Pimp my Garden

Now that is a show I might actually watch!  Instead, I will work on the pilot episode right here in South Central Wisconsin.  Steady readers will know of my successes and my struggles as I try to eke out produce from the denuded, dead soil that are so common here in HOA land.  Our first garden in 2005 was pathetic – corn 3′ tall in soil completely devoid of anything resembling fertility or life.  Within two years we were harvesting over 500#’s from that soil as we worked in organic matter: composting anything that didn’t move fast enough to escape the manure fork.   I read voraciously of Coleman, Permaculture, and Jeavons on how to maximise productivity and most importantly build soil.  That success whet my appetite for more – so in 2008 we branched up to a market garden at a permaculture farm north of here.  We grew 1500#s of potatoes and another 500#’s of spinach, squash tomatoes, flour corn and peppers and became “professional” growers turning a tidy little profit and paying for capital investments in my Grillo and other tools.  But man is ever one to push his limits – and all the time away from the home gardens came to haunt me in a massive insurgence of Quack Grass completely overrunning my now fertile garden beds by the end of 2008.  But I gave it little heed – I had grown 200,000 calories!  I was a FARMER at last.

Over the winter I planned ever grander schemes at the Market Gardens – almost doubling the potential harvest.  Gently voiced concerns from my wife, and many others, about time at home and sheer physical limitations began to add strength to that little, all too easily squelched, voice in my head whispering hubris! and tales of Icarus. And then, for better or worse, I separated my shoulder joint in June playing soccer and was forced to take the month of July to reflect on what I had done.   At home the quack was winning on all fronts, my kids were asking -daily- if I would be home the next day, and the lambsquarter at the Market Garden were taller than me.  My wings were melting in the sun.

Thanks to more than a little help from my friends, we got the Market Gardens back into shape.  My wife, unable to let the home gardens descend any further into The Abyss, reasserted herself as the Real Gardener in the family taking the home gardens and making them shine.   Her plants are out producing mine by significant margins.  We won some rear guard actions against the quack and secured 20 bales of straw and 20#’s of clover seed to hold our ground and Dig In.  Now, the potato harvest is coming in strong, we’ve put up record amounts of pickles, jam, and sauce, and Late Blight has taken care of the overabundance of tomatoes I planted.  We will not do any fall crops this year- opting rather to trade potatoes for storage crops of squash and turnips.

Back to the home garden.  It is stable, but is in need of an overhaul.  It is currently very productive – with great soil tilth and growing organic matter content.  But it takes far too much work due to the fact that all 7 60 sq ft beds are surrounded by field stone to protect them from the rushing waters that come down the swale (half our backyard) in heavy rains.  Those 7 beds add up to over 400′ of edge that I have to weed whip weekly and 400′ that the quack can get in under.  Also, the beds are separated by paths that are 3-4′ wide – meaning I have almost as much path space as growing space.  Because the quack comes in every spring / fall I literally have to tear down the field stone border of each bed (1000#’s of stone), turn it all, and sift out the rhizomes.  It sucks.  It also takes a month of weekends – time I don’t have.

So in the next month we’re going to Pimp My Garden.  Ever wondered what garden you would make if you “knew then what you know now?” Here is my answer:

The field stone is getting yanked – all 4 tons of it- and piled up somewhere – maybe to be a root cellar or stone oven someday.  The fertile soil will get pulled out, piled and covered with straw to protect the ecosystem some.   Then the subsoil, along with all the paths will get “grillo’d” to a depth of 1′ using the rotary plow to chop up the quack rhizomes.  After that bakes  in the sun for a week, it will get grillo’d again with a tiller, and I will dig a trench 1′ thick along the entire perimeter.  The new garden will be a giant “box”: 32’x40′ built of 15 reclaimed douglas fir timbers 3″x12″x16′ long each weighing over 50#’s, terraced 4 times to match the slope of my yard.  To the bottom of these, and extending down into the trench I plan giving the quack grass The Finger and laying a rhizome barrier.  Perhaps 12″ roofing flashing, but maybe just 6 mil plastic.  Eff you Quack.

Then the tilled up sub soil will get sprinkled with blood meal and onto this I will pile as much manure as I can get – I have sources lined up from a veritable Ark of livestock: Horse, Cow, Llama, Worm, and Chicken -networking is a fine thing!.  Its a good thing too, as I will need 50 cu yards of it to fill the bed!!  The manure will then be inoculated with 50 gallons of forest / prairie soil for microbes and 20 gallons of red wigglers from Growing Power, 200#’s of Green Sand for mineral balancing and better veggie nutrition.  This will then covered with pallet sheets of cardboard  2 layers thick (1/2″) and the soil piled back in with a VERY careful eye paid to any quack rhizomes.   Then the whole works gets planted to rye/vetch/field pea mix under a light straw mulch.

Finally, a 5′ “moat” will be tilled around the gardens and replanted to white dutch clover as a living quack barrier.  If I have any energy or time left before November -very doubtful- I would like to plant several hundred flowering natives and perennials around this barrier as well for beauty and beneficials, but that will likely be in the spring or later.

When done, the garden space will have almost tripled to 1000′ of growing space (1:20th of my lot) due to extending the beds by 12′ in length and removing much of the path space.  My edge will have dropped from 400′ to 160′ and the quack will be dealt a Deathblow.  In addition, I will have soil of unbelievable richness and fertility and 10 3′ “beds” of 100 sq ft to play with.  Perhaps I will be able to be no-till by 2011 after I pull the last vestiges of quack out in 2010…  But most importantly it will allow us to shift everything but the potato crop back to our home gardens – keeping me at home and allowing me to share my learnings with our children to teach them these vital skills – or just to be home to see their latest Lego ship or crayon drawing.

This will be a shit ton of work, but I will be in Hog Heaven as there is nothing I like better than building soil: schlepping manure, inoculating,  sheet mulching and running my Grillo.  Plan is one month of weekends, maybe 3 weekends if the weather holds. Also, the kids can help and it will all be in my own backyard rather than 10 miles away. This will be a Garden of Legend.

I will grow 2000#’s of food in my own yard …with the help of my mini Permaculture Orchard and edible landscaping.  Thanks for coming along for the ride.

Be the Change.



19 Responses

  1. Inspiring, but we will need pictures of you actually giving a quack rhizome the finger.

    I have quack grass here but not to the degree that you do certainly. Nothing more than a clump or two that my weekly patrol can’t just yank on the spot.

  2. Yah, what he said “Eff you Quack!” 😉

  3. Sounds like you are gearing up to match the folks in California, Path to Freedom who do “6,000 lbs harvest annually on 1/10 acre”.

    I would add:

    Whenever finding sources of manure, make sure the animals are not on antiboitics, hormones, etc. Don’t want that stuff in the plants!

    Steve Solomon (Gardening When It Counts”) has a nice balance fertilizer (he call it COF – complete organic fertilizer). This would be better than just bloodmeal.

    I like that idea of a deep barrier – I have quack and grass that are always invading.

    • Rob – they are doing great things out there – my desire is to do it a bit less “all inclusively” -it still needs to look like a yard as I am in a H.O.A.- and they have some significant advantages in climate zone. 2k is doable if my fruit trees come online.

      The blood meal is likely overkill if I am able to find all 50 yards of manure – no CAFO manure to be sure 😉

  4. Do arborists in your part of the world give away free wood chips?

    That might help your red wrigglers from having too rich a diet…

    • Most manure hereabouts comes with more straw than manure – so the wigglers will likely be fine.

      On that note though – within the 32×40 garden I will have it sub-divided into 3′ beds – between each I am considering a 18″ deep trench of woodchips inoculated with fungus to diversify my soils ecosystem.

      I like the idea of some larger woody chunks in the soil structure regardless to harbor fungus after a tilling and provide a balance from the soil becoming too bacteria rich.

      • On the path, might you want something coarser mixed in with the woodchips? Neighbors’ Christmas tree trunks, or such like? Too-deep half-rotted wood chips might be difficult to walk in otherwise, and if hyphae have niches farther from the surface, you might be better able to keep a culture going over the long term (cf. your strawberry patch).

  5. On a tiny scale I am gardening 2 acres on stony thin soil here on a high hill in North Wales. I love your comments about feeding the soil. We run seven compost bins and are slowly persuading our soil to deliver. I have just blogged about dealing with gluts so must be doing something right! Hope the shoulder is healing and your family are enjoying your being around!

  6. Sounds like a lot of work, although it will have lasting results and should be less work in the long run than continuing as-is.

    Application of overwhelming force is a great strategy!

  7. wow, big plans! I had 3 cu ft of top soil delivered last month… I can’t imagine 50.

    Curious about the red wigglers — one thing I’ve read is that they aren’t good to let loose because they’re so voracious, essentially invasive. They’re best used for enclosed vermicomposting. Is it really OK to put them out in your garden? Curious what you’ve learned…

    • Thanks sowbug.

      Here is my thinking: Red Wigglers need significant amounts of organic matter to survive – Outside of my garden, there is less than 1% OM for hundreds of yards in any direction so I feel that the likelihood of a break out is minimal. In fact, once the manure is processed I expect the population to die off within a few generations – the OM content is simply too low even in rich garden soils – they need heavy mulches or composts. The rhizome barrier extending into the subsoil will also offer significant protection of them migrating.

      • But isn’t his the reasoning of almost everyone who introduced a potential invasive species? We just don’t see all the ways things can go wrong. Introducing species is a huge responsibility.

        What about moving worm eggs with tools, produce, animals?

      • EJ,

        I appreciate your concern about the potential invasiveness of the worms. Here is the general tone turned up my 30 minutes of googling:

        The worm predominantly sold for composting is the red wiggler or red tiger worm, Eisenia fetida. It has a rusty brown color with alternating yellow and maroon bands down the length of its body; a pigmentless membrane separates each segment. It grows up to three inches long and is highly prolific. Though the worm has established itself in the wild here [Brooklyn NY], so far it has not been identified as a problem species.
        Another popular compost species, the red worm, Lumbricus rubellus, is causing trouble, however, and should be avoided. It also grows up to three inches long and has a history of being confused with E. fetida. This worm is dark red to maroon, has a light yellow underside, and lacks striping between segments.

        The main reason that E. fetida is not considered a fret is that it does not overwinter nearly as well as L. rubellus. The worms in my bin match the descriptions of E. fetida, but they are easy to confuse and Growing Power uses both. I will speak to them about your concerns before I order.

  8. w00t!
    Very, very impressed. Especially with the ultimate goal of moving the garden back home and ultimately doing less work!

  9. Excellent plan – please post pics! I tried to email you a while back with a question about your sheet composting/mulching technique – is it effective on all soil types? I dealing with heavy clay soil and need a solution that is not a decade in the making. I really look forward to seeing how your new garden area progresses. One suggestion – make sure you take into account how much room you need to manuver your Grillo. Last winter I acquired a BCS 737 and underestimated how much room I’d need to manuver at the end of rows, etc.

    Keep up the excellent work!

  10. I imagine you are well into the garden pimping by now but I thought I would toss out a warning. Your outer perimeter may be for naught if any of the horse or cow manure shows up bearing quack grass seeds.

    Here’s hoping your efforts are successful tho. I’d love to see before and after pictures.

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