Category: Raised beds (page 1 of 2)

Garden update: pictures ;-)

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Comfrey, peppadew, carrot, oregano

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buckwheat, broccoli, cabbage, squash and yucca

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Mushrooms. They’re popping up EVERYWHERE. Too bad we don’t know if they’re edible or not. Wish they were though.

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Groundcover that grew from a few tufts we threw down, and the trees that shelter part of the abode from the strong south west wind.

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A fence weaved two years ago that now provides great shelter to some trees we’re keeping in bags for later planting.

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Morning glory self-seeded and loving the fence. Outhouse toilet in background.

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Keyhole bed with a lot happening! Marigolds, peppadews, Kale, wild dagga, etc. Yellowood in foreground.

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Keyhole again – sweet potatoes on the left. Strawberries pictured. Note mulching.

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Paprika peppers and marigolds. The marigolds serve sooooooo many purposes. Medicinal, micro-climate, beneficial to soil for most plants, pest detractor.

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Mostly strawberries.

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The orchard. Again, a lot happening. Citrus tree in foreground struggling; all citrus have battled here, while the peach trees have done really well.

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1000 liter water tank etc.

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Full frontal! We don’t do the mowing. Rather use a brushcutter to cut paths where needed. But the land-owners like the grass short.

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Gazania

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Cool shadow!

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Mostly sweet potatoes, clearly ravaged by a caterpillar or grasshopper or locust. Etc etc etc.

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Mainly comfrey, planted into the trench that borders the lower part of the raised bed. Water collects in the trench, and the comfrey loves it. Excellent plant to have in the garden – so many uses.

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Circling from front right: Nasturtium (aphid collector! Sacrificial plant. Also medicinal), Lobster claw ground cover, comfrey again, broccolli, squash, old sweet pepper plants, cabbage.

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Green feast peas sprouting, and Buckwheat. The twiggy sticks are to help the peas climb.

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In journal entry number 4 I mentioned ‘revitalising raised beds’; the pictures above show part of the process. The whole area was covered in horse manure in July last year (2013); by mid-September, after layers of aged manure, straw and compost had been added to shape individual raised beds, the first seeds and seedlings were planted in this area. After the Summer harvest the beds had dropped in height quite a lot, and the decision was made to ‘top them up’. We did this by first adding a thick layer of aged manure and then by digging up the paths straight onto the raised beds, because the paths consisted of the same manure that originally covered the whole area; the manure has turned into very healthy organic matter. The final layer is our own home-made compost, indeed a key secret ingredient. The beds get mulched immediately in order to prevent the sun from frying the microbes in the soil. The idea is to fill the paths back in with manure so that it can age; then, come Summer, we can simply dig up the manure from the paths and repeat the process.

Note in some of the pictures the water in the trenches around the beds. We dug deep in order to create these mini-moats. Now, when it rains, the water is ‘stored’ instead of running out of the garden area. This is an easy method of storing energy in the garden: the water seeps into the raised beds at a low level and moisture is maintained for far longer after rains than if the trenches were not there. The trenches can be filled with lightly-packed manure and mulched along with the bed to further maximise the amount of time the moisture will stick around.

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Some photographs of the two gardens, one started from scratch in March/April, the other from scratch in July. They have now merged into one big main garden, in which the the following have been planted:

Carrots, spinach, chard, brussel sprouts, garlic, kale, tomatoes, peppers, chilli-peppers, peppadews, bush beans (2 types), pole beans (4 types), potatoes (2 types), squashes, pumpkins, brinjal, onions, leeks, raddish, lettuce, rocket, corn, sweet potatoes, broccoli, cabbage, jelly melon, lodas of herbs.

Note the 2 final photos, which show how it all started in this garden area. The ground really was a solid, barren flat lacking fertility. The popular, insane method of farming that dominates globally is to plough the soil and chemical add fertilisers. We have not done this (in fact we speak openly of the dangers of such petro-chem methods) and we are seeing beautiful growth in the garden.

The beds are all layered as follow: fresh manure, dried grass or straw, aged manure, dried grass/straw, aged manure, dried grass/straw, compost. The bed building/layering process is quite labour intensive but, once made, the beds will only ever need compost top-ups. We allowed the beds approximately two months to settle before planting in them.

The dripper system should be evident in one of the pictures. This is a water-mains system; we are lucky enough to have a mains outlet, which we have had to use for irrigation because it’s difficult to spend over two hours watering daily at times. Such a large amount of watering is required only during the hot and dry summer months though. Soon an attempt will be made to integrate a gravity-water system into the mix, which means that our rain water catchment will supplement the watering, and eventually be the sole watering source when we have enough rain water tanks.

‘Hugels’ Gone Wild

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Reference was made in a recent post to the massive piles of branches and other organic garden materials piled selectively around our living/growing area, as well as elsewhere on the plot. This is a kind of hugelkultuur en mass, and here I will describe my version of the reasoning behind using it.

Hugelkultuur is usually used in a more scaled-down way: trenches are dug and branches, logs, leaves, etc. (mostly carbon) are piled into the trenches; the displaced sand is then placed back on top of the organic matter.   

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We have used this method to add fertility to fairly bland soil and to raise that which grows from the floods of winter in this area, which was once a wetland and which occasionally likes to reminisce about wetter days.

The conditions on the flat piece of land upon which we are growing make hugelkultuur appropriate for us. Some debate can be found online as to whether or not the decaying organic material under the soil on/in a hugel bed competes with the growth of the plants growing from the mounds. We have not found this to be a problem.

The plot is in the line of fire of some serious south-west and northerly winds, so during his time on the plot since 2011ish, Damian – fellow permie, friend for almost 2 decades, owner of the land, chemist-muso-freethinker-father etc. – had arranged for branches and leaves to be piled as windbreaks for a fire-pit at the far end of the property. As trucks were hailed down on the road and their drivers convinced to bring branches to the plot, and as fire-breaks were cleared, these piles of branches gradually formed closer and closer and were eventually visible as one surveyed the land from most vantage points

Making the connection between the more common smaller hugels and these much bigger piles as potential hugels was then the next step. The key is to increase one’s time-scale when pondering the process. If you want an instant fertile mound on which to grow something, then dig a trench, pile with mostly carbon and a sprinkling of nitrogen, and cover with original sand/earth/soil. If you want to terraform the land and eventually have fertile mounds – like in 3 or 5 years down the line – then start piling branches where desired.

Again – this might not work for you, but it works for us. To an extent, that is. Not everyone living on the plot is convinced that brown piles of branches are aesthetically pleasing, so we will be planting a creeper at the base of the piles to try and make them look slightly less obtrusive soon. Another factor to consider is the potential fire hazard. Being in an area that was in the last 3 months overwhelmed by fires, we made that consideration and have still gone with the wood-pile wall option.

During the wetter months we will throw as much manure onto the branch piles as possible, transforming them from piles of branches into our versions of hugel beds, though much time will still be needed before anything will be planted directly into them – say, 3 to 5 years. For now, the decaying organic matter seeps into the soil around the hugels, providing fertility to trees that are (and will be) planted at the base of the beds.

We therefore managed to go from ‘fairly exposed’ to ‘mostly enclosed’ within a few months. We were open to the onslaught of the wind, as well as to the view of anyone who drove or walked past – and people seemed to stare considering how alternatively we are living given the ‘orthodox’, mostly conservative and westernised approaches of the residents in the city and in this estate of small holdings.

The hugels have also helped demarcate areas that now have their own specific ‘feels’: two areas are great for veggie patches, and one area is going to make a nice mini-orchard. The microclimates of each area are different, and the addition of the hugels has enhanced what at first was only a milder awareness of these microclimates. We have also not needed to spend any money on fences – we can now keep the dogs, pony and donkey away from damaging and/or eating the veggies. Birds, spiders, snakes, insects etc. also thrive in the wood piles. And all we did was wait; the branches were brought to us.

This post is of particular relevance to us now because the plot next door is being completely cleared of all its trees. Yes, they are alien, but that plot is now completely barren: it is susceptible to erosion from wind and rain, all wildlife is obviously ousted, and there is no privacy between one plot and the other. Fine, remove the alien trees, as we are doing slowly, but at least leave them piled on the land so that fertility is not lost, as opposed to sending the carbon away for processing into charcoal. One sighs in despondence at the thought that the people involved have no idea of how long it takes to grow windbreaks for a piece of land nor how important it is to retain soil fertility.

For any people moving on to a new, ‘cleared’ or partly-cleared plot, similar action to ours is recommended. Before one can look again, years have passed; such is life, and the passage of time is one of those things that astounds when looking back. Whatever is done ‘now’ pays off in time. This is our hope. By breaking with social convention now and embracing the ‘messiness’ of natural decomposition of organic matter, we have a massive advantage that comes with teaming with nature. Hopefully more people in the complex of small holdings in which we live will do the same, or at very least not pass conventional judgements about aesthetics when they drive past.              

The start of (another) veggie garden

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Much time has been spent pushing a wheelbarrow around to do what is shown in the photos: make a new veggie patch consisting of raised beds. Hopefully the photos speak for themselves regarding the process of layering materials to make the beds. The reasons for such effort to raise the beds are: 1) it floods in winter, so height saves things; 2) the multiple layers of manure, straw, soil and compost allow for long-term release of nutrients for the veggies.

With regards to point 2 above, yes, there is initially a negative impact as there is competition between the breakdown of manure and straw in the bottom layers, and the uptake of nutrients by plants. This means that some veg will do better than others – squash seem to do excellently in such conditions, while some more fragile crops don’t (these haven’t really been encountered yet, but that’s what the theory says anyway). Consider though that this veggie patch will get better and better with time as the bottom layers of the raise bed decompose into a fertile growing medium.

In fact, that’s how this process is looked at: bottom layers form a less-than-ideal growing medium for deep roots of veg; the upper compost layers (still to be added, come to think of it) provide the better conditions needed – at least by seedling – to get a good start to vegetable maturity.

Updates will be offered as the new garden takes shape.

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Here’s a quick set-up for trellised granadillas.  Some wood is first placed as the base layer (hugelkultuur), and then manure is used to raise the playing field so when it rains again these guys won’t drown.  A carbon layer is added, in this case dry grass.  And then another layer of manure and carbon.  The gradanillas are placed straight on top of this raised bed, and mounded up with good compost.  Mulch is added to seal in moisture.  As the bottom layers of manure and grass decompose, the bed will provide increasing fertility for the growing fruit creepers (they should grow to fill both trellises completely).  In a month or two, the rest of the bed should be hospitable to just about any sun-loving plant (the wall against which the trellises are on in north facing).

Bettie’s veggie patch

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Bettie is the brave soul who took us on for our first proper paid job, which was to start her veggie patch for her using permaculture methods as far as possible. We went for the client interview at the end of November, and got to work a few days into December.

Trees were trimmed, and the patch was cleared of rocks and accumulated waste material. We brought in a bakkie-load of manure, mixed it in to the original soil, and covered that with a nice layer of good compost. Some shade-cloth was put up on one side of the patch in order to minimise the wind that blows up from the valley behind the house.

A watering dripper-system was rigged up (the biggest cost), though it must be said here that the rate at which the 5000 litre water-tank empties, rendering the watering system obsolete, makes one wonder if the expense of the pump is justified. If it rained consistently, providing a frequently full tank, then the answer would be yes. But with SA’s dry climate, reliance on mains is inevitable, as has been the case in Bettie’s garden. If one were in the UK, however…

A variety of veggies are planted in the garden and all seem to be doing very well. I wondered if the garden would get enough light, considering that it is in between fairly high walls, but this has not been a problem. Wind was also a concern, but it too has not been a problem. The only real issue so far encountered has been furry white aphids, which are being dealt with by… you guessed it, picking them one at a time, squishing them, and wiping the leaves of the plants clean with water.

The first few pictures were taken in the first week of our work there – around about 6 December. The final 2 pictures were taken on January 22nd. This should provide some indication of how quickly things grow here at the height of the summer season.

A note on deviation from permaculture methods: it is preferable not to dig wherever and whenever possible. Ideally, one would simply add layers of organic material and compost to the ground and plant in that, thereby not disturbing the organisms in the original layer of soil. However, sometimes this is not possible if one wants a job done fairly quickly. In situations other than this one, we have gone with both methods – digging and no digging – and we have had good success with both methods. This is not to endorse digging, but rather to remind us that it has its place.

Besides, when we went for the ‘client interview’, the patch had already been dug and tilled, so we didn’t have much of a choice. Had it not been dug up, we would probably have layered cardboard over the ground in the desired shape of the beds, put aged-manure on top of the cardboard, and added a layer of good organic compost.

However, it seems that the area designated for the garden patch had scattered ‘debris’ from previous use for a vegetable patch; the presence of rocks and some litter would probably have forced a thorough digging-over anyway.

Seeing the results, one has to wonder just how much it matters – i.e. to dig or not to dig. By adding the layer of manure, and then the layer of compost, one gradually adds much more fertility to the soil over time than one takes away by digging. If one avoids digging, however, the micro-organisms present in the soil give plants an immediate advantage; these micro-organisms are damaged when the soil is dug up. So ideally, don’t dig; just add. Dig when necessary, but realise that the soil will initially be depleted of micro-organisms, which will return over time.

Finally, what is definitely missing from the final two pictures is a layer of mulch to seal in the moisture, preventing drying out from the direct sunlight. That’s the next step!

Keyhole garden bed

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When we first set up, it was raining… well… harder and for longer than it has in Port Elizabeth for twenty years, an ironic welcoming to South Africa having lived in United Kingdom.  So we had to elevate our tents to prevent them from being constantly flooded – see appropriate pics.

After we had built a shack/hut/wend-house/shed/dwelling/cabin/home… after we had built a structure in which to live, the reclaimed rectangular slabs of cement (used for ‘slot-together’ walls in SA) stayed in place for a while, acting as a flat surface area on which to work.  We eventually had to decide on what was more useful – the working area, or another garden bed.  Considering that at that stage we had the humble abode and an outdoor kitchen (more on this later), we opted for a garden.  Specifically, a garden space in the form of a keyhole bed.

A keyhole bed is handy – it allows you to be able to access all parts of the bed, partly from the ‘outside’ of the bed, and partly from the inside, i.e. from the keyhole.  And it looks pretty cool too!  Ours is planted with carrots, tomatoes, strawberry corn, peppers, chives, cauliflower, beetroot, spinach, purple basil, and thyme.  Eggplant has also been added.

The method of bed preparation was: 1) remove reclaimed cement slabs! 2) Dig swale-holes in order to catch and retain as much water as possible under the bed. 3) Fill swale-holes with wood chip (any carbon matter will do). 4) Add alternating layers of soil and manure. 5) top with compost.

The final picture shows the keyhole bed a month after it was made; it has been planted with seeds for less than a month.  It has just been mulched with dried grass cuttings, which helps retain moisture in the increasingly hot South African summer days.

Square Foot Garden – 2 months later

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This method of dividing 1.2 metres by 1.2 metres into 16 squares is really neat for the average household, as long as enough light can get to the plants.  It’s relatively fool-proof if the conditions are right.  One is left with a variety of veges in a small space.  It’s written that 2 of these patches can considerably supplement a family’s grocery supply, while three of them might just provide enough to give away to the neighbours.

Our method was to double dig the appropriately sized area – say 1.3 metres by 1.3 metres.  Double digging turns the grass deep enough into the soil so that it does not grow again, and in fact the grass decomposes and adds nitrogen to the soil – just be sure to get all big grass roots out of the soil mix.  We added cardboard on top of the area after the double dig, placed the salvaged cement slabs in place as the walls (wood is usually used), and added a nice mix of manure, soil, and compost.

The original soil recipe – if one listens to the guy who put the trademark on square foot gardening, Mr Bartholomew, and indeed one might wish to – calls for vermiculite.  We did use it in the pictured square foot garden and were very impressed by the results, but it is not a sustainable resource.  Later, we found out that chopped straw acts similarly as a moisture retainer and soil aerator.  Using excellent compost by itself also yields good results, so it is not necessary to use Mr Bartholomew’s mix, though a beginner may benefit from doing so.

The pictured ‘sfg’ has tomatoes, mustard leaf, rocket, beetroot, cabbage, and a pepper plant thriving in it.  A Squash plant has been trained to grow around the outside of the sfg.  What is planted and what will grow depends on the season and climate, generally.

Square foot gardening – giving it a go

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The idea is simple – use a grid of 16 squares, each a square foot, to intercrop various veges in order to maximise use of space and get the best of companion planting too.  Take a look for some square foot gardening stuff on google – there’s plenty, and we’re giving it a go. A second one being dug is pictured, and there’ll be more…

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