Operation Food 2017 Update

So… it’s been awhile.  Operation Food is still underway, and has made much progress.  Since I last wrote we have tilled, manured, planted, and set up a watering system for the gardens.  Although, not automatic (yet), the system we have in place requires little effort and ZERO hose maneuvering, which I’m ecstatic about! We’ve also acquired four pigs, and twenty-six chickens.  We’ve built a chicken tractor, gotten our property line guarded by barbed wire and electric strands, and created a pig training area.   Did I mention I also raised a litter of Great Pyrenees puppies?  Side note: I’m thinking of doing a different blog about how that all worked out and came to be in the first place, but for now here’s a cute picture to make your day…

Adorable? Yes.  Stinky, expensive, and time consuming?  Also yes.

With all of this going on, and the first timers’ unease we’ve had, writing blogs has been taking a backseat.  I’m happy to say, (knocking on wood) that it seems we finally have actually gotten started and are on our way to a great deal of food independence.  The chickens, pigs, and even the puppies (of course as guardian animals, not livestock just in case you didn’t get where I was going there) all play into having an independent food supply, but this post from here on out will stick to the gardening aspect.

So, here we go… Over the winter we spent a lot of time planning, researching seeds and livestock criteria.  My husband, brother-in-law, and myself picked a day and worked together.  One of us would go along the beds with a pitchfork making holes and wiggling the soil loose, another would till the paths, then finally we scooped the tilled soil on to the planting bed.  The beds are each four feet wide with the intent, of course, being able to have reach to the middle from either side of the path.  we didn’t get chickens before spring to tractor over the area.  Instead, we planted the beds and paths with nitrogen-fixing red clover. (That is not to imply it’s a special kind of clover; for those who don’t know, all clover is nitrogen-fixing, and most annual garden plants are high nitrogen feeders)  We could’ve done that in February and had more time for it to grow, hence more nitrogen for the soil before planting, but we didn’t get to it until March.

Finished first steps


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Red Clover sprouts in March

The initial plan was to cover the beds with cardboard for a weed barrier, with straw mulch on top, making holes for plantings as they came.  And boy, do I wish we would have.  It’s a decision that will haunt me until next year.  Especially since we had a huge stock pile of discarded cardboard boxes from my husband’s work.  Running short on time and energy, we decided to opt for straw only.  The clover had barely grown enough to do any good before it was time to start planting.  Root vegetables and collards were ready to be seeded.  So on we went only pulling up the areas we were going to seed immediately and letting the rest grow.  At this point, we hadn’t acquired any manure so these plants were all seeded with no added fertility.

Around this time, which was a little late, we began starting seeds indoors.  We had just installed some shelving in the basement for food storage; half of which was not being utilized.  We built hanging lights and attached a timer to the light cycle, invested in some seed starter trays and organic starter and potting mixes, and set up a seedling area.  We planted tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers, onions, peas, beans, and squash/cucumber varieties.  Basically in that order of succession.  Tomatoes, tomatillos and peppers take a bit longer to get going, and you want peas to have a head start for spring planting in our climate. (I advise finding planting charts for your specific region, which of course, requires knowing your climate zone!)

At this point I would like to state the many things that will be done differently next year.  I am definitely not going to slack on the weed barrier.  This would have saved me much time recently.  We didn’t quite get as many herb seeds as I would have liked started.  I had dreams of basil varieties, tarragon, thyme and so many others intermingled with our crops, but alas, we failed in preparation this time.  I think that even for the carrots and root vegetables (save maybe the prolific radish) I will probably start indoors a bit earlier.  This would allow a longer growing period, and it would enable us to have better control over weeds.  Especially in the case of the carrot.  Weeding can be quite tricky when you’ve got Queen Anne’s Lace (aka “wild carrot”) popping up everywhere.  We won’t know if it’s a large juicy carrot or a measly little white root until we harvest.  (!Disclaimer! I do not condone eating anything “wild” unless you are 100% positive of species identification) Although still edible, the wild carrot isn’t quite worth the trouble.  I can start 75 seedlings in one $5 seed tray.  To have 75 carrots that I know are going to be delicious seems worth it to me! I will also be starting the collard greens indoors next year, probably in February.  Luckily we’ll get a second chance for planting a fall crop coming up in July.  I’m thinking with all of the radish seeds I’ve already collected, I should be able to disperse seed in a sprinkling fashion on bare ground.  Hopefully allowing them to hog space without a weed barrier, then thinning throughout the season.

When it was time to plant out the seedlings we’d started, we were lucky to find free horse manure, and had the means to collect it.  We added the manure right on top of the clover and spread a thin layer over the top of not-yet-planted areas, covered with straw, then planted the tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and oh yeah… I got some yacons to try out!

Our manure came with a welcomed hitchhiker.  Purslane can be a prolific weed, which is good news to me.  It’s high in omega-3’s, vitamins, and antioxidants.  It’s a wonderful plant to add to salad or mixed rice type dishes, and it has potential as a livestock supplement/feed. 

The trenches we tilled and dug out are working well.  We’ve had to water very little; only when it’s been dry for at least a week.  2016jan-jun2017-023.jpgSince we had a lot of cardboard that didn’t get used on top of the beds, we began to use it to fill the trenches.  I was hoping to use wood chips, but our wood chipper isn’t quite in working order, and I haven’t found another source.  Cardboard, although suitable for water absorption, isn’t the most suitable or easiest to work with in this case.  We’ve only gotten about half of the depth of the trench filled with what we had,  leaving room for water to pool, making it a bit slippery to get through.  Hopefully by next year we’ll have a source of wood chips and can improve upon the paths.

Getting later in to May we began to prepare rows where we would plant corn, beans and squash.  Otherwise known as a three sisters garden, historically utilized by Native Americans.  We started an early “summer harvest” plot containing sweet corn, green beans, and cucumber.  Unfortunately our tiller, following suit with the wood chipper, began having problems.  On the bright side we got the two rows we needed done before it went kaput!  Generally the three sisters garden is planted in the order of corn first, beans a couple of weeks later, followed by squash.  All planted from seed.  The rule as I understand it is vaguely a ratio of 1:1:1 for each plant.  Being that we were a bit out of order the beans had already been started indoors and growing strong while the corn was popping up.  So I did it on more of a 1:5 bean to corn ratio, hoping for the beans to not overpower the corn.  We waited a bit before planting the cucumber which had also been started in seed trays.  I will say that as of right now (June) they’re all growing at an apparently healthy rate ratio.

cucumber flower growing amongst the corn
Green beans from the same row pictured above

One mound had manure added, the other didn’t.  It doesn’t seem to have made much of a difference, but the soil we worked with had been covered in dead blackberry branches from the ones that moved on, leaving behind a lovely looking and smelling soil.  No doubt due to the natural composting that took place as the blackberries crawled across the landscape.  They created refuge and food for rabbits, birds, turtles, and snakes who all left behind their own special “gifts” for soil organisms.

Once this corn extension was added to the garden, and sprinklers were all but failing to be of use, it became quite clear just how helpful some soaker hose would be.  I invested in three 75′ length Gilmour Flat Weeper/Soaker hoses from amazon costing $15.25 a piece.  They’ve held up so far with no complaints.  I also got a four-way splitter, for around $10 (I think) with brass switches.  The switches are a very important detail in my opinion.  I saw some that were even more expensive with plastic switches which will eventually crack and break off.  We were able to get the water where it needed to go with the many random hoses we were lucky to have around.  Eventually we plan to take the watering system to an automatic level using sensors to test moisture in the soil which  will automatically activate the drip line when necessary.

Another patch of land across the driveway has been dedicated to newly planted grapes, raspberries, service berry, and currant.  We just started some corn to save as flour and grain in between these plantings.  Although it is within pollination distance from the sweet corn, the idea is that the lapse in time between plantings will not allow them to flower at the same time.  I’ve also added a patch of sorghum in some space between, and I’m hoping it’s not too late to get some chia and amaranth seeds in the ground, as I think that they would help to create a barrier for any corn pollen to get stuck to without reaching the other variety.

Aside from the main crops and previously mentioned plants  we’ve also added okra, sweet potatoes (for seed only this year,) hardy kiwi, passion fruit, sunflowers, and probably a few others that are slipping my mind.  I plan to write separate posts on the pig and chicken experiences.  Thank you for reading, hope you enjoyed, and as I say for almost everything, what works for us might not work for you.  This is just what we’ve done and found to work specifically for us, and I hope anyone who can help us improve will leave comments and knowledge below.





Mixing Edibility With Elegance

Suburbia is used to perfectly tailored gardens with a nice row of cut evergreens, uniform lawns, and vibrant flowers with colored mulch.  So it’s a given that many “Suburbanites” aren’t so fond of growing food in the context of permaculture and forest gardening.  It doesn’t “fit in” to the suburban landscape.  It is my opinion, though, that both things can be accomplished.  Maybe a little less lawn, a little more work, but all very worth it.  With a little compromise, one can have vibrant flowers, colored mulch, and most of it you could eat!

One of the rules of gardening in general is to not trample the soil.  Gardens are usually segregated to the front of a house and maybe the sides of the yard, while lawn takes up most of the space.  On the contrary, in permaculture you want to add as many species as you can fit in a smaller space.  This requires paths that weave through the landscape, leaving room for the plants to have non-impacted  soil, while still allowing access.  In short, you want to have designated trampling grounds.  This ground should be mulched for multiple reasons.  If you have a section of the path that maybe you haven’t gotten to for awhile, without mulch, it will become overgrown, and if you have paths that are continuously walked without mulch the opposite will happen.  You’ll end up with muddy, and quite unattractive pieces of ground.

Since last year I’ve been doing some experimenting.  We knew we wanted to add some sub-canopy, and shrub layers to the yard that already contains one black walnut, one oak, a silver maple, and a beautiful thicket-forming crabapple… which has of yet to make very many apples. The space between the trees was all lawn and had been mowed for several years.  We knew we were going to stop mowing, and begin adding fertility to the soil before planting any new trees.

The problem began to be finding the right mulch to cover our path surface. Wood mulch from stores is not only expensive, but most of it is treated with dyes and chemicals.  So I got to thinking…

Have you ever noticed the beautiful blanket of pine needles that form underneath one of these magnificent trees?  Although they’re evergreen, they shed a bit in the fall and leave masses of needles.  Pine, unlike some other species, have soft bristles that don’t poke if you walk on them barefoot.

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We are lucky to have these beauties that provide more than enough mulch for my garden in the yard.

Of course you need a weed barrier.  Pine needles aren’t going to stop growth alone for a whole season.  They will let in sunlight allowing plants to grow, and get eaten up by fungi in no time if they were touching bare soil.  For this, I used cardboard.  No, it’s not even close to a long-term weed barrier, as it too will be eaten by fungi and microbes to become part of the soil once again. BUT! What this layering does can be far more wonderful than any permanent solution.

This is where compromise comes in to play.  Someone used to tailored gardens may have preferred to used plastic and treated wood that will last for quite literally years, but won’t add any fertility.  It requires more maintenance, but after experimenting with sections of the path for a full year, I saw the cycle taking place.

I found that the cardboard will do it’s job for just about one full year, at least on our soil.  By then, it’s still holding true to aesthetics, but there isn’t much time left before life from underneath will break free.  Towards the end of the winter when we had a few warm days, I scraped at it with a hoe, and was pleasantly surprised.  Not only did the cardboard break up easily mixing with the pine needles forming a fine debris, but there was a fresh layer of nice topsoil directly underneath.  This layer scraped away with ease.  I simply hoed the material and mounded it upon the soon-to-be planting spots.  It was a lovely mixture of compost fit for perennial plants.  So I began work to bring the process to the rest of the paths.

At first the pine needles didn’t look like they were going to stick.  They were quite fluffy and slippery on top of the cardboard, and I thought they would all wash or float away.

This was immediately after completion, the pine needles weren’t quite adhered to the cardboard yet.  The mounds of soil are prepared spots for trees and shrubs.

Once I saturated the layers, my worries were calmed. They became one stuck mat.  Even where it seemed they would all float downhill from the curves in our path, they became adhered to the cardboard, and the cardboard had adhered to the soil.

It is now June, and the paths are holding strong in color and function.  The path has become an elegant piece of our growing forest garden.  I had to learn as I went along, and go back and redo parts that our puppy chewed up and destroyed, but now I think I have it down to a fairly easy and low maintenance system.  The fall being time for collection, and the end of winter being the time of maintenance so things are all fresh and ready for planting in spring.

The whole of the forest garden I intend to grow here is nowhere near its completion.  We’ve added peach, apricot, plum, pawpaw, and gooseberry.  The fruit trees will make a beautiful array of purple, white, and pink flowers in the coming years.  I’ve added yarrow, cilantro, and onion to the herbaceous species, all of which have their own unique flowering forms.  They are all white, and I’m looking to add more color variety that is still, at least useful, if not edible.  I’m also planning to collect and use an array of fall leaves and store them through next spring to add a thick mulch to the planted areas.

This is just one way that you can add function, benefit, and elegance while working with nature for sustainability.