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.

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.

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.’

Niche in fertility

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Since last year’s manual of bed building I have found yet another dimension to consider, fertility levels.

Piling all the material onto the beds in spring (which usually includes a sprinkling of the food forest rabbit manure) makes for a lot of nutrients swimming around.

This is one reason why I stick annuals between the young perennials the first season; the annuals suck up all this excess and make it into cover and mulch which can be cycled back. I’ve found when planting the second year, that fertility isn’t there.

You wouldn’t guess it by how the perennials explode the next spring with luxurious growth. By this time they’ve got extensive root systems established, feeding from a very deep and broad area and from stored food from the previous year.

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The purple is sage. The lovely silvery little ground cover is Silene uniflora -love it!

Annuals I stick in the second year usually limp along until they get their roots established to make a mediocre growth or die. This makes sense considering what I posted about growing annuals. They take huge amounts of nutrients.

Another point I’ve observed is the ground really needs roots to keep the soil alive. Continual growth and die off of the root hairs, besides myriad chemical interactions, keeps the ground fluffy and alive. Without them it goes hard and dead in short order.

Spots I didn’t get filled with plants last spring did just that. They got so hard I used my garden trowel like a pickaxe where before I could drive my finger in with ease. A reapplication of mulch quickly woke it back up so I could get some preferred plants stuck in.

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A new bed last year. Borage and marigolds are the only annuals. Ground covers already have the ground beneath them covered.

The main change then is to plant thickly, but a little thicker with perennials, the same amount of annuals, because there will be no annuals the next year. This makes sure all the nutrients are utilized and the perennials will be close enough to keep everything under control in the years to come. Hopefully in these beds I’m establishing now, that will be a lot of years to come.

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.

Fruiting factors

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The biggest, most perfect apple on this tree left with a deer this morning. I figured if they’re ripe enough for the deer, they must be ripe enough for me. I estimate that one apple would have pushed the total weight well over 5lbs though.IMG_5773

Being a gift, I don’t know the exact age of this ‘Red Delicious’ tree. It would seem to be on dwarf rootstock though.

The guild entails three comfrey,  some musk strawberries, chicories, parsnips, a blueberry (which gave about two handfuls of fruit earlier this year), japanese wineberry. I planted a peashrub     (Caragana arborescens), and a false indigo   (Amorpha fruticosa) in there earlier this year, and seeded vetch, borage, and field peas, pulling them up at flowering to feed the tree. The guild has never been dug but for transplants, never been fertilized but by plants growing in it. Only thick grass mulch established it.

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Interestingly, the other apples, despite blooming just as much, gave little or no fruit, in direct relation to how developed the guilds are around them. This one is the most developed.

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.

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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.

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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.