Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Covid Cafe: How We're Growing Food Now

Many of you have asked for more on how we're growing food here. We formerly grew on the roof of our place in Chicago with a like-minded group we called Green Roof Growers (more here). 

Advantages: absolutely full sun. Downsides, everything had to be hauled to the roof + no planting bed up there so we used a sub-irrigated buckets filled with a fertilized mix that wicked water. The results were pretty impressive. You can read more by looking around our previous site here.

Melons growing
on our Chicago roof

After selling the building we found this current property in SW Michigan. It sits on the St Joseph River and is densely treed. But it wasn't long before my decades-long compulsion to grow food reappeared. Now I could get my hands into some real soil. I searched for sun.

Original hugelkultur beds
In May 2018 we created our first hugelkultur (more below) bed, along the driveway where the sun got through a big hole in the trees. 

My goal was to build it mostly from materials I could find on the property. The bed started with a large piece of cardboard laid over grass and for the edging some logs swiped from Art's log pile, where he was splitting firewood.

We assembled that greenhouse together from a kit. At the end I decided the box should be labeled "Relationship Test."

Hugelkultur (roughly translated from the German as "hill culture") is nothing more than making raised garden beds filled with rotten wood. This makes for raised garden beds loaded with organic material, nutrients, air pockets for the roots of what you plant, etc. 

As the years pass, the deep soil of your raised garden bed becomes incredibly rich and loaded with soil life. As the wood shrinks, it makes more tiny air pockets - so your hugelkultur becomes sort of self tilling. The first few years, the composting process will slightly warm your soil giving you a slightly longer growing season

The woody matter helps to keep nutrient excess from passing into the ground water-- and then re-feeding that to your garden plants later. Plus, by holding so much water, hugelkultur cuts down on watering.

I started small but soon added
huge logs to the bottom of this bed

We topped the buried wood with cow manure, mushroom compost, and some organic soil so I could plant ASAP.

It didn't take long that first year for the plants to thrive.

So of course I built a second bed
near the first in the same sun

  2019 Spirit Circle hugelkultur bed
In the carefree, pre-pandemic days of October 2019 (just last year, though it seems like a lifetime ago) we started building the larger Spirit Circle hugelkultur bed down toward the river where there was more sun. 

Since I'd made the other growing areas with on-site materials I decided to use the same technique and spent the mostly-mild winter hauling rotting wood and filling the circle with enormous dead logs and any plant detritus (leaves, sticks, brush) I could find. 

Upside: No gym membership required for this full-body workout.

My supply of edging logs was looking bleak, though. Plus I wanted this bed to be higher/deeper.

We used what we could find for edging and by March 2020 (when there was no way we were going out during the plague to get soil amendments like manure and mushroom compost), I discovered South Bend has an extraordinary compost program. They take tree and garden waste and grind it, pile it in rows so it heats to kill any weed seeds, and then put it through a screen.

Remarkably, it's free to take as long as you load your own truck. Or in this case (since my body was strong but wrecked from building this bed) our friendly helpers got it for us and put it on top of the now leaf-laden Spirit Circle.

Art brought more "finish" logs he found on the side of the road so I could make the edges higher.

By April, 2020, the cool-weather arugula I'd planted was happily coming up. I used some cardboard box leftovers as a path until I could figure out how I would gain access to this planting area.


Meantime, I'd started seeds--lot of seeds--that were maturing under a rigged-up grow light system Art helped me set up from Home Depot online. They delivered.

Back in the original beds,
the spring greens were coming on strong

Happy tomatoes

Soon it was time to move all the plantlings out into the sun. I had started all the veggie seeds I had left over from 2009 and (surprise) they all germinated just fine. This is a lot of tomato plants. 

Meantime, I met Les, a nice neighbor who uses his saw to create wood sculpture. He works for the electric company taking down overgrown trees and removing ancient cedar poles that are unsteady. He agreed to slice up a cedar pole for me to create stepping disks so I could make my way into the garden.

He delivered a beautiful set
(note: these smell like heaven)

I was beyond happy 
to be done with the build

The steps allowed access into the interior
so I could start planting

Everything grew like crazy in this bio-diverse soil, rotting wood contributing all kinds of good things to the plants up top. Plus many nooks and crannies underground provide what I can only imagine is a funhouse for the moles. I forked on leaf mold by the wheelbarrow-full to preserve moisture.

NB: If you want a cleaner look, you can start with a wood or metal surround and fill it using the same hugelkultur technique. 

July 2020
You've seen many photos of the glorious vegetables thriving in the diverse hugelkultur environment. I am a convert, period. Here are a few more pictures from this morning.

Winter squash in the original bed

These are the two original beds and a plant table Art picked up for cheap at Lowe's. Plus a beautiful grate Wayne wanted to get rid of that makes an ideal climbing structure for the squash. The tower at left I found in a pile of junk on a nearby property.

Cherry tomatoes
in the original beds

Plant friends
in the Spirit Circle

Remember the hardware store trellis shortage? I'm using them to extend the outer edges for cukes and squash to grow on.

It's a joy to visit this 
riot of growth every day

And we are eating
so well

But wait. Not all those plant starts fit into the hugelkultur beds. Tomorrow: how our friendly neighbors loaned me their garden so I could keep planting.

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