For the last 2 weeks my project has been renovating and recreating the fallowed gardens here at Good Life Ranch. It’s been a long process because of the amount we’ve let the gardens go over the spring (when we weren’t here yet) and the summer (when other items rose to the top of the priority list), the large size of the gardens, and the fact that I am doing all of this with hand clippers, shovels, and a wheelbarrow. Everything takes longer that way, but it doesn’t make sense to use more calories of energy in fossil fuels than we’ll reap from the vegetables in the garden now does it?
The picture above shows what we are starting off with – two large overgrown areas in which the previous owners grew flowers. Since they didn’t work it in the spring before they left and I haven’t really touched it since we’ve arrived these gardens have just grown up with some flowers, some weeds, and some pioneering bushes and saplings. For a sense of scale, check out Scooter’s head in the bottom right corner of the picture. Step one of the project involved clearing out all of this material and setting it aside for use in the raised beds. While I was cleaning out the two new areas I also cleared out the other two beds that we’ve let go as well. Those two beds will not be made into raised beds, but will be planted in the spring with perennial and self-seeding annual flowering and fruiting plants – like lilies, dogwoods, mayhaw bushes, blueberries, large ornamental grasses, and hollyhocks. But we did use all of the prunings from these gardens to help create the raised areas in the two new gardens. We don’t waste any organic materials here!
Step one involved clearing out 4 large garden areas – 2 old flower gardens and 2 heavily overgrown former veggie gardens. After those areas were clear, I took stakes and a measuring tape and laid out the new boundaries for the raised beds. Each raised bed is 4 feet wide and will be elevated to knee-height on me. Between each 4 foot raised area is a 20-inch pathway. This way we will only have to reach 2 feet into the raised bed to plant, weed, mulch, and harvest. This means that we’ll never have to step on the beds and compact the soil. That’s key to maintaining the tilth and microbial action in the soil. The picture below shows the staked-out layout of one of the new garden areas. In this area the raised beds are about 30 feet in length. The other area has beds that are roughly 60 feet in length.
Note in the picture above that I left the grass underneath all of the previous overgrowth in place. We are about to smother it with organic matter anyway so it will be smothered and add to the big pile of decomposing stuff – no use tilling it up. All that tilling will disturb all the earthworms and microbial life we need at work for us to decompose all of the new material we’re going to give them to digest. They need to be at their best, not tilled up and driven off by the disturbance to the soil.
So now that the beds are laid out, I took all of the trimmings from the four garden areas and piled them up to the height of my knee in the 4-foot-wide bed areas. These trimmings consisted of stems, leaves, branches – everything. The leaves and vegetative stuff will break down very quickly. The larger, woodier branches may take several years to decompose, and that’s great! They will provide long-term fertility as they release their nutrients very slowly; they will sop up water in the winter and spring and release it slowly in the drier summer and fall; and they will encourage the growth of beneficial insects, worms, and fungi that will help develop a good soil culture for our veggies. I didn’t do this much because we only had a few available, but tree stumps and cut trunks are one of the best materials to use as a base for your raised beds. We had a few laying around that I utilized, but most of the woody material I cleared out of the gardens was less than an inch in diameter. Hopefully what we lacked in diameter we more than made up for in volume! There was a LOT of it! The Germans call this method hugelkultur. Supposedly potatoes, squash, pumpkins, and beans absolutely go nuts for this stuff in the first year, and in successive years the soil becomes better and better for basically any type of plant you’d like to grow.
The picture above shows the contrast in height between the beds on the right that have had the organic matter added the beds on the left that hadn’t yet been done at the time this picture was taken. Note the almost 2-foot height of the bed on the far right. This height is important to give the plant roots enough space to develop and to lessen the amount of time we’ll spend gardening on our knees. In this picture you can also see that the greenhouse is conveniently located near the new gardens. We won’t have too far to go to transplant seedlings when the weather warms up in the spring!
After piling up the material I gathered from the overgrown gardens in the right spots I covered each row with a mixture of fallen leaves and composted rabbit bedding. Our rabbit hutches (for the breeder rabbits that aren’t out on pasture) have wire bottoms and the rabbit droppings fall through onto the ground. We throw some straw down on it every week or so and the poultry love to scratch through it looking for worms, grubs, fly larvae, and the scratch grains we put in to encourage this behavior. In the process the poultry mix up the straw and the rabbit manure and turn it into excellent compost. This mixture went in with the leaves on top of the branches and prunings.
The next step was to cap these layers with a layer of composted and well-aged cow manure we got from our Amish neighbor David. He had dumped it in a big pile in a field at the request of the previous owners, but they never got around to using it. David’s forgotten how long it’s been sitting there, but at this point it is basically just rich, black, crumbly soil. No smell, no caking, and full of earthworms! This material was wheelbarrowed over to the new gardens and shoveled on top of the leaves and rabbit bedding to a depth of 2-3 inches. This will be the layer into which the seeds and transplants will be placed next spring. You can see what the garden looks like now in the picture below.
Now the only thing left to do is wait a couple days for some more leaves to fall. Once that happens I’ll cover this newest layer of aged cow manure with a layer of leaves to protect it from washing away in the rain and blowing away in the wind. When it’s time to plant in the spring we’ll brush the leaves away a little, plant the seed or transplant, and brush the leaves back into place.
The first year, we’ll have to weed this garden just as much as any other. But in each successive year the amount of weeding necessary should decrease. The weeds, along with the parts of vegetable plants that we don’t eat will be left in place as mulch to break down and return the nutrients to the soil. The roots of plants will be left to decompose in place as well. From this point on the only additional thing these gardens will need is the seasonal application of some mulch – which we’ll have plenty of in the form of grass clippings, fallen leaves, shed wool from sheep, etc. The result of these practices will be a garden that doesn’t need any inputs except weeding and mulching. Other practitioners of this method report that the fertility of their garden increases each year without the addition of synthetic or organic fertilizers. Mulching and leaving plant waste to decompose in place is enough.
We’ve got the smaller of these two gardens completely done and the other, larger one is in progress. It’s warmed up enough now to make working on it pleasant, so I’m off to go do that. Have a great day, and thanks for reading!