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

HUGELKULTUR, WONDERFUL HUGELKULTUR

Greetings readers. This is the first post composed entirely via our tablet. That said, please forgive any spelling or editing errors.

You may recall that several posts ago we promised to spend some time discussing hugelkultur. Well, since spring is here (okay, almost here – but it’s close!) It seemed a good time to visit the topic. So, let’s start with the question, “Just what the heck is hugelkultur anyway?”  It is a gardening system designed to make sustainable horticulture in climates that experience very wet periods followed by extremely dry ones. Oddly enough, its roots are to be found in Eastern Europe.

What is entailed is to make a mound comprised of logs – which act as moisture traps; layered with twigs and branches – which add aeration; layered with straw, soil, and compost – which compost under the final layer of soil; thereby adding warmth and nutrients. For weed suppression, we add a final layer of cardboard followed by mulch. The cardboard needs to be the corrugated kind. This makes an  ideal nesting place for earthworms which, as you have no doubt already guessed, add to the efficiency of the whole system.

We can go into the process more in a later post because today, we want to show you the effects of hugelkultur.

As many of you know, we live in the Northwest. Summers are short, winters are long, and anything you can do to get a jump on the growing season is good. Perhaps that is why you see more greenhouses per capita here than just about anywhere in the country. (Okay, there’s no sciensce backing this claim but it seems true.) That aside, we want to show you the effects of hugelkultur by comparing 4 maple trees around our yard.

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This first photo is of a native Big Leaf maple. These hardy natives are just beginning to show their leaf buds. Notice that the bud is emerging from its protective sheath but still being a bit self protective because of the cool daytime temperatures and even cooler overnight ones.

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This is one of the baźillion species of Acer Japonicum that you find all throughout the Northwest. This little darling is in a protected area of the yard, just at the forest edge. It has great drainage and yet, it shows only the hard exterior sheathing over its leaf buds.

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This is the same (or similar) variety of maple as the one above. It is in a protected area near the foundation of the house. Notice how its leaves more closely resemble those of the native Big Leaf maple. This tree has obviously benefited from the warmth that the foundation has imparted to the surrounding soil.

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This is a coral bark maple. These are planted as much for the color they impart to the winter landscape as for their lovely lime green foliage. This maple wintered over in a half whiskey barrel planter. Notice that its leaves are alos just emerging. Another example of heat trapping and insulation benefiting the plant’s health and progress.

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Lastly, we see the same variety of coral bark maple but this time it has been planted in a huglekultur bed. Now, this bed is inside our shade garden. It is far colder inside there. In fact, on a recent walk we passed by it on a day when the ambient temperature was about 70 degrees. There was a decidely cold emianation from the shade garden. It was probably 10 degrees colder inside than outside the area yet, the maple inside it is further along than any of the others we have looked at.

So, you can see for yourself that our very unscientific study of five similar trees in five disparate locations shows us that hugelkultur can have a profound effect on plant growth.

Needless to say, I see far more hugelkultur planting on the horizon. For more adventures in Northwest hugelkultur gardening, visit Erica’s site.

PETAL POWERED LOVE

What says romance more than roses? The plants are rooted deeply in culture and lore. But what do we really know about them?

Chihuly Rose - photo courtesy of heirloomroses.com

Chihuly Rose – named for Northwest glass artist Dale Chihuly this double bloom rose has appealing wavy petals that are ever changing. They vary from bloom to bloom cycling through apricot, yellow, orange and red. Sometimes the blooms even come out streaked or striped with these colors. – photo courtesy of heirloomroses.com

Well, let’s start with their origins. Certainly rose cultivation and popularity reached its zenith in England. Even today, many of the most desirable rose varieties spring from English breeders. But England is not the well spring for most original varieties of roses. That distinction falls to Asia. Certainly there are some  species that had their origins in Africa, Europe, and even North America but the majority come from Asia. Just like citrus fruits, which we tend to associate with Florida or Arizona.

The next common misconception about roses is that they have thorns. Not so. Technically, what roses have are prickles. I know, to paraphrase, ‘a thorn by any other name …’ but there is a biological distinction. Thorns are modified stems. Short, pointed stems which originate from nodes on the stalk or branch of a plant. Prickles, on the other hand, are eruptions from the outer skin of a plant (referred to as the epidermis, just like in mammals). If you’ve ever broken a ‘thorn’ off a rose stem, you’ll have noticed that there is a distinct ovate break in the skin of the stem but no underlying anchor or node.

Many, if not most of the roses we buy at the nursery or big box garden store are grafted

Ebb Tide - floribunda rose - photo courtesy of heirloomroses.com

Ebb Tide – floribunda rose Hues of purple tinted with deep lavender. These are a particular favorite of the browsing deer. Dogs! Get back to work! – photo courtesy of heirloomroses.com

roses. Now grafting is a fascinating subject all on its own. In fruit trees, it’s possible to graft a branch from one variety of fruit onto the rootstock of another and still get the branch part’s fruit. Our orchard club is talking about closing in on a ‘fruit salad’ tree which produces apples, pears, and cherries all from one piece of rootstock. Amazing!

Back to roses. So, a grafted rose is one where a sturdier or faster growing rootstock has a different stem, or scion grafted to it. This can make for a more climate tolerant or modern disease resistant rose. Not bad things, but like most things in life, there can be downsides to grafted roses. Our first experience with a downside came when we were living in Nevada. We found this lovely  rose with petals that were red on the top side but white underneath. We planted it in a prominent part of the front garden and enjoyed it, for a year. That winter, the plant froze back to the roots due to an unexpected and freak weather event. The rose grew back but the blooms were now those of a rather nondescript red rose – due to the rootstock.

El Catala - Red on top, white underneath, and it keeps doing that even after a freeze! - photo courtesy of heirloomroses. com

El Catala – Red on top, white underneath, and it keeps doing that even after a freeze! – photo courtesy of heirloomroses. com

The other disadvantage to grafted roses is the potential for suckers which are those little thin shoots that come off the rootstock. They tend to weaken the grafted portion of the rose and they require constant trimming once they start to appear. Annoying to say the least.

The other kind of rose that you can buy is one grown from a cutting. Cuttings produce plants identical to their parents. So, in the case of a hard freeze that takes your bush out to the ground, the plant that returns the next spring is the one you expect.

The downside of cutting grown roses is that they are expensive. Not all rose cuttings

Tea Clipper - a 'quartered' rose. Notice the four distinct centers and 100 petals per bloom! - photo courtesy of heirloomroses. com

Tea Clipper – a ‘quartered’ rose. Notice the four distinct centers and 100 petals per bloom! – photo courtesy of heirloomroses. com

sprout roots very easily and there is a relatively high failure rate for many them. However, once they do root, they are generally quite hardy and many are now bred for disease resistance. On the up side, roses from cuttings tend to mature and flower relatively quickly.

All of this leads up to the fact that we have an ongoing love affair with roses. They do take some work, especially here in the wilds of Western Washington. However, the results are well worth the effort. We tend to favor more unusual varieties of roses. Some of ours are ‘cabbage roses’ with dense clusters of petals. Some have more than 100 petals per bloom. Others have what appear to be multiple centers. We tend to be quite eclectic on our selections, choosing color and characteristics (and disease resistance). Some of our roses are floribunda or, many bloom per stalk types. Others are single roses chosen for fragrance. Others still are chosen for their resemblance to wild roses. These have only five petals per flower but they can be quite striking.

Copper Star, the only rose with a point at the end of its petals. Simple, elegant and hardy. - photo courtesy of heirloomroses.com

Copper Star, the only rose with a point at the end of its petals. Simple, elegant and hardy. – photo courtesy of heirloomroses.com

In a later post, we are going to talk about our hugelkultur rose beds. If you’ve read our ‘About’ page you’ll recognize that word. In the mean time, here are a few pictures of some of our favorite roses. It is not an exhaustive list. Trust me. I’ve dug the holes for each and every one of these little darlings. I’m here to tell you, I remember every single one.

To learn more about roses, visit one of our favorite websites Heirloom Roses. It’s where all our varieties come from. And, danger of dangers, they ship!

Tequila Sunrise - drama in a double bloom rose. Deep yellow is edged with scarlet. Simply striking! - photo courtesy of heirloomroses. com

Tequila Sunrise – drama in a double bloom rose. Deep yellow is edged with scarlet. Simply striking! – photo courtesy of heirloomroses. com