There’s folks building homes as sweet as can be They’re leveling their yards and planting their trees But my little hut, I’ll just let it be Lord Jesus is building a mansion for me
Mansions for Me, Bill Monroe
Joe has been planting trees and fruit brambles (does thornless also mean bramble-less?) and I finally have my garden planted. It was hot and dry and now it is cool and rainy. Maybe a false start to summer, but I am happy to be reminded I don’t get to be in charge of any of it. My little hut, I’ll just let it be…
My garden dirt is so happy though! I’ve never in my life had more crumbly, beautiful dirt. Between the topsoil last year on our no-till, cardboard beds, and the lovely compost from our wildflower nursery neighbors, it is excellent. I made a bunch of mounds to start melon seeds on and I’ll transplant the seedlings to the fence if they come out strong.
I tried to switch up the hugelkultur beds—if it had tomatoes last year, I moved in carrots and lettuce instead. Cabbage is with the onions; broccoli is minding its own business. I had done some lasagna method layering back in the fall with newspaper and straw and then I fluffed it all up last month. It didn’t break down completely but all the seeds I’ve tossed on top seem to quickly root and sprout up.
Over in the topsoil/compost area the beans look happy (they always do in the beginning) and I’ve got more hot peppers than I know what to do with—I think I was suckered in by the writing on the back of the package, pairs wonderfully with couscous! Dang you, Baker Creek heirloom seed marketing team. I even planted corn for Joe in the best part of the garden—love is sacrifice, no? We will see how it grows.
I am stuffing bits of cardboard along the edge of my fencing to smother the weeds that want to join the fun. If I can just keep ahead of the weeds!
Last year I sprinkled a wild flower mix between the corn and sunflowers because we were going to set up our beehive by the garden. (This was idealistic, Colorado thinking at its best. Who in their right Midwest mind sprinkles glorified weeds in their vegetable garden?! In the mountains, it made sense.) Well, we ended up with the bees by the back barn but now the second year perennial flowers are popping up. I’ve got Sweet William and Siberian wallflowers and daisies—only one variety is worth keeping.
I am so tickled to be out of school for summer. I was working my tail off and getting discouraged with the politics and educational misnomers. It is a breath of fresh air to make food and wash dishes and weed the garden. I stay up late and watch NBA finals with Jubal and read books out loud on the porch (Henry and Beezus). Luke is channeling his inner John Hartford. Jubal is giving guitar lessons. FC turns on the Korg and will play all day if I don’t holler at him to turn it off. Gretty has been picking out Boil That Cabbage Down on her tiny fiddle. And if they do all the music and their chores I let them play Minecraft and Star Wars on the PS4. Maybe. (Ha.)
Some folks are back to school today; we are not. Thank goodness. I am hyping myself up for the second semester and trying to plan a start to what I hope turns out to be promising, fulfilling fun for kids and teachers (me) alike.
See also: don’t over-plan or over-expect. I got an idea, a flash of brilliance, this morning as I took a shower; I remembered a substitute teacher or two that came in last semester and they were of the piano-playing, accompanying ilk. I could bring them on board and they could help me with rehearsals! Fingers crossed that I can drum up help.
Only a year or so ago I was too shy to call people up and ask for help, but now I see it more or less as an emergency phone call, not unlike 911. I don’t hesitate or worry about my awkward rambling questions—I just instinctively dial the number. I need to remember the chutzpah this job has demanded I acquire…I am sure it will serve me well in future endeavors.
We have been, overall, plagued with sickness throughout the entire Christmas break. There have only been two days where I was moderately confident we weren’t sick, and then we were back to hacking and fevers within hours. I keep assuring myself and the family it is good to get it all over with while we are not in school or working. But it’s been pretty awful.
On the other hand we’ve had a couple days of beautiful spring-ish weather where I tackled the flower bed on the west side of the house.
It isn’t a flower bed at all, actually. When we first bought the house, there was a big patch to the west side bordered by limestone bedrock, covered with red mulch. It was kind of weird, like the previous owners were trying to hide a big ugly spot so they just dumped landscaping mulch and spread it under the trellised pergola porch that held up a massive wisteria vine. After we bought the place and asked what was up with the bed, the owners told us it had been a sort of garden bed of Martha’s and she’d grown flowers and strawberries along the retaining wall that led down to the garage. After I expressed a teeny bit of disappointment, they apologized for covering it up with landscape material.
As soon as we moved into the house we dug into the deep mulch (sometimes nearly a foot deep), cut a hole in the black landscape plastic, and hit some nice soil. We immediately planted celosia, tomatoes, okra, pumpkin and zucchini. It was a wonderful, weed-free situation, for the most part. But once in awhile I would cut down through the landscape fabric and hit a rock. Then I’d have to move, dig a foot of mulch out of the way, cut a random spot and hope I didn’t hit rock again. It was getting exhausting, the fabric now had holes, weeds were coming through, and more weeds were beginning to seed themselves in the mulch. I needed to know what was under there.
Last year as I made the backyard garden I moved loads and loads of the red much to make walkways and dress vegetables. They say red mulch is no good for gardens because of the dye that leaches into the soil but after a year, ours was decomposing rapidly—it was practically soil at the bottom of the mulch near the black fabric—so I took my chances. Plus, moving the mulch was still cheaper than buying a new truckload. In the back garden it had been amazing for weed control around the veggies. I’m a big fan of red mulch now, and thankful the owners left if for me to manage.
Later, as I had time and energy, I pulled back the old landscape material and put in strawberries, tulips, and eventually radishes, tomatoes, peas, etc. Everything was doing so fantastic I decided I needed to go ahead and excavate the rest of the red mulch, pull up the landscape fabric, and check out the soil situation so I could have a full-on flower garden, the likes of which Martha would be proud.
So this has been our weekend project, pulling up the old fabric, moving the rest of the mulch to the original bed, and laying the fabric back down on top for now to dissuade Minnie from previously planted tulip bulbs (which have already been fooled into thinking it’s spring by this crazy back and forth weather) and to allow for more decomposition before I put in more corms or seeds or whatever suits my fancy. I have had luck buying close out bulbs and seeds this time of year because most (smart) gardeners put their stuff in the ground to overwinter. However, it seems like we always get a good weekend or two in December or January where I can sneak in some bulbs who don’t know any better, nor do they care if they’ve been in the ground 20 weeks or ten. So I get them half price, sometimes discounted even lower. Risky business!
This weekend, we stumbled on several clumps of tulip bulbs and went ahead and separated and replanted them—just enough of a taste of spring in January to keep me and Gretty going! We also added some garlic with the hopes it will also make Minnie mind her own beeswax and maybe it’ll be a nice succession planting.
I’m sure I will have to order a new load of mulch to cover these spring flowers (and veggies) but I’m really thrilled I got by the last couple years, making the most of the original mulch and already-installed landscape fabric. I was looking online at buying fabric pre-cut with holes and a 50 yard roll is not cheap!
Here is an article on lasagna gardening that has been fun to read as we have begun a new worm bin with our January crop of worms (lots having babies in the west flower bed?!) and are debating whether or not to put plastic or tarp over the hugelkulturs in the back to speed up the decomposing. I hadn’t fully thought out the whys of green (nitrogen) and brown (carbon) compost, but it makes complete sense, even in the worm bin and controlling the smell.
It never fails we are sick over Thanksgiving—at least some of us, if not all of us. I actually appreciate this foreknowledge because it goes right along with my approach to life: don’t plan things. Planned things tend to pack their bags with expectations, all of them quite lofty. We are better off when pleasantly surprised rather than outrageously disappointed. Once I planned a trip to Hawaii and within weeks of our flight, Covid-19 happened. Never again! I am convinced now that my planning must be conservative and only ever whispered, if ever born.
But. I am planning to have a thousand tulips pop up in April, something dependable on Honey Creek. The effort of planting is minimal and the effect is so maximal. I see it more as an investment. I am deciding on the top flowers I love (not roses or things that are woody, thorny or burr-y) and only putting those in the ground. Things that burst up and out in hoards. GK and I need more flowers. More!
I am slowly cleaning up the garden—much easier after it all dies, freezes and thaws a couple times. The hugelkultur system we made with mounding the beds worked like a dream this past growing season, but we need to add some nutrients rather than letting it all sit. I’d bought straw bales last February or March with the intention of planting in them. They were not quite broken down enough to do really well—I got tomatoes and cucumbers to grow in straw bales, but it wasn’t a smashing success. If I had let them sit for a whole year before planting, it would’ve been better.
Straw bale growing was developed more for folks who don’t have great soil or space or lack other resources. (In some countries, poor farmers are encouraged to urinate on the straw bales to add nitrogen!) We first saw people growing successfully in bales (not urinating on them, btw) when we lived in southwest Colorado. I wanted to give it a go just to experiment, but our soil and climate is so suited for growing that there’s really no reason to rely on it.
So I’ve been forking the partly-decomposed straw bales over the hugelkultur mounds, layering it with leaves and newspaper. Our resident 5th grader gets the local paper at school and usually brings me home three or four copies a week (“I know how much you love to read the newspaper, Mom,” lol). We will see how this lasagna method works for composting and enriching the soil. It should break down quickly. *This gardener, who freely bashes every method of gardening, is resentfully tolerant, so it’s a go for me.
The most beautiful people live where the tomatoes taste good. I have thought about this for much time. I am telling you, it is the only philosophy. Vivi dove i pomodorisono buoni… once you have learned this, you cannot go back. It is the ultimate truth.
I made a terrible mistake when I started the hugelkultur mounding project. Backstory: Between the house and garden spot was a bush that buzzed with happy bees and hummingbirds. There was a viney plant intertwined and little pop-up lilies beside it. It was a mass confusion of overgrowth. The little birds loved it, but the flowers were few and far between. Half of the mess seemed to be dead branches. In winter I decided to chop it down and fill the spot with dry root strawberries and pineberries (hopefully to grow and flower next spring).
I didn’t know what the bush and vine were, but there were tubular red flowers which the hummingbirds hovered to drink the nectar. I love hummingbirds and didn’t want to lose them, but I figured pruning back a big, half-dead bush would be a good thing in the long run.
Here’s where I went wrong: I was simultaneously building my hugelkulturs, the mounds for my garden. As I pruned, I put the dead branches in the bottom of the mound, thinking they were, um, dead. Imagine my surprise when every single mound began sprouting trumpet vine! The bush I’d hacked down was indeed dead, but the flowers the hummingbirds had loved were from the vine which had taken over the bush. And here I was, replanting it in every single spot of my garden. Ugh.
Along with crabgrass, I’m picking out whole branches of trumpet vine. I’ll probably have to dig up all the mounds in the fall. Boo to not doing my research. Only rotting tree material and vegetation in the bottom of the hugelkultur, friends!
We keep hitting this weird cycle of warm, windy days followed by ice storms. A friend from Colorado asked about our snow totals (she and I both lived on the mountain where we regularly had five feet or more of snow on our roof at any given time, not to mention the ice rink which comprised our driveway) and I sent her a video of my kids sledding down the wheelchair ramp attached to the house. It is slick, but disappointing as far as fluffy snow goes. Joe prepped the kids before our first snow of the season here by saying, “guys, listen. It isn’t like Colorado snow where you get to build a snowman. It’s like the frozen stuff you scrape out of your deep freeze.” Too true.
But in the meanwhile I’ve been trying to make a garden plan. When we moved here, we stuck plants right in the ground, digging through the red landscaping mulch and fabric the former owners had used to cover the patio. In old pictures I found in the barn I can tell there used to be a cistern and a strawberry patch. Before I’d seen the pictures, it was all guesswork. I’d shovel, slice open the landscaping fabric, hit rock, and try again. It was convenient to not have to till and the extra mulch helped keep weeds out. This year, however, we are moving the garden behind the house and saving the strawberry patch area for strawberries and ranunculus. I’m in the process of carting the red mulch to the garden area to line the rows and have a nice walking space. We’re collecting cardboard boxes so we can lay them on the grassy area and create no-till rows for flowers and vegetables. I’m mainly lazy and don’t want to build garden bed boxes because sturdy, well-made DIY projects aren’t up my alley. This presents a risk since Minnie and the armadillo gang seem intent on digging up every little scent I put in the ground…but Joe promises me a fence–maybe even an electric one, which he assures me will take care of that problem. He is also lazy about garden beds.
So while searching for a lazy-man’s approach to garden beds, I was flipping through a garden book and came upon a German method of gardening with mounded beds. Since we are in German Lutheran territory, it seemed like the only right thing to do.
The base of the mound is supposed to be five feet or so wide with the top about 12-18 inches across. I think you plant all over the mound, not just at the top, to reduce erosion. The benefits of the hugelkultur seem to be multi-fold, since I won’t have to think about composting, just layering in the nutrients that will break down quickly. It is a rotating bed, so each year the crop changes and maximizes produce based on the state of the soil decay. I didn’t put it in the picture, but by years five and six the mound will likely be flat (knowing us it will be flat by the end of this summer) and ready for perennials. Who in the world can plan five or six years out? I don’t even know what I’m eating for lunch today, but that’s another story.
And if I can keep Minnie out of the coffee grounds and eggshell layer, that will be a miracle in itself.