I am starting this thread thanks to suggestions from another thread. The short version: I am trying to make my garden completely independent of fertility inputs that I have to pay for and don’t originate from my own land. For a little background though, I have been gardening in one form or another for about 20 years and I have always leaned in the direction of using organic fertilizer as opposed to chemical fertilizer. Using chemical fertilizers always seemed like cheating. I eventually bought the book “The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible” and that book helped me change my gardening and organic thinking dramatically.
I would say that I started on a path towards permaculture about two years ago. Two factors changed my gardening outlook again. The first was watching a Gabe Brown YouTube video on no-till farming. The second was discovering this site when I was having difficulty getting some comfrey started.
I do not have a huge garden, even though I could if I wanted to. Personally, I just love the look of completely unspoiled land and most of the 5 or so open acres I own is allowed to grow naturally, being mowed twice yearly as per local ordinances. My gardens consists of three raised beds. I have known of the benefits of raised beds for years and created them using fallen logs from my woods.
I did not really start down the path of gardening independence until just a few months ago. Firstly, my comfrey has really taken off. Secondly, more importantly, I discovered the significance of using fungi in the gardens, specifically Wine Caps. I have to do a fair amount of trimming each year to keep invasive autumn olive bushes at bay. In the past I would burn these, but I eventually started using a chipper and using these as a mulch. Once I got a really big pile of chips and needed to break these down. My initial thought was to use excess 10-10-10 fertilizer to encourage bacterial decomposition. Thankfully I was steered in the direction of using wine caps and I am certainly glad I did. I spread those wine caps into a raised bed about 12” thick and applied the wine caps and just waited.
The results were delayed but dramatic. That 12” was reduced by about 3”, but more importantly, the fungi turned the wood chips into something that looked more like coffee grounds. The medium was absolutely the ideal tilthe for planting. When I did plant, I was shocked by how green and lush the plants were. They had a bloom of health that surpassed any other plants I have ever grown, regardless of what type of fertilizer I used.
Prior to just a couple of months ago, I appreciated organic gardening, but my thinking was still chemical. I did not see and certainly did not appreciate the tremendous importance of fungal networks in the soil, nor the importance of soil microbiology. I used to think of soil as a bunch of chemicals and a little biology. I now see soil as a bunch of biology and a little bit of chemistry. Ideally, my only inputs will be those I can find on my own land. Specifically, my major inputs will be woodchips, comfrey and urine. I may add more dynamic accumulators, but these are a good first step.
My goal now is to grow that soil biology. I have one bed that is almost ready to be completely input-free and two additional beds recently inoculated with wine caps. Hopefully by next year my first bed will be completely independent of outside fertility, while the other two will be well on their way.
I am going to give a big shout out to two people who encouraged this thread. The first is Timothy Markus who encouraged me to document the process and the second is of course Redhawk who has answered numerous questions along the way. Thank you both.
This is another of my long-winded posts and please understand I am not trying to brag, I am trying to document and pay it forward so others can get the same rewards I have.
I started my comfrey plants in May of 2017. I dug fertile holes in my dense clay soil to provide some initial fertility for the new plants not realizing that they grow extremely well in almost any soil. My holes were about 12” deep and almost the same diameter. I backfilled with a combination of bagged manure topped off with an overly generous dose of bat guano. This was really overkill, but everything I read suggested that comfrey absolutely love nitrogen. In retrospect, this is true for more established plants, but for little baby plants, or root cuttings, probably much less and perhaps no additional nitrogen is more appropriate to get them started.
I started out with 4 comfrey plants and they all rotted in the ground thanks to really excessive rains and my excessive application of nitrogen. I tried again, this time making the fertile hole into more of a fertile mound, added two additional plants in barely any manure/guano mix and the rain let up. Those six plants all survived and are doing nicely.
As for the wine caps, I started them last year. I had a large mound of woodchips that had been sitting around for about a year and I wanted to decompose them and incorporate into my gardens. Based on recommendations from Permies, I flattened out the pile and inoculated on April 10, 2018. I knew I wanted at least some shade so before inoculation I dug 8 fertile holes in the chips and backfilled with bagged manure. This was a multi-purpose exercise. Firstly, I did want to grow something that first year, and I especially wanted to grow tomatoes. Secondly, the tomatoes provided for some dappled shade for the wine caps. Thirdly, wine caps actually like to have some contact with the ground and I thought that manure holes would be a good stand-in for soil. Lastly, and unbeknownst to me at the time, wine cap mycelia like to interact with plant roots. I found a lot of strands of mycelium intricately wrapped around roots by the next spring.
The first six months of wine cap growth was a little disappointing. Over the summer and into the fall nothing seemed to happen. By early December I was wondering what I had done wrong (Redhawk helped me a lot here). But December was fairly warm and very wet. At the beginning of the month, the chips were turning dark, but they still felt like a bunch of chips. If I pushed my hand against them they all resisted my weight. By January the chips felt like a mattress. If I pushed into them, they all yielded to my weight, they were getting soft and spongy, and when I dug into them, I saw plenty of white strands throughout the top several layers of chips. By later spring, I got my first flush of mushrooms. Also, the chips now no longer looked like woodchips, but more like a commercial soil bedding. More and more the bedding looks like a perfect dark, rich, crumbly loam.
After the mushrooms finished, I planted summer squash in the old fertile holes that last year grew tomatoes. The squash is vibrant this year, far better than squash I have grown before, despite my not weeding very much. In fact, the squash is one of the healthiest looking plants I have ever grown. I assumed that the tomatoes used most of the nitrogen in the manure left in the fertile hole from last year, but these squash look great. I would not have thought that I could grow two heavy nitrogen feeders in the same spot without heavy new applications of new nitrogen, yet there the plants grow. I am growing some peas along side the squash to fix nitrogen, but I don’t think they have had time to fix that much nitrogen. I can only assume the microbes in the soil are working their magic.
I am working on getting the rest of my beds converted to woodchip/mushroom compost beds, but I expect that they have at least two years to go, while my first mushroom bed should be ready for direct seeding by next year.
One of the more important components of my gardening independence strategy is the use of comfrey as a source of nutrients and especially nitrogen. After I got my first plants started I left them alone for the first year so they could get roots established. I did a little bit of cutting and chop & drop last summer and I am using it more regularly this year.
I have harvested my comfrey plants twice this year. They grew back quickly the first time and fairly quickly the second time. They are now growing back for the third time, but are doing so a bit more slowly and are not quite the rich, dark green seen earlier. To remedy this I am taking a multi-pronged approach. Firstly I am going to give them more time to recover before harvesting again. Secondly I am giving them a good dose of vitamin P. Finally I plan on adding in some more plants.
I will probably plant the new plants in between existing plants so as to really crowd out weed competition. I already have a bunch of wood chips laid down and will continue to add more in addition to rabbit litter for further fertility. At present I have 6 plants with a base approximately 12” across and about 2’ between plants. I think I will add an additional plant in between existing plants and one more on each side. This would give me an additional 6-9 new plants. At full capacity this would yield upwards of 15 comfrey plants which I would think would be plenty, maybe an excess even, of comfrey leaves for use in the garden.
Comfrey was the plant that started me down the path of gardening independence and it may be the plant that gives me the final boost necessary to complete my gardening independence. I may even go so far as to mulch heavily around the comfrey plants and inoculate with wine caps to really boost my overall fertility levels. Maybe I will eventually concoct a plan for world gardening domination (wink, nod)!
At any rate, this garden is well on its way towards not needing any nutrients that can’t be produced on my own land.