Fresh Start 2021: Carbon Garden

October blooming Camellia sasanqua

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Only recently have I come across the term ‘Carbon Garden’ in the current issue of Horticulture Magazine.  You may be ahead of me on this one, but the picture that came to mind when I first saw the term wasn’t very pretty.  The reality of it is much more attractive, and this garden style proves easier to maintain than many other garden styles.

Like other elements, carbon is an atom that can manifest as a solid, in a liquid, or as a gas.  Carbon dioxide (CO2) and carbon monoxide (CO) remain in the news because they contribute so much to our warming environment.  Gasses like carbon dioxide and methane (CH4) trap heat from the sun near the surface of the earth, causing warmer weather and heavier rainfalls.  Conversations around reversing the current warming trends usually focus on reducing carbon emissions and finding ways to scrub carbon out of the air.

Magically, we have living tools for removing carbon from the air right outside our windows.  You see, every green plant cell uses carbon dioxide in its daily efforts to feed itself and sustain the entire plant.  In the presence of sunlight, carbon dioxide and water transform into glucose, used to power plant growth, and the waste product oxygen, which of course we need in every breath.

When you contemplate a leafy tree, imagine each leaf inhaling polluted air and transforming that air into pure food and oxygen.

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Japanese Maple

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Glucose is further transformed into cellulose, which structures the cell wall of every plant cell.  Now, imagine a tree’s roots growing deeper and wider into the earth with each passing year.  What are those roots made from?  Cellulose:  largely, carbon.

A tree, and most any other plant, can stash carbon deep underground where it will remain for many years in solid form.  Many plants also store nitrogen, filtered out of the air, on their roots.  In fact, any plant in the pea family stores little nodules of solid nitrogen along their roots.  Knowing that nitrogen is a major component of fertilizers, you understand how this stored nitrogen increases the fertility of the soil in the area where these plants grow.

Plant leaves are also made primarily of carbon.  When the leaves fall each autumn, they hold stored, solid carbon.  If returned to the soil as compost or mulch, the carbon remains stored, or sequestered, in solid form in the soil.  This is how ordinary garden soil may be transformed into a ‘carbon sink.’

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Turkey tail mushrooms help decompose the stump of a fallen peach tree. Leaving the stump in place and allowing vegetation to cover it conserves its carbon in the soil.

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A log is made largely of stored carbon.  When you burn it in the fireplace, those chemical bonds break down, and much of the carbon rises back into the air as smoke.  If the same log is made into a cutting board or other wooden object, then the carbon remains in sold form.

Just as burning can break chemical bonds to release carbon back into the air, so will decomposition.  We’ve come to understand that bare dirt, including tilled fields and gardens, releases carbon back into the air.  But ground covered by mulch or living plants doesn’t allow that carbon to move back into the air.

All of this helps explain the science behind the principles of Carbon Gardening, whose goal is to scrub as much carbon as possible out of the air and sequester it in the earth.  Forests have done this very efficiently for untold ages.

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Only in recent times, with so much natural forest cleared and land exposed, has our planet begun its dramatic warming.  Think of all the carbon stored over the centuries as coal, petroleum, peat, and held close under a forest canopy that has been released into our atmosphere over the past century.

So, the point of Carbon Gardening is to use one’s own garden to sequester as much carbon as possible, using gardening methods that hold the carbon in the soil, without burning or releasing any more carbon than possible in the process.

Every breath we exhale contains carbon dioxide.  Our cells produce it as they produce energy.  We live in harmony with the plants we grow, taking in the oxygen they exhale while giving them back our own carbon rich breath.  That said, please don’t try to hold your breath as you make your Carbon Garden.

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Camellia sasanqua

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Here are a few principles of Carbon Gardening that may help point you in the right direction. 

The Audubon Society has a series of articles that go into far more detail.

  1. Plant intensely in layers:  The more plants in growth the more carbon will be scrubbed from the air each day.  Trees are most efficient because they support a huge volume of leaves.  Include evergreen trees that continue respiration through the winter months, and plant a shrub layer, perennial layer, and ground covers under the trees to maximize the amount of carbon absorbed by your garden.  Evergreen perennials and ground covers continue absorbing and storing carbon through the winter months.

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  1. Feed carbon (and nitrogen) back into your soil with plant materials. Use wood chips, bark, and shredded leaves as mulch to minimize bare ground.  Remember that roots sequester a large amount of carbon and nitrogen, so leave those roots in the ground.  Cut weeds or spent annuals at ground level instead of pulling them up.  Compost trimmings and leaves, kitchen waste, and unneeded cardboard, newsprint or brown paper.

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This is a very thin layer of compost covering collected branches, bark and leaves from our fallen tree.  We added additional layers of organic material to build the new planting bed.

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  1. Instead of tilling soil and exposing stored carbon, sheet compost in the winter to prepare for spring planting. Cover the garden area with cardboard or paper to protect the soil and smother any weeds.  Build up layers of composable materials, or even bagged municipal compost, and allow it to decompose in place so that planting seeds or transplants in the spring is possible without tilling or excessive digging.  Coffee grounds, tea bags, rinsed eggshells and other kitchen scraps can be ‘buried’ in the layers of a sheet compost pile, but be careful not to discard of seeds in this way unless you want them to sprout in the spring.

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Paper grocery bags covered with several inches of compost smother weeds and soften the ground for this new planting bed, eliminating the need to dig the area up first.  Pea gravel helps hold this area, which is on a slope.

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  1. Remain mindful of garden ‘inputs’ that burn carbon. This includes garden equipment that burns gas, commercial fertilizers, and maybe even those fun trips to the garden center….?

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This bin of new Caladium bulbs was ready to be planted out in mid-May.  Ordering bare root perennials, bulbs, tubers and seeds and starting them at home reduces the carbon footprint of a garden.  The red leaf is C. ‘Burning Heart,’ a 2015 introduction from Classic Caladiums in Avon Park, FL.

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  1. If you normally buy flats of annual plants each spring for pots or borders, consider how to plant those areas more sustainably. Consider all of the carbon releasing ‘inputs’ required to produce those plants, including the plastic containers they are grown in, the transportation to move them, and the chemical fertilizers and peat based potting soil used in growing them.  While all plants sequester carbon from the air, commercial nursery production of short-lived plants releases carbon into the atmosphere throughout the process and should be considered by conscientious gardeners.  What can you raise from seeds, cuttings or divisions, or obtain through trade with gardening friends?

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Saxifraga stolonifera is an evergreen ground cover that is easy to divide and share.  It grows here with Ajuga ‘Black Scallop,’ Hellebores and ferns.

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  1. Choose native perennials or ones that will naturalize in your climate, so your plants spread and reproduce, reducing the number of plants you need to buy each year to fill your garden. Design a sustainable garden that grows lushly with minimal ‘inputs’ and intervention from the gardener.  Native and naturalizing perennials won’t need much watering during dry spells, will make do with nutrients in the soil, and will expand and self-seed.

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  1. Woody plants sequester carbon in their roots and branches and live for many years. These are the most efficient Carbon Garden plants.   A garden made mostly from trees, shrubs, perennial ferns and groundcovers, will work most efficiently.  Some more arid areas have great success with long-lived succulents.  Consider replacing turf grass with plants that don’t require such intense maintenance.

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Mountain Laurel blooms each May, is native to our region and forms dense clumps over time.

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  1. Use the I-Tree Tool to educate yourself about the power of trees in your landscape to sequester and store carbon, reduce run-off and scrub other pollutants out of the air. Use this tool when selecting new trees to plant in your own yard.

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From left: new leaves emerge red on this hybrid crape myrtle, small Acer palmatum leaves emerge red and hold their color into summer, red buckeye, Aesculus pavia is naturalized in our area and volunteers in unlikely places, blooming scarlet each spring. In the distance, dogwood blooms in clouds of white.

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‘Carbon Gardening’ can make a significant contribution to scrubbing carbon out of the atmosphere and sequestering it in the earth, and the total contribution multiplies as the plants grow and the garden develops year to year.  A fully grown native tree can removed fifty or more pounds of carbon from the air annually.  While the amount varies by tree species and size, every year of growth increases the tree’s effectiveness.

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Each gardener who adopts sustainable practices makes a sizeable contribution to off-set and mitigate carbon production in their area.  Planting more plants and allowing them to grow densely also helps manage rainfall so it is stored onsite, rather than running off so rapidly.  The plants sustain wildlife and build a richly integrated ecosystem.

We reduce our own annual costs for new plants, fertilizers, other chemicals and fuel, while also reducing our time invested in garden maintenance.  It is a good approach for any of us who enjoy watching nature weave her tapestry each year, sustainably, while knowing that our gardens are part of the solution to climate warming and climate change.

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Woodland Gnome 2021

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Please visit my other site, Illuminations, for a daily photo of something beautiful and a positive thought.

A Jolly Good Idea: Living Border

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After writing about the Bed For Salvias we built earlier this month, I was intrigued by a suggestion Sue and Alex offered in a comment.  They have a fresh take on gardening topics, probably because they live in Australia and have access to a whole different world of resources.

Sue and Alex sent a link describing a novel way to create a living ‘border’ for gardens, and suggested it might help with the erosion problems we have been experiencing on our slope.

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Our new perennial bed this morning, before work on the new border began.

Our new perennial bed this morning, before work on the new border began.

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It took me a little while to comprehend the article they offered from  Gardening Australia .  There’s a wee language barrier, and I was clueless what “Hessian” might be.  A little searching quickly translated the term as ‘burlap,’ which I know quite well!

The concept is elegantly simple:  One lays out a long strip of burlap where a border or barrier is needed.  The size of the finished border is limited only by one’s imagination, materials, and need.  I chose to cut my piece of burlap in half, which resulted in two long strips, each about 2′ wide.

Next, one lays the filling for the roll.  I used my favorite Leaf Grow bagged compost.

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This is a good mix I use for planting shrubs and building planting beds.  One could also use topsoil, potting soil, gravel, or sand depending on one’s purpose.

The burlap is then rolled up around the filling, secured, and rolled into place where needed.

I found the burlap at our JoAnn’s craft and sewing shop.  The burlap was marked down by 30%, and I had a 50% off one item coupon.  The fabric ended up costing a little less than $1.50 per yard, and I used only half the width of each yard.  For this project, then, the fabric cost around $0.75 per yard, and I used 10 yards.

I secured my roll with a combination of jute twine and floral wire, and used about 2 1/2 bags of compost.  Since this is a steep slope, and we have all sorts of animals through our garden, I decided to secure the finished roll in place; which wasn’t suggested in the original article.  We purchased 10″ aluminum roofing nails, driving them into the Earth every few feet around the finished border.

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It took about us about 10 days to gather all of the needed materials, including culinary sage to plant in the border.  They came as a great deal, also.  McDonald Garden Center had all of their herbs marked down last weekend, and a coupon for an additional 20% off of one’s entire purchase.  I suppose it pays to time these projects for late in the spring planting season. 

Our recent heat wave has forced me to procrastinate on this project until today.   It is such a brilliant idea, and our heavy rains lately threaten this new bed.  And of course, those Salvias needed to come out of their tiny pots.

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I used six S. 'Berggarten,' a golden sage, and five S. 'Tri-color' for the border.

I used six S. ‘Berggarten,’ a golden sage, and five S. ‘Tri-color’ for the border.

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We were slated to be a tiny bit cooler this morning, and so I committed to pull this project together…. finally.

My guess on fabric length was spot on.  The burlap, once spread on the ground, went the entire length of the bed with about 18″ left on each end to tuck up the sides.  I began at the shady end laying a line of compost in the center of the fabric.

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The ends are folded up and secured with floral wire, poked “through” the loose weave of the fabric like metal stitches and tied off.

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After laying the compost in the fabric, I lifted the outside edges to settle it all into the center before folding the lower edge up over the compost, and then rolling the top edge down and over it to create a double thickness of fabric on what became the underside of the roll.

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I stopped every 18″-24″ and tied up the roll with a length of jute.

I pre-cut these pieces of twine, and laid them out along the roll before starting the process of filling and tying.

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Once the entire roll was filled and tied off; and the final end folded and wired shut, I rolled the entire piece over so the ties lay against the soil.

Working again from one end to the other, I rolled the border into place and then pushed/pounded a roofing nail into the soil just beyond the border, on the downhill side,  to prevent it from slipping out of place.

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Once the Salvias’ roots penetrate the burlap and work their way into the ground, they will hold the border. The nails will keep everything stable until then.

Planting completes the process.  With the border stabilized, I planted from the two ends in towards the middle with three different varieties of culinary Sage.  Thyme or Germander would also work well in our climate.  I wanted a woody stemmed perennial herb to hold this border for years to come.

I cut an 8″ slit with a pair of scissors in the top of the border,  where each Salvia was to be planted.

First, I reached in and packed the compost more tightly in all directions, but especially side to side, lengthwise.  Then, I added two pots full of compost into the slit (using one of the Salvia’s empty pots) and packed the soil again.

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Removing each Salvia from its nursery pot, I gently broke up the root ball on the very bottom to encourage its roots to grow sideways into the surrounding soil.

I’ve learned (the hard way) that massaging a transplant’s roots may be the most important step in planting success.  The roots must be gently lifted away from the root ball, where they have been encircling the soil inside the pot, to encourage them to grow outwards into the planting hole.

Failure to loosen the roots may leave them growing in circles.

If the transplant’s potting mix isn’t thoroughly moistened, the plant can starve for water even though there is moist soil around the transplant.  This is a further reason why it is wise to allow transplants to soak up sufficient water into their mix before removing them from their nursery pots.

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With the root ball loosened and made a bit shorter and wider, I slipped it through the slit in the fabric and into the opening of the compost.  Then, I had to massage the entire border roll around the transplant to bring the compost snuggly up around the Sage’s roots.

In nearly all cases, I added a little more compost into the opening around the root ball to ‘top things off.’  It is important to plant each plant at the same depth so it is neither deeper nor shallower in its new ‘pot’ than it was in its nursery pot.

I spaced the new plants fairly widely, about 18″-24″ apart, because each plant can grow quite large.  Sage hate to be crowded.  Eventually, I hope they will all knit into one another.

I moved a golden Sage planted about two weeks ago in the new bed over into the border near the center.

I was about two plants short of enough, and will purchase an additional golden Sage and a final tri-color Sage to complete this design.

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This entire process took me a couple of hours, at least in part because it was so terribly hot today.  I was working in full sun, and the heat slowed me down.

My partner (who kept bringing me water) and I are both happy with this new border.  We look forward to seeing how it weathers over the summer and to seeing how the plants fill in.

I can see this as a useful strategy for planting knot gardens, for starting hedges, and even for starting seeds.

With seeds, it would be like taking the principle of  a ‘seed tape’ to a new level.   This works equally well on slopes as it would on level ground.

I especially like this for controlling erosion as water pours down this slope in heavy rain.  I’ve broken the slope with multiple tiers above this level already, each planted with well rooted woody plants.  This terracing has allowed us to use land which otherwise would not be useable, except as open space.

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Cheery red Pentas, growing in another part of our garden, to say "Thank you!" to Sue and Alex.

Cheery red Pentas, growing in another part of our garden, to say “Thank you!” to Sue and Alex.

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So I offer my appreciation to Sue and Alex for linking me up with this idea to improve our new perennial bed, and to solve our erosion problem.

One of the great joys of our blogging community is how we can all reach out to one another with information, collaboration, support, and jolly good ideas!

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Our third mother turtle of the summer, laying her eggs in your garden on Thursday afternoon....

Our third mother turtle of the summer, laying her eggs in our garden on Thursday afternoon….

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Woodland Gnome 2015

 

A Bed for Salvias

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I wanted a bed dedicated primarily to perennial Salvia, and other sun-loving, heat tolerant perennials which appreciate good drainage.

And I didn’t want to dig.

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The bed is located in full sun on sloping land near the bottom of our garden.  Our bamboo forest grows out of the ravine to the left in this photo.  The leaves littering the ground have fallen from the bamboo in our recent hot weather.

The bed is located in full sun on sloping land near the bottom of our garden. Our bamboo forest grows out of the ravine to the left in this photo. The leaves littering the ground have fallen from the bamboo in our recent hot weather.

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I’ve been fantasizing about a bed here for more than a year, but the 12’x12′ enclosed raised bed I drew back in February remains on the legal pad.  I didn’t marshal the necessary resources; beginning with my own energy, to build it.

But I have made a start. 

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That is the secret, you know, to all worthwhile accomplishments:  Begin!  Once you begin, things fall into place in delightfully surprising ways.

So I led my partner to the spot, one afternoon a few weeks ago, and explained what I wanted to grow here.  And we agreed on the boundaries (the lawn is his, remember) before heading out to visit our friends at Homestead Garden Center to buy compost and gravel.

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Bamboo tried to poke up into the new bed here.  We break the new growth off at the surface.  Eventually, I'll bring compost down to topdress this entire bed, covering the intruder.

Bamboo tried to poke up into the new bed here. We break the new growth off at the surface. Eventually, I’ll bring more compost down to top dress this entire bed, covering the intruder.

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Now, it is simply not practical to dig on this sharply graded hillside.  Not only do we constantly fight erosion, but this area is laced with hefty bamboo shoots and runners just below the surface.  I realized that the area is too steeply graded to simply lay blocks or timbers to “build” a raised bed.  No hugelkultur here, either, unfortunately.

But there is  an easy and inexpensive way to establish a new planting bed which requires little more than paper and soil…. and time….

After agreeing on the dimension and boundaries of the new perennial bed, my partner marked its edges.  I used the string trimmer to cut back the existing ‘grasses’ to the ground.   We cut open brown paper grocery bags, and laid them within those boundaries to completely cover the existing soil, anchoring them with handfuls of compost as we worked.  There is some overlap, but not a great deal.  I covered the paper grocery bags with several inches of compost, mounding it a little deeper where the first plants were to go.

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After the entire bed was covered in compost, and the outer edges of the bed marked with handfuls of pea gravel, I began planting the Salvias and Lavenders I had collected for this bed directly into the compost, on top of the paper.

When using this method, it is especially important to loosen the outer roots on the rootball before planting, to encourage them to grow into the surrounding soil more quickly.

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Two weeks of growth in this bed, taken from the same spot as the previous photo.

Two weeks of growth in this bed, shown  from the same spot as the previous photo.

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The Iris have had the most trouble with this planting method, since they are division, and didn’t have large root systems when they were moved.

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Now, you might think this is “extreme gardening.”  Extremely lazy, you’re thinking? 

Don’t worry, I’ve done my time “double digging” beds and borders in previous gardens.  And since then, I’ve learned that it is much smarter to be kind to the soil, and its complex web of life, by disturbing it as little as possible.  Like cats and children, soil will find its own way if we just remember to feed it regularly….

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This  large creamy Marigold is one of my favorite varieties.  The Patton family grow these from seed each year to offer at their Homestead Garden Center near Toano.

This large creamy Marigold is one of my favorite varieties. The Patton family grow these from seed each year to offer at their Homestead Garden Center near Toano.

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The soil is actually pretty good here.  While there is solid clay at the top of the property, there is pretty good loam on this slope.  It is more than sufficient to feed the flowering perennials I intend to grow here.

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As the paper decomposes, and earthworms gather beneath it, the paper and compost will be carried deeper into the Earth, mixing  into the existing soil along with the earthworm castings through their life processes.  It is an elegant system, designed by nature millions of years ago.  All I need to do is understand it and work with it.

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The toughest time for this scheme is the first month, as the plants begin to grow.  You see, we’ve had a heatwave these last few weeks.  The perennials didn’t really get a chance to sink their roots through the paper and into the Earth below before the weather shifted from gentle spring to full-on summer.   But with a little  watering, and a good rain or two, they are all showing growth.

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The bed now holds four varieties of Salvia, including a golden culinary sage; two varieties of Basil; two Lavender plants;  Asclepias incarnata; Rosemary; Coreopsis; Santalina; German re-blooming Iris dug and transplanted from other parts of the garden; and some beautiful cream marigolds.  I selected these plants to attract and feed butterflies and hummingbirds.  All of these varieties remain unattractive to deer, and should not entice them into the garden from the nearby ravine.

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This is an extension of the  ‘butterfly and hummingbird garden’ growing further up the slope.

I expect all of these plants to show a lot of growth in June, and this bed should bloom from now until frost in various shades of blues, purples, creams, and gold.

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I will re-evaluate its progress this fall to decide whether or not we will move any closer to those grand plans I drew back in the winter.

I have some mail order Gooseberry shrubs growing in pots, which were ordered for the original plan.  They may find a home here, yet.  And the Okra?  There is still time to plant some seeds…. maybe when it rains….

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May 20, the morning after this bed was planted.  The plants have shown good growth in the two weeks they have been adjusting to this new bed.

May 20, the morning after this bed was planted. The plants have shown good growth in the two weeks they have been adjusting to this new bed.

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Woodland Gnome 2015

 

Making the Bed

 

A tiny raised bed near my friends' front porch with new starts for the season ahead.

A tiny raised bed near my friends’ front porch with new starts for the season ahead.

When you’ve been gardening for more than a week you realize that the vigor and beauty of your plants, and the success of your planting schemes, relies entirely on the quality of your soil.

The Rodale Press gardening books I poured over as a novice in the ’80s always had chapters devoted to soil preparation.  Double digging was recommended “back in the day.”

Tilling was the common practice then, especially for vegetable gardeners.  It was years on that biologists and botanists came to realize that mechanical tilling, and even double digging, totally wrecks the ecosystem of the soil.

Countless small worms and insects are ravaged.  Long dormant weed seeds are brought to the surface and given a chance to sprout.  Delicate colonies of fungi and bacteria are disrupted.

Tilling is no longer recommended for the long term well-being of the soil; even in traditional vegetable garden culture.

Hugelkultur

Hugelkultur bed near the bottom of the ravine in my friends’ back garden.  This two year old bed grows potatoes, herbs, and an Oakleaf Hydrangea on the far right.

Double digging, done once when land is first dedicated to a garden, might be useful in some cases.

If the double digging includes the addition of lots of organic matter, and possibly some minerals such as greensand, gypsum, or super-phosphate; it can be a useful way to break up clay soils before initial planting.  Once the bed is established, annual double digging is terrifically disruptive to the soil’s ecology.

More recent practices eschew the digging entirely and focus on constructing raised beds of various materials.

My friend has been working on this large Hugelkultur vegetable garden for several years now.  It is already planted with peas, spinach, and many types of herbs.

My friend has been working on this large Hugelkultur vegetable garden for several years now. It is already planted with peas, spinach, and many types of herbs.

There is no one right way to make your garden bed.  So much depends on variables; like your soil, your climate, and what you plan to grow in a given area.

This lovely bed, made with stones, is at Forest Lane Botanicals near Williamsburg, Va.

This lovely bed, made with stones, is at Forest Lane Botanicals near Williamsburg, Va.

I learned very quickly that our new garden had terribly compacted hard clay soil over much of the property.  Nearly all of my early attempts to plant anything in this new garden left me somewhere between underwhelmed and downright depressed.

It wasn’t until I began building raised beds, and bringing home bagfuls of compost, that we began to make progress on this property.

My Hugelkultur stump garden this spring, with its border of slate roofing tiles found at the Re-Store here in Williamsburg.

My Hugelkultur stump garden this spring, with its border of slate roofing tiles found at the Re-Store here in Williamsburg.

There are so many beautiful and creative ways to create raised beds.  Budget isn’t so much an issue as is imagination.

Notice the variety of matierials my friends used to form the border for this one bed.

Notice the variety of materials my friends used to form the border for this shallow bed around her Crepe Myrtle tree.

I’ve made raised beds from many different materials over the years.  I started out when railway ties, landscape timbers, and even 2×10 boards were at the cutting edge.

Soon enough someone figured out that the chemicals in all of that treated wood leached into the soil and then got into the food grown in the bed.    Building a bed of untreated wood meant a very short-lived border on the bed.

A very innovative friend introduced me to Hugelkultur.  This practice originated in Europe and incorporates downed trees, limbs, compostable materials of all sorts, and topsoil  to build very thick raised beds.

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Sometimes built into a trench, sometimes mounded high above the ground, these raised beds retain water, produce heat, and slowly release nutrients into the soil as the materials break down.

This Hugelkultur bed is full of healthy strawberry plants, and has peas planted on a little trellis. This area is a steep drop off, but my friends leveled it with downfall wood to construct this bed.

This Hugelkultur bed is full of healthy strawberry plants, and has peas planted on a little trellis. This area is a steep drop off, but my friends leveled it with downfall wood to construct this bed.

My friend is going into her third growing season with Hugelkultur beds.  Her garden is on a steep slope at the edge of the forest.  There is an abundance of  downfall wood and stumps on her property.  She is using them all very creatively.

This Hugelkultur bed is full of healthy strawberry plants, and has peas planted on a little trellis.  This area is a steep drop off, but my friends leveled it with downfall wood to construct this bed.

A mix of vegetables, flowers, and herbs grows in this Hugelkultur bed.  My friends use netting to keep deer out.  The plants in the foreground are Astilbe.

I have also experimented with Hugelkultur, building around a stump over its root system, with a base of wood left from our downed trees last summer.  My bed is not quite a year old yet, but already I’m pleased with its progress.

The basic requirements for a good planting bed are adequate drainage, abundant organic materials, rich microbial life, and an adequate balance of minerals.   The most effective way to feed plants is to feed the soil.  Chemical fertilizers, such as “Miracle Grow” and other non-organic commercial products not only burn plants in high concentrations, but may also kill the microbial and invertebrate life required for  healthy soil.

Good soil has the loose, soft texture which only comes from plenty of organic material incorporated into the mineral content.

Another bed at Forest Lane Botanicals.

Another bed at Forest Lane Botanicals.

Finding earthworms living in soil is always an excellent sign.  Their digestive process helps release nutrients plants need, even as the movement of worms through the soil opens it up and creates the loose texture roots need for growth.

One way to achieve good beds, without all of the heavy lifting of building Hugelkultur beds, is simple sheet composting.

To begin a new planting bed, cover the entire area with brown paper grocery bags, plain white or brown wrapping paper,  torn cardboard from boxes, or several thicknesses of newspaper.  This initial layer smothers grass and weeds to form a barrier for those first crucial weeks, and then it decomposes into the soil.

Pile a variety of organic material onto the paper or cardboard base.  These layers can include grass clippings, coffee grounds, tea bags, chopped leaves, shredded paper,  straw, rinsed egg shells, fruit and vegetable peels, and sea weed.

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If the straw is mixed with rabbit or chicken droppings, all the better.  Bags of topsoil or pre-made compost can be piled on top of the organic materials the first year to speed the process.  Although the organic materials need to be dampened,  they do not need to be turned and mixed in sheet composting.

The frame of this bed can be made from many different materials, depending on what you have at hand.  This can even be made as a rounded, raised row without a border.

One popular technique uses bales of hay as the borders or walls of the bed.  I’ve done this.  It isn’t pretty, and there are the sprouting hayseeds in the bales to contend with all season.  Eventually the hay will mold and begin to fall apart.

You eventually get good soil, and vegetables will grow well in such a bed if you keep the whole bed and hay bale wall moist.  Some organic gardening resources even offer instructions for planting into the hollowed out and soil filled bales….

A container is still the easiest way to control the soil plants grow in.  This is my newest hypertufa trough, planted up with a Eucalyptus tree and geraniums.

A container is still the easiest way to control the soil plants grow in. This is my newest hypertufa trough, planted up with a Eucalyptus tree and geraniums.

Over time, these “sheet composted” beds decompose into the original soil beneath them.  The organic materials attract earthworms, which begin to mix the soil during their travels.

The moisture in the raised bed softens the soil below, and after a season or two you have a fine bed for planting, without the digging.  Continuing to add organic mulch to the bed once or twice a year keeps these beds “cooking” and rich in nutrients over many years.

Hostas here are planted in their own nursery pots, and then the pots are sunk into this bed at Forest Lane Botanicals.  This is a useful technique to control the specific soil a plant grows in, protect the root ball from insects and voles, and to provide a slightly moister environment for the plant.  This is a much easier, and less expensive way to create a bed than trying to adequately ammend the soil in a large area.

Hostas here are planted in their own nursery pots, and then the pots are sunk into this bed at Forest Lane Botanicals. This is a useful technique to control the specific soil a plant grows in, protect the root ball from insects and voles, and to provide a slightly moister environment for the plant. This is a much easier, and less expensive way to create a bed, than trying to adequately ammend the soil in a large area.  Notice the use of cinder blocks for these miniature Hostas.  Cinder blocks used as the border for a raised vegetable bed may be similarly planted with herbs, Nasturtiums, garlic, etc.

I’ve learned on my property that digging into the soil is extremely difficult.  And plants put directly into the ground may be at risk of vole attack.   I still do it, though, and did it this past week.

When I dig to plant a shrub directly into the ground, I make a far bigger hole than the root ball requires, and add copious quantities of compost. And gravel.  And I try to surround it with poisonous daffodil bulbs for good measure.

This littleAlysia virgata, or Sweet Almond Tree Verbena, is planted directly into the soil.  It will grow to 8' tall with sweetly fragrant white blossoms.  I dig out a very large hole, mixed in lots of compost, and added some Espoma plant tone.  I'm hoping it will grow well here.  I will most likely build a raised bed around this site.

This little Aloysia virgata, or Sweet Almond Tree Verbena, is planted directly into the soil. It will grow to 8′ tall with sweetly fragrant white blossoms. I dug out a very large hole, mixed in lots of compost, and added some Espoma Plant Tone. I’m hoping it will grow well here. I will most likely build a raised bed around this site.

I was able to feel the improvement in a bed begun four years ago, when I dug into it to add some little rose bushes this week.

The texture of the soil has completely changed, thanks to regular additions of compost and pea gravel.   I found earthworms.  I dug out space for the root balls easily, added yet more compost, and planted the little potted roses, blessedly growing on their own roots.

Then I added a border of slate roofing tiles to the sides of the bed, and piled more compost into the bed as fresh mulch.

However you make your planting beds, you’ll find that plants grown in raised beds grow bigger, healthier, and more productive than beds planted directly into  the ground.

Even a bed just 4″-6″ high, made with loose organic matter, give plants a huge advantage, because the roots are able to develop more fully and find nutrients more easily.

April 26, 2014 azaleas 073

All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

 

 

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