Well, Hello there, it looks like I'm back for another year of gardening. Welcome to my SUGA 2018 page. Let me give you a quick breakdown of this page. The first part of this page is an intro of my thoughts and a game plan for my upcoming 2018 gardening year. The 2nd part of this page I'll put up some photos of what I have done for my 2018 garden strategy already, the 3rd part of this page I'll be posting daily updates throughout the 2018 year. Let's start with my "Long Winded" intro! I suggest you grab a cup of coffee, glass of wine or a beer if you plan on reading the entire intro.
Where do I start? I got it, lets start from the beginning. Well I was born in... Wait not that far back! I have been gardening to some extent most of my adult life but it hasn't been until the last several years that I actually put a lot more thought and work into it.
As a kid in the 70's I remember our family having a garden of some sort, I really wasn't that interested in gardening at a young age, just as my kids aren't interested either. Since I moved away from home, got married and got my own place, I always had some type of vegetable garden although I was very limited to what I could grow due to lack of space and insight. My gardens consisted mainly of tomatoes, eggplant and peppers (my go to trio) and on occasion other things with limited success.
The last several years I have been doing quite a bit of reading and research and it has changed my perspective on gardening quite a bit. I have also been a member on some gardening forums that have been a great asset, quick shout out to, "Square Foot Gardening Forum" and "Helpful Gardener Forum", I have learned a lot from these wonderful folks.
In the past I have dabbled with vertical gardening, irrigation, hydroponics and a hybrid Aquaponics, I still do my "Hybrid" Aquaponics but have switched gears away from hydroponics. You can read more about my Hydroponic trials here.
It was fairly recently that I felt I was on the right path when I decided to go with hugelkultur raised beds, I was just so intrigued by this concept, this segwayed my research into permaculture, but it wasn't until after reading, "Teaming with Microbes", that it really clicked, you know, one of those moments of clarity that we rarely experience.
That is when I decided to be even more aggressive in my gardening strategy or should I say my lack of. I also read "Gaia's Garden" which also reinforced my newfound view of gardening.
My take-away from "Teaming With Microbes" has shifted my logic from feeding the plants to feeding and building a better soil which in turn will feed the plants. The book is pretty intense but gives you an understanding of the Soil Food Web, the book gets very in-depth with Bacteria and Fungi and their roles in building a better soil, I won't go into the actual book but it is a good read.
"Gaia's Garden" geared me up for trying to implement more Bio-Diversity, (a broad term), into my little patch of earth.
I also found an interesting study that was published back in 2010, (and without getting too deep into it), the argument was that, adding fertilizers to the soil did not harm microbes in the soil, the study (over 40 years) showed that while the fertz did not harm the soil microbes, what it did do, was increase the short lived microbe activity to a point where the organic matter broke down much quicker thus reducing the soil's ability to store organic nitrogen.
“Fertilizer is good for the father and bad for the sons.”
Makes sense to me!
I am really fascinated with my ongoing research into permaculture, polyculture and the Soil food Web. Google Dr. Elaine R. Ingham for more info on the Soil Food Web.
It is a bit harder but not impossible to implement a lot of these things in a small urban environment, however, my goal is to incorporate better bio-diversity and at the same time not kill myself or worry to death about it, so I need to be realistic. Increasing Bio-diversity will come over time, this includes bringing more wildlife to the gardens. When I say wildlife, I am not only referring to our fur and feathered friends but also beneficial insects, plants and microbes.
I have to admit that there comes a point in time when you take in so much information that you start to get overwhelmed, this does subside after a bit and I am confident I will find my gardening niche in the gardening world. I also get a little overzealous when reading what other folks are doing and I just need to take a step back sometimes and really, really think it through, this way I don't set myself up for disappointment.
I have been gardening for over twenty-five years in hard clay soil and most of the time have had decent results just tossing in a tomato plant and making sure I kept it watered, but there was a lot more to learn.
Years ago in my garden, the birds would poke most of my tomatoes that were on top of the plants, this was quite annoying. Everyone says it is because they are looking for water, I call BS, because I have two ponds one of which is 15' away from the plants. I tried covering my homemade cages in chicken wire but the tomatoes grew right out of them, I tried reflective strips that would supposedly scare them away, nothing worked. Then there were years when I didn't get a single tomato and figured the groundhogs were well fed.
Lately I have been trying to incorporate some native (Common to my area) species of plants in addition to existing non-native species of plants in my landscape to promote "local" wildlife such as beneficial insects and birds. The topic of native species, non-native and invasives is a discussion for another day.
I have planted quite a few wildflowers around the yard and pond and while everything is not physically connected I still look at my entire landscape as a whole. Surprisingly, last season, the birds, squirrels, Skunks, possums, raccoons, groundhogs etc... have not been a problem. I hope I just didn't jinx myself.
By simply adding some sunflowers to my gardens there has been an improvement, or at least I think it has been an improvement in my garden. I have seen some new arrivals the last few years like a slew of American Goldfinches that decimate the sunflowers, "go on, they are there for you", I have seen more robins picking at the lawn, sparrows cleaning the plants, Bluejays and cardinals, but they seem to leave the maters alone. I even saw a Peregrine Falcon in the tree next door a few weeks ago, hopefully keeping the squirrel population in check. My only unwanted guest was a Great Blue Heron by the Koi Pond.
I do have a few squirrels that sometimes grab a tomato, but what is funny is they will eat a bit, leave it there and come back and eat some more from the same tomato, so I have no problem sharing some tomatoes, just as long as they leave my eggplants alone! I don't know, maybe I just don't notice the damage as much because of my appreciation of the wildlife, or maybe its Maggie my neurotic shepherd I have that frequents the yard, who knows!
Since I installed the ponds I have seen more frogs, birds, Mud Daubers, smaller flying insects, spiders and dragonflies visiting the ponds. Since adding herbs and more flowers, I have seen more butterflies, bees, caterpillars, lady bugs, lace wings, spiders, parasitic wasps and the like. In the pond there are Mosquito Fish that keep the mosquitoes at bay.
Since I have been actively composting I have seen a ton of Black Soldier flies, well I should say Black Soldier fly Larva.
Earlier this year, when I was digging out some holes for the fence posts, I must have unearthed some Ground Nesting Bees, I just worked around them for a few days, sometimes just sitting there as they buzzed all around me, there was a time years ago when I would be swatting them and running for cover, but knowing they were there to help my garden was good enough for me to leave them bee! lol couldn't resist. I am however very allergic to bee venom.
I grow some herbs specifically for the butterflies, If the herb is being munched on by some caterpillars, it's off limits till they get their share. I have turtles that live in the yard and I grow strawberries for them, well actually for me too. The strawberries never really amount to much so they are a treat for the turtles and myself when I'm working in the yard, they also get some damaged tomatoes.
Sometimes I will just sit there in the garden and look at all of these critters going about their business, it's actually pretty cool to think, "hey these guys are working for me"! I guess it's all perspective, most folks would reach for the bug spray or a fly swatter.
However, there are limits, for example, when a groundhog decimates an entire garden or when you wonder why your dried clothes smell funny only to find a bird made a nest in your dryer duct, yeah, you guys gotta go!
I will also be making a conscious effort of not purchasing bagged type, store bought materials such as Top soil, Compost and fertilizers. I am also hoping to never use pesticides and will be trying a more natural approach. I do have Neem Oil, Sluggo plus and BT from my 2017 arsenal and although all three are considered organic I am hoping to avoid the use of these in the 2018 garden.
I make my own compost and my city's recycle center has free Mulch, and compost. One caveat is, I may still purchase some Mulch for the pathways in my garden, the jury is still out on that.
When laying out the garden, I don't just consider the crops I am growing to harvest, I am taking into consideration other factors, the plants being grown for harvest is a tip of the iceberg so to speak. Other than my typical Eggplant, Tomatoes and Peppers, I am trying to plant things in and around the garden that are more beneficial to the overall health of the garden.
I have a very limited gardening area for growing things like comfrey for a chop and drop and other plants for compost and/or mulch, however this is something I am working on and this is where creativity comes into play. I have grown living mulches for weed suppression and to also bring in beneficial insects and pollinators, this has worked out extremely well with my oregano, especially bringing in Buzz pollinators. However I need to keep the oregano in check. The oregano makes a network of roots just below the surface, not sure if this is going to be a problem in the future but time will tell and I feel this is a small price to pay for the benefits received. I chop and drop the tall oregano and leave some creep along under the plants, this really kept the weeds down, the soil moist, and the bees were in heaven.
In the past, winter cleanups, (I am in zone 7A), of the beds meant removing the spent plants, roots and all, and that's it, nothing else, and to make matters worse, I didn't realize how much I was disturbing the Soil Food Web by this one simple act of pulling up the roots.
I rarely ever mulched, or amended the soil, nothing to cover the soil to protect from heavy rains or brutal winters, nada, zip!
When spring rolled around and if I was feeling the garden bug, I would go out and dig up the garden and turn it over and toss in some peat moss and maybe some other soil amendment, pickup some plants at the local nursery, toss them in, place a cage over them and I was done! I always had so many weeds and all the time I'm wondering why I had so many Dam weeds. Maybe I would mulch, maybe I wouldn't. It was infrequent that I would use fertilizers, but on occasion have. Other years I would maybe lay some cardboard down for weed control, and toss some plants in the beds, DONE!
What's sad is, I had no clue to the long term damage I was doing, I thought I was being a good gardener. Not only was I damaging the soil, I was also not giving anything back to the soil.
I don't dig or till my soil at all anymore but rather I use cover crops instead. I also keep in my mind when working in the beds is to try to give back more than I take out.
In the past I have never given winter/fall prep/cleanup much thought either, some years I wouldn't even touch the beds until winter had passed, the tomato plants, pepper plants and eggplant plants would still be there in the raised beds completely void of life and sometimes with veggies still on them! I finally understand that gardening is a four season event, YES even in zone 7, and fall/winter prep is just as important as the attention the beds need in the spring, it is an ongoing process, it never stops. Once I got that in my head, I felt I was on the right path.
What we do in the fall and winter months will affect our gardens considerably for our spring crops. How do I know this if I haven't intentionally done it yet? Because when I look back I realized I have done this unknowingly from time to time and didn't even know what the hell I was doing, but there were notable differences compared to doing nothing at all. Unbeknownst to me, good soil would be achieved when I raked up the yard and just tossed the leaves in the gardens just to get rid of them, because I was too lazy to toss them in the trash.
In the more recent past, springtime would mean a few bags of black Kow and some 10-10-10 before planting and a few times during the growing season, sure this worked great but how would it be long term?
Irrigation in my garden has always been hit or miss, my old method of watering was a bunch of soaker hoses or a sprinkler which is now replaced with a drip irrigation system, my short term goal is to cut back on the watering requirements each year as the beds become more established. I am working on harvesting rain water to supplement my watering needs and topping off the ponds, this is a long term goal and will be discussed in the future.
Some of my Hugelkultur beds are on their 3rd growing season and a few are on their 2nd growing season and I couldn't be happier with their performance and I am betting it will only get better over time, I guess there is something to this HOOGLE stuff.
One important thing I have learned over the years is, "what works for others may not work for you", or vice versa and no matter who says what, if you want to try something, give it a shot, it just may work!
For example, everywhere I look, folks say, "peppers don't like their feet wet", OK, that may be true and I'm not arguing that, but that didn't stop me from growing them in my pond. I get pretty good yields from these plants maybe not as good as if they were planted in an enriched soil, but I do get satisfactory results in an area that many would say would not work, and a side benefit is it helps keep my KOI pond clean.
I feel I am maturing into a conscientious gardener and after quite a bit of thought, I think I finally came up with a few garden strategies worth implementing for this year. One of these strategies includes using ONLY, free readily available materials that I can actually acquire easily and not drive all over the neighborhood being a trash collector for leaves and begging Starbucks for coffee grounds. I love how all those YouTube videos say, "go to Starbucks, they'll gladly give you their grounds, collect leaves from your neighbors", well this all sounds good but rarely works out and who wants to drive around trash picking and getting who knows what in the stuff you collected.
The last few years, I have used Perennial herbs such as oregano and thyme for living mulches, these won't cost me a cent year to year but cover crop seeds will still come at a cost, but that's a drop in the bucket and may be my only cost to keep my soil happily, "Teaming with Microbes".
As I said before, I have been known to bite off more than I can chew and get a bit overzealous so I am trying not to overthink this and make more work for myself (long term), actually the opposite, I want to reduce the work and enjoy the garden more, I don't ever want my gardening to seem like work or the garden will suffer. With that said I am willing to put the extra effort in now, hoping for a payoff in future years.
I have 5 strategies I am working on for 2018
- Raised Bed Garden Strategy
- Plant in way of Guilds
- Add more Edible Perennials
- Stack Functions
- Increase Bio-Diversity
Lets start with my Raised Bed Garden Strategy for 2018 which is mostly planted with Annual Veggies like tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, lettuces, and such.
Raised Bed Garden Strategy for 2018
(This starts at the end of the season, this is a typical "chicken and egg" situation)
The first item on my Raised Beds strategy was compost, well... making the Hugelkultur beds was actually the first part of the strategy, but putting that aside, my next part of the strategy was to start making my own compost, I have done this for years many moons ago and just started again a few years ago with great results. My wife says I'm Compost NUTS. I was forever nagging everyone to stop using the garbage disposal. I finally guilt'd (is that a word) them into saving the compost by writing "Please Feed My Plants" on a small compost container. The smaller compost container gets dumped into a larger five gallon one, then finally into the main compost pile. Weeds will go into a bucket of rain water for a week or two during the growing season then dumped into the compost heap.
I compost everything, including meats and cheeses on occasion, wine, beer, fruit juices, flour, bones, breads, bags, hair, boxes, paper, letters, cotton clothes, pizza boxes, vacuum cleaner waste, etc... I won't go into the specifics of how I compost, but I am what you would call a "passive composter".
First six rules for my Raised Bed Garden Strategy
- Compost, Make enough compost to sustain all my garden needs.
- Chop and Drop, try not to remove too much from the beds during the growing season.
- No Dig, No till, cover crops will do this for me
- No Fertilizers, This one has me nervous but I will not be using any store bought fertilizers at all on the raised beds.
- No Bagged amendments, Everything needs to be made or grown on location or picked up from the Recycle center.
- Accumulate Materials locally, Late summer, I'll start accumulating my materials for winter and early spring preparation. Wood mulch will be collected from the Recycle Center if needed. I do collect materials all year long such as coffee grounds, grass clippings, leaves, twigs and such, but during the growing season, mostly everything goes into the compost bin.
First part of my Raised Bed Garden Strategy for 2018
- End of the season, the plants will be cut back to the soil leaving the roots intact. Some of the plant materials will be layered on the beds and some will be composted with the exception of any diseased plants, these will be burned when making future bio-char. I wont go into the specifics of Bio-char but some folks believe it does nothing to aid in an already good soil.
- Cover crops, where applicable, a cover crop will be planted. Currently I use Oats and Crimson clover but will be adding more cover crop varieties.
- Coffee grounds, Bio-Char and urea. I'll be using "coarse" Bio-Char. The Bio-Char will be charged with urea and coffee grounds. This will be diluted with pond water or rain water and dumped onto the beds when mulching. Read more about my Bio-char here.
- Mulching the beds. As the cover crops die back or early winter, whichever comes first, beds will be topped with my available grass clippings, shredded leaves, some compost, my bio-char mix and some wood chip mulch if available. These will be added and worked in with the rest of the materials, this will be my top layer of mulch.
- Rabbit Manure - Top dress with rabbit manure and bedding directly to the beds as it becomes available.
So my final layer of winter mulch will consist of;
- Cover Crops
- Spent plants
- Yard waste (Leaves, Grass Clippings)
- Bio-Char (Charged)
- Coffee grounds
- Wood mulch (if available)
- Rabbit Manure and Bedding
The second part of my Raised Bed Garden Strategy for 2018
Spring planting - if practical, nothing is removed from the bed. Mulch is pushed aside, dig a hole, add some compost and or rabbit manure in the hole, place the plant in the hole and pull the soil back to the hole, tamp lightly and water in place to remove air pockets. Label the plant and ready any cages if being used.
Feeding - as plants start to flower, pull back the mulch, side dress with compost, and push the mulch back but not touching the stem of the plant. Add rabbit manure and bedding directly to the top of the beds as it becomes available.
Intercropping/Polyculture/Living Mulch/Companion Planting - After all plants are established, Inter-crop with some crimson clover, perennial herbs and other plants for water retention, weed suppression, pollinators, beneficial predator insects, and symbiotic relationships.
With all that said, I will still use 10-10-10, blood meal and tomato spikes, along with compost on my Air Pruning Pots, potted plants/flowers and Aquaponic Plants. As a last resort, I may still buy bagged mulch for the flower beds and walkways unless I can Acquire shredded wood mulch from the recycle center. I may try converting the flower beds and herb Garden into Bio-char mulch by 2019, the jury is still out on that.
Another strategy is adding more beneficial plants to the landscape, these plants will need to be multi-beneficial and hopefully planted in the way of "Guilds".
A few small scale examples of what I have in mind. Comfrey, Maypops, Basil and Snow Peas will be planted with my Blueberries, The Comfrey will flower bringing in beneficial insects, provide a sheltered area for the turtles, food for the turtles in the way of insects, the leaves can be used for mulching or compost and the plant has medicinal properties. The Maypops will bring in pollinators, most of the plant is edible, and can be harvested for Jams and other recipes.The snow peas can be harvested and fix nitrogen in the soil. Basil is edible and keeps insects at bay by producing repelling scents.
Directly across from the blueberries are Raspberries, here I will try growing Grapes, plant some comfrey, Snow Peas and Basil
In addition to the Comfrey. I will also be trying to use ground cover plants in areas that are shaded, are mulched and every other nook and crannie I can find and give more shelter and feeding spots to the turtles that live in the yard, However I will still have a small "Grass" back yard because I have dogs, but I have that covered too, I have planted white clover into the lawn or should I say into the mud!
I also plant Basil, Oregano, Thyme, Chives, Strawberries, Parsley, Crimson Clover, Marigolds and other plants in the raised beds and pots alongside the veggie plants.
If I have learned anything from adding perennials to my landscape is that, there is no cost and minimal effort with decent returns once established, one example of this is my Asparagus bed.
For 2018 I will be adding, Lovage, Perpetual Spinach (actually a Biennial), Comfrey, Artichokes, Sunchokes, Maypops, Grapes and Hardy Kiwi's.
Maypops will be grown in some tight areas and trellised as guilds, same as the grapes.
Hardy Kiwi's will be grown in a problem area where I keep my compost bin and yard junk. I am hoping I can trellis the plants above the eyesore.
I will be making a more conscious effort when choosing plants and planting to "Stack Functions".
Stacking functions will go hand in hand with what I am already implementing in the garden mostly in the way of guilds and things, like using cover crops as living mulches to retain moisture and suppress weeds while adding bio-mass as green manure and performing other uses such as attracting pollinators, winter protection, edibles like oregano and Thyme fits this bill, as well as end of the season cover cropping like, Oats and Crimson clover.
Crimson clover is a nitrogen fixer and scavenger, brings up nutrients from deeper in the soil, is beneficial to insects, serves as a habitat for beneficial predators, helps prevent erosion, suppresses weeds, retains moisture and builds soil. Oats will add bio-mass and do much of the same as Crimson Clover.
Increased Bio Diversity will come from implementing the first four strategies already outlined. This includes adding more plants "common" to my area and not necessarily "Native" plants, as I mentioned before I wont go into a debate over Natives, Non-Natives and Invasive. I will be concentrating on the back pond more this year to incorporate some more wildflowers and reseeding my yard with White Clover in lieu of grass.
A lot of the things outlined above goes hand in hand and many different labels are attached to similar practices. Basically a lot of these terms are used interchangeably, however, I outlined my strategy the way I understood everything I have researched. Having this strategy written somewhere acts like a guide for my upcoming planting year.