Saturday, September 5, 2009

Our gardening project

If you haven't already seen it, I encourage you to check out the pictures of your new yard. We had a professional do it but because we didn't know what we wanted in the back yet in terms of plantings, and because we didn't have the budget for him to do anymore, we just left the back as soil. The last couple of weeks have seen us undertake our very ambitious gardening project, but I'm so excited about it I thought I'd share.

Most of the ideas I gained for this project came from a few books, listed below in order of importance.

Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway
Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew
Second Nature:A Gardener's Education by Michael Pollan
Edible Estates:The Attack on the Front Lawn by Fritz Haeg
Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan
How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons
Organic Gardening For Dummies

There was also a lot of internet browsing and utilizing various resources I found throughout my searches. One particularly useful resource for any of you who live in Edmonton is Ron Berezan, owner and operator of the Urban Farmer, a landscaper and designer who focuses on edible plants. He is a wealth of information.

So after the extensive information gathering phase came the planning phase and finally the implementation phase, which started last weekend.

In our back yard, we have two levels now. The lower level, recessed below the level of the retaining wall now running diagonally through our backyard, is where we are planting the vegetable garden. The upper level is where a spot of grass will be planted and 2 large perennial/edible beds. The retaining wall holding up our neighbors uphill from us has a wonderful 40 foot long bed that is about 3-4 feet wide where we will plant perennials and edibles as well as a few annuals (not a huge fan of annuals; with a 90-100 growing season, it's just not worth the effort).

Now here's where all the great permaculture stuff comes in. In the vegetable garden, I noticed that the downspout was draining downhill immediately upon hitting the ground and not reaching the garden at all. So I built what is called a swale.

Basically, you start at the drainage spout of your downspout and start digging a trench about a foot deep and a spades-width wide. To mark out the course of the trench you use an A-frame to find how the land contours. You do not want the swale to run downhill or uphill, but be level. Once you've marked out the contour, you dig the trench the entire length of the contour, attempting to keep the bottom of the trench as level as possible. You then fill the trench, minus the top 2 inches, with straw. You then put the soil you dug out of the trench back on top of the straw. The excess soil should be piled up against the downhill side of the trench to form a berm. This downhill berm prevents heavy rains from overflowing out of the swale but also provides a planting space for some plants.

What this swale accomplishes is remarkable. Before, when a rain would come, all the water from 1/2 of my roof would drain into my neighbors yard using the shortest point of exit: downhill. By starting the swale at my downspout, all that rain enters the swale and travels along the whole 40 foot length of the trench until the swale is full, which would take quite a rain. So already you've diverted all that rainwater into your swale. But now, because the swale is located at the uppermost point of the garden, the rainwater will now leech into the soil surrounding the swale and make it's way downhill, evenly distributing all that wonderful water into the vegetable garden. Fantastic!

Mission #2 in the vegetable garden was to add organic matter to it. Sure the landscaper brought in lots of nice topsoil, but topsoil devoid of organic matter just isn't going to cut it. So I did a lot of research, mostly from the books above, and found out that the quickest way to add organic matter to a large area is to use what is called a green manure. Basically you sow a fast growing grass or legume that can live through the winter. Then in spring, before the plant sets seed, you till it into the soil. The nitrogen is released as it decomposes and...voila!!!! Organic matter!

I bought 500g of fall rye and 125g of crimson clover from West Coast Seeds in BC. It only cost me $20 and it arrived in 3 days. Sacha and I used our broadcast spreader to spread the seed on the recently tilled soil and then we raked over it lightly. Now we wait!

The upper level is where the real work is happening. First we had to plan what we want to plant. I found two great nurseries in Canada, Corn Hill Nursery, and Golden Bough Tree Farm, who grow mainly bare root trees and shrubs which they can then ship for dirt cheap to all corners of Canada. And in looking at their sights we discovered that fall is a great time to plant bare roots. So below is the list we are bringing in next week:

2 American plums, 1 in each corner of the backyard
2 Harbin pears; a huge pear tree; grows to 30 ft tall; one will go smack dab in the middle of the front yard and the other smack dab in the middle of the back
3 Highbush cranberries; not sure where they're going yet!
1 Black currant bush going in back corner under the plum tree
1 Red currant bush in the same spot
(we are buying 10 more currant bushes next year to plant as a living fence in the retaining wall bed between us and our neighbors)
2 elderberry bushes in same spot
1 Native river grape and 1 Valiant grape; will construct a trellis under our deck and run them up this
2 Arctic Kiwis; 1 male, 1 female

That is for now. Next year we are also going to buy some dwarf apple trees (probably Jaune Transparente and Norland), 3 cherry shrubs (U of Sask Romance Series), and a few Saskatoon bushes, as well as raspberries and strawberries.

Now for the real fun. How to add organic matter to individual flower beds? The book above, Gaia's Garden, mentioned a concept that intrigued me: a sheet mulch. It sounded like a lot of work but I thought I'd try it.

What we did first was outline the beds. Then we tilled them to loosen the cement soil that has come from a month of absolutely no rain and constant pounding feet of two busy little boys. We then hoed back about 2 inches of soil from the beds to replace later in the process.

As the bottom layer of the sheet mulch we spread a light layer of cow manure, composted over about 10 years in the farmyard of my father-in-laws brother. We loaded it all by shovel into a pickup truck and then unloaded it by shovel and wheelbarrow. No joke. But it is beautiful stuff! The layer of cow manure was no more than 1/2 inch thick.

Then I took a bunch of cardboard boxes from work, removed all the tape and broke them open so they were single layered. I laid them down all over the manure, overlapping to leave as few holes as possible.

On top of the cardboard I spread another half-inch of manure. That is where we stand right now.

This weekend we are getting a large round bale of old hay from my father-in-laws brother and 4 square bales of straw. Once we have that, we will spread roughly 6-8 inches of hay on top of the manure. On top of this will go the soil we had backhoed from the start. Finally, we spread about 2 inches of straw to make a nice looking mulch and retain moisture. At the construction of each layer you are supposed to do a thorough wetting.

Basically, what is supposed to happen is that over winter, the space under the cardboard composts well and brings in lots of earthworms which till it up nice and fluffy. The pile starts at about 12 inches but compresses down to about 6 inches. In the spring there should be rich healthy soil underneath the cardboard and the other layers give you a foundation to start planting. To plant you simply pull back the mulch layers, cut a space in the cardboard, and plant in the soil underneath. Plus, the cardboard in the other areas where there are no plantings minimizes weed growth.

After this is done we will be tilling the remaining soil and planting it under to grass. The kids need somewhere to run!

We can't wait for our trees and shrubs to arrive so we can plant them and see how they do. Now we're gonna be itchin' all winter for spring to arrive! We'll keep everyone informed of the progress of our adventures. Maybe I'll turn out to be a fool, but it sure was fun to try. And the total cost?

$20 for green manure seed
$0 for borrowed tiller, rake, and wheelbarrow from mother-in-law
$0 for borrowed truck, free manure, free straw and free hay from father-in-law and his brother
$20 for case of beer for aforementioned individuals
$200 for bare-root edibles, including shipping and taxes
$0 for free grass seed from aunt-in-law
$0 for free cardboard from waste source
$50 for precision drop spreader
$30 for soil testing kit to test soil before and after amendments being made
$0 to do soil composition test using Mason jars and water (Results: almost half silt, half sand; lots of clay lays beneath the topsoil to slow the drainage in our otherwise rapidly draining land)
$infinite in time spent on projects
-no price to be put on the exercise we got out of it or the things our kids have learned from helping us along the way!

Wish us luck!

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