First Strawberries!

There was just one ripe on Tuesday, so we cut it in quarters to allow each of us a taste. It wasn’t as sweet as I was expecting, but the strawberry flavor was just MORE. Wow!

Today, there were seven ready to be picked.

We haven’t yet eaten them. I think we should wait a day or two, because the berries that are just starting to blush may be ready by then, and we could each have more than a mouthful. Will we hold out?

I don’t know if you can really see it in the photos above, but I devised an unusual mulch to keep the berries off the ground. All the videos of strawberry gardening that I’ve watched portray straw under the berries. But I don’t have easy access to straw right now. What did I use instead?

Well, every spring the maples in our back yard shed their seed pods all over. Our back deck fills up with them. Eventually the seed pods go away—I’m not sure where—and all that remains are the stems that once connected the pods to the tree. I usually sweep them off the deck into the the nandina beds below, where the stems enrich the soil.

This time I collected them all and saved them.

Whenever the strawberries grow heavy enough to bend their stems down to the dirt, I go get a handful of maple stems and place them under the berries. So far it’s working. The strawberries are pristine!

I’ll add a note to this post once we eat the strawberries to tell you how long we waited and how they tasted!

For more about our garden, see:
Container Gardening at Casa Ney-Grimm



Container Gardening at Casa Ney-Grimm

In the middle of May, I became convinced I should be growing some vegetables. Whether this conviction were truly wise…I remain uncertain. Regardless of the wisdom of the plan, I set about gathering supplies.

The middle of May is certainly leaving it late. And supplies were thin on the ground. Furthermore, finding a suitable spot in our yard was problematic.

Twenty years ago, there was plenty of sun in the front yard. Since then, our cherry blossom tree has grown considerably and the only sunny area is on our front deck.

The back yard has a similar problem. Once sunny, now the maple trees are so tall that it is shady. Even if there were a sunny patch, the herd of deer that regularly roam through would munch any vegetables grown there.

Despite these difficulties, I persevered. We obtained three box planters and set them up on the front deck!

Getting seeds was a challenge as well, and I think I ordered the very last packets that Park Seed had in stock!

But it has all come together and I wanted to show you what I have growing.

Here is my plan for the planter next to my front door.

As is often the case, my plan had to adjust once reality hit. When the bare root strawberries arrived, there were 26, six more than the 20 I’d ordered. There was no way I’d toss the extras. I mean, strawberries! I had to find a place for them. So I popped them into the okra bed.

Also, the spinach never germinated. Zip. Bare soil. So I sowed more lettuce there. (Those small green dots all represent lettuce.) It would be too late for lettuce (which bolts in the heat), if I were growing full heads. But I’m doing cut-and-come-again. So I think I’ll get to harvest some before the heat gets it.

Here’s a photo of the “okra bed.” Isn’t it pretty!

The planter next to the “okra bed” is the “pepper bed.” Originally I thought of it as the “basil bed.” It does have basil in it, but we added a pepper plant when we discovered a local source with curbside pick-up. That pepper plant is so beautiful that it rather overshadows the basil, which is still quite small.

Here is my plan for the “pepper bed.”

Reality also forced some changes to this bed. Not only did the pepper replace some of the chard, but the lettuce and parsley never came up. So when I thinned the basil, I moved the seedlings to fill those spaces.

Here’s a photo of the “pepper bed.” That tall plant at the left is the pepper! 😀

At the far end of the deck, past the “pepper bed,” is the “beet bed.” The “beet bed” has remained closest to its plan, but not identical. Here’s the plan.

The radishes all moved to the right side of the middle space, while the left side became home to more lettuce, and the green onions were dotted here and there. Here’s a photo of the lettuce side.

My daughter has been helping me with this mini vegetable garden, and it’s been a lot of fun. Plus it sparked the whole family to renewed fervor for yard work. I’ve enjoyed our time with the four of us all working together. And I really like the beauty emerging from the jungle that our yard had become.

We just harvested our first radish this morning!

As a family project, it’s been a total success.

As a significant addition to our food supplies…not so sure. It’s early days yet, of course. I expect the okra will be the biggest producer, and that will reach harvest much later in the summer. It will be nice to have fresh basil. And the strawberries, fresh from the garden, will be lovely.

But so far, we’ve had enough lettuce for a few salads, and that’s it.

And yet, I don’t regret having put my energy into this. I’m learning new things, which I always love. And the family fun is priceless!



Permaculture Gardening

Photo of a lush garden.First, I have a confession to make. I read Gaia’s Garden and was so impressed I immediately started a to-do list of chores for my own garden. But that’s not the confession. It is this: just as I was gathering materials and gearing up to create my first sheet mulch, I took an unfortunate and ill-timed bicycle ride and broke my foot! Perhaps you see where this is going. The break was a bad one, but not bad enough for surgery and pins, so I was bed-ridden all last summer and on crutches all last fall and in physical therapy all last winter. In other words, I have not yet done a single one of those garden chores. But I’m going to tell you three cool things from the book anyway!

Before I go further, Gaia’s Garden is written by Toby Hemenway and introduces home gardeners to permaculture and how to use its principles on their land. Now for those three things.

plans for three gardens: vegetable plot, raised beds, keyhole gardenGarden Topology Matters

Consider the time-honored, conventional vegetable plot. The plants in it are useful, yes, and their color and the texture of their foliage, beautiful. But now look at those rows and the paths between them. Not only are they visually uninspiring, but they waste a lot of space! We can do better.

What about raised beds with paths threaded between wider blocks of plants? Definitely an improvement, but we can do better still.

Now evaluate the keyhole garden. The amount of ground devoted to paths shrinks further, and the space for plants burgeons. There are other shapes taken from nature that conserve fertile soil: the herb spiral, branching systems, and nets or mesh patterns. They’re all worth keeping in our palette when we design the layout of our gardens.


Sheet Mulch is Efficient

Nearly every gardener can wax lyrical on the value of compost. It replenishes the soil with mineral wealth. It improves the soil’s texture, building humus, the light and fluffy component that holds moisture and nutrients for the questing roots of plants.

But compost heaps are a lot of work: building them, turning them, watering them, and then carting the whole kit-and-kaboodle to the actual garden plot. And there’s another disadvantage. Soil organisms – bacteria, fungi, and amoebae – are just as important to plant well-being as the minerals and other nutrients in the soil. A thriving fungal mat might extend across an entire back yard or even further. But all that turning and forking and moving needed by a compost pile disrupts and destroys these microscopic helpers.

Just as with garden topology, there is a better way – an easier way! Mulch in place. It’s done in two steps. First lay down a thick layer of newspaper or cardboard to suppress weeds. Be sure to overlap the edges by at least 6 inches. (Weed shoots can really travel to reach a gap! Don’t leave any.) Then top that layer with a foot of bark or straw or grain hulls or sawdust or wood chips. Anything that used to be a plant, basically. And don’t be timid about the amount. This layer needs to be thick. Then wet the whole thing down and let it sit.

Fall is a great time to sheet mulch. The bed will be ready to plant in spring. What if it’s already spring and you want to try this now? All is not lost. Build your sheet mulch and then create small pockets in the sheet, about 3 inches deep. Fill the pockets with soil and compost, and plant your seeds. (Somewhat deeper pockets can be used for seedling plants.)

What will you have once your sheet mulch decomposes? Lovely, humusy soil packed with nutrients along with a tide of earthworms and millipedes and beneficial mites and fungi teeming both in the decomposed mulch and a good foot underneath. Your garden will thrive.

The Apple Guild

Among permaculture practitioners, a “plant guild” is a community of plants and animals living in a pattern of mutual support. It is often centered around one major species. And it benefits humans while also creating habitat. Plant guilds are more complex than companion planting (such as placing marigolds between broccoli rows to keep insect pests away). Plant guilds are more comprehensive than polycultures (such as growing rice and fish and ducks together).

Plant guilds attempt to borrow some of the resilience and robustness of plant communities found in Mother Nature herself. Most plant guilds are local, derived or deduced from the unique soil, climate, and species found in a specific region. But there are a few “universal guilds” that are likely to thrive in much of a continent. One of these is the apple guild.

plan of garden centered on a fruit treeAt its center grows an apple tree, although any fruit tree (or even a small nut tree) could work. Any size fruit tree – standard, semi-standard, semi-dwarf, dwarf, or mini-dwarf – may be chosen, but a larger tree will support more associated plants than a small one.

A ring of thickly planted bulbs grows at the drip line of the tree. You might choose daffodils to discourage depredations by gophers and deer. Or you might choose something edible: camas or alliums such as garlic, garlic chives, or wild leeks. (Don’t mix daffs with edible bulbs, because daff bulbs are poisonous. You wouldn’t want to risk a mistake.) Either choice will keep grasses from invading your guild.

Within the ring of bulbs is an assortment of plants that attract bees and birds, make mulch, pull nutrients deep underground to the root zone, and fix nitrogen in the soil.

A dotted circle of comfrey is the most multi-functional among these. Its purple blossoms attract beneficial insects. Its deep roots pull potassium and other minerals upward into its leaves, which can be used to infuse a medicinal tea and to create a fertilizing mulch. (Slash the comfrey back 4 or 5 times during the summer and let it fall in place as mulch.)

A couple of robust artichoke plants are interspersed with the comfrey. Their spikey roots restore soil tilth and fluffiness. The plants yield food: the artichokes. And their leaves contribute to the natural mulch.

Dotted throughout the circle of the guild are bursts of yarrow, trailing nasturtiums, and the umbels of dill and fennel. Yarrow is a nutrient accumulator, making nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, and copper available. It is also an insectory, attracting ladybugs, hoverflies, and parasitic wasps (that eat the larvae of pests such as borers and coddling moths). Dill and fennel attract these beneficial insects plus lacewings, and they are edible.

A dense carpet of white clover laps between all the plants along with a sprinkling of dandelion, chicory, and plantain, giving the guild plenty of nitrogen-fixing (the clover) plus more nutrient accumulators. (Chicory yields potassium and calcium; dandelion adds magnesium, iron, copper, and silicon to the mix; plantain, manganese and sulfur.)

The apple guild is a dynamic system with most of its members playing multiple roles and immensely lightening the work load on its human caretaker.

Two years before I read Gaia’s Garden, my husband and I planted an apricot and a pair of cherry trees in our backyard. One cherry succumbed to the nibbling of deer, and we replaced it. The other trees survived. This spring, the apricot showed the beginning of fruit on its branches! We hope to harvest a few for the first time this summer. But I still cherish that list inspired by this book. And I wonder: what might we see after we sheet mulch the ground surrounding the fruit trees? What eden spot might evolve when daffodils, comfrey, coriander, dandelions, and clover are growing in lush circles below the fruiting branches? I hope to find out.

Gaia’s Garden at Amazon

Gaia’s Garden at B&N

For more green living concepts, see:
Green Housekeeping
Running Mushrooms
Grass Green

For more cool science trivia, see: