Raised Garden Bed, Part 2

After putting in the structure of my cedar raised garden bed, I have been gradually filling it with layers of compostable material along with the soil I had taken out. This is called “sheet mulching” or “lasagna gardening” and is a great easy method to enrich the soil. In its most complete form, sheet mulching includes laying down cardboard or newspapers on top of whatever is growing on the ground (lawn, etc.) without any digging required. But since I wanted to have a deeper root zone in this raised bed, I did weed the soil and dig down deeper. Autumn is an excellent time to sheet mulch because the bed will have all winter to decompose and be ready for planting in the spring.

This is a form of composting in place, so you alternate layers using amendments rich in nitrogen (called “green”) or carbon (“brown”), but it also depends on what you happen to have in your yard. A basic permaculture principle is that waste is just nourishment for another part of the life cycle. So we are taking “waste” and giving it a chance to grow food next year. We have lots of leaves in our yard, so that is an important source of “brown”, and we also live within a half hour of the beach, so we use seaweed gathered at the shore as a source of “green.” I had a chance to go to Kettle Cove on Sunday to gather a bunch.

Kettle cove beach with seaweed.

Here is my list of layers from the bottom (5 inches below ground level) up, with some photos along the way:

  • soil from the site
  • rock dust: I added some handfuls of rock dust, which adds trace minerals (I had collected a bucket-full a few years ago from a local quarry.)
Rock dust over soil in raised bed.
Rock Dust over soil
  • a bit of old seaweed, collected earlier this year.
  • leaves mixed with a little bit of grass clippings, from Margy’s leaf collecting.
  • a few branches (I remembered this from my hugelkultur adventures) These are good for water retention, slow release of nutrients—I just added a few, and then buried them in the leaves—I could have done a lot more, but also didn’t want to limit the roots.
leaves, branches
  • more soil
  • After my trip to the beach, I added more fresh seaweed, a generous layer of it: seaweed is a great source for nitrogen, potassium, phosphate and magnesium, and many trace minerals. Note, I also added the second layer of cedar planks to bring it to its full height of 11 inches.
Seaweed in the raised bed.
  • more dried leaves with a little bit of grass clippings
  • composted coffee chaff (which was in a barrel we kept next to our compost bin to add after kitchen scraps: after a couple years it composted itself!)
  • more soil
  • a couple inches of composted manure: we have a pile of it from last year, but we have to sift it because it has become full of roots.
  • green cuttings from garden cleanup.
Garden cuttings over compost.
  • leaf mould from leaves left in a barrel for a couple years
  • more leaves to top it off.

And today it is complete! The rest will be done by winter, and soil creatures and time.

Pesto

This past week’s big garden project was making pesto. I’m not an expert on preserving food from the garden, but discovered that while oregano and thyme were easy to dry, things like chives and basil didn’t work for me to dry. But making pesto and freezing it has been great. We just finished using the last of our pesto from last summer, and it was time to make it again.

So here is my very loose recipe for anyone who might want to try it. First of all, cut big bunches of stalks of basil, parsley, and chives from your garden. And really, any combination of these will work, though I think of basil as the primary ingredient of pesto.

Basil & chives

Basil & Chives & Olive oil

Pinch the basil leaves off the stalks and place in a salad spinner–you can wash and dry them in the spinner. Do the same for parsley–I just cut the leafy parts off the stalks. Our garden is organic, but rinsing deals with any random bugs or dry leaves or other impurities that might be attached.

Parsley

Parsley in the salad spinner.

Chives can be rinsed briefly, and cut with a knife into couple inch lengths. Once these are ready, start with a blender. First, put in 1 cup of olive oil, and then reserve 1/2 cup for use as needed to keep the blender stirring easily. Add the basil and blend, add the parsley and blend, add the chives and blend. Or do this in any order you like. I also added 4 Tablespoons of lemon juice, salt and peper, 1 clove garlic, and some garlic scapes. I don’t do well with too much garlic, but you might want to add more if you like it.

Finally, I added one cup of raw hazelnuts. Traditionally, people use pine nuts, but they are more expensive and since we have hazelnut bushes, it seemed fitting, though our bushes haven’t produced any nuts yet. Later, when we use the pesto, we will add parmesan cheese.

Finally, I line a baking pan with wax paper, and put the pesto mixture on this paper in small lumps–like cookies. Place the whole pan in the freezer until the mixtures have frozen, and then I fold them up in the wax paper and store in freezer bags.

Pesto "cookies"

Pesto “cookies”

Through the winter, we take out the pesto cookies and use as many as we need with baked chicken, with zucchini noodles, with anything that could use a bit of bright flavor. I ended up needing to make two batches because I had so much basil. And the basil plants will grow back again, so we could make more later on. So much fun.

Garden Lessons

Today is the Celtic celebration of Lammas, the early grain harvest festival. I’ve always connected it to the early corn harvest–the time to start eating local corn on the cob in the places I have lived. Our little group that celebrates earth rituals together hasn’t met since COVID, and I feel sad not to see them today. But this morning I was able to bring some zucchini and kale to the Resilience Hub, where a volunteer was collecting produce from gardeners to share with immigrant families in the Portland area. That truly felt like the best way to celebrate this holiday–sharing the surplus of our own harvest for those who need it, in the spirit of reciprocity.

Myke behind the zucchini

Myke standing behind the hugelkultur zucchini! Photo by Margy Dowzer

Lately, I’ve been feeling rather overwhelmed by the gardening endeavor. Take note of my photo behind the hugelkultur zucchini–you almost can’t see me at all. There is watering to do each morning, and I’m harvesting raspberries, the last of the snap peas, chives, zucchini, and kale. Oh–and one cucumber so far.  I learned how to freeze zoodles (zucchini noodles) so that we can save some for the future. I am also freezing most of the raspberries and chives. So all that is wonderful, but still a lot of work.

Added to that, however, has been discovering that each new plant I add to the garden seems to come with its own ecosystem of insect pests and diseases. I was used to Japanese beetles, and shaking them from the leaves of trees into soapy water. I was used to picking off cabbage worms from the kale and squishing them. But then I learned about the squash bug and the squash vine borer. I don’t see any significant damage yet on the zucchini plants, but I’ve seen the bright red and black flying parent of the grubs that can burrow into the stems. This morning, there were some zucchini leaves with powdery mildew. Another yuck.

Now we also seem to have grasshoppers eating the carrot tops and the kale–except for a new variety of kale that I got from a friend, which is too prickly for my taste. (That is ironically maddening! Why don’t you eat that one, grasshoppers?) I did some research and if I wanted I could try garlic spray, or flour on the leaves. But right now I’m just hoping they don’t eat enough to wipe out all the plants. Also, I put more bird seed in the feeder in hopes that some of those birds might also eat grasshoppers.  But there is so much to know, and so many possible pitfalls, even in the context of our organic permaculture polyculture systems.

So like I said, I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by all of it lately. I was thinking back to my original intention with this land–I wanted to restore our mutually beneficial connection to the earth, via this small piece of the earth we are lucky to live upon. And what I am learning is that it is not so easy–I’ve lost so much of the knowledge of plants and ecosystems that my ancestors might have had in the places they called home. I am sure there are long-time gardeners who find a way to learn what they need from the practice of gardening–but I am coming to it late in life, and I can feel that it could take a whole lifetime to become adept at working with ecosystems to nurture wholeness and balance.

It’s not all flowers and romance, this relationship with earth. It’s crabgrass and ticks and mosquitos and so many unknown insects, (beneficial or destructive?), not to mention diseases, viruses, bacteria.  Some aspects of earth are not so easy to love. It’s invasive species and drought and climate change. It’s beyond what I can learn and I’m discovering the limits of my capacity.  So I come to the garden like a prayer: sometimes with awe, sometimes with gratitude, but often with a cry for help, often with a deep painful longing for all that has been lost, often with loneliness. If I can pay close enough attention, finally, I come to the garden with surrender, surrender to this larger dance of life of which I am only a very small movement.

Zucchini Bread

Zucchini Bread

Remember when I said I hoped we’d become those people who ask all their neighbors if they want some zucchini? It’s happening! In the last few days, I’ve picked a whole basket full of zucchini–time to start sharing. Meanwhile, today, I figured out a recipe for gluten-free zucchini bread using almond flour. I explored several recipes I found online, but none were exactly right, so I adapted to create one for my own tastes. I don’t think I’ve ever shared a recipe on this site, but this one turned out great, so here it is:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Mix together:
1 1/2 cups almond flour
1/2 cup coconut flour (or you could use almond flour)
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt

Beat together:
3 eggs
1/4 cup honey
1 teaspoon vanilla
and add 2 cups of grated zucchini (skins on)

Mix it together well into the flour mix (it will be thick) and spoon into a buttered (or oiled) bread pan. Bake for about 45 minutes. A toothpick should come out clean when you poke it. When finished, take it out of the pan and let it sit on a baking rack for another 45 minutes before slicing.

(A few recipes said to squeeze the grated zucchini in a towel to remove moisture, but I found I didn’t need to do that.)

Meanwhile, the zucchini plants themselves are getting ever bigger, as you can see in the background of the photo. They now dwarf the hugelkultur mound, which had seemed pretty big beforehand.

I guess this sort of makes up for the sad news that our little baby peaches got burrowed into by bugs–likely plum curculio and/or oriental fruit moth, according to my research. I had been hoping that the first year of fruiting the bugs might not find them, but no such luck. Those bugs are so smart! Next year I will try coating the peach tree with Surround, an organic method to deter the curculio pests. Meanwhile, no peaches for this year. However, today, we picked and ate the first and only cherry on the Lapins cherry tree. Since I wasn’t expecting to find any, this one was a nice surprise.

If you live nearby, let us know if you want any zucchinis!

First cherry

Hugelkultur 5 & Peach Blossoms

Wow, it has been a month since Hugelkultur 4 when I last devoted a post to progress on our hugelkultur garden bed. I am happy to say that yesterday I planted the first seeds! It has been a slow process of adding more soil and compost, a little bit each day, plus another layer of seaweed to help keep some of it in place. I also added soil and compost to the area between the mound and the logs marking the path, so there is a lower level on that side as well as a higher level. That in turn provided support for something like a slope of soil on that side. We planted lettuce and broccoli and spinach in that lower area, which will get a little more shade than other parts of the mound. It is a bit late in the season for all of those, so we’ll have to see how they do.

Hugelkultur done for now

I finally decided that it wasn’t really possible to get enough soil to stick to the other side to use that as a planting surface, at least for this year. I’m calling it done for now! But as the mound ages and settles year to year, I think it will continue to evolve and we can keep shaping it and adding to it. For now, I intend to plant zucchini and bush beans and maybe some cucumber and kale on the top of the mound, and the zucchini and cukes can cascade down the sides. Our last average frost date in Portland is May 24, so those will get planted soon.

Hugelkultur May

Meanwhile, speaking of frost, we had three freeze-warning nights this past week, and we covered our blooming peach tree with a tarp each night. But yesterday, I witnessed the best thing ever. I was sitting in my chair and saw a flash of something out the window, so I looked up. There was a tiny hummingbird, the first of the season, visiting each of the peach blossoms looking for nectar. I can’t explain why it moved me so.  All of the care given to the tree, all of the natural beauty of the tiny hummer. No way to capture it in a photo, but here is the peach tree in bloom.

Peach tree in bloom

I mentioned in an earlier post that an annual activity in the spring is pruning the cherry and peach  trees–each year relearning it all over again and steeling myself to the task which seems so harsh. The peach had produced an abundance of branches, but I took out all of the ones growing toward the center, and those that were smaller than pencil size, in order to preserve a vase shape and to build a strong scaffold for future years. I was happy that I was able to leave some branches that were budding, and if all goes well we might get our first peaches this year.

Peach blossoms

Hugelkultur, part one & a half

Time to do the next steps for our new hugelkulture bed, but I wasn’t sure what kinds of materials to put on first. After doing more research online, many suggested that soil plus nitrogen rich materials like cut grass were next. But then I realized I needed to back up a bit. In order to stabilize the mound, it was recommended to put soil in between the cracks and crevices formed by the logs on the bottom. So I took off the smaller branches I had already placed on top, to expose more of the logs underneath.

Also, people had mentioned having a problem with the soil falling off the outer part of the mound, and one suggested remedy was to put lots of sticks angled out from the mound to help to stabilize the organic material and soil that will eventually cover it all. So after I took off the smaller branches, I started replacing some of them at a different angle.

hugelkutur sticks

Finding soil to put on the bed is no problem for us–in fact, it is a great help for our dream of a future pond, which we had included in our original permaculture design. One of the challenges for a pond is having some place to put all that dirt. So it has been on a way back burner. Today, I dug up about a half-wheelbarrow full of dirt–the dirt was very wet from recent rains, so that was actually the limit of what I could lift in the wheelbarrow.

Future pond soil

I brought it to the mound and started putting it into all the crevices, (after making sure to pull out any tiny red bittersweet roots.) The mound needs several more loads of dirt, but my own physical limits intervened. For some reason, lifting heavy things is very challenging for my chronic autoimmune illness, and triggers my fatigue response. So I sat outside in the sun for a while, but reluctantly came in after watering the mound with our garden hose. Tomorrow will be another sunny day.

It is hard to have an idea, a vision of this hugelkultur mound, and not be able to just go out there and get it done. Usually if I push myself one day, I have to rest on the next day.  And Margy has her own limits. So after moving all those logs yesterday, it was a stretch to do anything at all today. But I have been slowly learning to honor the boundaries of what my body can do, and take things step by step, in whatever timeline is necessary. It still feels so good to be outside in the garden.

Hugelkultur

Today we started the process of building a hugelkultur garden bed.  Here is the “before” picture, though I had already created a path, next to the asparagus bed at the side of our garage. I lined the path with logs from the land, leveled it, and covered it with wood chips. Ever since I created the asparagus bed, that slope has been a bit of a mess, from all the dirt that I moved around to do asparagus plantings.

Before hugelkultur

Hugelkultur means hill culture, or hill garden, and is one of the tools in a permaculture tool kit that we had never used before. It is a kind of raised garden bed, with rotting logs at the base, brush, leaves, and other organic materials over that, and soil over the whole mound. The logs hold moisture, so that eventually you don’t need to water your plants as often, and they contain nutrients that are gradually released to the soil. They also extend your growing season because their slow decomposition warms the bed. It also serves as a use for old rotting wood and brush that otherwise might go to the dump, and it sequesters carbon in the soil. Some folks make them 6 feet high, but ours will be smaller than that.

With everything happening because of the COVID 19 pandemic, we felt it would be a good time to increase our capacity to grow more food. So far in our garden, we’ve focused on cultivating fruit trees and bushes, and herbs and other perennials. The only annuals I have grown are snap peas and kale, in amongst the trees. So this bed will be for annual vegetables, like carrots, lettuce, and zucchini.

The first stage was to go around with a wheelbarrow and collect old logs that have accumulated on the edges of our land. Most of them were there when we arrived four years ago. I think this will be the hardest part. These logs were heavy! Margy and I both had to rest in between loads. But it has been a beautiful sunny day, so what could be better than to sit in our yard in the sun.Logs for hugelkultur

The next step is to arranged the logs every which way in the area that will be the bed. Some people might be more orderly than this, but it doesn’t really matter. It does matter what kinds of wood you use. Hardwoods are preferred, but not cedar, which doesn’t rot, or black walnut, black cherry, or black locust because of how they protect themselves in the soil. Pines have tannins, and might make the soil more acidic, plus they don’t last as long. We were also careful not to use any bittersweet cuttings, and to make sure no bittersweet roots had colonized the rotten logs. Margy spends half her time going around cutting back all of that.Logs layer hugelkultur

After the big logs were laid out, we filled in with smaller logs and long branches. And that was as far as we got today. I came in to have a cup of tea, and to write all about it. Tomorrow’s weather is supposed to stay nice so we’ll do the next steps then, and I’ll do an update.hugelkultur branches

Oh, I should also mention that Wednesday Margy and I had a big outing–since we’ve been staying home for three weeks now.  We went out to Winslow Park beach, and gathered seaweed, and got to see the beautiful ocean. All that seaweed will go into the hugelkultur too. One of my favorite things about permaculture is that nothing is wasted–what we might think of as waste is passed along as food for another part of the cycle of life. So rotten logs, brush, dead seaweed, fallen leaves, cut grass, vegetable scraps–all of it goes back to help create fertile soil. That is something beautiful to perceive.

Gathering seaweed

Garden Updates

Elderberries ripeThis week there were a few exciting new developments in the garden. We harvested our very first elderberries—maybe a whole half cup of them! Earlier in the summer, I was worried about whether something was wrong with the elder flowers, and perhaps there was, but eventually they created a spotty bunch of green berries. I must admit, I hadn’t gone by the bush for several days, but when I went out the other day, they were purple. I ate one that was quite sweet, but Margy tasted a sour one, not as ripe. Elderberry harvest 2019Not enough to make elderberry syrup, or really much of anything, but enough to be enthused about future possibilities. Margy and I will have to celebrate with a berry eating ritual.

Another new development: I saw a few catkins on our hazelnut bushes! I hadn’t known to expect them, but when I  looked it up, I learned that these are the male part of the plant’s reproductive system. They will stay on the plant through the fall and winter, and then in very early spring they start lengthening and unfurling.  When the female flowers open at the tips of branches, they pollenate. Hazelnut catkinsThere are only a few catkins right now, but they are a harbinger of future crops of hazelnuts. In my last batch of pesto, I used hazelnuts from the Food Coop to add to basil, parsley, chives and garlic from the garden, plus olive oil and lemon of course. So we can’t quite do it only from our garden, but maybe more and more.

I also processed oregano and thyme that had been drying in the basement herb dryer for longer than they needed to be, and did another batch of frozen chives, and frozen kale for the winter. Our harvest is limited more by my own energy than by the earth energy.

If anyone local would like oregano or thyme or chives, please let me know—they are flourishing in the garden still, and I’d be happy to share—also lemon balm, comfrey, and dill. They have all been very enthusiastic.

Plants are amazing

Comfrey

Comfrey Plant in our Orchard

Last night, I watched (again) the documentary, What Plants Talk About. Did you know that plants change their chemistry based on the environmental stressors they experience? So, for example, if a certain caterpillar is munching on their leaves, they can release chemicals into the air, scents, that attract the insect predator of that caterpillar.  Or they might offer nectars that shift the scent of the bug itself, and that scent attracts predators. They also share nutrients with their child plants and other tree species in a forest.

This got me thinking about our human use of plants for healing. We benefit from their chemical wizardry and can use their medicines for our own challenges. Over thousands of years of human “prehistory” and “history,” we learned the benefits of so many various plants in our environment. A body of knowledge has accumulated for the medicinal use of herbs.

Plant medicines can also be used to help other plants. Michael Phillips, in the book Holistic Orchard, recommends making fermented teas of comfrey, horsetail, stinging nettles, and/or garlic scapes to use as a foliar spray to help orchard trees during the summer.  Comfrey provides large amounts of calcium. Horsetail has natural silica which helps the plant cuticle defense against certain summer fungi.  Nettles are a tonic of overall nutrition with trace minerals, vitamins, nitrogen, calcium, and potassium. They also have silica, with levels skyrocketing when seeds formation is just beginning, so that is a great time to use it. Garlic helps to carry other nutrients.

It just so happens that I was in the orchard last week, thinking I needed to trim back the comfrey because it was getting too big.  Then I noticed that the nettles in Sylvia’s herb garden were flowering, maybe starting to form seeds. (We’d rather that they didn’t spread nettles everywhere.) And lo and behold, the garlic plants had formed scapes. So maybe it was time to make some herbal tea. (We don’t have any horsetail, sadly.)

Comfrey Nettles Garlic brewTo make the fermented tea, you use a five-gallon bucket.  Cut plant leaves into the bucket and loosely pack them in.  Then, pour a kettle of boiling water over the leaves to get things started, and add unchlorinated water to fill it to the top. I used water from our rain barrels. Then “let sit for seven to ten days somewhere outside, loosely covered to prevent significant evaporation. This fermentation period makes the constituents that much more bioavailable for foliar absorption.” It gets pretty smelly with sulfur compounds–that’s how it is supposed to smell. You strain it when you use it. Once brewed, you dilute it, using about a cup of the tea per gallon of spray.

So I made the tea on July 6. It is likely ready to use about now, though I went ahead and added two cups to the spray formula I did on July 9th.  Having such a small orchard, I might not be able to use all of the tea in a timely way, so I figured that partially brewed tea would add something beneficial in any case. I will add whatever I don’t use to the compost pile.

A few other thoughts were brewing in my mind after watching What Plants Talk About. If you think about how plants change their chemicals to fit their environmental stressors, you have to conclude that the medicines in the plants might be changing day by day, hour by hour. So when you harvest that plant, and in what condition you harvest it, might make all the difference in the world about whether that plant has the medicine you need. And perhaps that is the source of the “old wives’ tales” about when and how to pick various medicinal herbs. When the moon is full, or first thing in the morning? (By the way, I think that old wives’ tales are often the source of much hidden wisdom.)

If I were a young person just starting out as a scientist herbalist, I would want to ponder how we might experiment and cooperate with plants to create particular medicines that we need. We’d have to start by understanding and measuring the differences in their chemical composition under various conditions. Try to better understand why the old herbalists knew the best times for picking. That might take a while. But then, once we better understood these marvelous beings, maybe we could learn to communicate back and forth with them, and then, perhaps we could invite them to create new medicines for the diseases we face in these times. What a line of research that would be!

Stinging Nettles

Stinging Nettles