TRENDY AND LIKING IT

image courtesy of - thetruthaboutguns.com

image courtesy of – thetruthaboutguns.com

We’re not usually ones to follow trends and such but, in this particular case, we’re really glad we did. We have developed a true passion for African keyhole gardens.

First, we should give you a bit of background. You would think that, living in the Pac Northwest, gardening should be as easy as sticking a seed in the ground and jumping back so that the instant sprout doesn’t hit you in the eye as it comes up. Now, that’s true is some areas but not ours. You see, we live along what is euphemistically referred to as the Hood Canal. It sound so much more romantic than “the leftover path of a long since melted glacier” – but that’s exactly what the Hood Canal is. This contrasts sharply to the alluvial plains found in Thurston, King, Snohomish and Pierce counties. There the dirt is rich, black and wonderful. Here – well we say – if you dig a one cubic foot hole you’ll get two bushels of rocks and a cup of sand. On the plus side, this makes for great drainage. Oh wait, plants need water – maybe that’s not as much of a plus as we’re trying to make out.

Anyway, we’ve tried several methods of vegetable gardening. We’ve tried it in the soil after adding tons of organic matter. We’ve tried raised beds. We’ve tried container gardening. Our best success has been with Hugelkultur, a method of gardening developed on the dry plains of eastern Germany and western Poland. We have mutant junkie sized chives and roses with this method so we decided to give it a go for vegetables as well.

Now, digging a pit three to four feet deep and measuring twelve feet across in this soil should have been one of Hercules’ labors. But, since the ancients probably didn’t know that Washington State was there it got left out of the list. (NOTE: I am not masochistic, stupid or Hercules) so, off I went to see our neighbor whose tractor has a backhoe attachment.

After finding out that I dug the first rose bed by hand over a week’s time, he very kindly made it available to dig the other Hugelkultur rose beds. Thus, I had every hope that he would lend it for the current project. And he would have, except the backhoe attachment was broken. He’s the same generous soul who had provided us with a bunch of old, broken concrete to use as a retaining wall for the new garden. (ANOTHER NOTE: The site we chose for the new garden is at the top of a small rise. Our plan was to excavate down into the hill and then build up a retaining wall on the downhill side.)

So, here we sat with a pile of concrete chunks and no hole for it to retain. For one brief, insane moment, I did consider tackling the project by hand – well, by spud bar, pick, and shovel. Fortunately, after a glass of Irish Whiskey (if you like whiskey, you really need to try Trader Joe’s SINGLE MALT Irish. It’s amazing! Sweet, full bodied, and very satisfying – but, as usual, I digress).

As I was saying, after a glass of ambrosia, I came to my senses and Colleen began to research alternatives that were less likely to result in my having a heart attack. (She DOES care! Amazing!). Her sister Judy, who was having imense success with a tiered garden, suggested that we look into African keyhole gardens. (HINT: Guys, women talk to each other about EVERYTHING. It’s part of the way they get things done. So, just expect that all her sisters and most of her friends know a whole lot more than you wish they did!)

Well, we tried them. There are some wonderful sites and several videos to help neophytes like us get started. It took about three days to break the concrete, excavate the water trap, stack the concrete, and fill the garden. It was a lot of initial work but now that it’s going, the garden is virtually effortless to maintain. Suffice it to say, we’ve never had results like this before. We’re sold and we encourage all of you to take the plunge. It’s fun, it’s attractive, and it’s very water efficient.

Be sure to check out the videos and links below the pictures. They’re the ones we found most helpful in our efforts.

The initial layout of the keyhole garden. It gets its name from the shape of the indentation combined with the round compost receiving hole. Seen from above they resemble the hole for a skeleton key.

The initial layout of the keyhole garden. It gets its name from the shape of the indentation combined with the round compost receiving hole. Seen from above they resemble the hole for a skeleton key.

Second course of broken up concrete.  It's starting to come into clearer focus now.

Second course of broken up concrete. It’s starting to come into clearer focus now.

The finished height of the garden. It stands about 24 inches tall and is 6 feet across at the widest part.

The finished height of the garden. It stands about 24 inches tall and is 6 feet across at the widest part.

Here's the moisture trap. This layer of rotten and old wood collects and holds water. The trap provides  improved soil moisture and helps conserve water that runs through. It's derived from the Hugelkultur experience.

Here’s the moisture trap. This layer of rotten and old wood collects and holds water. The trap provides improved soil moisture and helps conserve water that runs through. It’s derived from the Hugelkultur experience.

Next step, the compost tube. This is just a tube of wire mesh which measures 1 foot in diameter. I inserted a cardboard liner so that, when we filled the garden bed we would keep the dirt out of the compost tube. Also, notice that we've lined the bed itself with cardboard.  You see the alternating layers of green compost, brown compost (dry hay, straw, shredded cardboard, paper, sticks, twigs, etc) and dirt.

Next step, the compost tube. This is just a tube of wire mesh which measures 1 foot in diameter. I inserted a cardboard liner so that, when we filled the garden bed we would keep the dirt out of the compost tube. Also, notice that we’ve lined the bed itself with cardboard. You see the alternating layers of green compost, brown compost (dry hay, straw, shredded cardboard, paper, sticks, twigs, etc) and dirt.

It's really filling up now. Finally! A productive use for garden waste, tree trimmings and especially the ubiquitous and annoying Oak Ferns that take over everything around here.

It’s really filling up now. Finally! A productive use for garden waste, tree trimmings and especially the ubiquitous and annoying Oak Ferns that take over everything around here.

Here you can see that the compost tube is filling at the same rate as the garden bed. The trick here is to continually alternate layers of green and brown compost in the bed proper and cover each one with soil. We also added a whole bucket of dissolved worm castings (that's a nice word for poop) at this point. It smelled VERY agricultural and captured the attention of the otherwise bored dogs. However, the smell went away with the next layer of soil.

Here you can see that the compost tube is filling at the same rate as the garden bed. The trick here is to continually alternate layers of green and brown compost in the bed proper and cover each one with soil. We also added a whole 2 gallon bucket of dissolved worm castings (that’s a nice word for poop) at this point. It smelled VERY agricultural and captured the attention of the otherwise bored dogs. However, the smell went away when we covered it with the next layer of soil.

After the garden is filled to the rim, you continue piling up soil until it meets the top of the compost tube, about one foot higher than your wall. This gives you an incredible amount of 'plantable' space.  From now on you just dump your kitchen and yard waste into the tube. It breaks down very quickly. Ours goes down about one an a half inches a every four to five days - and it's fertilizing the garden as it does!

After the garden is filled to the rim, you continue piling up soil until it meets the top of the compost tube, about one foot higher than your wall. This gives you an incredible amount of ‘plantable’ space. From now on you just dump your kitchen and yard waste into the tube. It breaks down very quickly. Ours goes down about one an a half inches a every four to five days – and it’s fertilizing the garden as it does!

This is how the garden looked on May 25, 2015. We were so excited and it looked so good to us then.

This is how the garden looked on May 25, 2015. We were so excited and it looked so good to us then. You can just barely see the pumpkins on the back side of the mound. That green topknot is a basil plant from Trader Joe’s.

This is the same view of the garden three weeks later. Granted, we added two pepper plants, a Thai basil which you can't see behind the Sweet 100 tomato plant. but still, it's just phenomenal how quickly things grew. That green wall on the back side is made up of the pumpkins which you could barely see in the preceding photo.

This is the same view of the garden three weeks later. Granted, we added two pepper plants, a Thai basil which you can’t see behind the Sweet 100 tomato plant. but still, it’s just phenomenal how quickly things grew. That green wall on the back side is made up of the pumpkins which you could barely see in the preceding photo. And look at the Trader Joe’s basil! We take off a dozen or more leaves each week and we can’t even see where they were!

Here's a shot of the pumpkins. We've had to build a netting out of concrete reinforcing mesh in order to keep them off the ground. On the far side of the pumpkins are two lemon cucumbers which will share the netting. As of today, we're going to have to get another piece of mesh to extend the platform since the pumpkins have almost outgrown it already.

Here’s a shot of the pumpkins. We’ve had to build a netting out of concrete reinforcing mesh in order to keep them off the ground. On the far side of the pumpkins are two lemon cucumbers which will share the netting. As of today, we’re going to have to get another piece of mesh to extend the platform since the pumpkins have almost outgrown it already.

http://www.inspirationgreen.com/keyhole-gardens.html

http://www.hgtvgardens.com/raised-garden/keyhole-gardening-tips

GARDENING AND RECYCLING ALL IN ONE

We live in the country as you already know but there are times when we want to do some container gardening. For example, like when we want to plant a new variety of mint. Mint is among the most persistent and pernicious garden plants in the known universe. Once mint gets a foothold in the ground, it invades everything else, sometimes even choking out those prized ornamentals. (Hence the contention that it is pernicious. But that’s another rant all together.)

Other times you just want to get a plant into a large enough container that it has room to grow or winter over before the place you have chosen for it is ready to go. But putting plants in large containers can be a problem, can’t it? Even if you use a resin or other light weight pot, by the time you drop two cubic feet of potting soil in it, the pot weighs a ton. Especially if you live in the city and want to do container gardening, mobility might be important whether it’s to protect them in colder months, or to prevent sunburn. Or maybe you’re like us and just like to shift things around from time to time.

Whatever your reason, you need to know something about most plants (herbs, flowers, veggies like cucumbers, zucchini, etc – really pretty much anything other than shrubs and trees.) They only need between 8 and 12 inches of soil to thrive. So, why fill a 20 inch deep pot with potting soil, right? It’s heavy and it’s expensive.  Once you use that much dirt, then you need one of those rolling plant stands which are either very expensive or very cheesy. So how do you beat the problem? Easy, Styrofoam.

That’s right, Styrofoam. That clunky, bulky, packing material that no one wants to recycle. I don’t know about your waste collector but ours says that Styrofoam is non-recyclable and should be treated as trash. In other words, it ends up in a land fill where it doesn’t decompose. We don’t want to get into the ‘environmental effects’ debate, we just want to focus on the fact that you’re chucking away something that does not go away. 

Whether you use the packing peanuts or big chunks you can layer the bottom of you large plant containers to save money, reduce weight and improve drainage. Drainage is key to plant health. It reduces disease, allows oxygenation and prevents plants from drowning. A quick note here. If you use packing peanuts, consider putting them into one of those net bags that potatoes or onions come in. If you decide to retask your pot later, or change out the soil, it’ll be a lot easier if you aren’t chasing Styrofoam bits about the patio.  Here’s a simple pictorial primer on how to use Styrofoam to lighten your containers, help reduce landfill waste, and get better drainage for your plants.

This project is for a honeysuckle that has been languishing in a pot. It needs somewhere to survive the winter until we get the ground prepared for the new woodshed, which it will adorn.

Step 1: The pot

step 1

This is a hulking great ceramic pot from Costco that has been home to bamboo, Japanese Maples, and now honeysuckle. It’s already heavy and we don’t need to fill it with 2 cubic feet of soil.

Step 2: Line the bottom with chunks of Styrofoam packing

step-2

Be sure make your base relatively as level and fill in as many gaps as you can. Remember, you’re putting dirt and a plant atop this base so it needs to be firm. The formula is: make your Styrofoam layer deep enough that you have room for 2 – 3 inches of soil atop it and another inch left at the top for topdressing.

Step 3: Weed fabric

step-3

After your packing is in the pot, cover the top of the Styrofoam with weed fabric. We suggest using this because it lets water through and will not decompose like paper, cardboard, etc. You want your plant on a relatively permanent base. There’s nothing worse than having your lovely container emulate a Florida sinkhole one day.

Step 4: Start with the dirt

step-4

Put in a layer of dirt, potting soil, whatever, that will raise your plants up to within an inch of the lip. Remember, this should usually be about 2 or 3 inches deep to permit root growth. The inch at the top ensures that you have adequate room for watering.

Step 5: Setting the plant

step-5

Set your plant or plants on the base layer of soil. Once you have them arranged begin filling between them. Remember, plants grow so don’t overcrowd them to begin with. Leave room for them to fill in and take on that lush, tangled look by themselves.

Step 6: Topdressing or mulch

step-6

Once you have back filled, we strongly urge you to top-dress the soil with some form of mulch. This prevents weed growth, aids in moisture retention, and basically finishes off the look of you work.

The finished product

>step-7

Here is our newly container planted honeysuckle next to a pot of oregano, thyme, and rosemary (again with a Styrofoam base in it). All told, it probably took somewhere around 40 minutes to complete, and that includes moving that monster of a pot.

Enjoy container gardening. It’s great for growing fresh herbs and beautiful flowers and it’s a whole lot less likely to wrench your back out if you reuse your Styrofoam packing as a base in your larger pots.