How Does the Garden Grow–July 2018 Edition

Well, as usually I’ve gotten crazy busy this summer (even work has taken a turn recently) and haven’t blogged about progress as much as I wanted. To set the stage, we’ve had a super dry and hot summer here in Vermont. Almost the polar (or should that be solar) opposite of last year. As is the nature of all gardening, you adapt from the previous year and get a different year. The good news is hugelcultur and permaculture are built for adaptation. The raised beds on the other hand can get a bit dicey if there isn’t enough moisture. We’ve definitely had to do some irrigating.

I’ve added some soaker hoses into the mix in addition to our overhead sprinklers. Ideally I would love to just do drip-style watering, but it’s a big pain to get set up and particularly with our winters, trying to do anything permanent is probably going to just lead to frustration. Even if you attempt to blow out and drain everything. That being said, soaker hoses are cheap enough that I’m experimenting with laying them down once and just leaving them in place. This seems to work particularly well if I run a hose along the top of a hugelcultur mound, so I’m going to keep experimenting.

Anyway, the main point of this post is I want to show the crazy growth on our main hugelcultur mound with some before and after pictures.

Here is the main mound on the 4th of July.

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Here is the mound as of this morning. The crazy growth in the back consists of a couple of tomato plants, some tomatillos, basil, beans and maybe a pepper plant.

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Here is a closer view

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And here is a view from the side

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In other news, here is what happens when you plan too much stuff in a raised bed with stuff that likes to grow up and everything starts getting happy together.

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If you want to see additional unedited pictures of our garden this year, hop over to this gallery.

Completing garden prep

For those of you waiting on bated breath to hear how we are progressing on our garden changes, I have an update for you. We are nearly done building the new raised beds and the hugelcultur mounds are now covered with dirt and ready to use.

Here is the latest mound partially covered in dirt. We really like how it turned out. It’s a U shape, so definitely looks very organic and naturalistic. Not a typical vegetable garden look.

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We have already started planting a few things in them. As it is the first year, we aren’t sure what kinds of plants are actually going to do well so we are experimenting as always. We do have the mound we started last fall that is already breaking down nicely. We are going to try some melons and squash in that one. It’s back away from the garden in a corner, so if any of those plants decide to travel around we can just see what happens.

Here you can see more raised beds filling in the rest of the open spaces in the garden.

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And one more view to give you more of a full picture.

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There are still a few spots that are a bit wide for a walking space and we are putting a few more typical rows. These are trenches filled with rotted cow manure and covered with good garden soil. We are also doing a similar wide row at the end of one of the mounds except that one has a layer of wood chips underneath. So we’ll try and see what happens.

On a side note, we planted a bunch more bulbs last fall in front of our house and it has been absolutely beautiful the last few weeks. Here are some samples:

 

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Goals for 2018 Growing Season

I’m hoping to start blogging a bit more this year as we are making some changes in our approach. I want to share what we are doing and try to document how well it works.

First some background. When we first bought this property, we were really anxious to get rolling on large-scale gardening and so we carved a couple of large garden spaces out of the lawn/pasture. We thought it would take a few years to get soil fertility and workability up, but then things would start to click. However, we have discovered there are a couple of flaws in that assumption.

The first challenge is the heavy clay on much of the property that is common in this area. It’s fertile soil and holds onto nutrients well, but is very difficult to work with unless the moisture levels are correct. Except in uncommon years, the moisture levels are almost never “correct” here. In the spring the ground is super saturated, which delays planting, causes seeds and seedlings to rot and allows weeds to take hold. In the summer, things dry out and then the soil turns into hardpan that holds onto rhizomic grasses and other weeds and is hard to work.

The second challenge is the huge amount of spring water in general. In a good year we don’t start drying out until mid-June. Last year the whole month of June was bad. We planted corn three times and never really got a great crop. My beautiful tomato seedlings (best I’ve ever started) never had dry enough roots and so they either died, got infected or took a long time to get started. We did a lot of work the first few years to improve drainage and add swales to direct water away. It has helped a bit, but not enough.

So we’ve decided to transition to more of a permaculture approach. We are switching over the garden behind our house to a series of raised beds and hugelcultur mounds. Our front garden plot is going to have a few raised beds for plants like watermelon and pumpkins, but we’re mostly going to just cover it in a deep layer of wood chips, manure and other organic matter and try to build up the soil. We’ll probably plant some cover crops, but maybe not much more than that. We are hoping this will help us to focus our soil building efforts by building up organic material in the raised beds and mitigate some of the moisture issues with the hugelcultur mounds. We also hope this will allow us to keep weeds under control a little better or at least make them easier to pull. This will also involve primarily using a no-till, deep mulch approach in most of our growing areas.

In addition, we are going to continue to plant more perennial food plants (mostly fruits, possibly some nuts) and hopefully get the first round of trees planted for our wind/noise break. I would still really love to get some mushroom cultivation going as well. So far that has been mostly a failure, but we’ve met some folks that are doing it successfully. So hoping to get a bit of mentoring this spring. I’m clearing some of the brush out of the small woody areas on the edges of our property, so thinking moving mushroom logs under the canopy might work better. We’ll also use the rotten logs and leaf debris for our hugelcultur mounds and chip a lot of the brush to use as organic matter as well.

As usual, gardening seems to be one long experiment, but it does scratch the optimization itch in the way my mind works. In all this we are hoping to get to a place of less work and more production. Or at least the more “fun” work of gardening instead of spending most of the time trying to stay ahead of the weeds.

2016 Solar Update

Just wanted to post a quick update on how our solar installation is doing. 2016 was a fantastic year for solar with lots of sun. Due to the way our statements are generated, the billing year actually runs from mid-January, so this report is for the period of 1/18/2016 – 1/17/2017.

For the year, our panels generated just over 10,000 Kwh (10231), which is amazing. Our best generation period was unexpectedly mid-August to mid-September, although it only beat mid-June to mid-July by 4 Kwh. Still, you wouldn’t expect that behavior since even in September the days are already getting significantly shorter than June.

We look to be on track to make it through the winter without using up our credits again, which basically is the goal. No electric bills with a net balance to pay at all is what you want. We are running the heat pump a lot to supplement the heat in the winter, so even with that factored in we are doing okay.

I would still love to see us get our usage down a bit, but given our large house and most of us being home all day it gets tough to pare that down much. We have pretty much entirely switched over to LED lights, which has helped. Now I just have to run interference to keep them turned off when not in use. We’re also switching more stuff to electric as well, such as trying to use rechargeable batteries whenever possible. I bought an electric string trimmer made by Ego Power that I really like. It’s super powerful, a joy to work with compared with the traditional engine varieties and gives me about a half hour of good trimming. By then my arms and shoulders are usually tired anyway. A neighbor who also has solar bought an electric chainsaw that he raves about.

The electric tools have really made huge strides and will continue to benefit from all the other innovation that is improving batteries and pushing costs down. I’m hoping my lawn mower lasts long enough that my next one of those can be fully electric, but we aren’t quite there yet. There are some coming along (like Mean Green for instance), but they are still very much first wave technology and very expensive. The electric push mowers on the other hand have been around for awhile now and seem to work fairly well. I think Ego makes one that uses the same battery as my trimmer, although it may use two batteries.

We are going to continue to look for ways to move over to electric from fossil fuels where we can. For instance, I still have a propane heater in my office since the heat doesn’t make it back here. We also have a propane clothes dryer. So we still have some areas to keep in mind. I’m also keeping a close eye on battery storage, such as the Tesla PowerWall so we could eventually go completely off-grid if we wanted. I think the prices are going to drop precipitously over the next five years though, so holding out a bit.