This post isn’t directly about gardening. But it has to do with my love for a place which is what first got me interested in gardening. Last week me and my kids spent a week at Wilderness Canoe Base, located on Fishhook Island, on Seagull Lake at the end of the Gunflint Trail. This is the place, more than any other, that has taught me what it means to really know a place, and what it means to be a part of a community. Since moving away from Fishhook Island on Seagull Lake, most of my life’s direction has been motivated by trying to truly know my place and to build a strong sense of community among the animals, plants and people that I share this place that I occupy on the planet.
I promised my poet friend, Scott James, who I lived on the island with, that I’d share a poem from the week I spent there with my kids. So here goes:
Feels good to be back at True North.
I lean against it to measure up my life today
against a promise I made to a younger me.
A promise to not forget what matters.
The notes of a younger me:
“Funny how nature can be so non-deliberately
scattered on the ground,
yet make such perfect sense,
create such beauty.
That’s what I hope for;
To be non-deliberately scattered
yet make sense,
Fourteen years, a husband, 2 kids, a dog, and a mortgage later,
am I still in touch with that girl
who one summer fell in love
with a place,
My kids: the most tangible manifestation of what I value.
As they foraged for berry snacks in the woods,
caught and examined frogs, tadpoles, and leeches,
watched bumblebees pollinate a stand of fireweed,
scaled rock faces just to see what was around the corner,
and sat and observed in quiet “awe” a lightening storm in the distance,
I witnessed them falling in love with that place.
Affirmation that I haven’t forgotten.
and the beauty
in the non-deliberate “scatteredness” on the ground.
So the bean house at the community garden has been about 50 percent successful. As you can see, the plants are successfully growing and making a wall of vegetation as planned.
and Sylva’s art class. So sadly the bean house has been sitting empty. And, as it turns out, the bean house makes a very affective heat trap in the afternoon. With the weather we’ve been having, it hasn’t been a fun place to hang out after 11 in the morning. Maybe next year I’ll make a bean house and plant some heat-loving tomatoes in it to take advantage of the micro climate.
So this spring I wrote a post about our improvements to our cabin garden which included: cutting poplars for more sun, adding more flowers for better pollination, and installing Hugel beds in order to increase water retention and microbial activity. It’s late July and these are the results.
The cutting didn’t do enough. We miscalculated how the angle of the sun would change from spring to summer. The plants are doing OK but they are still spindly this year as they reach for the sun. We have taken note of which trees shade the garden mid summer and have added another session of cutting to the “to do” list.
It is yet to be seen if the flowers we planted will improve germination. Not as many seeds as I hoped actually germinated. Next year I’ll try to transplant more flowers–transplants seem to have better luck there than seeds.
The Hugel beds seem to be helping. It hasn’t rained in awhile but when I stuck my finger in the soil it was relatively moist. So far the potatoes haven’t been attacked by potato beetles. Does that mean they are feeling more pest resistant due to a stronger team of microbes keeping the plants healthy and defending the potato plants from pests?
I’m a lazy gardener. I’m not a fan of digging. I’ll do anything I can to avoid breaking sod. Weeding? Hate it. Planting is tedious. I’m not one to be bothered with the chore of watering. In fact, I’ve avoided watering my community garden for the last 5 years. I did water it this week just because I’m feeling so caught up due to my kids getting older and more helpful, and the spring starting so relatively early.
What do I like about gardening? The satisfaction is so tangible. You start with a handful of teeny tiny little seeds and end up with pounds and pounds of food. Food. This most basic of needs. The stuff that makes our brains and bodies think and move. To be a producer of food, rather than a consumer of food, I get a break from the never ending negotiations that go on in my head where I ponder questions like: Does this company treat their animals and workers well? Can I get this product from a local producer? Should I buy apples from New Zealand? How can I afford to buy the product that aligns the most with my values this week? This food that I grow in my garden—it’s unequivocally better for my health, my kids, wildlife, and my pocket book, than anything our economic system has to offer me as a consumer. And for that, I’ll gladly slog my way through all the garden chores.
But like I said, I’m lazy. That’s why my quest in the garden has always been to find a way to grow more food with less work. This quest has been the impetus for numerous experiments in the garden. Like a mad scientist, every year I’ve tried something different in an effort to grow more with less work. And as I read, learn, and experiment, I’ve come to see the importance of “the little guys.” If we can make the bacteria, fungi, nematodes, protozoa, worms, and arthropods in the soil happy, they will do a lot of the work for us.
I had an understanding of this when I went to establish my first garden bed in my yard. I decided to double dig it, which involved digging trenches 2 feet deep and incorporating a foot of compost in with the clay. I knew this would improve upon the environment for “the little guys” because it incorporates more air in the soil for them to breathe and move around in, enhances water retention, and supplies them with more food, in the form of the organic matter in the compost. The end result was pretty good but it was tons of work, especially because my yard is clay. I never would have got around to establishing four more garden beds in the yard if I thought double digging was the only way.
Next I tried sheet mulching. This is a process of establishing a garden bed by laying down layers of different organic material. It’s like building a compost pile spread out across your entire garden bed. It’s basically creating an all-you-can-eat buffet for “the little guys.” And the happy by-product of their feasting is that they’re processing the organic material into rich, fluffy soil that’ll make your veggies happy, all without digging!
The downside of sheet mulching for me was that although it was easy to get my hands on vast quantities of cheap, or even free organic materials for the layers (like cardboard, leaves, grass clippings, straw, compost, etc.) it required a lot of work to gather them all together. Being the lazy gardener that I am, I started looking for a better way.
Then I heard about Hugelkultur. This is a method of building a garden bed where you put down layers of organic materials, similar to sheet mulching, except with Hugelkultur, you can incorporate whole logs at various degrees of rotting, and tree branches, into the bottom layers of the bed. The bed ends up having a lot of height (mine have ended up being 2 to 3 feet tall), providing more planting space per square foot. Incorporating organic materials that are chunkier and take longer to break down keeps the beds from compacting, (eliminating the need to dig and disrupt soil structure,) improves water retention, and provides a longer-term supply of food for “the little guys.”
My experimenting began in an already established garden bed. I laid out where I wanted my beds and dug out about a foot of soil. Yes, here I am digging again but I wasn’t breaking sod and a Hugel bed does not need to be turned over or tilled every year so in the long run: less work! I gathered lilac bush trimmings, rotting logs, and twigs and sticks and threw them down in the dug-out beds as a first layer. On top of that I emptied out my compost bin to make room for this summer’s yard waste, which was about half way to compost. I wasn’t worried about weed seeds from this because it would be buried under a good two feet of weed-free organic materials which I wouldn’t be turning over. Next I added a layer of sod from my days of double digging. On top of that I put a thick layer of over-half-way-composted straw from my straw bale gardening experiments. And Finally, I covered it all up with the soil I dug out of the beds to start off with. I seeded lettuce, greens, radishes, and turnips and lightly mulched it with straw.
Almost two months later the beds are looking good. The beds have settled quite a bit but the plants look happy. I’m up to my eyeballs in the greens, lettuce, radishes and turnips I’m currently harvesting from the beds to make room for the growing squash, brassica, and bush bean plants.
To learn about Hugelkultur from our local experts, check out Spirit Mountain Farm: http://www.spiritmountainfarm.org.
The books that inspired my experiments:
Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis
Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture by Sepp Holzer
Edible Forest Gardens by Dave Jacke
A lot has changed in the week since we last visited Strawberry Hill. Carrots and beet seeds have germinated and are ready for thinning. Potatoes plants are popping through. The pole beans and sunflowers that will make up,the wall for the garden hideout for the kids have germinated and begun to fill in.
The there were only two sad-looking…”specimens” at the garden today. The first one was this guy:
The second one was my beautiful cabbage transplants with my special-0rder seeds for a variety especially good for sauerkraut. The flea beetles found this variety especially good too. My garden neighbors suggested a talcum powder dusting. I also made an effort to cover the plants with Remay but those pesky beetles were hiding in the soil already waiting to pounce.
A daily dusting might have done it but my lack of proximity to the garden did not allow. I seeded a short season variety today to replace the devoured plants. We’ll try again.
It feels great to be waking up from the fog of parenting infants and toddlers. Sylva is 5 and Milo is 2 ½ now. Milo is still a toddler, but old enough now to get around the garden on his own and to understand me when I say “please don’t walk on the onions!” Sylva is old enough to help reinforce to her brother rules like “walk in the path, not the bed.” She’s also old enough to provide entertainment for Milo. Which makes time at the garden sooo much more productive for me.
For the past 5 years projects have been on hold. Gardening has been a practice in letting go: letting go of the notion that a garden should be weed free, letting go of the idea that one must water her garden. In fact, last week was the first time I watered my community garden since Sylva was born. (In my defense, my first experience growing food was working on a farm and farmers don’t water in all of their seeds so I figure I don’t have to either. I still get good, although probably not optimal, production. My theory on watering though is for another day). Having the time and willingness from the kids to stay and water the garden– which is no small task at Strawberry Hill where a hose runs through the woods to the hydrant half way down the block– was a sure sign to me that the fog had lifted.
Oh yes, there have been numerous signs that the fog has lifted. So many of the projects that I’ve been putting off for another year, happened this year. At the cabin garden we cleared away more trees so our garden could get more sun. We delivered a trailer full of compost and dug Hugel beds to improve soil quality at our cabin in sand country. At home, I dealt with the troublesome bed where the roots from the maple tree next door always out compete any veggies I try to plant. I dug some super-raised beds (Hugel style) that will hopefully keep the maple tree roots at bay. At Strawberry Hill everything is actually planted already. I’ve even de-weeded the grassy edge of my plot by the fence. And every year since Sylva was born I’ve attempted to create a little shady hideout for her using some trellises that pole beans could twirl around. It’s always been a well-intentioned but poorly executed plan because time has been limited, storage crops are of a higher priority at the community garden, and the project gets the marginal land near the fence. But not this year. I cleaned out the marginal area and made a Hugel bed in the shape of a half donut. The two corners of the donut have tripods set up for some pole beans. Sunflowers are planted to fill in the space between the tripods and the rest of the bed has been seeded with flowers and dill. This year my execution on “the hideout” promises to deliver!
Hopefully the Hugel beds will too because I seem to have used this strategy as a solution for most everything. Stay tuned to see how it goes!
That’s what my neighbors were calling me as they peered out their windows and walked their dogs past our yard. I’ve been reading Sepp Holzer, the “Rebel Farmer” again. So I’m trying another Hugelkultur experiment. This time in the front yard. Hugelkultur is a method of making raised beds, developed by Sepp Holzer, that’s kind of like sheet mulching except that you use logs and branches as the base layer and the beds end up being much taller. So I decided to try some more experimenting in the garden where I had my two-year-old straw bales (that I grew tomatoes in last year), and my potato patch. I had eight straw bales in that garden in the late stages of decomposition. I raked that all off the bed and marked out two L-shaped beds. I dug out the top 8 inches or so of soil from those two beds and made a pile.
I then took some pruned branches from the lilac bush, some pine cones from the spruce tree and some other too-bulky-for-the-compost-pile materials I had around. I laid that material down in the two beds. I covered it with some sod I had sitting in a pile from previous projects.
Then I added a layer of food scraps and straw that was about half way to finished compost. Shoveling moldy grapefruit and rotting squash skins from my wheelbarrow into my front yard is the part that earns me the label “Crazy Garden Lady.” Every time I do it I feel this urgency to quickly cover it up before the nose of some neighbor dog detects stinky compost-pile goodies and has a snack, the evidence of which appears a few hours later on the neighbor’s carpet. The only dog that I’ve caught in the act has been my own. After cleaning up the evidence she left behind, in the interest of neighborly relations, I’d like to keep it that way. To cover up the stench of rotting food scraps, I threw on a thick layer of that two-year-old, very decomposed straw. On top of that I laid down the soil from the pile I had just made. The beds ended up being about three feet high with the sides being at least at a 45 degree angle, per Sepp’s recommendation. Sepp suggests seeding them right away while the soil is nice and loose so Sylva and I gathered together all of our lettuce, greens, radish, and spring turnip seeds that were more than two years old, mixed them together, and sprinkled them all over the two beds. Salad goodies will be the first round of succession before I plant the squash crop in them in June. The final touch was a light mulch of straw to keep in the moisture and prevent run off in a heavy rain. We’ll see what comes up!
I love the idea of Hugelkultur because it doesn’t require me to purchase anything and it allows me to incorporate a lot of organic materials that tend to pile up in the yard because they don’t work well in the compost pile. The height of the beds can have the affect of creating microclimates. I’m hoping the height will prevent the problem I have with invading roots from a close-by Maple tree that out-competes the veggies I plant for water and nutrients. While Hugel Bed construction was underway there was a lot of other things going on as well. I discovered a mole that was living in the compost pile. The kids were captivated. They spent a good half hour just watching it wiggle and worm around in the soil. A few hours later when we went to look for him again we found him “sleeping” in the same spot we left him. After some observations, and a little poking, the mole was declared dead.
We hypothesized about what did her in. Maybe someone accidently stepped on her. Maybe she was already sick. Maybe she missed her family and so she died. This all was of little concern to Milo but Sylva decided to put her in a Tubberware container with some compost and bleeding heart flowers placed ceremoniously beside her and wait to see if she would come back to life. At some point Sylva was able to accept that her little mole friend was not coming back, because she completely forgot about her and hours later I found her body in a sealed Tupperware container baking in the sun. When I asked Sylva to do something with her, she said “sure” and unceremoniously tossed her back in the compost pile to eventually fertilize the garden. Besides Mrs. Mole, I had two other successful attempts at keeping the kids occupied so I could do the garden work. Attempt number one: big cooler + water. It’s true, kids need to play with water. It was not a warm day today. I don’t even think it hit 50. But the kids were playing with the rain barrel water, getting soaked of course, and loving it. It started with me asking them to help me water my beds. At first they dutifully filled their watering cans and watered my beds. But then they decided that was too much work and they just wanted to play with the water from the rain barrel. So in an attempt to distract them from emptying my rain barrel and flooding out the garden, I got out the big cooler that we used to chill drinks at the birthday party last weekend (which still had water in it) and suggested they play with that water. They thought that was a great idea and started making “compost stew.” They threw in compost, dandelions, chives, sticks, wood chips, etc. That kept them busy for over an hour!
Attempt number two: community garden camp out. Pitching a tent and bringing the sleeping bags to the community garden worked perfectly to get the kids to go along with my agenda of having a gardening marathon today.
At the end of the day, I’m feeling so satisfied that I spent the whole day outside, my body is tired, and my kids had fun. We all got some fresh air, exercise, and quality time together. Tomorrow is Mother’s Day. Scott won’t be around to make me breakfast because he’s gone on a canoe trip (it’s fishing opener). But Sylva insists she will be making breakfast for me tomorrow. After today I feel so refreshed and rejuvenated about life and being a mother. What more could I ask for?
What a weekend! We were at our cabin near Barnes, WI–land of warmer temperatures, ticks, and sandy soil. Two out of three of those features I was very grateful for last weekend because they enabled me to do some early prep work in the garden! It all started with a little gentle pruning of the encroaching forest…which turned into some serious logging. I was planning to do some thinning with my hand saw in order to add another hour or two of good sunlight to the garden. But I forgot to pack the handsaw so my husband got out the chainsaw. He likes his chainsaw. We ended up with a lot more sun, and a lot more firewood. That took care of one of the problems with the cabin garden. The other problem is the sandy soil. Things dry out really fast and there’s not a lot of microbial life. Even though we add compost every year, we still haven’t been getting a lot of production out of it. I decided to try another hugel bed experiment. (See my previous post from November 2013 to read about prior experiments). I started digging.
I dug a hole between 2 and 3 feet deep and about three feet in circumference. I gathered rotting pieces of wood from the forest and filled up the hole. I added some straw and leaves, and then topped off the mounds with the soil and sand I just took out of the hole. I plotted out my holes evenly throughout the space and 3 hours later, ended up with 6 mounds. Once my manure pile thaws out (it’s in a shady spot behind the shed,) I’ll spread manure on each mound. I also plan to get enough compost to spread a thick layer over every mound.
My hypothesis, based on what I’ve read in the books “Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture” and “Teaming with Microbes” by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis, is that the rotting wood will hold water in the soil for the roots to absorb, as well as provide a hospitable home for microbial life, solving two of our most pressing issues at the cabin garden and vastly improving our squash production. There is some conflicting advice that I got from these books that I will be focusing on too. Teaming with Microbes emphasizes that different types of plants prefer different types of nitrogen that are accessed based on whether the microbial life in your soil is dominated by bacteria or fungi. According to Teaming with Microbes, annual plants prefer bacteria-dominated soil whereas perennials prefer fungi domination. Sepp Holzer claims that burying rotting wood in the soil is good for food production in general—not distinguishing between bacteria-dominated soil or fungi-dominated soil. The rotting wood I threw into my holes had strands of mycelia already established and will likely foster fungi-domination. How will my squash (a bacteria-loving annual plant) like this? Will this make an impact on production? Stay tuned!
So last summer things kind of went off the rails. My husband, Scott, and I embarked on a new adventure, going into business together as the owners/operators of White Cedar Studio, a custom jewelry design studio located in Superior’s old police headquarters (also known as “The Red Mug Building”). The summer was a little heavy on remodeling and light on gardening. The gardens survived and we grew a bunch of food but the blog took a back seat.
But that’s how life goes. And I’m back.
Maybe my spring fever has gotten the best of me but I think this season is going to be the best one in years! For starters, the snow is already melted and it’s only April 1! Reason 2: my kids are getting older and becoming easier to engage in the garden so that they understand the repercussions of walking in the beds and trampling the seedlings.
And if they don’t feel like gardening, they can find other things to do to entertain themselves while I’m working. Reason 3: I am not going to over book myself so that I don’t have time to take care of my gardens.
So here it comes, the huge list of all of the wonderful things I’m going to accomplish this year in the garden. Let me paint you a picture of a lush, vibrant, wild garden where every inch is covered with plants or mulch, and all plants are utilized to their fullest potential. This garden is one that I never have to water. It has zero pest problems or disease. This is my vision.
I have “spring vision.” It’s kind of like double vision—it’s where you envision you can accomplish double what you actually will. It plagues pretty much every gardener I know here in the Northland where you have the long, long winter where you are deprived not only of light but access to anything that’s living and green besides maybe a couple of houseplants. The only thing to do to keep you sane is to read gardening books and seed catalogs, while you plan, research, dream, design, and plot out next season’s garden.
It’s April first and that’s where I’m at. So here it comes, my goals for the season:
- Learn to brew and utilize compost tea to provide a population boost to the microbes in my soil in an effort to rely more on the microbial life of the soil as a defense against nutrient deficiency, disease, and pests. (Teaming with Microbes was one of my winter reads).
- Find more ways to engage my kids in the garden so that by the end of the season they get excited when I tell them we’re going to spend the morning at Strawberry Hill (our community garden).
- Companion planting: continue experimenting to find more communities of plants that benefit from growing together (plant guilds).
- Write posts about my experiences at least every other week and share my garden maps, garden activity log, garden survey, and end of season evaluation on this blog.
Ok. So that wasn’t too grandiose, was it? It feels good to say it because now I feel accountable to the readers of my humble little blog. And that’s a good kind of pressure because I need to write. It’s good for me. It keeps me sane. It gives me those moments where I think to myself, “yeah, now I remember what’s important,” and solidifies those important moments in my memory.
Let me elaborate on why I find sharing experiences in the garden to be important. Gardening allows me to engage with the world on a pretty intimate level. The garden attracts birds, bees, dragonflies, hummingbirds, worms, squirrels, bunnies, etc. And then there are the creatures that I can’t even see in the soil. There is this whole community of creatures in the soil that I wouldn’t have any awareness of at all if I didn’t garden. Even if I can’t see them, I can perceive the effects of their existence. By planting plants in their community and manipulating their homes in the soil, I gain an understanding and appreciation for them. They react to my actions and I react to theirs. I’m in relationship with them. They are an integral part of my community, my place. Some are my friends, and some are not.
Understanding my physical place that I occupy on the planet has always been important to me. In college I self-designed a major entitled “Learning a Sense of Place.” I was concerned about the amount of attention that people were not paying to their physical environments. I began to recognize a trend where more and more, fostering meaningful connections with people (or “community”) did not require sharing a physical place. This concerned me because I hypothesized that the more time we spent engaged in “virtual communities,” the less time we would have to foster meaningful connections to a given physical place. What I mean by “meaningful connections to a given physical place” is this: you have awareness of the living plants and animals you are living with and the systems you all rely on to exist. Your definition of “community” expands to encompass more than just people, but plants and animals as well. You have an understanding of the seasonal calendar, when different plants bloom, what different animals eat different times of the year, when different animals are passing through, when others mate, etc. When something out-of-the-ordinary occurs that impacts certain plants or animals or the systems they rely on to survive, you are aware. You can identify the impacts. You can advocate for those non-human members of your community. In college I was worried that if people spent too much time on their computers, they wouldn’t have enough time leftover to get to know their physical place on the planet.
It may seem ironic, given these concerns, that here I am typing away on this blog instead of digging in the dirt. But since college I think I’m my own evidence that my hypothesis about the correlation between time spent in “virtual communities” and connection to place, is not always true. Writing on this blog makes me a more intentional gardener. It inspires me to expand my knowledge of gardening and broaden my awareness of the other life I share this place with. Writing about these things on this blog allows me to express what I perceive to be the most valuable thing that is in me to express and hopefully inspires others to prioritize making time to dig in, deepen, and broaden their own sense of their physical place on the planet.
The practice of gardening is a series of experiments that lead to insights. I want to prevent flea beetles from eating my cabbage transplants this year–I hypothesize that applying a foliar spray of aerated compost tea will provide the microorganisms to combat the flea beetle infestation. I test my hypothesis and gain an insight. These sorts of experiments are conducted year by year as I learn that chunk of earth that is my garden. As the years go by I become more accurate in my hypotheses. I take my insights and apply them to the greater world. I remember the mycelia, protozoa, bacteria and nematodes when I’m grocery shopping, filling out my ballot, sitting at the parent/teacher conference…
Gardening is what I do to learn my sense of place. Writing on this blog allows me to reflect on and share with others what I learn from being aware of the physical space I inhabit on the planet. Learning a sense of my place reminds me that I’m a part of a community so much bigger than myself, so much bigger than the human species, with so much diversity and so much to learn about. That feels good.
Man do I love summer. I love sitting at the kitchen table with my kids at breakfast time and looking out the window. The dining room window gives us the perfect view of everything that is going on in the garden. We observe the squirrels burying their treasures in my strawberry patch. We watch the bees that hover from the borage to the flowers on the pole beans. We observe the dragonflies perching themselves on the tops of the tomato cages. My daughter and I identify them as White-faced Meadowhawk dragonflies. And the Robins pecking at the ground for worms. We celebrate when we see our resident Monarch butterfly fluttering through. Daily we check on the size of the Monarch caterpillars that are fattening up on our milkweed. Fostering a landscape where all of these creatures are happy to call home expands my sense of the community I belong to to include the Meadowhawk dragonflies, Monarch’s, Robins, and Milkweed.
Natural selection has resulted in flowers being flashy in order to attract pollinators. I think it’s also to attract kids. My daughter is obsessed with flowers. She loves to pick them and grow them and eat them and dissect them. This interest provides a great context for learning about how plants work, what flowers do, and what there role in the garden is. Her attraction to flowers has led to conversations about how flowers attract bugs like bees and butterflies. And bees and butterflies pollinate the flowers, which enable the plant to make seed and reproduce. I encourage her to only pick a few flowers so that they can reproduce and we can have more of them next year. We talk about how some flowers turn into food that we eat like tomatoes and squash. I encourage her not to pick any of those flowers. A month ago at the Children’s Museum she learned about the different parts of the flowers by dissecting different flowers and identifying the parts like the stamen and pistils. The other day she asked for a piece of paper and tape and I discovered she had picked a flower from the garden, dissected it, and taped all of the different parts onto her paper neatly inside the squares she had drawn. How impactful would that lesson at the Children’s museum have been if she didn’t have the context of our garden to immerse herself in everyday?
I watch in amazement at the way kids play and experiment and are such natural scientists. Provided a context that is full of plants, water, soil, and creatures, they are constantly coming up with questions, developing hypotheses, and testing hypotheses.