Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Return to the Garden

Gardening is civil and social, but it wants the vigor and freedom of the forest and the outlaw.
-Henry David Thoreau

We received 4" of rain between Thursday evening and Saturday afternoon. About half my corn may have been wiped out. The stalks lay flatten to the ground. I'm hoping maybe they'll spring back up for the beans have just sprouted and the squash should pop up any day now. It's my first attempt at Three Sisters Planting. Supposedly such a setup requires minimum 10'x10', mine is only 6'x3' but I figured it was worth a shot. Losing half the corn may be fatal to this experiment.

My garden. The Three Sisters reside in the center square of stones.

Looking at the above picture one might think I have just a small section of the yard devoted to food crops and the rest is just woods. Well, the rest is "just" woods but being an adherent of permaculture, those woods are still sources of food. The basic goal of permaculture is to create a small-scale, self-sustaining ecosystem capable of supplying a household with a generous amount of food. By "self-sustaining" I mean that it does not require the application of fertilizer, herbicides/weeding, or pesticides and even it's watering needs are lower than normal. This is accomplished by setting up a multi-story ecosystem ranging from soil microbes to towering trees, thereby mimicking a natural forest. In this case though the plants are specifically chosen for their edibility. Traditional crops are just as welcome in a permaculture system (I need my tomatoes, beans, peas, kohlrabi, etc...), but they aren't grown in the wasteful straight lines of a traditional garden. Instead they are nestled in niches properly designed for both productivity and aesthetic beauty.

Moving food production from the country to the city returns to the wild land that had been used for crops. It also reduces the energy requirements of fertilizer production and transporting food to the city. Utilizing nitrogen-fixing plants, deep-rooted plants, leaf-drop mulches, and thick ground covers removes the need for man-made fertilizers, tilling of soil, and weeding. Creating habitats that draw in birds, bugs, and other wildlife may seem like a recipe for losing all your crops to thousands of hungry little mouths, but nature has a way of keeping things in balance. If one sort of "pest" population explodes it's predator will soon follow and correct the problem. Releasing an occasional bag of ladybugs or praying mantids is a heck of a lot more pleasant than spraying your food with bugkiller.

Sadly, ten years ago when I started creating my backyard borderlands I was unaware of the concept of permaculture. All I knew was I wanted a woods, dark and deep, in my 30'x70' slice of suburbia. There would be a lot more mature fruit and nut trees back there now if I had, not to mention a lot less Asian Jasmine. As it is my food-producing trees are limited to loquat, fig, maple, and oak. Second layer shrubs/small trees include waxleaf myrtle, yaupon holly, greenbriar, and elderberry. I need to add some more edible three-story bushes such as American Beautyberry. Ground cover is currently dewberries and betony.

Spot the five foods.

A really great introductory book on the subject of permaculture is Gaia's Garden. It gives an excellent overview of the what, why, and how of permaculture without being preachy or human-hating. It is written for non-technical, novice gardeners yet it's has the best explanation of dirt chemistry I've ever encountered. I feel like I truly understand my soil now!

Cool shade from hot sun.

It's late now and time for bed. Tomorrow morning I'll pick some loquats for lunch and perhaps a small cluster of yaupon holly leaves for my morning tea. The third harvest of spinach is ready for cutting and will end up in a salad at supper. The radishes have all been harvested, freeing up the soil for the carrots. Okra was planted this weekend along with a second crop of kohlrabi. Purslane, lambsquarters, and amaranth are in various stages of growth. Cabbages are swelling while the tomato plants are drooping with fruit. It is a thing of beauty.

Adventure! Excitement! Life Amongst Green!


Packman said...

Wow, you're much farther along than I am. We actully had a frost one night last week, but the tomatos seem to have survived.

I got tomatoes, cabbage, spinach, romaine letuce, and a whole bunch of herbs going. I want to get some squash and beans in the ground too, but I'm running out of space.

I did see someone pull a nice striped bass out of the channel across the street, however, so I'll be investigating that kind of "wild edible" this weekend!

Shreela said...

What did in your corn, the heavy rain, or flooding? I didn't plant in the ground this year because I can't manage restoring our compact soil by myself. If I had planted in the ground, I probably would have lost it all in this last weekend's flooding (it stopped a few inches shy of our doors).

So when I experiment with container gardening, they'll have to be above the flood lines. I guess I'll start with lettuces and cherry tomatoes in hanging baskets. That way I can bring them in easy if we get super heavy rain again, or when it gets too hot.

Merriwether said...


Mmm, stiped bass...the white bass run up Spring Creek has already ended. I'll have to be content with catfish and panfish, which are easy to be content with. :-) As for the garden, remember I'm almost 1,000 miles south of you. My friend Clark's tomato plants survied and produced all "winter" long here!

Shreela, As far as I can tell the rain was hard enough to push over the corn. After years of fiddling I finally fixed the drainage issues in my yard so I don't have a problem with flooding/standing water (knock on wood!). Everything I plant is done in raised beds ranging from 8" to 28" inches high so that also helps. I haven't had much luck with container gardening only because I travel a lot for work and Misseswether doesn't water them. :-( I have a few fruit trees and herbs in pots this year only because there's currently a travel ban on at work (trying to save $$$). A neighbor has his back fence stung with hanging tomato plants and they are doing great, at least before the storm. I'm not sure if they were damaged or not, though.

Izzy G. said...

You have a really nice backyard. Looks roomy. Where I live now I have exactly 15 feet of backyard before it drops down into a pond. But I should complain...there's 5lb bass in that pond.

Also my sister and her husband are starting their own garden. I said to them, to save money on water bills, to do what you did. Use a rain catch from the roof and a barrel and perforate some garden hose. Free water! My liberal so-called environmentalist response? "But rain is so polluted and it will get into the food and give me cancer." I was just like "...All that money wasted on your education and you're a goof."

Kelly said...

I have got to get my backyard going. I want it to be filled with edibles and shade instead of plantless and sunny. It's also a slice of suburbia. A very thin slice.
I want to plant some edibles but am truly clueless when it comes to plants. I know, sad. I did have a tomato plant spring up in our landscaping in the front and I just let it go. It was even growing during the brief encounter with snow we had! It is loaded with tomatoes and is more of a vine than a bush. Weird but very cool. I'm just happy I haven't killed it yet!

Cool backyard. :)

Garden Geezer said...

Hi Merri
I am up here in the mtns of N.C./Tenn right by the Appalachian trail. Hopefully this weekend and coming week will be spent planting taters,onions(3 types) and hardy strawberries. Cannot do any real veggie planting here 'til after Mother's Day. Oh I'll probably do lettuce as well this week.
Good luck to you and all your gardening friends.(even gardening is an adventure).


J-Ro said...


Well, your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!!! :)

Sorry, could not resist. MUCH Love to Mommaweather and Poppaweather!!)