So it’s been a while and school has opened, and closed, and re-opened again. I pray you are all staying safe. I hope this has given you enough time to collect your green and brown waste for your growing mound. We are in Spring, which is the absolutely best time of year in the garden.
The recent rain has dampened the rotting wood on the bottom layer of the bed, and has started to call the wood and brown matter composters. The next step is to fill the gaps between the branches with the collected cardboard. Wet it as you layer it, breaking up the toilet roll tubes and egg boxes. Rather spend a few weeks adding to the layers as more cardboard comes available, than have too little. Top it all with opened up cardboard boxes, making sure to remove the plastic sticking tape. Nobody wants plastic in their veggies!
The purpose of the cardboard is to stop the grass below the bed from growing up into the vegetable bed. If the cardboard layer is too thin, the grass will still find a way to send its runners through the soil. If you don’t have cardboard, old newspapers can also be used in nice thick piles. Remember to wet the layers.
Once you have layered on your cardboard, you can start adding all the fallen leaves from your yard. If you don’t have enough, you can ask your neighbour for their leaves too! Or ask the local garden service for their grass cuttings and leaf rakings. There is no need to ever have your grass cuttings taken away. They are fantastic food for your garden. And when you think about it, you are returning the energy to your soil, so it maintains a circular system. As I tell the Enviro kids, you have to put back more than you take out to keep your natural systems healthy.
Don’t forget those kitchen scraps you were saving. This is the layer they must be added to. Kitchen scraps are fantastic to add to a small garden compost heap as they add valuable nutrients to the soil. Just remember that no cooked meat or cooked food should be added, and that vegetable and fruit scraps must be covered to stop smells, and to prevent rodents from excavating your garden!
The next layer you can add is soil. Please don’t worry how bad or poor your soil is. The beauty of the Permaculture Hugelbed system is it is designed to build the soil as you grow. Most of the soil in Port Alfred is pure seas and. It can’t keep water, and dries out very quickly. By adding so much organic, plant matter to the beds, in an environment that encourages the composting critters, you can be assured of good soil in a relatively short time. The more compost material you add, the better your soil will be at holding more water, for longer.
Your layer of soil should be about 25cm deep. Keep watering generously between layers, to encourage the organisms and insects. Then, top your soil with green mulch, like grass cuttings, or freshly fallen leaves. Once you have got to this stage, you have basically finished your growing mound.
Let it settle for a few weeks if you’d like, but if you are in a hurry to get planting, you don’t need to wait. Just make sure your soil stays covered with mulch, to keep the soil damp and ready for seeds and seedlings.
If you have free-ranging pets, like I do, you will need to look at a way to keep them out of your garden. I have made fences with Ink berry sticks, some more successful at keeping chickens out than others …
In our main vegetable garden, we have made simple fences around our non-chicken traffic areas with 450mm chicken wire and corner poles. This is low enough for me to step over without face-planting onto the plants, but high enough to keep the chickens out.
This time, I decided to make a “free fence” with ink berry branches we had cut at the back of our property. Stout-ish poles in the ground at the entrances and along the length, and bendy branches woven in between seems the best approach. But as the fence dries, it does need tweaking and adding to if you want to keep the intruders out. It’s a fun way to spend an afternoon, too. I made a simple gate with a piece of corrugated iron, some pallet planks and some recycled rope. Admittedly it is pretty rustic, but it is a good illustration of “free-cycling” garden material for a second (or third or more) purpose.
My plan with planting is to plant different varieties of tomatoes along the fence, so that they can trail along the length of the fencing. My chickens absolutely adore tomatoes, so I will sacrifice the fruit hanging on the outside, and have happy chickens at the same time! While I am waiting for the ground to warm up as the Spring approaches, I am planting my “support plants”.
Nasturtiums are one of my favourite support plants to use for a number of reasons:
Firstly, they attract aphids from other plants onto themselves. The aphids don’t harm the nasturtiums at all; they just like to hang out under the leaves. Not on your veggies. (I like having aphids in my garden because they mean a constant food source for my favourite garden army, the ladybirds. But more about that another time.)
Secondly, they camouflage the vulnerable seedlings from pest attack. Pests like the cabbage moth recognise the aerial outline of the brassica seedlings and the nasturtiums give aerial ”cover”.
Thirdly, they provide shade for the plants as they grow. Even in winter, we can have some pretty hot days. Climate change is definitely changing our temperatures and nowhere is it more evident than in the garden. I now always plant for shade and wind breaks as we see higher temperatures and more extreme weather, for longer. Shaded soil obviously stays damp for longer, too. Water scarcity is the harsh reality in most of the world, and water will most definitely be in short supply in the future.
Fourthly, I love them in the garden! We make climbing frames from pallet wood, and train the nasturtiums over the frames. It adds height and colour in the garden, which is beautiful. Plus the flowers and leaves are edible and absolutely delicious in salads and sandwiches. And I pickle the young seedpods as capers.
Lastly, they add valuable plant material to the soil as they grow and spread. More plant materials equal more water absorption and retention for longer, which means better veggies with less water.
I also interplant my veggies with dill, insect repelling plants like Artemesia, Feverfew and Wilde Els, and grasses like sorghum, millet and oats, which the birds love, and which make excellent windbreaks.
You are now, my dear fellow gardeners, ready to plant your Spring veggies. I will do a recap of the seedling pots we used in Enviro Club last year, in my next post. Until then, keep your hands in the soil!