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7 Reasons to Appreciate Winter

Reasons to appreciate winter

I’m a Michigan girl, which means not only am I used to four seasons but dramatic, often vacillating transitions between those seasons. In the spring and fall it is not uncommon to have sunny, 80-degree weather and windy, perhaps rainy 40-degree weather shortly after (sometimes in the same day). Until recently, I always remember winter being abysmally cold and sustained with ample snow. The last few winters in Michigan have been very mild, even if they were sprinkled by some bad storms here and there. In fact last winter, I was still digging in dirt not long before Christmas!

This winter is making up for all the mildness we’ve recently experienced. We’ve had a record-breaking cold snap with day after day in subzero temperatures (not to mention the deep wind chill). I now have a new definition of abysmally cold.  And I should know – I’m an expert in hating highly disliking cold. I can’t stand being cold. I’m not really a fan of snow. I appreciate a white Christmas and then it can all go away as far as I’m concerned. Give me liberty summer or give me death the furnace set at 75!

I’ve never understood why people love winter so much. I especially dislike it when the weather starts just baaarrrrley turning cold in the fall (say, the first 60-degree day of September) and Facebook is alight with “Oh, fall is here!” and “Cold weather is coming!” and “I just broke out the Christmas music!” Really? Really?!? I get so annoyed with folks who drag Christmas into Thanksgiving and Halloween.

I’ve always thought of myself as a champion of holiday sanctification; a seasonal purist. Please – no Christmas trees before pumpkins, thank you! But then as December rolled into January and I started blogging about garden plans and seed starting and “Spring is almost here!” I realized… I’m one of them. I wish away winter just like the Christmas-music-in-September-Nazis fancy truncating summer.

Then I had another strange epiphany… trapped in my house for days on end by sub-zero windchills, I’ve spent a lot of time looking out. And contemplating what I see… and thinking about the bright side. And I realized… winter’s not all that bad. In fact, there are plenty of reasons to actually be thankful for winter. Here are a few…

Some Plants Need Cold Weather

Some of our favorite garden plants actually benefit from a cold snap. For example, according to Grey Duck Garlic, “garlic requires vernalization (exposed to cold) before or after planting. Cold temperatures stimulate garlic to sprout and develop a bulb.” Also many fruit trees – including Apple and Cherry – have a chilling time requirement. Here’s an explanation from The Housing Forum:  “Fruit trees require a period of time called chill time which accumulates throughout cold weather seasons. Chill time begins as soon as the leaves fall off of the tree and extends to the first bloom. Cherry trees require between 600 and 700 hours of chill time to produce ample and healthy blossoms.”

Cold Weather Diminishes Pest Populations

I’ve heard more-experienced gardeners talk before about the fact that winter weather helps to reduce pest populations, namely bugs. A deep freeze like we’re experiencing is likely to have a deeper impact. For example, a tiger mosquito’s eggs are destroyed below 10 degrees Fahrenheit. When it comes to garden pests, a deep freeze is hard on moth populations as well. Apparently adult moths mate at night when temperatures are above freezing, and since those days have been few and far between so far this winter, we might be in luck.

Snow Replenishes Waterways

Water is an important natural resources, especially in Michigan. During the summer drought two years ago some waterways were very low and dry. Since snowfall eventually replenishes tributaries and aquifers, it also replenishes our lakes, ponds and streams in time. National Geographic reports that “the recent Arctic blast that gripped much of the nation will likely contribute to a healthy rise in Great Lakes water levels in 2014.”

Winter Wonderlands are Beautiful

Have you looked outside? My yard looks like this – isn’t it beautiful? From within a warm house with a warm cup of tea in my hand, all that white stuff’s not so bad. (P.S. The pictures just don’t do it justice!)

reasons to appreciate winter

Reasons to appreciate winter

Reasons to appreciate winter

Reasons to appreciate winter

Reasons to appreciate winter

Cabin Fever and Quiet Time

No one likes cabin fever, especially when you’re really trapped inside and not just staying home to be road-wise. But if we’re honest, most of us could benefit from a day or two of quiet together-time at home with family. Our family has broken out books and games and crafts during the last few snow days that haven’t seen the light of day in a while.

Winter-Related Sports and Commerce

Not all of us are stuck inside during snowy weather. Some crazy people live for the day when there’s enough snowfall to ski, snowmobile or go sledding. For yet others getting out into the elements is less about choice and more about employment. We’re so indebted to the men and women who make their living by clearing roadways, parking lots and driveways so that the rest of us can go about our business safely. All of these activities have an impact on our economy by creating seasonal jobs and income.

Spring Really Is Coming

Ironically, one of the benefits of winter is that it helps us appreciate warmer weather. Close friends of ours from Malaysia often commented on how much they loved the change in seasons, with winter ranking as their favorite time of year. They came from a climate of warm, warm, warm day after day. That sounds pretty tempting when I’m lugging water out to the chicken coop with a -30 degree wind smacking my face. But if Michigan was always warm, warm, warm day after day I would never get to experience that euphoric feeling when the days suddenly turn substantially warmer and the sun on my face reminds me of how much vitamin D I’ve been missing (and how great it makes me feel)! Or when I awake (physically and otherwise) to the realization that songbirds brought me out of slumber. Or when the trees explode with green seemingly overnight and I remember how full of life the world is. I plod through the winter and do my best to be thankful for what we receive. But when songbirds and sunshine and green things remind me of just how cold and stark and quiet the winter has been, I appreciate these things all the more. Spring really is coming… and that hope would be meaningless if it weren’t for winter.

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

 
 

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.  

 
 

Heating the Greenhouse

When I was growing up my mom always had a countdown to spring. I’m not a fan of cold weather, or snow, or the cold-meets-muddy mess that is early spring in Michigan. For all those reasons I always joyfully joined into the countdown. And for all of those reasons I was always sorely disappointed. Here’s why: Mom counted down to The First Day of Spring… as in the little square on the calendar that tells us the day of the astronomical vernal equinox has arrived (March 20 this year). In Michigan, that usually means it is still cold, possibly snowy and muddy beyond belief. Once I became a teenager and wised up to all of this, I vehemently refused to participate in the countdown to avoid the imminent disappointment. I’ve learned that it’s best not to expect spring until May.

Expecting that warm weather won’t be here until May has implications for our greenhouse. In order to plant by the phases of the moon and have my transplants ready for the garden by the time our last frost date passes I have to start seeds as early as next Monday (March 11). We don’t have room in our tiny house to store the thousands of seeds I plan to start in March and April so they need to go elsewhere. The greenhouse is naturally a good candidate. This time of year there should be plenty of light to keep my seedlings happy during the day, however, the temperature is still well below freezing most days. We need a heater.

Sustainable Heater?

Enter my desire for low-cost, sustainable processes. We have an electric space heater in the greenhouse which did a fine job of heating our 6’ x 6’ space this fall. I was hoping to find something a little more sustainable – or at least less expensive – to do the job. Here are some of the things I considered (solar powered heater, terracotta pot heater and rocket stove) :

[pin here]

Source: youtube.com via Arcadia on Pinterest

 

Choices, Choices

Of all the options I decided to try the terracotta pot heater. Online reviews from other users seemed to indicate that the heater didn’t give off as much heat as they had hoped but it still “worked.” One person said it could be used to heat a small room. A 6’ x 6’ greenhouse is a pretty small room so I felt optimistic. Plus I already have plenty of pots so materials wouldn’t’ be very costly. Materials include:

  • Two terracotta pots (10? and 12?)
  • Lamp
  • Heat bulb
  • 2” threaded bolt (1/2 inch diameter)
  • 8 washers
  • 4 bolts

I decided to use a light bulb instead of a candle because I felt the energy would be more consistent and then I wouldn’t have to buy a supply of candles. (If I ever needed to use the heater with a candle instead of a light bulb, that would still be an option.) We’re preparing for chickens so I recently bought a pack of two 250W heat bulbs. Using a lamp I already own, I tested the heater by placing a large pot over the bulb. Presto – heat!

Next I went to Home Depot and bought the bolt and a handful of washers and nuts.  I used the bolt to thread the 10” pot inside the 12” pot.

terra cotta pots threaded together

Then I setup the lamp (used an extension cord from the garage), surrounded it by 6” pots placed upside down (like a tripod) and set the threaded pots over the lamp (resting on the 6” pots).

terra cotta pot heater with heat lamp

terra cotta pot heater

In very little time the pots began to heat up – a lot!! I even burned myself on the bolt once. But alas, after several tests I determined that the heater at best was making a 1-3* difference in the air temperature of the greenhouse. And that at best difference was happening in the afternoon when I need it least. At night time (when I need it most) there was no measurable difference at all. Even if I had two or three of these bad boys, I don’t think it would help.

Bummer.

Oh Mr. Sun

The good news is that since I was monitoring the greenhouse temperature closely for several days I noticed that the sun has reached a point in the sky where it is adequately heating the greenhouse during the day. Today it is 100+ degrees in there with just solar heating! So long as we continue to have moderately sunny days, I think I’ll be able to get away with letting the sun keep my plants warm (above 60*) during the day and using the electric heater at night. If time allows, I’d like to try making a small rocket stove to use at night. No promises there, but if it happens, you can be sure that I’ll share my findings with you.

Does anyone have tips for how they heat their greenhouse? Any creative ideas you’d like me to try?

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

 
 

Planting by Moon Phases

full moon

Guess what? I started planting this past week! Nearly all of my onion seeds have met their soil! I’m planning to start more onions this weekend (scallions), rhubarb the following weekend (Glaskins Perpetual) and the in early March then I’ll be sowing all kinds of things: Cabbage, cauliflower, kale, chard, broccoli and lettuce to name a few! If you’ve been following this blog you know that I posted my detailed seed-starting plan here, including a spreadsheet showing my start dates. (If you would like to use my Seed Starting Planner, you can download it for FREE right here!)

As wonderful as that all is, I’ve already run across some… things… that have made me reconsider my plans. One of those things has to do with seed starting medium (what I’m growing my seedlings in) and space. Last year I started some of my seeds in potting soil (soilless mix) in upcycled yogurt containers and some of them in Jiffy pellets. Both have their pros and cons… and I’m pretty disappointed with the cons. But with so many options for seed starting, I started to wonder if I could find something better. Next week I’ll share with you what I found and what I decided.

The second thing that has me reconsidering my original seed starting plan is this: The moon.

Yes, you read that right. I said the moon. As I was doing research on the best times to plant certain seeds I ran across information from The Old Farmer’s Almanac explaining that for generations farmers have had “an age-old practice that suggests that the Moon in its cycles affects plant growth.

I made a mental note to look into it. Before it could get far from my mind the topic came up during a conversation with another farmer who is planning to try planting by the moon this season. I decided to dig a little further and found this gem of an article on planting by moon phases.

Click here to read the rest of this article, including a straight-forward chart to planting by moon phases and a video providing more information.

 
 

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!






 
 

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]
 
 
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