Late last month I wrote about sending in my first samples for soil testing. The results arrived in my email inbox a few days ago.
Soil is the soul of the garden.
Good soil contains nutrients, organic matter, and beneficial microbes. It stores water and oxygen to be delivered directly to the roots of our precious edibles and ornamentals, and it protects those roots from big temperature changes that could freeze or burn them.
The latest landscape feature at our urban permaculture home spins me right round, baby. If you are too young to get the reference, make yourself useful and grab my Geritol® while I talk about it.
The topography of our suburban lot is as typical as you can imagine. It’s flat from the street to the fence at the rear of the property. The feature that makes it a dream for teenage lawn mowers across the country makes it less-than-ideal for permaculture purposes. Let me explain…
One of the foundations of a permaculture design is water. You want to keep as much of that good stuff on the property as possible, slowing its movement when heavy rains would normally cause it to make a beeline for the nearest storm drain. This is accomplished in a variety of ways, including rain barrels, heavy mulching, and swales, but the easiest way to slow its journey is to give it a few twists and turns.
Think back to the last time you were on a long stretch of road, so straight you could see the curve of the earth ahead. You’re all alone on that road, so of course your foot gets a little heavy on that pedal.
Then you get to a few hairpin curves in the road. What do you do? Slow down, of course. The same principle applies to water. If you want it to have more time to soak in before it leaves your land, you need to give it a reason to stick around.
So now that you understand why flat land is no bueno for permaculture, you will better understand the mechanics behind the brand-new hugel hoop I just completed in the front yard. A hugel hoop is the perfectly-named creation of the folks at Our Fertile Earth in Jacksonville, Florida, based on the centuries-old composting process known as Hügelkultur.
Hügelkultur is a method that mimics the natural decomposition and composting process that happens in the woods. Felled trees and branches line the base of a ditch, and are covered with wood chip mulch, leaves, and other fine debris. The lot is then covered with soil, creating a hill or mound. The mound can then be planted, the buried materials act as a water sponge while they decompose and add nutrients to the soil.
In a hugel hoop, the process is used to form a large ring around a tree, beyond the root line. This creates an ongoing food supply for the tree while simultaneously creating a water collecting basin at the tree’s base.
The photo above shows the hugel hoop in-process. The right side has been dug and filled with limbs and mulch.
I dug a trench about ten inches deep around our peach tree. The bottom was then lined with branches, followed by enough wood chip mulch to create a mound about six to eight inches above ground level. I soaked the ring thoroughly, giving the wood a chance to drink up all of the water it could.
On top of the mulch was added a layer of shredded leaves, which were then covered with the dirt I removed from the trench. At this point, the hoop is rather substantial and ready for planting. It should be protected with a layer of straw before watering everything in to help keep the soil in place while everything settles.
Below is a basic design sketch of the planting scheme for this area. As you can see, there will be a lot of herbs (5 different types), as well as edible annual flowers that will be used to adorn salads throughout the season.
Photos of the completed hoop coming soon!
Recently I told you about the hellstrip / sidewalk garden transformation I was working on. It’s been a few weeks now, and I thought I would share a few photos of the space as it looks today. For starters, here are some of the plants I used:
They say the first step is admitting you have a problem. My name is Michael and I have too much.
Took advantage of a free evening to stop by our weekly East Point Farmers Market, just a mile down the road. It was a great opportunity to catch up with friends and pick up a few seedlings for the garden.
I knew my local friend Nathan would be there from Widdershins Urban Farmstead, and she would have plenty of interesting edibles up for grabs. As luck would have it, I was in the market for interesting edibles and Nathan’s offerings did not disappoint.
My garden time is short this week as I prepare for an out-of-town conference in a few days, so I exercised restraint and only grabbed the six seedlings shown above:
- Delicata squash
- Better Boy tomato
- Mr. Stripey tomato
- Korean Hyssop
- Anaheim pepper
I also picked up a bottle of organic Echinacea extract from my friend Dannie at Aromatherapeutics, which is one of my medicine cabinet must-haves for cold and sinus issues. Dannie, a grows the plants and hand crafts the extracts himself, just a couple of blocks away from me.
Living in a small town in the shadows of a big city (Atlanta), it is easy to forget that we have access to some fantastic resources right where we live. I don’t have to grow everything from seed myself, and I don’t have to purchase all of my seedlings from box retailers. Often I can find exactly what I need in my neighborhood, and I can support local, small businesses and the people who are truly passionate about what they do.
It’s so easy to get depressed with all of the bad in the news these days, but sometimes all I need is a small town farmers market to remind me that life really isn’t all that bad after all.
Local residents making a difference to protect wildlife
East Point – May 1, 2015: The National Wildlife Federation® (NWF) is pleased to recognize that Michael Nolan of East Point, Georgia has successfully created an official Certified Wildlife Habitat™ site. NWF celebrates the efforts to create a garden space that improves habitat for birds, butterflies, frogs and other wildlife by providing essential elements needed by all wildlife – natural food sources, clean water, cover and places to raise young.
“Providing a home for wildlife in our communities – whether it’s at home, or in schools businesses or parks – is the demonstration of a healthy and active eco-system. There is no more rewarding way to stay connected to nature right outside your door,” said David Mizejewski, naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation.
“It just made sense.” said Nolan, an Atlanta-based gardening author and educator. “My partner and I wanted to build an organic, natural, edible garden space without the use of pesticides, so why not use the opportunity to also create a favorable environment that supports local wildlife?”
NWF’s Certified Wildlife Habitat program has been helping people take personal action on behalf of wildlife for more than 40 years. The program engages homeowners, businesses, schools, churches, parks and other institutions that want to make their communities wildlife friendly.
This new certified habitat joins NWF’s roll of more than 150,000 certified habitats nationwide. Wildlife habitats are important to year-round wildlife residents as well as species that migrate, such as some birds and butterflies. Each habitat is unique for both beauty and function.
Michael’s garden design is an ever-expanding garden space with perennial fruits, herbs, and vegetables for humans, as well as flower, pollen and berry-producing plants & shrubs for wildlife to enjoy. In addition to food, there is a home for mason bees, an important pollinator, as well as consistent, safe water sources for butterflies, bees, and birds. The ultimate goal is an organic, sustainable food forest in the heart of this suburban Georgia neighborhood.
For more information on gardening for wildlife and details on how an entire community can become certified, visit www.nwf.org/habitat or call 1-800-822-9919. The mission of the National Wildlife Federation is to inspire Americans to protect wildlife for our children’s future.
Once upon a time there was a sad, sad hellstrip. You know what I’m talking about – that lonely space between the sidewalk and the street that is usually only frequented by local dogs on their neighborhood rounds who are only doing their part in trying to keep the area well-fertilized.
While my focus this year will be on cultivating a sustainable food forest in the back garden, I just couldn’t stand knowing that my neighbors might drive by the house every day judging me. They’re totally within their rights to do so…they know I’m a professional gardener, and yet the front yard looks like the space that time forgot.
Well I’ll show them! I’ll clean up that hellstrip, get rid of the overgrown grass and weeds, and make it a space that is beautiful and easy to maintain.
I started at the end that connects to the driveway, because I wanted to be able to get rid of an overgrowth of high grass and weeds around the mailbox and utility pole.
On the first day, I made it this far. No, it doesn’t look like much but let me tell you, this was work. To arrive at the product you see in the photo above, I had to dig and remove 3 large buckets full of grass, weeds, and soil, then carry the same large bucket full of wood chip mulch from the back garden to cover the newly-exposed (and amazingly earthworm-rich) soil.
The photo above was just after I filled the third bucket on Day 2. The photo below, was bucket #4. In the majority of the space, I am removing as much as five inches of soil and grass.
In order to stay true to my permaculture-centered focus, I am redistributing all of the removed dirt and debris to the back garden for another project. More on that later.
Below, you see the end of Day 2. I have removed the grass and weeds from about 35-40% of the hellstrip and covered it with a thick layer of local wood chip mulch. I did not remove my beloved co-gardener Sadie from the yard. She stays.
The next update will show all of the grass and weeds gone, the foundation plants in place, and the low-maintenance hellstrip completed.
What plants would you use in a space like this?
As a professional gardener and garden writer I am often approached to try out and review new products, but spring is high season for that sort of thing. I turn down many such offers, unless the product meets a few basic criteria:
- It is relevant and applicable to the work I do.
- It is morally and ethically in line with what I believe and teach.
- It is something that I honestly believe I might purchase and use.
The topic of almonds came up in conversation with a friend yesterday.
His point was that if we care about California (the country’s largest producer of almonds), we should lay off the almond consumption, as the almond industry accounts for ten percent of the state’s water usage. I immediately agreed, thinking of the almond milk iced lattes I enjoy a couple of times a week with my vegan doughnuts from Revolution Doughnuts.
Then I thought about the topic for most of the night and realized that giving up almonds was probably not the best choice for me. Instead, I want to explain a bit about industrial agriculture in California and where all of that water is really going. First, I should tell you that 80 percent of California’s water is used by industrial agriculture, not the residents and businesses who have been ordered to reduce their water use by 25 percent.
The industry that uses the overwhelming majority of the state’s water has no restrictions on water use.
Read that again.
In reaction to what has been noted as an inordinately high percentage of water usage by some agriculture crops like almonds and chickpeas, several groups, websites, and well-meaning individuals have called for people to stop using the products altogether.
I understand, but I want them to understand something as well. I want them to understand that 47 percent of California’s water supply is used by the meat and dairy industries. That’s nearly half of the water consumption of a parched and brittle land.
Now this is where I’m going to get some feathers ruffled, because I’m going to hit Americans where it really hurts – not in their almond milk lattes, but in their burgers and steaks. That’s right, I’m saying without hesitation or qualification that if you really want to help to reduce water consumption in California in time to save it from some pretty dire consequences, you should reduce the amount of beef and dairy you consume – like now. It’s the Water Buffalo in the room, and it is high time we start talking about it.
It takes about 2,500 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef.
Let’s go back to the almonds for a minute. I mentioned previously that they drink up 10 percent of California’s water, right? Did you know that alfalfa – a crop that is grown only as animal feed – uses 15 percent, and most of the alfalfa is shipped overseas? Where’s the outrage there?
I gave up meat and dairy last June for several reason, not the least of which is what raising it on an industrial scale is doing to our environment. I didn’t make that decision lightly, and I’m not writing this in a flippant way either. You don’t have to give up meat and dairy entirely to consume less, and consuming less is better for the environment and for your health.
For more info, I recommend these links: