Garden Log – 2020, March

This particular section of posts is dual purposed, serving as a log of things that I have learned and progress that I have made as well as to give anyone else that may be interested a glimpse into the process which I followed. It has been said to me many times by my Paw Paw (grandpa) that it is best to learn from others’ mistakes whenever possible. If sharing this may make the process a bit easier for someone following behind me or even offer insight to those with more experience, it will be well worth the slight effort it takes to publish these logs.

First, let me start by stating that we are in Zone 7b, here in central Alabama within the United States. This offers some very forgiving weather, generally, though we still get a late frost that I’ll have to be on guard for. We can also have some ridiculously hot summers, though most summer veggies do not seem to mind as it also tends to stay pretty damp and humid here. I have a few water collecting habits I’ve started to try to mitigate any need for using our well water, but I have seen already this year that I can run through that storage pretty fast. It currently only holds about 15 gallons, which can be exhausted in a couple weeks when need arises. Last fall was also unusually hot and led to a pretty dismal showing for my “fall garden” which really only produced herbs, and there really only mint plants which I am pretty sure are impossible to kill once established. They are my fail-safe plant, though, and have helped me learn how to spread and propagate from their vines which has been fun. That weird high-temperature fall followed by a quick dive into almost freezing, thus giving my sprouts no time to acclimate which killed almost everything. If there was a bright side, it was that the beds were prepped for spring..

As we live on a hilltop, a lot of our land is sloping. Additionally, most of our property is covered in tall, old hardwood trees. We do have a meadow which covers roughly an acre and a single south-facing hillside as the only large areas that receive adequate sunlight. I planted several “test beds” last year to see what would work in each location. This also gave me the opportunity to start building up the topsoil which tragically was pretty sparse in many areas. This area is very rich in clay, and our little hilltop is pretty rocky, so any digging we do really has to start with a pick axe. Fortunately most of the books I’ve read and Bloggers/Vloggers I have been following have left me leaning toward “No-Till” and “Regenerative” agriculture methods. Auburn University, our primary agricultural college here in Alabama even had some pretty interesting material on the subject, so that is my initial course I will be following.

The beginnings of our hillside garden.
Starter compost “bin” is in the background.

For anyone unfamiliar with this, it basically means I will only be digging as absolutely necessary, in order to place plants or sow seeds, and tilling is generally out of the question unless it is at the very beginning and used to start a new planting area in a very hard-packed zone of dirt. I’ve actually stopped even this and swapped to a garden fork, which is used to loosen the soil to allow amendment. This is generally counter to every other field in our area, so we shall see how that goes. What I have noticed is that in the space of less than a year of working on this, the beds are filled with visibly more life than before, with lots of bugs, worms, frogs and lizards sharing the garden with me as I work.

My hatred for Roundup (Glyphosate) and other chemical herbicides cannot be understated. Since being introduced to Zach Bush, M.D. and hearing how terrible they are for both us and the environment, I have had the opportunity to attempt remediation of two pieces of property. Our former home’s land began to show improvement after about 9 months, though it was stunted as we had several neighbors that continued to use them. Our current property is much more secluded and upon a hilltop, which leads to what I imagine would be a lot of opportunity to “rinse” the soil. In any case we are 10 months herbicide free (from the time we moved here) and things appear promising already. The difference in the plants I tried to grow last summer and fall and those planted this spring is surprising. Last summer had many false starts, plants that would seem to do okay for a bit and then just die as well as many that sort of grew to perhaps half their expected size and then just stay. A few produced a few flowers or vegetables, but most did not develop properly. For instance we had a lot of squash that would bloom, grow to about “pinkie finger” size and then just die or wither. So far it looks as if about 80% of what we put in this year is hanging in and growing and we have even gotten several batches of early spinach, lettuce, kale and radishes. This is in stark contrast to what was likely less than a 15% success rate we had last year.

While many of those I have learned from use straw as their primary mulch, we of course have a huge abundance of leaves which we use in its place. That plus a meadow full of tall grasses and weeds have become the bulk of our mulch and is also often added to our compost pile. That compost pile is a bit of a miracle of its own. I have really tried to step up how much I fuel it with as about 4 months ago I noticed that the de-composers/worms had really moved in en’ force. Hopefully they don’t mind me on occasion moving some of their buddies around to the beds as we fill them. No arguments had thus far.

Potatoes, radish and spinach with leaf mulch. Added some pine bark to hold paths in place.

So far I have tried mulching to various degrees, whether between rows only, around beds only, or really getting in there and covering the whole thing, allowing just the little plants to peek out. The latter has quickly become my favorite because already on warm days I can tell they are retaining their water better and that bottom layer can already be seen beginning to add to the soil.

The hillside and the meadow are my two primary targets, though we also have two “ornamental beds” which we are converting into veggie beds. We left some of the ornamentals, thinking that would likely attract pollinators and perhaps offer some distraction to nuisance pests. Additionally lots of mint has been planted about these hybrid beds, which seems so far to collect and/or repel most pests.. so far. We shall see as it seems like the worst of those come along around July and August in our area. We also had a big batch of “accidental” potato plants that had sprouted. I figured it would be a shame to waste them so they went in the ground and are now pretty much taking over their section of the meadow which we gave them. They seem to serve as a distraction to the wildlife as well, and with garlic and radish inter-planted, the ground cherries and apple trees that are set out down there as “testers”.. maybe I should call them settlers or explorers.. have been mostly left alone. Certainly if I have my pick, I’d rather them munch on a few potato plants than my seedling berry bushes and fruit trees which was not the case when they were alone. After I saw the tops of several nibbled I quickly decided that would be where the potatoes and garlic would go. My plan is to add carrots and onions in a few weeks as well, as one of the rows is not doing well. I think it was the least well prepared but the little radishes that it grew should help pave the way for the next group.

This one is from the top of the hill. It has crape myrtle trees on it from the previous owners. I’ve left them as pollinator attractors for now. The far end has a few strawberries and gooseberries planted. Just had mixed in some grass cuttings with the leaf mulch earlier that day.

This is getting lengthy, so perhaps I will wrap it up. I shall do another progress report in a few weeks. I have a new fertilizer that I am trying and perhaps I can give some feedback on my experience with it. I currently fertilize mostly with compost, but I suspected they might like a little boost for the next year or two as the topsoil grows nice and thick. Thanks for reading, and as always..

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