Three Sisters

So we now live on I-94. I had no race car-having sold it for a Civic in some small degree so I could commute safely and cheaply in from the boonies from our farmette. But now my commute was actually half what it was and I live in brand spanking new house on a loopdy-loo street named after I tree that they had cut down to put that street in. I had alot of free energy and I needed a hobby to burn it off. So I attacked our yard with a passion verging on obsession.

We moved in on Halloween weekend in 2004. By Thanksgiving we had over 500 sq feet of perennials planted, 9 trees, and 13 shrubs in addition to moving in. Got some wicked good end of season deals. The basic goal was to reduce our need to maintain the lawn as much as possible. The incredibly small yard in West Allis was easily tended to by a push reel mower-and I was committed to not going back to gas. So 30% of the front lawn became perennials and path. We put in a rain garden with native plantings. And after we discovered a fantastic Organic Farm Supply store 7 miles south of us I tracked down a low maintenance, ‘no mow’ grass seed so I only need to mow the backyard 1-2 times a year for weed control. Excellent.

By summer the lawn was mostly done and I switched to food crops. I had spent the good chunk of the winter sending our local librarians scouring the region for obscure books on soft fruit, BioIntensive gardening, food storage, composting, etc. This research led me eventually led me deeper and deeper as I sought to find more ‘essential’ ways to garden-to heal this land and in some way assuage the guilt I felt for living on it. Also, in no small part I wanted to put myself thru some education. If we couldn’t have the farm, but I wasn’t going to let the small fact that we lived in a subdivision keep me from being a farmer. So I kept reading, and scouring the bibliographies to take me further from where gardening is now to where it is going. Or more precisely to where it has been-most of the new gardening techniques are only remembering the thousands of years of method that we forgot in one generation last century. Somewhere along the way the search led me to Permaculture-which was brillant in theory, but to focused on the tropics to be as much help as I needed here. Acacia’s sounded like fantastic trees, but my zone 4 winters begged to differ. Then I found Gaia’s Garden: homescale permaculture for temperate climes. I was All In. I have since bought it and read a passage almost weekly-but back to our tale. In went some apple trees. Then 125 strawberries, a dozen or so raspberries, some blueberries, several currant shrubs, and my crowning achievement: a stand of Sunchokes. 2 raised beds also went in, but with so many balls in the air the soil prep was not as thorough as it deserved. In fact in a blatant violation of Permaculture basics I was building without observing and I got burned. The first big rains of the summer turned a good chunk of my backyard into a river as the unplanted hill drained thru my backyard. My second bed was inundated with a 15′ wide deluge over a foot deep. All my soil amendments and double digging were swept away in an afternoon. Still not one to give up, I tried valiantly to plant it with the Three Sisters, but with no nitrogen the corn only got knee high. Ever. The picture below is testament to how rough it looked: The beans sprawled and yellowed (no innoculant) and in a wonderful lesson in my naivete-I had planted ‘yellow squash’ not knowing it was bush habit so instead of sprawling as a green mulch it merely wrestled with the corn. How many ways did Edison discover how not to make a light bulb? With every misstep I learned more, and the most important lesson-one that can’t be really be learned, only experienced is the patience that comes with gardening. When the deluge washed out weeks of work, there was really no way to start over if I wanted any crop in at all-nature’s cycle moves with or without you. When the corn stalks yellowed I made the conscious choice to change my perspective. I could have saved it-dumped in even organic options like blood meal, but instead I started referring to is as my green manure crop. I wasn’t chagrined that the Sisters would not be visiting in any meaningful way, I was satisfied that I was creating organic matter to be turned in for next year. Permaculture thinks long term-if I had dumped in nitrogen as a thick top dressing I would have jacked up the soil ecosystem-the nitrogen feeders would have had a population explosion feasting on the manure, but as that was spent they would drain the soil of the existing slow release nitrogen that was to feed the corn all summer long-locking me into a fertilizing cycle that makes me work harder and ruining the soil in the long run. My choice of patience saved the soil for this current year-enriching not only the soil but my outlook as well.

The first bed was much more of a success story. The soil had started as a chalky brown alternating clay and sand with very low humus levels-it was literally debris from a local gravel pit-coming up from dozens, if not hundreds, of feet below any productive soil strata: I was on a mission. I went to our local coffee shop and asked for their grounds to compost and was very pleased to find them, if anything, more excited than I was that they would be helping reduce their waste. I became the ‘compost guy’-some of the highest praise I have ever received and a badge I wear with pride. All told I produced just shy of 3 cubic yards-almost 100 cubic feet!- of finished compost last year counting the last pile I just spread-pictured is one of dozens of loads I hauled last year. As the compost cooked I, ‘double dug’ the entire bed. No doubt I will devote an entire post to it soon, but I have a strong aversion to using any power tools in my lawn or gardens-so I didn’t rototill even to break the sod. Even though I was only doing 300 sq feet, this was back breaking work for an out of shape suburbanite to accomplish with a spade and fork, but we got it done in less than a week and only several doses of ibuprofen. Even with pulling off the sod (for compost of course!), with the double digging and the addition of leaves, etc from the city yard, and 500lbs of manure from the hardware store the beds now actually rise almost 8″ in the centers. At this point I did not box them in as a true raised bed (I would rue that decision in about 2 weeks), but let them mound naturally.

The first bed was very productive, my heirloom tomatoes (the first I had ever started from seed) were amazing, I had more zucchini than I knew what to do with. Luckily my wife did and we had amazing dishes for weeks, including cupcakes that were off the hook. I planted one cherry tomato plant, but only got one or two as my 2 yr old daughter proved to be a huge fan and picked it clean daily. I was very concerned about plant health with the new beds-that I would be missing nutrients, etc and that the plants would be susceptible to pests. Of course I wasn’t going to spray, but how would I protect my investment? If there was one thing that both the Biointensive Method and Permaculture have in common it is a loathing of monoculture gardens. I attempted to not plant more than a handful of each species in any block-or at least that no block was bigger than 10 sq feet without a break to help keep pest populations in check geographically. Much more importantly I called in some friends. More accurately I built them a house and set the table in hopes that they would show up for dinner and stay for a pest ‘snack’. My friends in this case were parasitic wasps, predatory bugs/spiders, and lady beetles. I lined both gardens with alyssum, cornered them with Fennel and had Zinnia peppered all along the path- not only did this make the gardens more beautiful, and provide cut flowers for the kitchen, but I had pollinators and protectors in abundance-I was stacking functions into the garden and taking my first steps into Permaculture: reducing my inputs and increasing the gardens outputs at the same time! I had no pest issues other than cabbage worms in the broccoli, but later at the Organic Valley fair every organic farmer I talked to called it the worst year they had seen in some time for them so I didn’t take it too hard. Speaking of my friends we had the largest garden spiders I had ever seen-easily 4″ across at the legs with a yellow abdomen. Not poisonous and very beautiful. A favorite activity every day was to visit them with the kids who treated them with all the reverance and wonder that only toddlers can. You’ll never get that in a Diazinon Garden! My dream was becoming reality.

I learned many lessons last year:
-You can overdo even organic fertilizer-I killed all my blueberries with ammonium nitrate as I attempted to lower the PH and add nitrogen- -slow and steady is critical.
-Sunflowers-though native to North America, need ALOT of nitrogen if you want them to be any where close to their claimed heights. This should have been patently obvious by the amount of growth I was expecting in one season, but hind sight helps. Cutting the sod and dropping in the seeds doesn’t suffice.
-Your children are wiser than you are. They will teach you more than you teach them if you let them. When I looked at my yellow, spindly sunflowers and thought of what could have been-my son and daughter saw a magical forest where beauty grew each day, the sun could dance, and goldfinches could fed their young. Thank the Maker for my children!!!
-You can very easily grow too many radishes! They are very satisfying to raise as they are undemanding and hit maturity in a matter of weeks. But alittle goes along way so stagger the plantings every week or so until May and then start up again in early August/Late July (
for my Zone 4/5. This year I am planting about 1.5 row feet a week (about 20 radishes).
-Double Digging is an insane amount of work. If, like John Jeavons, you want to grow as many vegetables in as little space as possible it simply can’t be beat as the calorie per acre is incredible. My 200 sq feet easily outproduced what we could possible eat even with one of the beds taking one for the team. This year we will freeze much of our bounty, but I plan on trading some of my labor for a smaller yield-I only top dressed one bed and will single dig the other only to turn in th green manure crop. This segways nicely into the final point:
-Pick your battles-we tried to do everything the first year. Most things worked, but there were many disappointments. My gardens and I would both have been happier if I had focused more on fewer projects. That will be the theme this year.

2 Responses

  1. […] and in the 4+ years that I have written this blog I have chronicled the process of taking it from a denuded wasteland to the budding Garden of Eatin that it is today.   This year I will have many plans, but one that […]

  2. I enjoyed reading about the start of your yardening. Congratulations on having come so much further and for sharing it with likeminded people. Now I can go on and read some more about the last four years.

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