as the wood decomposes. The process is touted as a no-irrigation system of growing. For a more in-depth discussion on the pros and cons of hugelkultur, click here.

Our hugelkultur beds started the season as approximately 4-foot deep pits filled with rotting logs and then covered by 1-2 feet of compost. The beds, initially raised mounds, have all settled and are now level with the ground. All of the beds have grown healthy, thriving plants with the exception of one. That particular bed was topped with native soil and not with compost. Though I can’t say it had thriving plants, it did grow several pounds of zucchini (from struggling plants), radishes and is now growing shelling peas. Even with this exception, I’m very pleased with the results from the hugelkultur side of the garden.

And what about the no-irrigation claims attached to hugelkultur? Well, fortunately for our CSA, we had lots of rain this year. Unfortunately for our hugelkultur experiment… we had lots of rain this year. It’s difficult for me to say whether or not the water-retention benefit s of hugelkultur were truly evident as I compared the east and west sides of the garden because of the massive amount of rain we received. All the same, I did observe that the hugelkultur side of the garden appeared to be healthier than the traditional side. If I have time in the spring, I will likely convert a few traditional beds to hugelkultur and do a comparison through the next season. I also hope to convert the entire Fenceline Garden to a shallow hugelkultur bed.

Weed Management in Aisle Space

weed control garden aisleI have a major weed issue. On the west side of the garden (built in 2012) the issue is simply that the aisle space gets unruly and occasionally tall weeds are able to reach over the bed sides (one foot tall), depositing seeds as they grow. The mulch that originally covered these aisles has either decomposed substantially or has been washed away. There are enough gaps (and now enough composted nutrients) available that the aisles were quickly taken over by all kinds of plants this spring. In some areas I laid down cardboard, but I didn’t have enough to cover the whole garden.

The east side of the garden is comprised of hugelkultur beds. Although these are technically “raised beds” they don’t have any hardscape sides – they are simply mounds of compost atop a deep pit filled with lumber and organic matter. In early spring this was no problem because the aisles were still basically sand from all the hugel digging done the previous winter. My intent was to cover the aisles with cardboard and then mulch, but once the season got rolling I prioritized many other things ahead of aisle space. Weeds have very easily and readily moved into the fertile hugelkutlur beds. As you might expect, I have some thoughts on how to address this issue.

Here’s the plan: I’m looking for living ground cover that will choke out the competitors, won’t be so aggressive that it snakes in under the sides of raised beds, doesn’t need to be mowed and can handle foot traffic.  And I’d like fries with that too, please.

In this blog post I shared several possibilities and asked for your opinions. Turns out there’s an option out there I hadn’t thought of at that time: Ajuga. Ajuga is an evergreen, perennial ground cover that can handle foot traffic. While touring some landscaping improvements made at my in-law’s house this summer I noticed that they had some ajuga growing in their front yard. For them it is an unwanted weed so my mother-in-law was more than willing to let me pull some up to take home. I’m currently growing the transplants in my greenhouse and plan to gather more from their place. In the spring I’ll be transplanting ajuga into the aisle spaces.

Meanwhile, I need to do something to give myself a head start in the spring. I’ve just started the slow, labor-intensive process of digging up the sod in the aisle spaces and turning it upside down. I also have a large pile of wood chips still from cutting down several trees to make room for a micro-orchard so I’m using that in some places. My plan is to plant the ajuga directly into the wood chips in a test area and see what happens. Maybe I’m crazy… we’ll find out!

The other necessary solution is that my hugelkultur beds need hardscape sides. I haven’t decided yet if I want to use cinder blocks or lumber. More on that in time.

Chicken Paddock Perfection

Before the division...

Before the division…

Our chicken coop is located in a paddock system. The original design called for four paddocks (fenced areas) each accessible from a separate door in the coop and through which the chickens could rotate. Each paddock is designed to be planted with crops chickens can self harvest (i.e., grasses, greens, berries). Though the numbers on our original design made sense per the experts, the size of each paddock just seemed too small. So instead of four paddock we have two.

Our paddock system is being implemented over time. In other words, we didn’t make time to do it all at once and we’re completing phases when we can. I don’t recommend this approach because it creates a problem… a problem that the system is actually designed to avoid.

When we first got the chickens they roamed the fenced backyard. It actually wasn’t as weird as I thought it would be to have chickens running around. The only real problem – poop. Everywhere. Especially at the back door for some reason. (Thanks, chickens…).  So after a month or two of being outdoors we finally erected a 20’ x 30’ fence around the coop. It was nice to have an area to banish the chickens to that still afforded them the opportunity to forage. However, it became obvious over the next several weeks that corralling the chickens into this 600 square foot area was going to wipe out the vegetation before too long. The solution was to finally raise the fence dividing this space so that we could rotate the chickens between them. That’s when our next and most recent problem developed…

Chickens are drawn to freshly tilled dirt. So any plants I tried to transplant or any seeds I tried to sow were promptly dug up. Eventually we decided to keep them completely out of one section, allowing that paddock to grow. Because this decision was made late in the summer (or perhaps we should call it early fall) the plants have not experienced the kind of established growth they need to withstand six chickens. When spring comes, there will be so much variety springing to life in that little area – sunflowers, kale, lettuce, spinach, strawberries, peas and more!

After the division...

After the division…

Meanwhile the second paddock has been reduced to a poopy mud pit. Our girls are such excellent foragers that I hate it when I have to “lock them up” in there. We’re constantly playing the trade off of keeping them in the muddy paddock but not accumulating poop in the yard or letting them roam the yard and dealing with the mess. And that’s not even the problem… The real problem is figuring out how to get both paddocks “fully stocked” at about the same time. In other words, if we move the chickens to the fertile paddock this spring, there may not be enough time for the muddy paddock to catch up before we need to rotate the birds away from destroying the first paddock.

We’re not exactly experiencing optimal weather for growing at this time of the year, but our initial plan is to keep the chickens out of the paddock entirely for the next 4-6 weeks to give time for at least some ground cover to be established. I’ll talk about that plan in more detail in an upcoming post about the chickens.

Pest & Disease Management

Anthracnose Annihilation

One of my goals for this year was to implement new ideas for pest and disease management. The most prominent solution involved using neem oil. Neem oil is a natural oil pressed from seeds and fruits of an evergreen neem tree found in India. Neem oil is used as a biopesticide and to control diseases like black spot, powdery mildew, anthracnose and rust.

anthracnose plagued beans

Anthracnose plagued beans

With consistent applications early in the year we were able to fight off large-scale white powdery mildew. Plants seemed healthier and bugs weren’t an issue. (Even though we did have some squash bugs, they never caused enough damage to be a true pest!) With the onset of frequent rain I was unable to stick to a regular schedule of spraying neem oil. Of course constantly wet conditions are the perfect breeding ground for mildew and fungus. During this time white powdery mildew began to show up and spread in the garden, as well as the familiar brown-spotted disease that has plagued some of our best crops. Last year after doing some research I self-diagnosed the mystery disease as Anthracnose, which can be prevented and controlled by neem oil.

During the raining season both mildew and anthracnose had their way in the garden. Once things dried up a bit I was able to do a few more applications which helped to keep the mildew in check. Meanwhile, anthracnose has destroyed nearly all of the beans and it also claimed the cucumbers. Over the winter I’m going to work on definitively identifying this continually destructive disease(what if it’s not anthracnose?) and finding ways to address it in 2014.

We’ve done more in the garden to address pests than applying neem oil. First, I planted radishes with squashes to act as a trap crop for vine borers. Guess what? It worked! Worked on zucchini, summer squash, acorn squash, pumpkins and melons. I’ve always had big-time issues with vine borers, but not this year! This tactic will be a staple in my garden going forward.

I also planted borage with the pumpkins and melons. Borage is considered a magic bullet for companion planting. It is known for improving the productivity and taste of many crops. It repels several pests (i.e., tomato hornworms, cabbage worms/moths) and it’s flowers attract pollinators. I couldn’t say for sure that borage solved my pest problems, but I did have pretty good luck with my melons and family pumpkins this year (no disease or pest issues).

And as always, healthy soil is the number one defense against pests and disease. Healthy soil leads to a healthy plant. A healthy plant can do much in its own defense and adaptation. I was absolutely thrilled with the compost we received from Kalamazoo Landscape Supply this year for our garden expansion. The soil on the other side of the garden was great as well thanks to a late fall application of composting horse and goat manure. This fall I hope to add manure to all of the beds to compost over the winter. Each bed will be topped with a mulch of shredded fall leaves.

CSA Stress

I’ve only been doing this CSA thing for two years. However during that time I have had the privilege of speaking with dozens of other producers about the joys and challenges of operating a CSA. I treasure the fact that everyone does things just a little bit differently, and in each case I’ve learned something new. At least one thing, however, remains constant. All of the farmers I’ve spoken with have this unyielding concern season after season: “Will there be enough and will it be ready at the right time?” So many factors – controllable and otherwise – impact the answer to this question. On our micro-farm scale, it’s a big deal when a crop is slow to produce, dies off or brings a reduced yield. After talking to several CSA farmers, I’ve discovered that this stressor is always present regardless of years of experience, acreage or weather patterns. Perhaps someday when we operate on a larger scale we’ll be able to absorb a significant portion of this stress by sheer volume, but that day is still floating out there in the unknown future.

Don’t get me wrong – this year was exponentially less stressful than last year. This year, I knew much better what to expect. This year, I understood that occasional supplementing from other growers is industry standard. This year, I was equipped to better plan quantities and had a more realistic idea of how much yield to expect. This year, there was no drought. But this year… I still had to ask myself several times that stress-tinged question: “Will there be enough and will it be ready at the right time?”

I’ve determined that, no matter how long I operate a CSA, that question – and the stress that comes with it – will remain at some level.

Scale vs. Profit

Another lesson that I’ve learned this year is that I need to choose between two competing factors related to the operation of my CSA. Either I can do this on a small enough scale that I can manage it as a work-from-home-mom who makes a hobby-level profit, or I can grow it into a large, multi-acre operation with a small team of employees who help me bring in a sizeable profit. A small-scale operation has lots of benefits. I work significantly less than 40 hours a week. I’m able to be at home and focus on my family. My schedule is somewhat flexible. I make money doing something I like and without going into debt to do it. The main disadvantage of our small scale is that our profit is commensurately small. Though I don’t have a 40-hour work week, I work far too hard to make as little as I do in terms of an hourly figure. Also, we’re committed to a debt-free approach to business and life so growth has to be slow, steady, and paid for in cash. (In other words, jumping into a 10-acre deal is not possible for us right now.) At the end of the day, our family can pay the bills and put food on the table, but I want to make an income that contributes to my family’s long-term (and big) financial goals.

When I Grow Up

The lessons I’ve learned over the last two seasons have significantly reshaped both the purpose and the operation of Arcadia Farms. Considering these lessons, along with much thought and prayer, we have decided not to operate a CSA in 2014.

Ultimately two overarching lessons contributed to this decision. First, the ever-nagging question “Will there be enough and will it be ready at the right time?” For me, this stress robs gardening of a portion of its satisfaction.

The second main reason we will not operate a CSA next year has to do with our personal family wellness. Fortunately our family was able to enjoy significantly more produce from the garden this year than last year, but we are still receiving less than the equivalent of a half share from our own farm. Because of the small scale of our farm (and thus the small scale of our profits) we determined that it would be a better health and financial benefit to our family to keep the majority of our produce rather than selling the bulk of it. One of the joys I experienced from our earliest gardening days was the successful feeling that came with having an abundance. Though we will still sell produce from highly successful crops (through our Facebook page and mailing list) keeping our bounty will enable us to supply our own pantry and to be charitable with what we no longer have room to keep. After a year of excellent crops and enthusiastic customers, it was a bitter-sweet conclusion to make. All the same, we feel it is the best decision for our family.

What’s Next

sunflowers

We may not be continuing our CSA into 2014, but we’re not going away! We still feel passionately about natural, local, sustainable food and want to help others to experience that successful feeling of bringing in a bounty from the backyard. The focus of our farm is shifting to helping others grow their own food rather than growing it for them. Though we still believe in the CSA model, this “teach a man to fish” approach is more sustainable overall and fits squarely into our mission. In 2014 you can look forward to the following from Arcadia Farms:

  • Gardening classes, especially for beginners, renters and apartment dwellers
  • Food preservation classes
  • A virtual farmers market through social media
  • Brokerage services to connect producers and commercial customers
  • Customized and affordable garden plans for those who need help getting started
  • Consistent blog posts with quality content about gardening and sustainable living

Who knows – maybe someday we will return to the CSA business. But for now, it’s time for our business plan to take a new path. We remain exceedingly grateful to all of our supporters, but especially to our members. Your investment in Arcadia Farms has enabled us to explore a dream that could never have happened without you! Thank you for the enthusiasm you have shown for the work we are doing and our vision of eating natural, local, sustainable food! You and your families have our deepest gratitude.

Best Wishes,

The Shanks

 
 

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.  

 
 

Container Gardening Tips

Plants in a WindowThe more I learn about sustainable living, the more convinced I become that everyone can grow fresh food at home. Not everyone can have the same 1,500 square feet of garden space that we have here at Arcadia Farms, but even renters and apartment dwellers can grow a significant amount of food in a container garden. Container gardening is also a great place for reluctant homeowners to start. If you’re convinced that growing some of your own food would be beneficial but are hesitant to rent a rototiller and start digging up your backyard, consider starting with a container garden. Today I want to share some tips with you on how to make your container garden a successful one.

For the most part, growing veggies in containers is the same as growing them directly in the ground or a raised bed. One obvious difference is that you have less soil to work with. With less soil, you’ll need to pay close attention to your plants nutritional needs (small space means soil nutrients can be used up more readily). You’ll also need to keep a close eye on moisture (it’s easy to over or underwater a container garden). Let’s talk about those two factors – and a few other things you should keep in mind.

1. Give Your Plants Nutrients

raw egg fertilizer

{image Credit}
www.redbookmag.com

To make sure your plants get the nutrients they need, I recommend starting with good quality compost. Because the soil in your container is more likely to become compacted over time, mixing in some vermiculite would also be preferable. There are also many ready-mixed organic garden soils that provide a good supply of nutrients while still being lightweight.

After your plants are established (are showing their true leaves), you’ll want to give them with a natural fertilizer. Good choices are fish emulsion (diluted in water per the bottle’s directions) or an organic soil amendment (such as Jobes organic tomato and vegetable fertilizer.) Fertilize every 1 to 2 weeks after your plants begin to show their true leaves. Here’s another idea for fertilizing your container: A whole, in-shell, raw egg. Warning: I’ve never actually tried this myself, rather, I found the idea on Pinterest. The idea is that the egg will decompose slowly and add nutrients to the soil as it does.

If you intend to use the same containers over and over again, there are a couple of things to keep in mind when it comes to soil fertility. First, you should add new organic matter every year. Fall is a good time to do this so that the materials have time to breakdown over the winter. You can accomplish this by adding grass clippings, shredded leaves, table scraps, store-bought or homemade compost. The second thing to keep in mind has to do with crop rotation. Just like an in-ground garden, plants of the same family ‘eat’ certain nutrients in the soil. If you continue to plant the same type of plant in the same container, over time the nutrients necessary for the healthy growth of that plant will be depleted. To avoid this issue, rotate similarly sized containers through various crops of different plant families. If your season and container are conducive to this, consider sowing some manner of nitrogen-fixing crop after your summer veggies are spent. This cover crop will keep weeds from inhabiting your container over the cooler months and will also add nitrogen to the soil. For a list of nitrogen-fixing cover crops, click here. In general, any legume will do the trick, such as peas and beans.

You can also add nutrients to your container by adding a layer of woody debris – such as broken branches, twigs or even small logs – to the bottom of your container. As the wood breaks down it adds nutrients to the soil, among other benefits.

2. Manage Moisture

{Image Credit} www.amazon.com

{Image Credit}
www.amazon.com

Another benefit of adding woody debris to your container is that it helps to retain moisture. As wood breaks down it acts like a sponge, attracting water and then releasing it slowly into the surrounding soil as needed. This is the primary function of wood in hugelkultur – a system where raised bed gardens are built over piles of well-rotted (spongy) wood to help retain moisture and reduce (or eliminate) the need for irrigation. You can put this hugelkultur benefit to work for you on a container-sized scale. I even read that one blogger found better success with logs placed vertically than horizontally, essentially because the grain of the log acted like a straw for moisture to move up and down. (As soon as I can re-find his post I will link to it here!).  Keep the following tips in mind when selecting wood for your container:

  • Avoid wood so large that will interfere with the growth of root crops (i.e. carrots)
  • Avoid treated lumber
  • Avoid wood from plants that contain natural herbicides, such as black walnut
  • The more rotten the wood, the better
  • Fresh wood that contains a significant amount of tannin (i.e. pine) should be avoided until the wood is older (6 months old at earliest, just my opinion)

Don’t feel like you need to use a giant log in your 12” pot – just a handful of fallen sticks from the yard will help! These sticks will also help provide some air pockets for drainage at the bottom of the container which is of critical importance in container planting. (You don’t want to drown the roots of your plant – they need air too!)

Because containers can dry out easily, try mulching the top to keep the soil cool and water from evaporating. If your container is large enough, you may consider using an olla to reduce the amount of time you spend on watering.

And lastly, because moisture management is so important in container gardening, you’ll want to invest in a moisture meter. For $5-$10 you can find something like this (image above) which takes the guesswork out of whether or not to water – just stick the probes into the soil and you’ll find out how much moisture is already present.

3. Choose the Right Container (Size, Shape & Materials)

When it comes to container gardening, bigger is generally better. That’s because you have more moisture-retaining, nutrient-rich soil to work with. But that doesn’t mean a small container can’t be just as successful! In Mel Brook’s Square Foot Gardening method, nearly everything can be grown in soil that is just 6” deep.  (Root crops will need a minimum of 12”.) The necessary width of your container will depend on what you’re growing – tomato plants do best with at least 2 square feet of space while one head of lettuce requires only 12.5% of a single square foot. Use these plant spacing rules as a guideline for container planting.

Tall or vining crops (such as cucumbers and tomatoes) will need a trellis. Does your container have enough space to hold both your plant and your trellis? Or will you use an external trellis near the container such as a fence or a porch railing? Here are some ideas for container-gardening trellises. Click on the image for more info and image sources.

outdoor trellis string trellis simple diy copper trellis raspberries trellis sapling green ladder trellis

Also consider the material makeup of your container. You’ll want to avoid containers from treated materials, ones that may leach chemicals into your soil or that previously held harmful chemicals/materials.

4. Location, Location, Location

This isn’t real estate, but location is still pretty darn important! The closer your containers are to the house, the less likely you’ll be to neglect them. Plus if you have easy access to your cherry tomatoes and snap beans, you (and your family) will be more likely to grab a few for a snack or dinner than if you have to wander far from the back door.

When choosing a location for your container garden, sunlight is another huge consideration. In general, you’re looking for a location with as much sun as possible. However some plants benefit from a little shade. To determine the best location for each crop, check out the info on the back of the seed packet. Once you’ve identified your shade-loving plants and your sun-loving plants, you can devise a plan for each group. You may even be able to use your large sun-loving plants to provide shade to your shade-loving plants. Shade-lovers staged on the east side of sun-lovers will get plenty of morning sun but will be shielded from harsher afternoon rays.

And when you place your containers, keep pests in mind! Do you have deer nearby? You may want to keep your containers in a fenced area. Is the sunniest spot in the yard also in the path of your pets and kids – you’ll need a plan to keep them from being toppled over. Another way to keep bunnies and other critters away from your veggies is to interplant smelly things to deter them – chives, garlic, marigolds and rosemary are good options.

Inspiration

As you ponder how to incorporate these tips into your own container garden, click here to take a peep at some of these neato ideas for inspiration.

I’m working right now on a custom container gardening plan for growing lots of things like tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, carrots, potatoes and herbs. I hope to share that with you soon!

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

 
 

Planting Herbs in Upcycled Tin Cans

This winter I shared with you that I want a beautiful, traditionally styled, super-sized tea garden full of straight-up tea plant (Camellia sinensis) hedges and oodles of herbs. Despite my grandest dreams, our micro-farm only has room for a micro tea garden. So instead of having something like this…

formal garden

{Image Credit}
www.dnalandscape.com

I’m going to have something like this…

tin can herbs

{Image Credit}
http://fotofraulein.blogspot.com

I’ll be growing herbs for tea in upcycled tin cans which will hang from the posts of our garden fence. I’m also hoping to add some herb containers closer to the house. This weekend I got started on planting my first herbs – stevia.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with stevia, it is a natural sweetening alternative to cane sugar. I’m going to use the leaves in tea but you can also use it in powder form for baking. (Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the aftertaste it leaves in baked goods.) I’m starting small with just five containers. Here’s what I did.

I’ve been collecting an assortment of tin cans all year. I grabbed five of them and used a drill to make holes in the bottom. Because stevia likes well-drained soil, I wanted to add a little something to the bottom of each can to create air pockets for drainage. What better to use than some of the myriad twigs lying around my yard? Cleans my yard up a smidge (ok, a very tiny smidge), makes good use of what would otherwise be yard waste and creates a mini-hugelkultur climate in my herb containers. Win win win!

holes in tin can planter for herbs

I started by drilling drainage holes in the bottoms of my tin cans.

tin can herb planters with twigs for drainage

Next I added a layer of fallen twigs. These will aid in drainage by creating air pockets and will also add a hugelkultur effect to these tiny planters.

planting stevia in tin can herb planters

I’m planting stevia from Seed Savers Exchange in these mini-planters.

I’ve never grown stevia before… can’t wait to see (and taste) what lies ahead! And I’m super excited about all the other tea-worthy herbs that are yet to come.

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

 
 

Early Spring 2013 Update

NOTE: Ooops! Somehow I managed to only save this as a draft and did not publish it. This was supposed to be posted on April 1 (no joke). Keep that in mind as you read my "today"s and "yesterday"s. - Farmer Katie


Today’s Headline: No snow… (yet)! Today’s forecast for southwest Michigan was snowy. To be sure, it is cold outside (hovering around 30 degrees as I write this) but the sun is shining brightly. After a sustained string of sunny days, it’s a little hard for me to stomach the idea of snow. The good news is that Wednesday should be sunny and relatively warm (40’s) and then if the Mr. Weatherman is right, there’s no looking back! Farewell, winter – I’m ready for spring!

Our First Hugelkultur Planting

With spring on our doorstep, I’ve been super busy starting seeds. On Good Friday I planted about half of our peas. The most exciting thing about these peas is that they are the very first thing planted in one of our hugelkultur beds! To recap, the beds are comprised of pits (about 3’ deep) filled with rotted logs, branches and fall leaves which have then been topped with the very earth that was removed to make the pits. (For in-depth info on why in the world we would bury logs in our garden – and why you should too – click here.) On Friday I made a mound about 8-10” high with more topsoil and topped that with 6 cubic feet of organic garden soil (purchased from Lowes). My plan was to create the mounded part of the beds with compost but I have not yet ordered the compost. (Just like last year we’ll get it in bulk from a local supplier.) Because I knew a cold snap was coming, I covered the bed with a plastic row cover using our PVC hoops. (I had a fabulous helper!)

hugelkultur bed

This hugel has 3 feet of logs and leave buried beneath it with a 8-10? mound of top soil on top.

hugelkultur bed

Owen is helping me put the hoops in place for our row cover.

hugelkultur bed

What a great little helper!

hugelkultur bed

Hoops are in place. A covering of organic garden soil (from Lowes) tops the bed. This is only 6 cubic feet… I wish I could have added more.

hugelkultur bed

The bed is ready for the row cover.

hugelkultur bed

I covered the bed with plastic held down by logs and large rocks. The let the bed warm for a day before planting the peas.

The row cover will also keep the deer and other critters from digging up my peas since there we do not yet have a fence around this part of the garden.

Seedlings

To date I’ve started onions, leeks, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, rhubarb, chard, broccoli, stevia, lettuce, peas and tomatoes. Frankly, this is the part of the season that keeps me on edge. Starting hundreds of seeds at a time while the weather is still touch and go provides lots of challenges.

a pile of newspaper pots

My biggest issue is space. We live in a small house and have a very small greenhouse. Finding an out of the way place for so many seedlings that also has the warmth and light they need is difficult. Second of all, making sure I stick with my planned planting dates is hard for me. Life gets busy and despite the fact that I vowed not to do this again, I’ve already had a couple of days where I look at the calendar at 8:00 PM and think “Oh crap, I’m supposed to plant 200 seeds today!” Right now I’m way off schedule on planting chives, scallions and a few days off on lettuce, spinach and chamomile. The biggest issue is that I haven’t been diligent about making newspaper pots every day. The good news is I think I can go ahead later this week with direct seeding my chives and scallions (they are cool hardy) and I’m thinking of direct-seeding the lettuce and spinach under row covers. The only reason I was going to start chamomile this early is because it takes a while to mature and I wanted to give it a jump start. But since that is not a critical crop for our CSA, I think I will just direct seed it after the last frost date.

In further keeping-it-real news, my onions are not doing well. I planted about 450 seeds and I think about 30% of them are thriving. I think the culprit here is lack of light… they’ve been hanging out in my laundry room and there are so many that some are not in the best-lit places. Also my cauliflower and cabbage have not germinated well because they are in the greenhouse which drops down to about 50* at night despite my space-heater’s best efforts. I replanted cauliflower a couple of days ago and will be bringing those seedlings, along with the cabbage, inside to germinate. The good news is our kale is doing fabulously as well as our chard. Broccoli germinated just fine and the tomatoes are coming along. Once the night temperatures pick up (or I get my hands on a second space heater) we should have no problems.

kale seedling in newspaper pot

Later this week I’m hoping to build shelves for the greenhouse to make better use of space (and get seedlings out of my dimly lit laundry room!)

The Garden Fence

Now that the direct-seed season has arrived (at least for my cool-hardy plants) we need a new fence ASAP. For those of you who are just starting to follow us, you might want to check out this post where I talked about expanding our garden. We’ve doubled the size of the Main Garden by adding 14 new beds – 10 of them are hugelkultur beds. The existing fence is still standing around last year’s garden. Besides needing to be expanded, it also needs to be improved. The posts are loose in several places and there are gaps (like, fawn-sized gaps) in the metal fabric in a couple of places.

Existing fence around main garden

Existing fence around main garden

DSC03841

fawn sized hole in existing main garden fence

Oh look – a fawn-sized hole in the fence… lovely…

Last fall I shared with our CSA members that we could use help in April with building the new fence. Several of them graciously said that they’d be willing to help when the time arrives. (Thank you!) We haven’t set a date yet but will soon. The fence will serve several purposes: Protect veggies from critters (like deer and rabbits), allow sun to reach our crops (by using welded wire fencing), provide a trellis to the north of the garden and create an attractive boundary for the garden. The attractive boundary is a driving force behind our need for some additional help, of the financial variety. Being good neighbors is important to us and since we’re a suburban farm, we want to create a fence that is as aesthetically pleasing (for our neighbors) as it is effective (for our crops). To make a prettier fence, we need a prettier penny. (And since we’re a start-up farm committed to operating debt-free, the budget is tight.)

The good news is that we’ve found a way to make a fence that is relatively low cost while still serving all the purposes listed above. And we’ll be able to make it modular so if we need to expand or move it in the future, all of the dollars invested in our project will not go to waste. All contributions (even $5) will bolster our ability to provide naturally-grown, locally-sold produce to our community. If you’re interested in investing in the naturally-grown, buy-local movement, here’s a great opportunity to make a tangible difference for just a few dollars! If you’d like to contribute, please email me at katie@arcadia-farms.net.  (P.S. We’re giving away some pretty cool rewards to contributors. More details coming within a few days on our very first www.kickstarter.com project!)

Here are some pictures to give you an idea of what we’ll be building.

prowell woodworks gate

{Image Credit}
www.prowellwoodworks.com

Garden-Fence-Designs

{Image Credit}
www.onhome.org

wire wood garden fence

{Image Credit}
http://mnkyimages.com

There you have it… a little peak into the world of what we’ve been up to lately. What have you been up to around your homestead? Have you started any seeds indoors? Outdoors? Any other gardening activity? I’d love to hear what you’re up to!

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

 
 

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.

 
 

Olla Irrigation for a Market Garden

An olla buried in the garden.Image fromhttp://www.apartmenttherapy.com

Clay olla buried in the garden.
Image from http://www.apartmenttherapy.com/olla-gardening-the-original-dr-78565

It’s January. And it’s cold. And I’m glad… mostly. I’m not a fan of cold weather, but I’m hoping a cold, snowy Michigan winter means a drought-free Michigan summer. Cold weather also means I have some time to create plans for making our 2013 season even more successful than 2012. I’ve been doing research on irrigation systems for our 2013 garden and I’d like to share the results of this research with you this week.

A major component of my irrigation plan is hugelkultur. If you’ve been following this blog than I’m sure you’re sick of me throwing that term around. If you haven’t been following my German-term throwing antics, then I’ll just let you know briefly that hugelkultur (“mound culture”) is a gardening method that 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 on my adventures in installing hugelkultur beds, click here.

I sincerely hope that hugelkultur will reduce our irrigation needs but I’m not quite optimistic enough to trust that it will eliminate the need to water. So I’ve set out to develop a sustainable irrigation system that minimizes labor, reduces costs, avoids overhead watering, and stores extra water while maintaining aesthetics appropriate for our suburban setting. I want the system to minimize reliance on city water. And I’d like fries with that too, please.

Click here to read the rest of this article, including:

 
 

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.

 
 

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!






 
 
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