Thursday, August 23, 2012

Polyculture vs Row Culture

Last year I was inspired by reading some permaculture books and decided to experiment with sowing a polyculture planting in part of my backyard raised bed. I based mine on the polyculture sowing described in Toby Hemenway's "Gaia's Garden."

In a broadcast fashion I sowed a couple varieties of lettuce, arugula, spinach, dill, parsnip, radish and a 'brassica mix' which included red russian kale and mizuna.

The idea behind polycultures is that the multiplicity of different plants, especially aromatic ones such as dill, helps to lower susceptibility to pests and disease.

While this may be true, I found my polyculture bed difficult to weed and harvest from. I think this partly stems from the fact that I am a person who likes order. To me, once the polyculture sowing sprouted it represented chaos, and this was difficult for me to get my head around.

The plants grew at different rates and I wasn't able to cut greens as easily as I was used to in the neat linear rows on the farms. What I read about polycultures told me to harvest whole plants instead of cutting, in order to make space for other plants to flourish. I did do this, but there's something I like more about getting 3 cuttings off of my lettuce before pulling it and letting it break down back into the top soil.

I can't help but think: what does this say about me if I didn't enjoy my polyculture experience? Polycultures mimic the diversity, chaos, and beauty of nature and of the forest. Am I dishonouring nature by growing my greens in straight lines this year? My answer is no; through companion plantings, albeit sometimes in straight lines, I maintain the pest and disease resisting characteristics of polyculture plantings. Plus I am producing more greens.

I do grow lots of other crops together; strawberries with onions & spinach, peas with carrots, tomatoes with basil, lettuce, parsley & marigolds. I view my entire backyard as a polyculture. I just choose to grow my salad greens, and some other crops, in rows.

Rows are about efficiency when harvesting, and weeding, and this appeals to the order of my mind. While I may lean towards row culture, especially for some crops, I definitely do not subscribe to monoculture.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

How to Brew Vermicompost Tea

Worm castings

Vermicompost tea seems to be kind of magical. It is high in microbial activity. We brewed large batches of it last year at the organic farm I interned at and both watered with it and used it as a foliar spray on our seedlings in the greenhouse. It effectively killed an infestation of insects that were attacking our tomatillo seedlings. So now, when I see that plants in my garden are being eaten by insects, or just don't look so well, I look to brewing vermicompost tea as a potential solution.

What you'll need:

1 cup or so of worm castings
5 gallon bucket of water
Cheese cloth or permeable material to make a tea bag with
Elastics or string
Fish pump with tubing

Fill the 5 gallon bucket with water. If not using rain water, let the water sit for 48 hours so the chlorine and other stuff from city water can evaporate before you brew your tea.

Place your worm castings on a doubled over piece of cheese cloth and wrap to make a kind of worm poo tea bag. Use elastics to tie off the ends securely.

I tied my tea bag to the handle of the bucket so it rested half way inside the bucket instead of sitting on the bottom, for optimal steeping.

I used an aquarium bubbler and attached it to the end of the fish pump tube and set it in the bucket of water. Plug in the pump and let it bubble for 24 hours. Some people add a little molasses to increase microbial activity but I have yet to try this.

Use the vermicompost tea within 24 hours after the brewing is complete, as it is an active solution.

Using the vermicompost tea as a foliar spray on basil that was being eaten by insects

Thursday, August 11, 2011

U Shaped Log Garden Grows Food

The garden in mid June

The new garden did/is doing very well.

Peas thrived, although we know to construct a taller trellis next year for them. Sugar Snap peas can grow 6 feet tall!

The greens supplied fresh salads regularly. Arugula, Red Deer Tongue and Red Salad Bowl Lettuces looked beautiful around the inside of the U for easy harvesting. To cut salad greens I use a knife, and leave the baby leaves about 3/4 of an inch from the ground to grow back. I do 3 cuttings max because the greens tend to get bitter after that.

The New Zealand spinach is really starting to take off now. Seems to love the heat of summer.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Making a Raised Bed Garden with Logs

I had the experience of designing and creating a raised bed backyard garden last week. For part of it we removed the sod, and double dug as best as we could (tree roots made it difficult) using a D handled spade and garden fork. Double digging loosens the soil to a good depth without mixing the top layer of soil with the deeper soil. This is important as different soil microorganisms prefer to live in different depths. We decided to put root crops in the section we double dug.

For the other sections we layed down a layer of cardboard over the sod. The neighbor was cutting down a birch tree as we were creating the garden, and these beautiful birch logs made a perfect border for the garden. Once we arranged the logs we soaked the cardboard with water for a good while, then spread an inch or so of sheep manure across the bottom layer of the garden before filling it up with soil. We used about twenty 25L bags of black earth soil.

A recently cut tree on the front lawn was a resource for mulch which we spread in the centre area of the garden and around the edges. Aesthetically I think the garden is quite striking.

The "U" shaped design faces south. Taller crops can be grown on the north edge. Around the centre of the "U" we seeded salad greens, for easy access. We seeded peas, chard, beets, carrots, spinach, arugula, salad greens, and transplanted some kale, new zealand spinach, and leeks I had grown indoors, as well as chives from my backyard garden. I'm excited to see how this garden transforms over the summer!

Rabbit in the Garden

All winter I saw bunny tracks in the snow. I finally caught a glimpse of the rabbit in my backyard one rainy spring afternoon. Cute, but potentially troublesome to my vegetables. I'm using chicken wire over my transplanted seedlings while they are still small. This also prevents squirrels from digging in freshly seeded beds.

Rainbow chard seedlings safe under chicken wire

Interplanting of strawberries, onion, and spinach

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Mossy Stonecrop

There is a prolific "weed" in my backyard, and it is Mossy Stonecrop. I've read it occurs in sandy soils with low fertility. It's growing in and around the raised wooden garden beds, especially in the strawberry patch. It can reproduce from creeping stems and stem fragments, as well as by seed. That means if I wanted to weed it out, any small fragment left in the soil could grow into a new plant.

What is a weed? An unwanted plant, a nuisance...perhaps. My experience organic farming and reading gardening books has challenged the common conception of weeds I once held. Such plants can have many benefits.

All weeds tell us something about the soil they are growing in. Plants don't grow by luck, certain conditions foster them. Weeds (and all plants) have different capacities to draw specific nutrients up from various levels of the soil. Many "weeds" are edible. If slashed or pulled they can be used as mulch, and can also form a living mulch around plants.

While I won't allow weeds to strangle out plants I'm intentionally growing for food, I do want to learn from them more this growing season. Perhaps I need to add more organic matter to my soil, since Mossy Stonecrop thrives in soils with low fertility. I don't mind it's presence bordering the outside of the bed, and creeping inbetween the patio stones. I like succulents and it produces a yellow flower in the summer. I did pull a lot of it out of the strawberry patch. I will watch to see how it grows over the season.

Mossy Stonecrop (Sedum acre)

Vermicomposting in a Bucket

This is my third worm bin. When a friend gave me some red worms in a paper bag at the end of the summer, I hastily drilled some holes in a bucket I got from the farm I was working at, shredded some newspaper, dampened it, added the worms and some veggie scraps and suddenly had a new vermicomposter.

I made it for free, and this was ideal. The worms are breaking their bedding and food scraps down and it is filling up with beautiful worm compost I'll add to my garden.