Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Stinging Nettle and the Keyhole Garden

If you’ve ever grabbed a weed to pull it up and for your efforts got a handful of nasty stinging sensations, you may have met up with nettle, urtica dioica. This experience was my first intro to this plant. That was many years ago, and since moving from the farmhouse to here in the woods, there hasn’t been any. None rode along with the menagerie of plants I carted in. It might not have survived anyway. Nettle needs really good soil.

The Fedco catalog offers nettle seeds, and last year I bought a packet. You might be wondering why anyone would plant a stinging weed. I seeded it partly to have more weed variety than the plantain and dandelion which established themselves in disturbed soil back when the house was built.
Another reason is that it is thought to be, in terms of permaculture, a nutrient accumulator. This is a plant that draws nutrients from the soil bringing them to the surface. After the plants die down in fall the leaves can be left in place to provide mulch. Or they can be hauled off to the compost pile. Either way, the nutrients recycle.
Nettle is full of stingy little hairs

I planted the nettle seeds at one end of the first of our two keyhole gardens, click here for the first post on the keyhole garden, and here for the following year. The nettle got off to a slow start. The garden was built on top of a generous layer of pine boughs. They had not yet broken down, and none of the numerous varieties of plants I had stuck into the garden were thriving. It is said of nettle that you can tell how good your soil is by how well it grows. I kept adding compost, manure, and dirt to the keyhole as I'd done all along.

Last fall I pulled up the patch, roots and all, and contributed it to the compost pile. Like comfrey and horseradish, root bits left in the ground become new plants. A whole new crop emerged this spring.

And this year, things have changed in the keyhole garden. For the first time I can dig into the soil without the shovel being deflected by a layer of pine boughs. There are blackened bits remaining, but for the most part they have dissolved. My small nettle patch shows signs of robust growth, as do other perennials in the keyhole.

Nettle is a herb with many uses. In a future post I’ll fill you in on some of the fabulous things that this plant is known for. Meanwhile, you might consider putting nettle seeds on your shopping list. -jmm

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

My Experience with Hugelkultur

One of our many interests is that of permaculture. There are many ideas all lumped together under this topic, and one of them is hugelkulture. This is a German word meaning “mound culture”. Hugelkulture consists of  building a raised garden bed on top of branches or other woody matter. A google search turned up the idea of using logs, whether green or rotted.
I started one of these beds about 13 years ago, entirely unaware of anything called “hugelkulture”. Our land is forested, and that has meant finding uses for branches and logs as we expand the garden and open up areas for pasture.

The builders of this house left a pile of logs alongside of an embankment. It was quite the log pile, stacked up against a slope and extending two to three feet above ground level. I had no use for the logs.
The area seemed like a great place to put a perennials garden, but moving heavy logs was more than I wanted to do. So I thought maybe I would toss some dirt onto them, and then stick some plants into it. It seemed like a way to disguise the logs and start a garden bed at the same time.
This log is much smaller than it was
It took a lot of dirt. With grubhoe and shovel I excavated an embankment producing wheelbarrow loads of stony sand. Load after load was tossed onto the logs. I worked in some compost, and planted a few perennials. They did not grow very well.
Over the years I’ve had to continually add more dirt. Apparently the dirt sinks down into spaces between the logs. Holes would suddenly appear. I kept adding more dirt. Wheelbarrow loads of it. I had to take out the plants and then replant them afterward.
After about ten years the logs started to rot. I’d walk on the pile and things seemed squishy. Areas again started to sink. Holes reappeared. I tossed on dirt, added manure or compost, and re-situated plants. Around this time the plants were starting to look a little healthier.

Now, after 13 years the log pile garden has shrunk considerably. The plants are doing very well. I’ve even put my favorite shrub there, a Japanese quince. This year the quince is flowering for the first time since it was moved here 13 years ago.

The logs are still there. A couple of them show above the dirt in spite of all the dirt and compost that were piled on. The logs appear to have shrunk and their surfaces are rotting. I expect the pile will continue to shrink.

Gardening on rotting logs is said to take advantage of the ability of rotting wood to retain moisture and release it gradually to the roots of the plants. One might take note that mulch does the same thing. What is interesting is to observe over the years how wood incorporates into the ground. What I’ve seen with rotting logs in the woods is they dissolve down to almost nothing. If you thought you were getting a raised bed out of your soil covered logs, it’ll be a shrinking one.

I’m not discounting the hugelkulture concept. I actually think it’s a wonderful idea. Certainly, in an ashes to ashes kind of way, it is a part of the permaculture philosophy. There is a little bit of work involved, but in the end it seems like a fine way to use up old logs. -jmm

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

This Week in the Garden

Spring is planting time. This year we are experimenting with companion planting. The theory behind companion planting is that certain combinations of plants allow the plants to help each other in various ways. There are many different sources of information on companion planting, and one that I have been relying on is Google. (If you’re trying to find companions for particular veggies, type “[plant name] companion plants” in the search box).
Murphy stands watch over the salad garden

Some plants attract beneficial insects to repel pests. Others, like peas and beans, fix nitrogen in the soil. Still others provide shade for plants that would wilt in the hot summer sun, like spinach and lettuce.

Besides plants that help each other, some plants should not be grown together. Heavy feeders should be kept apart as they compete for soil nutrients. We avoid planting carrots and parsnips together for this reason. Onions and beans don't do well together. Potatoes should not be grown with carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes or squash. They are said to do well with horseradish because it increases their disease resistance.

While it's still too early to plant tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, many seeds can be planted in early May. We have seeded three 12-foot rows of beets. There is a patch of red and white onions. Rows of peas have been planted along fences so they can climb, along with companion plantings of rutabagas and radishes.

Two rows of cabbage have a center row of onions. Onions, and other members of the allium family are helpers to a number of plants, including members of the brassica family which includes cabbage. The onions help to repel slugs and cabbage worms.

Our salad garden has been seeded with arugula, red and green lettuce, garlic chives, sorrell, nasturtiums and scallions.

We hope to increase our crop yield by combining plants that help each other and avoiding combinations that compete. Here's to healthy and abundant veggies this season. G.H.