raised beds, raised garden beds, vegetable beds, raised vegetable beds

Permaculture Principles: Observe Your Land Before You Plant Anything

By Catherine Winter

One of the first lessons in sustainable permaculture is to observe your land for at least a year before planting anything in the ground. You can plant anything you like in pots and containers as you can move those around easily, but plunking seeds, bushes, or trees into your land requires a whole lot of research and awareness first. Many of us get reallyreally excited as soon as we have a plot of land to play with—we go nuts with planning and ordering seeds and planting all kinds of stuff, and end up sabotaging our vegetable gardening attempts with our impatience.

I’m just as guilty of this as many others have been before me, and although it’s been a pain in the arse to sort out and I’ve kicked myself for my stupidity, I’ve also learned from my mistakes. Hopefully you can learn from them too.

raised beds, raised garden beds, garden beds

Royal Screw-Ups

Case in point: when I moved into this house in 2013, I was delighted to see a beautiful little flat patch of earth on the NE side. I promptly squeed myself and plopped two raised beds onto it, filling those beds with herbs, lettuces, and brassicas. Well, fast forward a month and those beds were completely shaded once the trees’ foliage filled out completely. The beds were also under constant onslaught from the fuzzy poplar catkins that fell from above, so I was weeding and cleaning the soil every day just to keep up.

This is exactly why it is of vital importance to observe your property during all four seasons before committing to any permanent structure or long-term investment like nut trees or berry bushes.

I have raspberries, blueberries, serviceberries, and blackberries in a nice acidic patch of soil in one corner of my property, and I’m happy that I really observed and took note of the changes in that area before planting anything. See, it’s on a rather steep slope of the mountainside that my home is perched upon, and winter’s meltwater takes a very specific path through that very berry patch and into the stream below. If I hadn’t taken note of the water’s course in late winter/early spring, I might have planted some bushes right in that pathway: the plants would have died and I would have gotten screamy.

cabbage, green cabbage, savoy cabbage, brassica, brassicas

As frustrating as it is to be patient, it’s even more frustrating to regret hasty actions… especially since seeds and plants can be a costly investment. I can’t tell you how many plants I’ve lost thanks to sudden May heat waves, crazy July frosts, and local wildlife discovering what a lovely buffet I’ve provided for them.

Take Photos, Make Notes

Seriously, take pictures of your property every couple of weeks throughout the year so you can see how changes take place over time, and get out there so you can experience things firsthand. Make notes about everything from little microclimates you may discover to dips and hills: you can use these to full advantage when planning your garden, such as keeping water-loving plants in the dips, and those that need better drainage in the raised areas.

rabbit, wild rabbit, rabbit in the garden, rabbit eating plants, bunny, garden bunny

Keep an eye on the animals and insects that visit your property, and determine whether they need to be attended to. These are just a few aspects that should be monitored:

  • Are there a lot of bees and other pollinators? Or will you need to entice some to your land with indigenous flowers?
  • Do squirrels, rabbits, deer, or other herbivores stop by often? Take note of which species visit so you can sort out an action plan for dealing with them humanely so they don’t eat all of your plants.
  • Does a lot of snow fall on your property? Where does the meltwater go?
  • Does your region have a history of inclement weather such as droughts or summer hailstorms?
  • Which areas get the most sun throughout the year? Which get the most shade?

Once you have a really clear idea of all of these facets, you’ll be able to make well-informed decisions about the types of plants that will work best for the space you have to work with. Remember how we talked about working with your land rather than against it? It really is in your best interest to determine what would work best, and then go that route rather than dreaming up what you’d like and then trying to force Mother Nature to comply with your wishes.

…don’t even try, because she always wins.

If you have any questions about which plants would work best for your zone and the space you have available, please don’t hesitate to ask us in the comments section: chances are someone on our team will have answers for you.

 

Photos by Local Food Initiative and Nathan Anderson via Flickr Creative Commons and UnSplash.

lettuce, organic lettuce, organic vegetables, vegetables for zone 4, straw bale gardening, strawbale gardening

Work With Your Land, Not Against It

By Catherine Winter

Those of us who have always dreamt of abundant food gardens have likely had pretty grandiose ideas about what we’d like to cultivate. When I moved to this house, I looked at the land around my home and imagined it brimming with all manner of fruit trees and berry bushes, and lush gardens practically spilling over with cucumbers, tomatoes, and pumpkins. Damn, was I wrong.

You see, this house is right on the mountainside, which means that there are only a couple of inches of (poor) soil before I hit solid rock, and the tall trees around the property stop sunlight from reaching all but a few choice areas. I put some raised beds in those spots, but the tender plants I tried to grow ended up being obliterated by inclement weather. Needless to say, after four growing seasons, I have a pretty solid idea about what will and will not grow on this property, in my frustrating, cold, downright infuriating 4b agricultural growing zone.

dead lettuce, wilted lettuce, dead garden, wilted garden, failed lettuce, failed garden

Rather than being discouraged by the fact that I will never be able to grow a decent tomato or melon here, I’ve learned the invaluable lesson that working with the land I have is far easier on both my wallet and my heart than fighting with it. I could have spared myself a lot of heartache if I had followed the number one rule of permaculture and observed my land for a full year before planting anything, but sometimes eagerness and enthusiasm drown out common sense. Live and learn, right?

Raised beds are a great option in our area, but the wet summers and long, cold, snowy winters wreak havoc on wooden beds, requiring them to be rebuilt every other year. I have a gorgeous, large hugelkultur bed for my medicinal herbs, but that took a few  years to build up with classic lasagna gardening techniques, and I need something quicker and easier for this year’s garden. The solution? Straw bales.

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Straw Bale Gardening

These are great because you can just plop some bales in an area that get a fair amount of sunlight over the course of the day, and get gardening. You don’t need to put any effort into building raised beds (although it’s not a bad idea to brace the bale sides in some way, since they can fall apart over the season as they decompose and get squidgy), and the very process of their decomposition creates nutrients for whatever you grow inside them. The decomp process also creates heat, so you can plant seeds earlier than you could in a standard earth bed.

The key is to ensure that you source your bales from an organic farm, otherwise you’ll just end up contaminating your land, your food, and your own body with the pesticides and other poisons that have been sucked up into the straw. Once they’ve been placed in position, they just need to be soaked daily for a couple of weeks prior to planting to condition them. Some people just use water, but the consensus seems to be to add a fair bit of fertiliser when soaking so there are tons of nutrients available to your growing plants. This is especially important for heavy feeders like squashes, brassicas, and melons.

root vegetables, roots, beets, turnips, parsnips, radishes, celeriac, rutabagas, zone 4b, zone 4

Grow for Your Zone!

As mentioned earlier, I’ve learned what will and won’t grow well on my property, in this frigid little zone with a crazy-short growing season, so I’m focusing on plants that I know will thrive. Leafy greens such as lettuces, spinach, and chard grow well, and as long as I keep cloth or mesh over them so the cabbage moth caterpillars don’t obliterate them, brassicas such as broccoli, kale, tatsoi, and collards can thrive here too. We’ll often get colder snaps right into June (even had hail last July!) so I need to make sure I only grow hardy plants that won’t fall apart with inclement weather.

I’ve learned my lesson about attempting to grow tomatoes or eggplants, so I’m aiming to try to grow some pumpkins, zucchini, onions, and root vegetables like carrots, turnips, rutabagas, and beets instead. Sturdy, stubborn plants that won’t shriek and wilt at the first sign of imminent danger. Interestingly, peas and beans also thrive here, so I’m going to cover my gazebo in climbing varieties and let them go nuts.

I’ll be planting hardy sunflowers, amaranth, and popcorn around the garden’s periphery, as well as the usual pollinators and repellents such as borage, calendula, and milkweed. I’ve been scattering native wildflower seeds all around my property for a few years now, so there’s a startling amount of asters, ox-eye daisies, bachelor’s buttons, echinacea, lupines, and vetches around, and I’m happy to say that I have never seen so many bees in one place as I have seen in my garden over the last two summers. It’ll be interesting to document this year’s garden to see what thrives and what falls apart, so hopefully I can share gems of information with the rest of you so you can learn from my successes as well as my failures.

xo

straw bale garden, strawbale garden, straw bale gardening, squash, plant, straw bale squash