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.

Fertility

Tillage allows us to neglect for a while the task of replenishing organic matter because it pries from the soil’s fingers more fertility than usual. I read of one study* performed on a field tilled for 60 years without inputs. Problems were becoming apparent, but the farmer was still getting a harvest.

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It has been the same throughout history: civilizations rise and fall, often as a result of their failing fertility systems. For those that lasted, by restoring to some extent the organic matter, there were some interesting methods.

The first was to simply move from place to place, exploiting the fertility of a site, moving on to a new one once the fertility was gone. This method was practiced by a few Native American tribes.* Their particular method was called “Slash and Burn, where an area of virgin forest was cut and burned. The fertility provided from such a mass of organic matter lasted a while. This is certainly an excellent method when you have ample areas of virgin forest to work with -slash and burn, move on, and allow everything to revert to the chaos of a forest system that would slowly renew the organic matter until, in a couple hundred years, they returned to tear it down and organize it for crops again. Today such a tactic would not last long with our increasingly high population.

Many ancient cultures practiced a similar method by simply leaving the land fallow for a short time between small spans of tilling and harvesting. The ancient Israelites had in their law several different spans of time in which they were not to till a field, with the assumption they would set food by in the prior years of harvest. The usual numbers are three to seven years tilling and harvesting, to one year of lying fallow.

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[T]he ancient Egyptians, who were one of the first civilizations to use tillage, had a much more passive method which relied on the Nile river flooding to bring in organic matter from the rainforests upstream. Problem was, if the Nile didn’t flood, there was famine.

What we must realize is we are hardly in a different position today.

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In a properly managed no-till garden, we should burn less organic matter in total, but in covering the ground and supplying enough decaying organic matter to sustain the system, we use a lot of material. Bringing it in as mulch rather than broken down compost, we see organic matter in its most bulky state and realize, it’s a lot.

The Ruth Stout method is an excellent example of this. Perhaps one of the most low work, effective no-till garden methods, Ruth Stout grew excellent annual vegetables by covering the ground thickly with mulch, with some additions of manure.

When all this organic matter is added, and moisture is so well preserved by the thick cover of mulch, the soil life responds by building a home for themselves of many tunnels, creating a soil similar in consistency to crumbly chocolate cake.

The technical term for this state of soil is ‘flocculated’. Flocculation occurs when sufficient levels of active calcium are available, pulling particles out of suspension in ‘flocs’, or flakes, making the soil fluffy.

The Stout method gives excellent results in the garden. Yet again, this is not the whole picture. Take this quote for example:

The ”Stout Method” of mulching is a biological transgression similar to, though not as severe as is the social and biological transgression of polluting air and waterways with the industrial wastes. The main characteristics of the ”Stout Method” is that the soil is to be covered constantly with a thick layer of mulch hay, which requires 8 to ten tons of hay per acre annually. Based on average yields, each year 3 to 4 acres of farm soils must somewhere be deprived of organic matter replenishment so that 1 acre of backyard garden plots may get the ”Stout Method” treatment.*

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Wood chip sources we once got for free are now going to composting companies who sell the finished product by the bag to be dumped on tilled soil that will burn much of the carbon into the atmosphere. A Certified Organic CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) like ourselves can hardly find a source of clean organic matter that doesn’t charge for you to haul away their waste.

Many township yard-waste drop-offs at one time chipped up the material laboriously collected and brought to them by every yard nitpicking denizen to be carted off by the hippies for their organic gardens for free. More and more now, they sell this material to the compost companies.

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According to the United States Composting Council, there are currently four chemicals likely to end up in compost that do not break down in the composting process. Approximately 150 lawn care, or in general weed killing products, have at least one of them as an ingredient.

Aside from knowing exactly what was applied to your substrate, which in most cases of yard waste scavenging isn’t convenient -if even possible, there is unfortunately no way to tell if your substrate has these killers on them before applying to your plants without expensive testing.

Once in the soil, these toxins effect most garden plants, and can remain there for up to three years before breaking down.

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The ideal ratio is about 30:1 carbon to nitrogen. Until the substrate given attains something near that ratio, there is little the bacteria can do with it. Fungi play a role in breakdown until the carbon finds the necessary nitrogen, or is simply burnt into the atmosphere.

To put this into perspective: wood chips are approximately 200:1, fresh cut grass 17:1, straw about 60:1 depending on what source you use.

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If fresh wood chips or straw are mixed into the soil, all that surface area is placed directly in contact with the soil. If no nitrogen is added, the substrate will pull the available nitrogen from the soil, binding up the available nitrogen, and the majority of chemical processes that give fertility.

This is quite a popular mistake in recent years. I have had several friends and clients ask me to look at their garden, recently converted to no-till and mulch, because nothing will grow. In almost all situations, they have bound up the available nitrogen by neglecting the C:N ratio.

Often the tactic that side steps this binding-up issue is to separate compost pile from garden, turning often to speed breakdown. By now you should have an idea what this is doing: burning up your organic matter into the atmosphere. This is why the nutrients used to increase organic matter should be as balanced in the carbon to nitrogen ratio as possible.

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While Ruth Stout’s method illustrates the effectiveness of growing annuals with nothing but mulch, PASSIVE creates an ecology which includes its own mulch, and so sets it apart. I here use Ruth Stout’s method as proof annuals can be grown with nothing but mulch. I don’t credit her method as the direct roots of PASSIVE though, I credit its roots to a forest model.

*http://soilandhealth.org/wp-content/uploads/01aglibrary/010120albrecht.usdayrbk/lsom.html

*http://whyfiles.org/2012/farming-native-american-style/

*Dirt Farmer’s Dialogue by C.J. Pankimg_2294

This is one of the really important chapter from PASSIVE Gardening explaining why the art of in-system fertility is so beneficial to a truly sustainable, healthy, low-work garden. In the later chapters the book explains Chaos Ratio, one of the most powerful tools for managing system fertility and seamlessly transitioning from yard to garden oasis. I hope to get a post out on this subject soon. Until then, I hope you find this of interest. The photo to the side is another of the photos graciously given to me by Elora L. 

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. 

 

Mint

With spreading rhizomes, mint is the bane of meticulously organized, linear gardens. It doesn’t like to stay in one place for long. For me this roving nature makes mint the best garden builder. Plowing fearlessly into the throng of weeds beyond my bed borders, the battle is half over by the time I come with some grass mulch, the mint popping through in a week or two, the weeds languishing to worm food.

Like violets, mint is shallow rooted and pretty easy to pull if you don’t like it. It competes slightly with most low growing or shallow rooted perennial vegetables. First strategy to combat this is to plant species that differ or are ‘on the edge’ of mint’s habit, suchas tap rooted plants like scorzonera and Turkish rocket. Second, I have a policy to pull it whenever I see an overly happy clump and this maintains a very productive balance.

IMG_7226In general mint does best on the wild or developing outskirts of the forest garden. Not all mints have an aggressive running habit though. I’ve planted ‘Blue Balsam’ mint in one of my beds expecting it to fill in the cracks but it’s sat now for the last two years as a neat little clump. Be careful to find out a mint’s characteristics before planting it.

Mint is still worth growing as a ground cover somewhere because it has so many benefits for the ecosystem. Besides providing flowers that are very attractive to insects it also has chemicals such as pulegone which are sometimes extracted for organic pest deterrent sprays.

If you’re interested in reading more about aromatic pest confusers as these plants are called I have a post here that touches on methyl salicylate’s effects.

A bit tricky to deal with, but obviously mint is a ground cover with multiple benefits.

Growing annuals

I’m always writing about perennials and no till, but I actually do a lot of annual gardening. My family’s farm has a CSA for about 20 shares that uses about 3 acres of tilled gardens.

Mortal Tree is my exposition on alternative methods, so of course I wanted to try growing annuals in a passive, no till setup.

That’s what the keyholes at the front were supposed to be; with perennials thrown in for propagation, and greater efficiency.

After two years of the first “system” (or lack thereof) there are two problems: lack of fertility, and weeds. Of course everyone has those problems, but the system was supposed to keep these to a tolerable level.

As it is, aside from mache, annuals just aren’t satisfied with the fertility. This year I didn’t harvest anything but what the perennials willingly supplied.

Ideal weed level is pulling a few weeds as I inspect the garden on a pleasant evening. Instead, I found myself clearing whole beds only to have them full of weeds again in a month.

I’ve scrutinized the system and found two problems: lack of mulch and lack of fertility in general.

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The year of high fertility

I got the idea I wasn’t cycling enough nutrients from the lack of vigor the annuals and their self seeding progeny showed. I wasn’t sure how much more I needed. Normally the tillage and compost in the big gardens makes everything grow without complaint. Now that I’m trying to make this work with comfrey and other in-system nutrients, without tillage, it’s not.

Click to view

Martin Crawford has several tables in Creating a Forest Garden that really pin down nutrients and how much different plants need, and how much different sources offer. He has a light, moderate, and heavy cropping category, then annuals.

Most of the perennial vegetables he places in the light cropping category. It takes about two cut comfrey per square meter to sustain these plants, which is about what I am applying. To sustain annual cropping takes 60 cut comfrey for that same area. Problem found.

The amount of fertility I’m accustomed to working with in the annual gardens is simply an unnatural surge of nutrients. Compost is extraordinarily rich in nutrients compared to bulk green mulch.

Also, tillage forces more oxygen into the soil, breaking down those nutrients at a faster rate. The keyholes had this advantage at first because I dug out the paths and piled up the soil to make the beds.

Problem is, the mulch apparently needed for the annuals would drown most of the perennials. In response I’m moving all the perennials out, and making the keyholes completely annual.

The best comparison I have for this so far is a keyhole bed I have near the Willow Garden in its fourth year of no till.

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It has a dug out path and raised beds too. It has one comfrey for its mulch and fertility source. As a result, I’ve had to bring in more mulch to sustain the system.

For instance, I brought in a lot comfrey from the Willow Garden to drown out some quack grass (Agropyron repens) that had moved in. It was rather effective at suppressing it. Besides some vegetable mallow over the summer, it was enough to grow some nice cabbages.

In the food forest, I’m not supplying 60 cuts of comfrey per keyhole per year. I’ve got 12 beds with an average of 1.3 square meters each. It would take several hundred plants.

When faced with a large surge of energy in a design, I always try and disperse the blow across many sources.

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Young regrowth on a coppiced amorpha

According to Martin’s fertility tables, one amorpha, based on mature canopy size of about six feet in diameter, provides the equivalent nitrogen of 20 cuts of comfrey, or 10 comfrey plants; lespedeza about the same. I’ll throw some of these in the patch so the roots sloughing off after coppicing can feed the comfrey. They need nitrogen themselves.

This still requires more space than I’ve allocated to the annual’s mulch patch. So I’ll grow some annual cover crops on the keyhole beds once in a while to fill the gap -careful to choose crops that will die when cut, frosted, or heavily mulched since there won’t be any tilling.

To really cinch the deal I have the food forest rabbit’s manure. I let a bucket of it sit out to catch rain, and harvest the resulting “tea” to feed establishing beds right now. In time it can be exclusively for the annuals.

Achieving this much mulch in the food forest will take a while. I’m moving out the perennials first, and planting the whole thing in lots of annual cover crops. The first plant to start yeilding mulch will likely be comfrey, though I might just mulch their own patch the first year to ensure they are established. The next year the N-fixers will be ready for light coppicing, then full production. I’m assuming three years before that point, but I’m quite excited to the see the results. I’ll keep you posted as it goes along.

Manual of bed building

IMG_5759Group and Conquer, A bit blunt, and even some link posts on this blog all revolve around the non-ground-breaking task of building no-till beds from turf.

As you can tell, these posts are a shared learning experience, with changes for the better always turning up. This year I did a lot of bed building, both for myself, and alongside several clients, resulting in new found tricks to really make a new bed weed free, and productive, fast.

First is the timing. While it is entirely doable to mulch and kill grass at any time of year, I find it easiest done just before the grass breaks dormancy in early spring. It seems to be a vulnerable time for the grass, I assume because it needs sunlight to jump start for the year. In fact mulch laid at this time of year often gets by with no weeding or raking at all.IMG_5270

I also find raking dead grass in spring is much quicker and easier to do than mowing with a scythe. I’ve noticed this is a relatively long lasting mulch -at least as much as green grass mulch, despite its being broken down over winter a little.

So I mow less in fall to leave more grass for mulching in early spring, do less work mulching, and get better results all around.

The idea of long grass I know isn’t attractive to a lot of people. A lot of permaculture designers stress that its not necessary for quality design.

It’s not. But it is far better. Deeper roots, more diversity, more growth, greater stability Through wet and dry wheather are just some of the benefits of letting grass grow tall and harvesting on scheduke like the one I’ve mentioned; but slow growth is better than no-growth. By all means, adapt as your circumstances allow.

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Another detail is using bulky, woody material as a base layer –not on top of the mulch. This way it holds the mulch higher off the ground, making that much more space for the weeds underneath to overcome. It also puts the wood where it will hold more water, and so grow more beneficial fungi.

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There is no question your mulch will be successful if the weeds are half dead before you even lay the mulch. Putting something completely impenetrable over the ground such as rocks, or logs, as explained in A bit blunt, is probably one of the best findings I made this year. It weakens even pernicious weeds like thistle, and allows for progress to be made while you’re waiting for grass to grow, as I did in the picture above. Every time I got some grass, I would clear as much room as I had grass for, and move the logs onto fresh grass.

Finally, or rather first, have plants propagated and ready for planting. Nature wants to make that site productive. If you don’t, nature will –with the same grass you just cleared. As soon as the plants underneath are dead –probably a week or two after mulching –less if you’ve used logs ahead of time, get that bed planted with mulch makers, fruit bearers, nitrogen fixer, anything you want. Definitely don’t leave the bed empty.

Of course perennials take a long time to grow to full size, so plan on adding fillers such as annual nasturtium or nitrogen fixing peas, beans, or vetch to occupy the gaps until the perennials move in.

With such a good start, it’s wise to build onto a bed rather than start a new detached bed; this conserves your efforts, and allows some leverage of the existing plants.

One way this can be done, as explained in Martin Crawford’s “Creating A Forest Garden” is putting an impenetrable mulch at the edge of a bed whose ground cover is a runner (mint, strawberries, etc. ). This lets the runners grow out, (underneath in the case of mint, on top in the case of strawberries). All the while, the grass is languishing beneath the mulch, so once removed, it allows light to the root runners, earth to the vine runners. The product: instant ground cover.

About the same thing happens with violets. Such as one spot with violets growing among grass, fall aster and others on which I laid a very thick layer of mulch. The grass and everything else were never seen again; the violets, I suppose because they can tolerate very, very deep shade, not so. They broke through!

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Of course I am trying hard in other parts of the food forest to establish such a ground cover. So I was more than pleased to see this. But just a note for the reader: violets are not killed by mulch.

And there is my review of bed building for the year. New developments to come I’m sure. Any experience from you, reader, is very welcome in the comments below.

News of half success

I got an update from my friend as to how the work from An off site project is handling the spring weeds.

photo 1

Obviously some weeds popping up at some spots, but considering all the potential weeds under there not popping up, I’m quite impressed.

What’s more impressive is that even though weeds are getting through, for instance Thistles, there is so much mulch for them to grow through that a large part of their stem is soft, white, and easily pulled. See the weeds my friend pulled out by just reaching into the mulch.

photo 2

So the Thistles are under control. He mentioned they’re just the beginning though, and that the whole things is ready to burst. So we definitely still need to to execute part 2 of the plan when we rake up all the mulch and hack off the offenders.

With the insurrection finely minced and re-smothered under carbon rich leaves, we’ll plant some Comfrey for mulch, pile on grass clippings over this summer for more mulch, and I imagine few of those weeds will be back again.

So I plan anyway.