Friday, March 25, 2011

Back in the Backyard Garden: Planning

I have a backyard again. My old backyard where my Dad and I built a raised wooden bed around the perimeter of the concrete patio, and assembled a curving continuous brick wall bed around the perimeter of the yard, against the fence. I used to grow some vegetables and flowers here. Mainly tomatoes, and many perennial flowers, which still remain: lupines, brown eyed susans, columbine, a white bleeding heart, some hosta lilies.

He built a large trellis on the west side of the fence, where he grew morning glories. I plan on growing them there again this year. I also plan on building more trellises for my climbing scarlet runner beans and winter squash on the north end of the yard.

I learned lupines are nitrogen fixers and am glad about their presence in the perimeter beds. Not only are they beautiful but they have another function in the garden by fixing atmospheric nitrogen into the soil and turning it into plant available form via bacterial nodules on the roots.

I am going to experiment with interplanting vegetables and herbs among the beds which have held only flowers up until now. Why not yield the benefits of the nitrogen rich soil the lupines have been creating for years now?

I have been planning my vegetable bed since February. I bought seeds at the Guelph Organic Conference and will be getting a few more varieties at Seedy Sunday. The brands of the organic seeds I have bought are Urban Harvest and The Cottage Gardener.

An initial garden plan (draft). Bed drawn to scale to allow spacing of plants according to their mature size. Square feet = 48.
Jeavons' "How to Grow More Vegetables" informs of useful companion plantings included in my design: strawberries with onions and spinach, kale with beets, carrots with peas, carrots with leeks and chives, basil with peppers and tomatoes

I have many projects I want to do and techniques I want to implement in my backyard garden. Among these are:

  • The hugelkultur bed - a raised bed and vertical garden space
  • Trellises - to cover the fence in dense foliage of beans
  • Polyculture vs. Row culture - a comparison in methods of planting
  • Interplanting & Companion planting - to make best use of space, availability of light and soil nutrients and to create symbiotic relationships between plants to enhance growth and health of plants
  • Mulching - heavily on all beds, likely using fallen leaves. Retains moisture, reduces weed pressure, provides a great environment for soil organisms to create healthy soil
  • Composters - actively using and maintaining the 2 in my yard.
  • Flowers - planting more to attract beneficial insects. Cosmos, nasturtium, echinacea, milkweed, sunflowers
  • Mapping and identifying all plants in the garden
  • Seed saving
I have already started some seedlings and will be starting some more in the next couple of weeks. Although I have a fairly good idea of where I want to plant things in my beds, I know my plan will evolve and change as it manifests. I am interested to see what succeeds, what fails, and how techniques I have learned about work in reality. I will document my evolving backyard garden on this blog, so if you enjoy it please read and share your thoughts and experiences!

Broccoli seedlings thrive under florescent light, with New Zealand spinach and chives behind

Thursday, March 24, 2011


I learned about hugelkultur, a german word meaning "mound culture", in Toby Hemenway's book "Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-scale Permaculture."

Hugelkultur involves burying dampened logs, branches and twigs underneath layers of compostable materials, leaves, finished compost and topsoil. The resulting mound can be planted directly into.

This method offers several benefits. The wood holds a lot of moisture, accessible to plant roots for long periods of time, thus watering will be required less frequently. The logs, branches and layers of compostable materials offer habitat for soil organisms, and the slow decomposition of the wood will create healthy and fertile soil. It is a version of composting in place (like sheet mulch).

It is important to include nitrogen rich materials in the layers on top of the logs, and shoved inbetween them, since the decomposition of the woody materials will use a lot of nitrogen in the process. A good carbon/nitrogen balance can be maintained by including nitrogen rich kitchen scraps, fresh leaves, etc into the mound's layers. Also planting nitrogen fixing legumes (peas, beans) in the hugelkultur bed will also add nitrogen into the soil.

I decided to try it out in a specific area of my backyard garden. I placed the mound in front of a south facing fence. The hugelkultur bed will serve many purposes here. It will allow me to grow climbing varieties of plants up trellises along the fence, some of which prefer to be grown in mounds (winter squash). It will provide long term fertility to the soil in this area of the garden as the logs and branches decompose. It will improve water retention in the soil in this area. It's physical location allows the mound to act as a physical barrier preventing soil and water runoff into my neighbors backyard, due to the existing slope in that direction.

This is a good example of the permaculture principle of stacking functions - getting many yields from one element of the garden system. The hugelkultur mound provides space to grow climbing and mound varieties of vegetables by providing a niche for them, it enhances the main space in my yard where I can garden vertically, it improves water retention, soil quality, and prevents erosion. It will serve multiple functions in my garden.

Wooden debris at the side of my house becomes a resource for a hugelkultur bed

The finished mound. Approx 4 ft x 2 ft, 1.5 ft high.
Layers used include: logs, branches, twigs, sage plant clippings, kitchen scraps, peat moss, leaves, finished compost, and topsoil.

I plan to plant 1 winter squash (Delicata) and scarlet runner beans closer to the fence side of the mound, and 1 or 2 summer squash closer to the front of the mound. The winter squash and runner beans will climb the trellis and fence, the beans will fix nitrogen into the soil, and the large leaves of the summer squash will work as a living mulch to suppress weeds. I am excited to see how the bed evolves over the season and beyond.