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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Got lawn?

We started gardening together about 1977. I grew up gardening in rows, an influence which can be spotted in this photo from 1985, when we had moved to the city for awhile and did what gardening we could, on the available time, on less than a fifth of an acre:

A photo on Flickr

We were known around the neighborhood as the "boot people" because we were out in the yard early in the spring in rubber boots when everyone else was inside watching TV, as God intended.

Beloved started out gardening life as a Ruth Stout advocate, having read How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back and the No Work Garden Book. I had objections: the deep mulch sprouts its own weeds, the soil stays too cold too late; tilling is needed to bring up nutrients.

She had rejoinders: The deep mulch stops more weeds than it starts, the new ones are much easier to pull, much less watering is required, worms and mycorrhizae are encouraged and they bring up the nutrients, dirt isn't splashed onto leaves by irrigation or rain, etc.

I read the books. We discussed modifications (the Northwest's soil does stay cold too late into the season), applied them, and gradually I became a convert.

Ruth Stout was not the first person to come up with these no-dig beds; I have found them in nineteenth century gardening texts. But she described it well and was a humorous and humane advocate for working with, rather than against, natural systems, and we like to plug her whenever we can.

Recently, a visitor who is a master gardener looked at some of the things we are doing and kept up a running commentary throughout the tour, and Beloved took notes. Her two main points: a) Our circle garden requires too much watering, and too much of the water is evaporating away. b) The vinca bed need not be dug out, just cover it with cardboard and cover that with mulch and wait a year.


We're adapting the suggestions and have tested them on three beds and hope to apply what we've learned across the entire front "lawn." It should give us enough bed space to do a proper rotation, one that can include green manures and even, in a pinch, grain crops.

It should be an interesting and rewarding project.

I am a terrible graphic artist but here is a basic cross-section of the beds we're testing:

Click to expand

So here is the verbal description. Note that this is more work, and more complexity, than I make it sound, but I trust you to come up with your own solutions to any problems you may encounter.

First, got lawn? I mean, real lawn, with soil, so that if you turn over some sod there are worms down there (at least in the spring). OK, you're good to go.

1. Pick a sunny area. Ten hours or better a day if you have it. Mow. Keep the clippings.

2. Mark off the length and width of your beds with string or what have you -- say, three feet by twelve (We're going for 4X50, to fit our irrigation hoses . But we have lots of room and don't mind long walks). Put an iron tee post into the ground in the middle of each end about two feet in from from the edge, or, in a long bed, about every 16 feet. Connect the posts with stout wire and anchor it in the ground at the edge, as if you were doing a vineyard. Run your beds north and south if you can.

3. Flatten enough cardboard or sections of moistened newspaper to shingle across the entire bed, right to all the marked edges. Don't leave any cardboard showing, Ms. Tacky!

4. Bury the cardboard out of sight under six to ten inches of mulch. Since your first plantings should be more than six months to a year away using this system, you can not only include compost but manure, whether it be horse, cow, chicken, rabbit -- use some common sense here, we're not talking dog, cat, or human. Your grass clippings -- and any leaves, hay, straw, kelp, rice hulls you can get, this is where they go.

5. You can water this in, which will help the process of turning cardboard into soil (the worms do it) and helps to anchor the mulch down from the wind.

6. Wait. Keep waiting. Are you still waiting? You did this last June and now it's March? Well, take a peek.

7. If you find that that enough of the cardboard/newspaper layer has gone through worms that roots could penetrate, plant! We do almost all our plantings these days either from potted-on-seedlings which we raise from seed or buy, or with such as squash, or beets or beans or corn, in "hills" which are depressions we make in the mulch, filled part-way with bought potting soil, seeded, then topped off with more potting soil to the desired depth, and water in. This differs from Ruth in that she could direct seed into ground after pulling back the mulch, but our ground is heavy clay and north aspect, as in cold.

8. If you can afford to drip irrigate, install now. We're sticking to our "soaker" hoses (the perforated kind) for the present, hence the fifty-foot beds.

9. If you have climbing plants, you can go get sticks and tie them to the overhead wire in an A-frame shape or use string (which seems to me a bit more work). Don't need the wire? We like having it there; you can hang clear plastic sheeting over it to cloche some crops, or netting to frustrate birds, or CDs on string to flash in the sun, or ... you see? Handy. We hang tools from it, too, so as not to lose them in the jungle.

10. Mix-and-match. As the mood and your experience lead you, these beds don't have to be all about vegetables. Raspberries, blueberries, dwarf fruit trees, rhubarb, Jerusalem artichoke (this stuff will do the bamboo trick on you, though), grains, green-manures, grape vines, or kiwifruit may fit into your scheme. Succesion crop; companion plant.

11. Your paths you may keep in grass and mow them for your clippings (as I have been doing) or give them the same cardboard treatment as a place for more sheet composting (as Beloved in advocating); either way, we hate to think of paving them with gravel or bricks or anything, but maybe that's just us.

Now, all this is not for everyone, remember, we are out in the country, but we are laying out a deer fence around the entire area, and a poultry fence around the beds, so that hopefully there are never deer in the garden, but poultry around it because many bugs and slugs and weeds are migratory and the birds can intercept, and some times of the year you can let ducks and geese (chickens less so, because they tear out the mulch) in to patrol the beds for slugs (ducks) and weeds (geese). Or you might prep a bed the preceding years by running a chicken tractor over it, it's your call.

But on a city lot or a country place, it would seem like this bed design has enough going for it, with little digging, no construction of bed retaining walls, or much investment in anything but mulch, mulch mulch (which will need replenishing for as much of forever as you will be up for).

Or maybe you would rather lavish all that attention on a lawn. To each her own, yes?



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