Building beds with bricks

The mulch-generating polyculture for Mortal Tree’s PASSIVE garden system is going well. It’s the bed in Foundation for a future I am establishing with bricks.*

The intent for this bed, per A bit blunt method, was to shift the rocks every couple of months to kill off the grass underneath. This worked pretty well for most of the bed. I shifted the bricks in July and made a final small shift about a week ago. Above is the freshly shifted “mulch” around an amorpha.

I also tried covering a small part with grass mulch in May last year, and this took care of any weeds growing through the cracks. Below is the planting now. Like most fun times, there is a mess to clean up afterwards. This bed had a lot of fun last year. What you see is actually mulch I applied, the healthy comfrey, and some amorpha interplanted. I plucked out the little bits of green quackgrass, and look forward to some very lush, beautiful growth here come summer.

I plucked out the quackgrass when I shifted the rocks. Because they block sun and moisture loss, the rocks encourage the quackgrass to grow shallow, allowing me to just pick them up rather than pulling them. What roots did grow deeply are easily pulled because the soil is so soft under the bricks.

 


This soil conditioning is one if the main perks of using rocks. The soil life is everywhere, with centipedes, worms, spiders -even at this cold season. Soil between the bricks which heaved from the freezing over winter is unbelievably friable. It looks like it has been tilled.

Considering how low this soil is in organic matter, with a clay-coal base, with no amendments like sand or ever even being tilled before, I am very excited to already have such results. The moisture and soil life have brought it so far because I have created the right habitat, covering the soil. The organic matter is starting to accumulate.

Above are some amorpha leaves dropped last fall, which likely have brought in nitrogen the system formerly did not have. The plants were already beginning to nodulate in their pots when I planted them last year. If you would like to learn more about how I ensure they make nitrogen and get off to a good start, I have some notes here on Growing amorpha.

I also harvested some of the comfrey leaves last year, which I left around the plants I harvested from. This is breaking down into gorgeous soil, bringing in carbon the system did not formerly have.

Pictured is some broken down comfrey from a larger patch in the food forest. This new patch should be producing similar soil in the near future. It’s already well on its way.

 

*This could have been done with some large piece of canvas or the like, or a large piece of plywood. One of my clients decided to try clear plastic just to block water, which was still effective at removing the plants underneath.

Ground cover infographic

Sunchokes is number ten in the Top 10 ground covers for food forests series I started a while ago. To help put everything into perspective, I made an infographic.

Scaled Infographic

The ground cover branch on the visual archive has links to all the original posts if you would like to find out more.

In general, the layout from right to left are ground covers that do well in established beds, to plants that simply wipe out other plants, and are excellent for bed building.

If you’re wondering how to share this on your own social media pages, try the share buttons below the post. I have most social platforms available for sharing.

I’m using the the term “dynamic mulch” to describe the ground covers, because ground cover has a rather flat connotation. Most gardeners think of them as useless plants that do nothing better than excessively clog the soil surface. They have much more potential.

I’m suggesting these plants as tools, not just for blocking weeds, but actively removing weeds, making use of otherwise useless plants through careful combinations, getting food from ground cover, improving the quality of the soil, and feeding other plants through their  well calculated use. With the correct use, resulting from a more dynamic comprehension of plants, we are suddenly on the brink of an entirely new level of sustainable, productive, passive agriculture and gardening.

The infographic, and the Top 10 series are part of a bigger surprise to which some of you closely following me have probably caught on. It should be ready before the end of the month. My apologies for making you wait, but I assure you, it will be worth it.

Update: It’s launched! Mastering the Growing Edge is live if you want to check it out. 

 

Sunchokes

Sunchokes, or Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus) are not so much a stable ground cover as masterful bed builders. They don’t just block, but obliterate grass lawn, taking the place of bed building mulch if handled correctly.

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Its home is the American prairie biomes, where it stretches for sun among massive grasses and other very competitive plants. Placing it in the standard lawn, full of short European grass species, or even an overgrown field is like releasing a saber tooth tiger into a playpen with modern house cats. It’s a brute.

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It begins by pumping nutrients from deep in the soil to power billowing clouds of leaves rambling up sometimes 15ft tall stems. At the end of the season, less fortunate species smothered below, it sucks all the nutrients gathered in its stems safely into the underground for storage in its edible tubers. Every year it sends out runners, some species more aggressive than others. One variety, “Supercluster,” Oikos Tree Crops sells is supposed to be well behaved, but most are decidedly imperialist, surging several feet out in all directions every year as resources allow. As long as it fills its nutrient reserves every year, the size of the open field it inhabits is its only limit.

To unleash the beast, get a bucket of the tubers in fall, and with a shovel, make little slits in the ground about one foot apart, inserting the tubers deep enough they aren’t exposed, and walk away. The days of the nearby plant residents are now numbered.

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Sunchoke sprouts

Don’t worry next spring when the tubers don’t sprout early. Sunchokes don’t like frost, and wait until late in the spring to pop up their furry little heads. I have planted these into completely unamended yards where lawn grass wasn’t even happy, but the ‘chokes still grew well. Results of removing grass and patch expansion are best if the patch is left a year or two before harnessing it for actual bed building.

It is very difficult to put strong beasts like sunchoke to use with brute force. You have to outsmart them. This you do by pinpointing their one weakness, and suddenly you have them in the palm of your hand. Because exploiting this weakness is so effective, I must go begging to my friends for new tubers in fall because I have accidentally wiped out my propagation patches.

I have quite a hard time removing their disbelief. Sunchokes are otherwise known in the gardening world as hard-to-chokes, which is why I don’t recommend digging up your newly cleared bed to remove the plants. I have never seen this work. Though you could swear all the tubers are removed, the plants always return. Some varieties were selected from patches sprayed with roundup -and lived.

Biologically, sunchokes are impenetrable tanks of ecosystem war, and have the potential to become the worst weeds for your new planting. I would not in any way suggest their use anywhere near your garden if it wasn’t for the one gap in their armor.

You see, ‘chokes go all out to ensure they get as tall and bushy as they can. Having invested every last bit of stored food from their tubers into the above ground stems, it’s as though the plant stood on top of the ground and could just be gathered up as a pile of stems to be placed somewhere else.

I discovered this one year when a particularly healthy, bushy specimen blew over in a windstorm, partially uprooting it. I broke the plant off, cracking up the lush growth to mulch the bed, expecting to see the plant return next spring. I was surprised when next year there was nothing.

Later, in a very dry year, sunchokes were the most lush thing in my food forest to feed my rabbit. She liked them, so I would snap off the growing tips, let the plants branch off to the side, and snap of the side branches to make rabbit happy. I started this when the plants were about 5ft tall, leaving about 4ft stems that in turn could return their nutrients to the tubers. Nevertheless the plants that normally topped ten foot came up the next year anemic, and dwarfed, barely reaching three feet.

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A young, thick patch of sunchokes.

The exact point in time when they seem most vulnerable is just before bloom at a certain time when the growth of leaves changes from being as tightly stacked and lush as possible, to becoming a bit more sparse, the stem getting harder, and the flower buds showing up quickly afterward.

Flowering, and in fact most dieback processes of plants, are accompanied by the production of ethylene gas, which in the ‘chokes I would guess also begin the back flow of sugars in the leaves to the more complex carbohydrates in the tubers, and oxidation of the stem fibers, making them woody and brittle. Cutting ‘choke down just before signs of this hormone’s activity seems to be their secret weakness.

In my climate, this means cutting the plants off about a foot tall in July. It is helpful to leave some stem to make lots of side shoots. A second cutting, about a month later, to remove the side shoots and what’s left of the stem, perhaps even some roots, in my experience, weakens the plant beyond recovery.

Some gardeners I have explained this method to ardently insist I’m wrong. They cite their own experience of mowing sunchoke patches for two years and the ‘chokes just growing up over and over again.

I have gotten excellent results with the method in my experience. That they were only a few years old unlike the decades old patches in these other reports may play a role. I doubt it though. On the one plant that blew over I saw a very large clump of tubers which I left in the ground.

Perhaps it is more a question of the plants adapting to growing less each time they are cut back, developing a sort of stunted homeostasis. They may have grown more miserly with their output of stored sugars. I think it is imperative that you allow the roots to put maximum growth above ground, then sap the last little bits of strength out of them with subsequent cutting.

Be cautious of course in planting the sun chokes and letting them run wild. If you closely follow the details I have given, I am confident you can get very similar results. Feel free to let me know how it goes.

Hacking off all this biomass leaves a lovely, thick mulch for planting into next spring. Grass is usually gone by this time. Adding some grass mulch early next spring ensures establishment is smooth the next year, but very little is necessary compared to normal bed building. If used well -in conjunction with the other ground covers, sunchokes are a real workhorse, with the potential to carry your efforts to the blissful state of an established, productive, ground thickly covered food forest.

For example:

Green is always so tender and lush as it erupts from its hard, drab seed coat. Thankfully this only marks the beginning of much more growth to come if handled right. Take this scenario for example:

Just finishing its second year at one of my client’s home, right outside their front door, is the first installed PASSIVE-perennial vegetable garden fusion.

It is about 2/3rds perennial polyculture and 1/3rd PASSIVE annuals. The perennials provide much of the show, while the annuals give a small smatter of color and the bulk production at which they so excel.

The new placement of the garden is a major improvement of what they had. Their old garden was far behind the house, where they got little enjoyment and use of it because it was in a literal blindspot of their everyday life.

The new garden started by merely laying path. This we made of ceramic block, left over from some of the previous owner’s building projects on the property, which until then did nothing but take up space in a pile, unused.

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Design I had roughly figured and drawn beforehand, which we discussed and moderated as suited our needs in process of laying the block. The final product is a series of large curves, or spirals, if you will, within each other. This created curved beds about three feet wide for easy access. Where the paths were further apart, we made small islands of stone, which had the added effect of breaking up the large spiral design, besides being a pretty addition itself.

Mulch eradicated the grass lawn on the plot. This was mostly fallen branches and mowed grass from the lawn, which for the client was formerly just another waste product they had piled for compost.

They also applied select vegetable waste to the mulch, which has popped up to their delight as cilantro, pumpkins, basil, dill, and many others we didn’t expect. Right by the house, they got some of the finest cantaloupe I have ever seen grown in this area. On my parent’s farm nearby we have tried for years to get good muskmelons, trying black plastic for heat, and irrigation to combat the dryness. So I was a bit envious when I saw these just appear from the mulch. They were smack on the southeast corner of the house though, just out of reach of the spouting which overflows in heavy rains, soaking the spot. Microclimates rule.

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With minimal identification from me, the offensive weeds like quackgrass and thistle were casually plucked whenever found, and the garden has been a serendipitous mass of vegetables since.

Quick growth of a cover crop mix planted that fall, and continued additions of grass mulch they got from the lawn, with a chance find of some straw the husband, Hans, got at his work, bolstered the store of the organic matter ready for breakdown over winter, effectively blocking anymore weeds.

This left us with a clean spread of grass mulch, with patches of green herbs and vegetables popping up. It was quite nice for what could have been an awkward establishment phase. This year, it only got better.

Over winter I designed the planting, ordered seed and plants, starting out many of the plants for the client in my greenhouse. Transplanting happened as the plants were ready,  such that I completed the list by June. A picture of the initial planting list I sent them is below. A few things we skipped, a lot of things were added.

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When out shopping at a local greenhouse for example, a couple artichokes somehow tagged along home and made themselves happy in the new garden. One of these bloomed, and gave two smaller buds for eating.

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At the top of a hill, the garden has a wonderful microclimate. Of course, being close to the white brick house helps too. So I figured lots of things normally too tender for our climate might even overwinter here. The artichokes are just one of several accidental warm climate additions that slipped in. I’m chaffing to see how they fare.

In the annual planting area, there is comfrey and Cystisus scoparious for the permanent mulch making system. Cystisus stays low, so won’t block the view across the garden. At the east edge, Amorpha is planted in a row of wild daylilies to provide ample mulch for the perennials, and a small surplus for the annuals. Across the driveway, to the west, is a long line of Amorpha with comfrey at its feet to block wind and provide further mulch if necessary.

We added a bamboo bean tipi for a focal point this year, with tomatoes around the base.

These were mostly heirloom slicer tomatoes. We would have planted some cherry tomatoes, but the variety they planted the year before, “Matt’s Wild” had taken propagation into its own hands and now their persisting progeny couldn’t be chased out of the garden with a stick.  Fruits thickly festoon the bramble of branches they make though, so this isn’t too much of a problem. If anything they choke out the less desirable weeds.

Self seeders like this, and perennials that provide stock for annual propagation, are the next step in the PASSIVE method I want to refine, so keep an eye out for more examples like this.

Annuals such as calendula, and biennials like salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius), good at self seeding, were planted nearby in the perennial polyculture to cover the ground between the young perennials. A very pretty variegated mint is more permanently filling in the cracks. In the annual area we planted mache as a self seeding groundcover. See my post on its use here.

With all the mulch poured on the garden from the yard, there was descent fertility, although higher later on. This wasn’t until the end of the summer, because it was dry and bound up and not feeding the soil until we got rain. It’s fascinating to note that, although watered a few times with a sprinkler, this did not have a noticable effect on the mulch and its breakdown -hence fertility. One good summer’s rain, and the mulch suddenly changed color, and so did the garden.

The compliments are starting to roll in from my clients’ friends on how the garden looks so nice. The wife, Elora, is an artist in several media, and lately made a series of really cool macro lens pictures of the plants titled “A Garden Meditation.” Check it out here.

It is, as they tell me, their new entertainment to sit on the porch and watch the bees and butterflies flit around the lush growth and radiant colors. They have sent me several pictures of salads and tomato harvests they have made thus far, and posted a good bit to their social media pages if you want to take a look.

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Nasturium (Tropaeolum major) flower, chive (Allium schoenoprasum), “Matt’s Wild” cherry tomato, salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor) and vegetable mallow (Malva verticillata), harvested fresh from the bountiful garden. Photo credit: Elora Toews

The best thing about the situation is it’s just year two, and only the beginning of what should become a very long lived, productive, PASSIVE-perennial gardening system.

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Book update: I know some of you can’t check my posts released on Fridays until Monday, so I am offering PASSIVE Gardening as a free gift again today.

Almost any device -smartphone, tablet, desktop -of almost every brand, can download the Kindle app that allows the device to display kindle books. Just click on the “Read on any Device” next to the book picture. At any rate there is no need worry about having a device that can support it.

I do understand some do not like extensive reading on an electrical device though, so will have a soft cover copy out soon.

The book had 700 downloads last time. No reviews yet, so the race is still on to see who shatters the silence. In whatever order they come, I am particularly excited to see a review from you.

PASSIVE

I’m giving a talk today on growing annuals in sustainable, no-till systems. I’m calling it PASSIVE gardening, or permanent agriculture systems sustaining intensive (annual) vegetable ecology. More on that later. For now, I thought I’d share the talk trifold.


Any thoughts?

The best fertility enhancer

You quoted words by William Blake that the mind of man is a garden already planted and sown; it’s a question of cherishing the plants already there. I think this applies very much to the soil as well.

They speak of fertility being “locked up” in the soil, and one of the main aids of promoting fertility is not something one puts on so much as releasing what is already there. It’s a question of allowing such things as soil roots and earth worms to make channels in the soil and therefore make a circulating system so that energy and fertility that is already in the soil is free to circulate.

-Robert Hart

Speeding up succession can take some strange forms, especially as tilling.

Tilling was originally introduced as a fertility enhancer, ‘bringing light into the soil’ as the ancient Zarathustrian texts put it. Today, science is well aware that oxygen, and several other components of air (nitrogen in a roundabout way), play crucial roles in the fertility of soil and the breakdown of organic matter. Tilling makes a huge surge of breakdown of organic matter, hence fertility, by shoving a ton of oxygen into the soil while killing a lot of the soil life -more organic matter for breakdown. It’s a goose that laid the golden egg situation though, as this massive onslaught cuts future fertility short unless things are carefully managed.

As you may have noticed in Niche in fertility, the fertility corresponded with fine tilth (fluffiness) of the soil. I use natural means of getting a good tilth by mulching. This worked because the mulch held moisture and food that attracted worms, and killed the resident grass, leaving a ton of organic matter and little tunnels for air to enter.

Remember too, if I neglected replacing the grass with preferred plants, the soil structure went flat, hard, dead.

This is because plant roots and soil life maintain soil structure. It’s worth noting the excellent results I get from mulching aren’t just from the mulch, they’re also from the grass I’m killing underneath. The deeper and more prolific the roots the better the end result.

The average lawn, even if the nicely clipped grass is green, won’t offer quite the same benefits. By cutting the grass short, we cut its roots short, as roots grow in relation to tops. Without grass clipping or leaves to feed worms, there is little insect or soil creature activity, so about 4 inches down the soil is hard as a rock and lifeless.

I have had the luxury of letting mine grow as tall and as deep as it will with only one or two mowings a  year. Those roots are deep as they can get.

In short grass situations, a good compromise is to get air into the soil by sticking a garden fork or shovel into the ground and gently lifting -not turning, just loosening. This keeps the delicate strata of bacteria and myriad soil life in order but allows roots to penetrate soil that would be very hard to break up.

I’m bringing an area of my parent’s greenhouse into production that’s been under two layers of plastic and one of weed barrier for years now. The soil is completely unamended clay. I know from experience in other parts of the greenhouse that plants cringe at the idea of puncturing their roots into this kind of stuff and just throwing a layer of compost on top will make for stunted plants.

I’m not too keen on tilling either, but I’ve got a schedule I have to adhere to so succession needs to happen fast.

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Not some ancient script. These shovel and garden fork holes are good stuff to get plant roots, worms, and air into the soil.

So I pryed the ground. In some spots (notably by the edges of the plastic) it broke up and cracked whereas others hardly budged. You can see the hardness of the ground in the collateral damage of the mission. I had to finish with another shovel.

I finished the plot in about two hours.

Bill Mollison was quite a proponent of this method of soil rejuvenation as prescribed for Keyline systems. On a large scale this was done with a keyline plow that cut into the soil violently. This shook up the soil on top of slicing it, and in Permaculture I and II Mollison praises the effects, highly recommending it for speeding up succession.

So the next time you start a new bed, take into consideration whether the soil is compacted or not. The effect of a quick pry with a garden fork may save years of succession time. Strange I know to bring any tilling into the picture, but done right, it does hardly anything but good.

Foundation for the future

I’m using A bit blunt method for a lot of the new beds I’ll be planting later this year.

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Making a bare place for the N-fixers and comfrey that will feed the annuals.

One of my neighbors has a fill-dirt area on his property where people deposit rocks, shrubbery, and other “yard waste.” It just so happened someone deposited the refuse of a cement-brick wall to be pushed over the hill, which quickly disappeared to my place (with his permission, of course). I have four pallets stacked with these mostly very nice rocks. Pictured above is a little over one pallet’s worth. So there’s more coming.

I figure if they’re going to sit, they might as well be killing grass while doing it.

I also have a cherry tree that’s laid dead for two years now I’m just getting

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These logs surround a saskatoon, an Amorpha and a currant bush that have been ‘roughing’ it in the grass. This year they should have some relief.

around to cutting into ‘pucks’. The ones from last year I’ve mostly given permanent homes as steps.

Yes, the work involved in laying this mulch seems rather inefficient. I have about two hours into what is pictured. This was mostly getting wood cut and moved and the longer move of bringing the rocks into the food forest. Now that I have them at work, only small moves will take place, and there will be a lot of grass removed for which I didn’t have to use my limited resource of dried grass.

Like last year’s pucks, pretty much all these hunks of wood will be used as stepping stones until decaying into humus and feeding plants. The stones will become permanent stepping stones, with the added function of thermal mass.

That’s the end purpose. I’m looking at this mulch function as a beneficial function in-between.

IMG_0676I mention this reasoning because it seems not many people get it right away. I’ve had several people ask me what I’m doing with these rocks and wood pucks, and you can only imagine the looks on their faces when I reply, ‘mulch.’