The Snarky Gardener built raised beds using hugelkultur
Hugelkultur is the German term for garden beds made with buried wood. The wood breaks down over time, providing garden vegetables with nutrients and moisture (as in you don’t have to fertilize and water as much, if at all!). The wood does not have to be brand new as rotted wood is actually better is some ways.
This fall, I decided to utilize this technique to build four 8 foot long by 4 foot wide by 3 feet high raised beds. In general raised beds are beneficial as they warm up earlier in the spring, keep humans (but not my dog) from compacting soil, and allow plants better drainage. Usually raised beds are built with a frame around the soil, but my beds have no borders. After completing each bed, I planted cover crops (turnips, spinach and clover) to minimize winter soil exposure. My long term plan is to convert more of my garden into hugelkultur beds, but wanted to perform a trial first, as putting these beds in is labor intensive, with all the wood gathering, moving, and burying.
The Snarky Gardener writes an abundance of words about abundance. Imagine that.
To the Snarky Gardener, abundance means having plenty (even too much) of a thing. Often people are concerned with what they can’t grow or what’s not doing well because of pests, lack of sunlight, or poor soil. But if you take this “problem” and turn it on its head with abundance, your mindset totally changes. The question, “What can I grow a boat load of?”, offers up all kinds of possibilities. I believe food growers should build upon their successes, with new and experimental plants taking only a small amount of total resources, and removal of those that produce poorly. At Snarky Acres, that means growing more sunchokes, turnips, potatoes, tomatoes, beans, peas, kale, garlic, onions, greens, zucchini, corn, Swiss chard, comfrey, and herbs (especially perennials like mint, lemon balm, oregano, and sage). It also means growing less (or no) broccoli, watermelon, peppers, eggplant, spinach, and beets. It’s hard to stop trying with those fruits and vegetables we love to eat, but not everything grows well everywhere, even in the same relative climate.
How to create abundance:
1. Grow a lot more of what grows well.
2. Look for alternative resources (weeds, trees, native species)
3. Create environments where abundance happens naturally (perennials and self-seeding plants)
4. Save seeds, plant extra starts (tomatoes, etc), and start new plants from cuttings.
5. Grow in non-optimal spaces (shade, poor soil)
6. “Invasive” also means “Abundance”
How to utilize abundance:
1. Find trading partners (food swaps, seed swaps, time banks, neighborhood barter systems)
2. Learn to preserve (canning, freezing, drying)
3. Find other uses (dynamic accumulators, medicinal)
4. Learn to create products from your produce (extracts, salves, pesto)
Spend some time to observe your chosen spot. You are going to want at least 3 hours of direct sunlight a day with more than 6 preferred. If you can’t get the minimum 6, then look for plants that will be OK with a little shade, like lettuce, herbs, Swiss chard, kale, spinach, turnips, and mustard greens. Another option is to plant in containers and move them to the sunny spots throughout the day.
2. Start small
Don’t go hog wild with a giant garden first thing out. Keeping it small will allow you to learn what grows best in your area without a lot of investment of time, money, and effort. Containers or a 4 foot by 4 foot raised bed would be a good place to start.
3. Grow what you like to eat
Sounds straight forward, but I’ve known a few snarky gardeners to grow things before they know how they taste (like me with my sunchokes). If you think you want to grow it, buy it from the store first.
4. Grow easy stuff
Some vegetables are easier to grow than others, by a significant margin. Talk to people in your area to learn what grows well in your area. For instance, in Northeastern Ohio (my neck of the woods), cherry tomatoes, beans, peas, onions, zucchini, potatoes, and turnips do well with little trouble. Broccoli, watermelons, Brussels sprouts, peppers, and eggplants are much harder to grow, to the point I’ve given up on some.
5. Mulch a bunch
Mulch is anything that covers the ground around your plants. Straw, grass clippings, newspapers, wood chips, and leaves (my favorite) all make good mulch. You can also use plastic mulch, but it won’t make your soil better over time like organic materials will. Covering the ground is important as it will keep weeds from overtaking your edible plants plus it holds in moisture which will keep you from having to water as much (or at all!)
6. Visit often
Gardens are probably ruined by neglect more than anything else. Visit a few times a week to keep up with the weeds, watering, and ready to pick food. Think of it as that exercise your doctor keeps telling you need to do. I find the garden as a quiet place to get away from it all. Also, try to plan around the weather (early or late on hot summer days, etc).
7. Learn about food seasons
Some plants can tolerate and sometimes prefer cold (like spinach, turnips, onions, peas, potatoes) but don’t like heat and others can’t handle frost (tomatoes, peppers, corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, okra) and love warm weather. It still surprises me that this isn’t common knowledge (it wasn’t for me when I started). Your frost dates (last frost in the spring and first frost in the fall) are the most important gardening times. They tell you when you can plant certain vegetables and when they need to be reaped. Too early or too late and you’ll be sad, sad gardener.
8. Watch out for critters
If you notice animals in your neighborhood, know that they may think of your garden as a free meal. A small fence (2 or 3 feet tall) will keep out rabbits, but you will need a taller fence (6 feet or more) to deter groundhogs, raccoon, and deer from invading your space. There are also garlicky sprays and fence clips that will deter them some. Most animals don’t like strong smells, so planting herbs and garlic/onions on the outside of your garden is not a bad idea. Also, keep an eye on your plants for damage, as even the best fencing can be leaped over or dug under.
9. Think outside the box
There are a lot of different ways to garden besides the standard “till up the backyard and plant in rows”. Indoor gardening can be done with systems like the AeroGarden. Containers or individual planters work well for situations where you can’t plant into the ground (apartments, limited sun, etc). If you don’t have a tiller or want to go to the trouble of tilling, you can build gardens on top of your grass, whether it be raised beds, straw bale gardening, or lasagna mulching. And don’t be limited to your backyard. Front yard gardens, if done tastefully, are a possibility as long as there are no prohibitions where you live (like city ordinances or home owner association rules).
Good luck and happy gardening!
Have any questions about your first garden? Please leave a reply.
On 12/22/2013, we had a Winter Solstice miracle with temperatures in the 60’s with just a little rain. This allowed the Snarky Gardener to check out his garden to see what had survived. The mustard was a dried out brown, as the previous week’s lows in the teens killed it off (as expected). Next year’s potato patch will appreciate the extra biomass, fumigation and sulfur the mustard will provide. What did survive was the purple top turnips and the corn salad (pictured above) plus onions, leeks, and thyme. I picked through the turnip greens to thin them out then covered the remainder with leaf mulch to protect them until mid-March (like I did earlier this fall for the spinach, rosemary, and peas). Leeks and thyme were also pulled before the weather turned nasty again the next day.
Even though I’ve been fall gardening the last few years, I’m always amazed at what survives through the cold. This winter has been early and often with plenty of ice and snow. But out in the garden the greenness and deliciousness continues. And March is just around the corner.
This fall we’ve had serious snow twice so far (several inches each time) here in Northeastern Ohio. While most people have not even thought about their gardens since the first freeze back in October, the early snow had me worried. Many of my fall duties were incomplete, including digging up and bringing in my rosemary herbs (they died out there last winter – sniff). Also, the fall leaves I gathered into big honking piles did not get as distributed as I would have liked. I found out this summer that some plants (lettuce, spinach, kale, turnips, peas, corn salad) could be covered with mulch 5 or 6 inches deep in the fall to “overwinter” them. Then in mid-March, you just pull off the leaves and viola, they will start growing again. Nifty trick having food producing plants when other unsnarky gardeners are still planning for the summer. Anyways, I was finally able to finish these tasks on 12/4/2013 with most of my fall babies no worse for wear.
If you look at the pictures below, you will notice some of my plants didn’t do as well by December (especially the sad Swiss chard in the middle foreground). In the back left, my mustard is going to seed, which is good because I needed more for cooking and next year’s crop. But you will also see that there’s quite a bit of green considering it’s December in Ohio. On the right foreground, my purple top turnips are looking great. I will thin these out (yum) and mulch the rest in the next week or so. Also, near the Swiss chard, you should be able to make out bright green areas near the ground. That’s my corn salad and onions, all ready to eat. We used them plus mustard greens, carrots, and kale to make a wonderfully fresh salad (again, in December in Ohio).
P.S. I don’t think “unsnarky” is a word, but with use it will soon become one.
In case you have Jerusalem artichokes (aka sunchokes) and don’t know what to do with them, here’s what I decided to make with my own turnips, Jerusalem artichokes, leeks, onions, and garlic. I made a few modifications, including adding turnip greens and not peeling anything (I’m lazy if not anything). I would make this again so, but alas, I’m out of turnips for now. Could always buy some at the local farmer’s market.
1 leek, trimmed
1 small onion, coarsely chopped
1 garlic clove
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
Fine sea salt
2 1/2 cups water
2 1/2 pounds turnips diced plus greens
1 1/4 pounds sunchokes, diced
2 tart apples, cored, and diced
Coarsely ground black pepper or Aleppo pepper
Medium-coarse sea salt
1. Cut leek lengthwise in half and rinse well. Finely chop leek together with onion and garlic.
2. Heat oil in a large Dutch oven or other heavy pot over medium heat. Add leek mixture and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables begin to soften, about 3 minutes. Add a pinch of salt and 1/2 cup of water. Bring to a gentle simmer, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook until water is almost completely evaporated, about 15 minutes.
3. Add turnips, artichokes, apples, and remaining 2 cups of water. Cover and simmer until apple is soft and flavors have blended, about 30 minutes more.
4. Puree soup using an immersion blender until smooth. Add salt to taste. Serve drizzled with oil and sprinkled with a grinding of pepper and with salt, if desired.