Archive for February 3rd, 2009

The Design Question: Me, My Garden and my Graph Paper

Sharon February 3rd, 2009

Aaron thinks it is funny that I’m teaching a class with the word “design” in it.  And it is – I’ve several times argued with him that the very fact that we design things so badly so often in our society suggests that we might do better to let vernacular architectures and landscapes evolve, rather than consciously sitting down to try and design them.  That is, I have sometimes wondered whether our fundamental problems don’t come down to overdesigning, rather than simply being attributed to bad design.  This is not a good position to take with permaculturists unless you like arguing, but it can make for entertaining evenings if robust debate is your sort of thing ;-).

On the other hand, not designing at all can get you an awful mess – and it is hard to go out into the garden and simply evolve – secretly, our brains are in the habit of organizing and designing, even when we think we aren’t.  So my occasional critique of project of design is probably pretty moot.  But I do think it is wise to question our assumptions pretty much all the time when presented with theories about “the one true way” to do anything.  For some reasoning, gardening and farming seem particularly subject to this disease – someone evolves a technique or theory, and rapidly it becomes (if not by its originator, later by its adherents) *the* way. 

In Laura Simon’s book of gardening essays _Dear Mr. Jefferson_ , whose conceit is that she’s discussing her garden in particular and the history of gardening in general with that famous gardener Thomas Jefferson (it is an excellent book except for one major and appalling omission – she has a whole section on the labor of gardening and whether it is ok to have help without ever mentioning that slaves did the garden work in Jefferson’s garden – she could have gotten away without discussing slavery had she not raised the topic of labor, but having raised it, the book has a falsity to it that is disturbing); she talks about the current fashion for raised beds, which have gone in and out of style from the medieval period to the 21st century, where they are now ubiquitous, and makes clear that they truly are a fashion – justified, of course, by myriad explanations of why they are better.

 Don’t get me wrong, I love raised beds – they dry out earlier in the spring than the unraised ones, which is important in my wet climate and with my drainage issues.  They also warm up earlier, and provide defined lines.  Of course, a lot of people, who deal more with a shortage of water than an excess, and those who have more heat than coolth have raised beds too.  Sometimes they make sense, raising up friable composed soil over heavy clay, or as one person once told me, keeping the armadillos out of their Florida garden beds.  But sometimes they are just for orthodoxy’s sake – raised beds are *the* way in a segment of society.  We manage to justify them – there are plenty of texts out there explaining that raised beds are better in all circumstances.  My concern is that we make our choices not so much on rational grounds but habituals ones. 

Simon notes that the straight rowed American style garden arose out of the time shortages 19th century industrial workers felt - straight rows were faster to deal with they were told.  In the 1840s, the invention of the wheelhoe prompted garden magazines to claim that flat gardens, rather than the old raised bed style could be maintained by a 10 year old boy in a matter of an hour for an acre garden. Now I want me one of those 10 year olds ;-) .

Now we hear the same claims made of raised beds – they reduce weeds, and save time.  Well and so they do save some time – you don’t have to keep the paths as clear.  On the other hand, you can’t use a wheel hoe or many other inventions, and digging out the bits of crabgrass that comes under the wood or stone barriers can take nearly as much time.  Again, my point is not “raised beds are bad” but that we don’t usually make our design choices on fully rational grounds.

Which brings me to my own kitchen gardens.  I have two these days.  The first, and larger, the ”lower garden” is at the bottom of a hill, by the creek, in our fenced in 1/4 acre front yard.  It is the one where I misdesigned the paths, trying to make them as narrow as possible so that we could get every inch of growing space, and essentially making working there incredibly unpleasant and awkward.  The garden is presently in the form of uncontained (no sides) raised beds, and two larger flat plots, but will be completely redone this summer.  On the side yard is a collection of raised beds and a plan for more of them.  These already hold herbs, berry bushes and some ornamentals, but my plan is to make this the house herb and salad garden, while moving most of the calorie crops down to the lower garden.

And I find myself bound up with questions of design.  Do I want raised beds in the lower garden?  Sided with what?  What can we afford?  Or could we simply dig drainage around the edges of the garden, and work with it flat?  What style do I want - do I want a medieval style garden beds, a cottage style garden, a french potager, a classic American row garden?  What aesthetic am I seeking? In earlier gardens, I didn’t think much about beauty at all – I figured a garden full of food was always beautiful.  And there’s some real truth there  – but now I want to play more with aesthetics, and include more perennials mixed with the annuals.  I want a garden that is a bit more welcoming to visitors, since the first thing everyone says is “I want to see your garden.”

I read garden design books, and look at people’s pictures on the web, and gradually things are starting to emerge in my “what do I want” meets “what realistically will I be able to afford/have energy for.”  I know I need to find ways to subdivide the garden into plots or beds – I’m not someone who can handle a large open space without some kind of formal limiting.  I’m much more attracted to country style mixed plantings than to rows, and I’m leaning towards a flat garden with drainage for the moment, unless I can afford recycled plastic lumber or cinder blocks - our wet climate means wood beds don’t last.  

 That said, I know it will never look exactly like my dreams – and that’s ok with me too.  I know that however well I design, some years I will end up cramming things I never planned to in a bed they aren’t supposed to go in, because I haven’t gotten the garlic ready, or because the soil’s too cold at the back garden.  I know that not all the plants I want to put in will be happy where I put them, and that my plans and my needs will change with time.  I can design some of that in, but some of it may mean that in a few years, I’m again redesigning, redoing or rethinking. 

I know also that some of the most euphonious combinatios will arise from my mistakes or things I never expected – the wild raspberries that grow underneath my spruce trees, and which, each year, provide us with a bountiful harvest with absolutely no effort.  They love the environment there – I would have said it was too shady, too sprucy, too something.  They told me otherwise.  And when I draw my design plan I’ll cheerfully claim them as though I was smart enough to have thought of it.

It isn’t that I seriously think that we can’t design well – it is more that sometimes I feel that we find reasons to justify our designs, rather than make our designs from reason.  Of course, that’s true of nearly everything we do.  I’m not sure if my taste for cottage garden style kitchen gardens stems from a desire to maximize polyculture or from an aesthetic sense driven by a host of factors I can’t sort through. 

Ah well, back to the pretty pictures, the pencil and the dream of the platonic kitchen garden – and the dream of what will evolve out of my attempts to design one and its encounter with reality.


Perennials and Herbs From Seed

Sharon February 3rd, 2009

Few of us, I suspect, can afford to fill our gardens with all the huge, healthy plants we’d love to own, ordered from the best nurseries.  And yet what are those with dreams of cottage perennial gardens, food forests or big herb gardens to do if we can’t afford to order plants?  Well, one option is to get division or other shared plants from friends, but you can also grow an astounding number of useful perennial plants from seed.  And if you are prepared to wait a bit for them to hit maturity, you can fill your garden with beautiful plants you’ve known since they were in the seed stage. 

One of the great things about starting perennials from seed is that it can optimize space you otherwise wouldn’t be using – no need, unless you want them to flower the first year, say to plant your viola or coreopsis seeds in February, when your windowsill is full of tomatoes and peppers.  Instead, you can wait and start them in May or June, and transplant out in early fall when there is more moisture for the plants than in summer – they won’t mind.  Or for plants that need stratification to break dormancy (ie, they need to feel they have gone through winter), plant the seeds for your trees or plants in a spare garden bed in fall, and then transplant them before the summer crops go in.

 This is by no means a comprehensive list of plants you can grow from seed, merely a list designed to give us some sense of the possible and to find sources for them. 

Speaking of sources, here are a few, some of which I’ve recommended before and some not:

 1. If you dream of growing all sorts of things you won’t find anywhere else, the catalog for you us Thompson and Morgan  They are spectacular, have Canadian, British and American sites, and really push the limits of what’s available. 

2. Join Seedsavers and the herb and flower exchange.  You’ll find an astonishing variety of plants you can grow from seed, and people who know how to germinate them.

 3. For herbs (and broadly construed herbs) , is a stunning source of all things herbal.

4. Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Park Seeds are two companies that keep a wide range of unusual perennials in stock from seeds.  Baker Creek Heirlooms is another that keeps a remarkable selection.

Ok, so what can you grow from seed that you might not have tried?  Well, first of all, did you know that both Asparagus and Rhubarb can be grown from seed?  Both do extremely well, and I find them easier to transplant than by root sections.  With asparagus, generally you will want to rogue out (pull up and discard) any seed producing female plants, but you can get essentially the same result as crowns would give you with only one more year to harvest, and for a few dollars at most.  Our family can eat enough of both to mean that cheap is important in getting established.  These backbone perennial plants are essential in any food producing garden.

There are fruiting plants and trees that can be started from seed – Maximillian Sunflowers, for example, multiplier onions (can also be grown from sets), sea kale, good king henry, skirret, scorzonera, ginko biloba (whose nuts are delicious), sugar maple, chinese chestnuts, mulberry trees, elderberry, hip roses, white oaks (which produce edible acorns), papaya and hawthorn are among the easier ones to start.  Generally speaking, you’ll find that a surprising number of useful plants can be started from seed – you may have to expect a certain amount of variability in quality and taste, but it is always worth trying.  And you’ll find that often your home started plants are more vigorous in the long run than those big transplants from the garden center.

 A lot of people automatically go to the garden center for their herb plants, not realizing how easy it is to grow many perennial culinary and medicinal herbs from seed.  Among the ones I’ve had the best luck with are: Angelica, Wild Bergamot, Butterfly weed,  Catmint, Catnip, Roman Chamomiile, Dyer’s Coreopsis, Garlic Chives, Regular chives, Culantro, Epazote, Echinacea,  Evening Primrose, Fennel, Feverfew, Hyssop, Horehound,  Joe Pye Weed, Lovage, Lemon Balm, Lavender, lemongrass, wild marjoram, milk thistle, mountain mint, Meadowsweet, Marshmallow,  nettle, greek oregano, California Poppy, Rue, Sage, Salad Burnet, Winter Savory, Stevia, St. Johns Wort,  Thymes, Valerian, Wormwood, Yarrow. 

 All of these fall in the category of easy to medium growers.  There are some difficult herbs to start (I wouldn’t bother with rosemary unless you really like a challenge) , but we can reserve our precious cash for those, and fill our gardens with an awful lot of other good stuff.  Generally speaking if the word “weed” appears in any of its common names, you can be pretty sure that it is silly to buy it ;-) .

What about flowers?  Even if you aren’t interested in flowers as pure ornamentals (and many of us are), there are  lot of flowers out there that have multiple uses – they attract pollinators, fix nitrogen,  provide food for birds and insects we value, or have nutritional, dye, fiber or other values.  It is possible to create ornamental gardens made up entirely of useful plants that are also useful.  It is even better to integrate these plants into your gardens – mixing food producers with nectary or nitrogen fixing plants to improve soil and pollination.  Or maybe you just want a beautiful bower – Thompson and Morgan has a great list of easy-to-grow perennials from seed that will bloom the first year if started early enough.

Among the useful ornamentals you might grow are: Hollyhock (black ones are dye plants, all are medicinal), Yarrow (nectary, medicinal), broom (nitrogen fixing), False Indigo (nitrogen fixer), coreopsis (dye plant), Agastache (nectary), Dyer’s Chamomile (dye plant), Bouncing Bet (Soapwort), Pyrethum (insecticide), roses (produce rose hips, fragrant petals), dianthus (edible flowers, johnny jump up (edible flowers), Butterfly weed (attracts pollinators), butterfly bush (attracts butterflies), Knautia (attracts hummingbirds), daylily (most parts edible and tasty), Perennial sweet pea (nitrogen fixer), crown vetch (groundcover, nitrogen fixer), mulleins (soft leaves make great toilet paper, herbal), lambs ears (that tp thing, good bandages as well), passionflower (fruiting vine), and others.

 Now not all of these will be perennial for every climate, and I would caution new seed starters to choose just a couple of these, and really research their growing requirements.  But it is, I think, worth remembering that just because something comes as a plant does not mean it can’t be grown from seed.


Slugs and Floods in Paradise:The First Thing You Need to Know About Gardening

Sharon February 3rd, 2009

Note: Today is the first day of our garden design class series.  Many of the posts will be published over at Aaron’s blog, so don’t forget to check it out. 

It was the only time in my life I can remember thinking that “I can’t look” wasn’t just an expression.  I literally couldn’t look.

My garden got started late last year – _A Nation of Farmers_ went to the publisher on June 1 (lesson #1 – never again will I agree to a book deadline in the growing season), and while that’s not long after most folks put in their gardens, since I run a fairly large one, it meant that things were a little constrained last year.  But I decided I would not repine, I would simply have a kick-ass fall garden this year.

 So in mid-July, Eric took the boys to New York City to visit their grandparents, and for five days, I stayed home and weeded, planted, hoed and mulched.  Now these were the five hottest days of the summer – 90s every single day.  I was out in the garden every day by 6am, worked until I couldn’t anymore, and worked late into the evening.  I did nothing but garden and sweat, and I was, I think rightly proud of myself.  The garden never looked better.  I was exhausted and filthy – and perfectly happy.

Three days after I finished, we had 7 inches of rain in 3 hours.  The garden, normally the best drained site in our yard was flooded, with more than two feet of roiling brown water over it.  We stood in the house, Eric repeating over and over “awful, awful.”  Me, I wouldn’t look out the window.

By the next day, it had drained, but the damage was done. Most of the seeds were washed away, along with the mulch.  The seedlings that had emerged didn’t survive – or if they did, they were stunted.  My beautiful planting of popcorn and sunflowers never recovered from its waterlogged roots and produced stunted ears and tiny flowers despite me nuturing it along.  I replanted, but by the time I did, many of my crops were late, and never fully matured.

Why am I telling such a depressing story as part of my first garden design class post? Not because I have any really useful strategies for helping someone deal with sudden flash flooding – while I can talk drainage with the best of them, that kind of rain isn’t something that can be drained off easily.  It was the first time that had ever happened – but even if it were likely to happen again, I’m not sure I’d redesign my garden for it until I knew it was likely to be a frequent recurrence – for example, some of the flooding was probably due to the fact that we’ve fenced the garden, impeding, to some degree, the runoff into the creek.  But that fence does my garden more good than harm generally.

I mention it because, well, watching all your hard work go up in smoke is part of the deal.  And frankly, it hurts like hell. If you are going to depend on your own work and your own land and your own soil, sometimes bad stuff will happen to you.  I certainly wasn’t the only person crying last year over flooded out land – and most of the people weeping owed their whole living, not just their winter’s produce to the project.

And sometimes what happens will be your own fault – you put something off too long, or made a mistake.  I’ve done those too – I’m still fighting the thistles I let go to seed on the other side of the fence one year – duh, thistle seed floats over the fence….  This year I’m going to redig my entire front garden – because in our enthusiasm to get maximum growing space, we made the paths too narrow, which made life a whole lot harder.  I’ve finally gotten around to admitting that now I have to redo the whole thing.  I’ve killed a few chicks and turkey poults in my time with my own mistakes as well, and don’t think that doesn’t weigh on you.   

Some of these are things that better planning could have fixed.  I don’t doubt others will probably plan better than me, but I also don’t doubt that you’ll make some design mistakes too.  Some of these things are things you can only really learn by doing them – because the words don’t really mean anything until you see the cheatgrass or know if your locality is slug heaven.  Sometimes you’ll get the wrong advice – maybe even from me. Different areas, different challenges need different strategies, and anyone who says theirs is the one true way to farm or garden is probably wrong.  Sometimes you’ll get the right advice, but won’t be able to take it, or you won’t pay enough attention.  And sometimes mother nature gets to decide – and her decisions are increasingly tough as the climate begins its shift.

So what do you do?  You salvage what you can, you spread your investments as far as you can, so that maybe the garden on the side yard or the containers on the garage roof or the water-tolerant plantings do survive. You diversify, diversify, diversify. You get up and when you are done grieving, you shrug and plant soybeans or buckwheat or garlic.  You cut away the bad spots and eat what you can.  You pick resilient varieties, and make your soil as good as you can, so you can bear up under the stresses.  You interplant things so that maybe you never lose everything.  You use the best and wisest strategies you’ve got, and even then, you know sometimes things will go wrong.  You get over being mad at yourself or G-d, and move on.  You share when you’ve got plenty, and help out when someone else is in trouble, and hopefully you all muddle along.

I wish I could say that there’s a single magic bullet that will prevent you from ever having to turn your face away from the work of your own hands, but there isn’t.  Just like I wish there was a single magic bullet that could make the long emergency easy for everyone.  And I certainly hope this doesn’t turn anyone off gardening or farming - because those disasters are a reality no matter where the food is grown. 

That is, you can choose to participate or not, but not to have only the good, and never the evil, you cannot choose a life with only butterflies and no slugs.  You can bear some of the risk and loss, experience some of the pain and some of the glory on the days when the garden is stunningly beautiful and the ripe tomatoes are measured in bushel baskets, or you can accept that you eat or not at the hands of distant farmers who also lose their crops sometimes, and whose grief you only know when the price of tomatoes or beans rises up above what your family can afford – or when the trucks don’t come at all.  That is, there really is no full insulation from the loss – only insulation from passion and experience.  It is hard to grieve over fields far away, for farmers distant from you – nor can you experience their joy when the land yields up bounty.  Shopping at the supermarket is an emotionally distant, insulating experience, one where life and death are measured in money, which erases most of the joy and the pain.

There are plenty of other important reasons to grow a garden, ones I emphasize all the time.  But I think the simplest one doesn’t depend on how events unfold – it is simply the desire to drink the cup dry, to live life as fully and passionately as you can.  That passion means that you will know pain, anger, frustration, self-recrimination and sorrow.  But those are the necessary companions of joy, delight, pleasure, comfort, ease, pride and happiness.  For them alone, for that perfect moment on a summer’s evening when I go out, the smell of basil rises to meet me and the raspberries fall ripely into my hands, I would grow my garden.