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Green manure before converting a neglected garden to no dig?

 
Posts: 14
Location: Munich Rubble Plain
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Hi,

I'm new here. My name is Oliver, and I hate (traditional) gardening. In 2007 I purchased a house which is very nice. But it came with an already neglected huge (1500 square metres) garden that is way too big for me to handle. There's a vegetable section, some fruit trees and a big stretch of "lawn" (moss with a dusting of grass).  I am self employed and working from home, so I do have some spare time for gardening, but after 11 years of struggling to cope with weeds and moss I realised that it is time for a change because frankly the garden became a bit more neglected year after year.

I recently became aware of the no dig approach. Digging is my gardening nemesis. I have always hated it with a vengeance, so imagine my joy when I first read about no dig gardening. My first goal is to convert the vegetable section to no dig. When I moved in, the beds were completely overgrown with weeds includung low growing brambles and exhausted strawberry plants that bloomed but were too weak to bear fruit but continued to spread.

In the past years I have managed to convert about half of the area to vegtable beds to varying degrees of success. The soil is infested with weeds and all kinds of roots. Once you dig and remove the weeds, a few weeks later you see thousands of tiny weed seedlings coming up again. I have never used weed killer and tried my best to get rid of the weeds every year, but at some point in summer the growth will become just too overwhelming to cope with. Yes, in hindsight  I know I better should have mulched properly to improve my chances...

Anyway, I have decided to convert the lot to "no dig". I do have the feeling that the soil is exhausted at least in the part where I had my beds. I was growing mainly tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers and squashes whch actually thrived. But with anything else results were modest.

I read somwhere else that green manure with lucerne for a year or so might help to improve the soil before establishing no dig beds with cardboard or newspaper on top. Or would you recommend starting right away in the hope that it will work out anyway? I had this idea because lucerne hay is often recommended for no dig beds. I should add that the soil is riddled with pebbles because it's an remnant of an ice age glacier, but very fertile in principle without suffering from too much sand, clay or whatever. There is a fair amount of compost availbale, mainly from years worth of grass clippings, but I doubt it will be sufficient for the entire area.
 
pollinator
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Others here will have the answer to your actual question, I expect.  But I wanted to say hello, and to tell you that I've had magnificent results with (1) cardboard + wood chips, (2) piles of leaves (I made a huge garden from a foundation hole with nothing except asking everyone to dump their leaves there for two years), and (3) chopped weeds, hay, and aged manure, covered with cardboard and weighted down with more of the same.

All of these methods produced amazing soil, teeming with earthworms and as fertile as could be.  The resulting organic matter will diminish the proportion of pebbles, too.  Leaves decompose more quickly if they are shredded, but will work either way.  Oak leaves, though, take years to break down.

Best of luck!
 
pollinator
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Hi from a fellow Münchnerin,

if weed seedlings are your problem, I would go with the cardboard and deep mulch method. Cardboard/newspaper covered with anything you find that is not your weedy soil: straw, grass clippings (from neighbours?), horse manure, the compost you have, bagged earth (without peat) etc.
What kind of weeds do you have?

Some are more difficult than others.

In the surroundings of Munich there are some communal Kompostieranlagen (composting facilities with free access for the locals).
Good luck!
 
Oliver Klimek
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Anita Martin wrote:
What kind of weeds do you have?



All kinds, and they can change every year. From small leafy ones to stinging nettles, brambles, thistles, dandelions etc. The good thing is that the soil is full of critters but I doubt that it is very rich in nutrients. This is why I consider sowing green manure before moving on because I don't want to exclusively rely on that layer of new soil. But if this is not really necessary I wouldn't mind skipping this step.
 
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You could rent or buy a pair of goats to clean out the weeds as an option. If you're not going to plant this season go with the fresh manure and let it do it's work. I love raised beds. You could put the manure down then section off some beds. You'll need to add soil or cured compost on top of the fresh manure inside the beds. I top dress my beds every season with compost. However I don't have the time for all the weeding between rows. Goat pee will take the chrome off a bumper... I lay fresh or hot muck from the goat pens between the beds. About half way through the season I do it again. It beats weeding.
 
Oliver Klimek
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Goats are out of the question. The patch I am talking about is only about 20 by 5 metres. Not to mention that you'd run into all kinds of buerocracy and animal welfare issues here in Germany. I just can not place a few goats in my garden and let them do their job without providing any shelter.
 
Oliver Klimek
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The more I read up on the topic the  more difficult it is to decide which route to take. But this is probably just because many roads lead to Rome. Green manure does not seem to be strictly necessary unless the soil is really tired. But the amount and variety of weeds that grow on it suggests that it's probably not that bad. So it might work out to skip this step.

When it comes to what kinds of beds to use, I am torn between the simple "compost on top of cardboard" approach as promoted by Chaels Dowding and Hügelkultur beds. I have quite a bit of old wood lying around, both from chopping down and storm damage, so this would be an elegant way to dispose of it. also I have more than enough lawn that I don't really want to keep. But the amount of compost and soil required for this seems a bit daunting... Maybe I will give both approaches a try and see what works best for me.

A question about carboard beds just popped into my mind: Is is it possible to sow deep rooting plants such as chard, spinach or beans as first crop on a freshly prepared bed or will the roots have trouble to penetrate the cardboard layer if it has not entirely decomposed before they reach it?
 
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I'm going to do this in point form to keep me organized:
A) any cover-crop that will out-compete the weeds and more or less look after itself, will give you a break from struggling with what's *not* been working - it will buy you time!
B) poly-cultures often work better than mono-cultures, so consider mixing a couple of things in that cover crop - something like Diakon radish that has deep roots? Something in the pea family that fixes nitrogen? Something that simply creates a *lot* of carbon like wheat?
C) 20x5 meters is a relatively large area, so dividing it into strips and trying different techniques on each strip could be useful - you said, "many roads lead to Rome", but they may have different obstacles, elevation, rainfall... in other words, what works for one person may not work for another.
D) I've had good success with buried wood - I even put it in the bottom of my raised beds. It supports the microbes under the soil, particularly the mycelium which are generally in shorter supply in soil that's been worked hard.
E) I agree with what others have said about leaves - covering your bed with lots of leaves in the fall will insulate the beds and if you chop and drop fresh organic matter before spreading the leaves, it will be a worm buffet. Worms poop out lots of beneficial microorganisms.
F) Goats may be out, but smaller back-yard animals such as chickens, ducks or rabbits can provide useful manure along with other benefits. They are also more work, so if you feel overwhelmed by life in the garden, I'd approach that one with caution particularly if there are sources of leaves and compost already available to you. That said, pulling weeds when you've got an appreciative animal to consume them has an effect on how you see things. I have "weeds that chickens eat" and "weeds that chickens don't eat" and I'm getting more and more tolerant of the former! Currently I've got a serious surplus of slugs which the ducks are *ecstatic* to help me with. I just wish the ducks were closer to the source but that will require better fencing.
G) you mentioned lawn - most people have a monoculture lawn which is cut way too short. If you can adapt your mower to cut 4" high (we put larger diameter wheels on and drilled new holes for the axles to accomplish it - unfortunately, at 30 years of age, it is rusting through and it will be very hard to find a good replacement!) that will help the grass to out-compete other things that you don't want. Personally, I encourage some other things - I've got English daisies blooming and feeding the pollinators right now and and crocuses blooming months ago.
H) I think that one of the most important attitude changes I've made in the last 10 years is to accept a much "messier" looking garden. Many of us have been raised with the "straight beds of one food crop with dirt in between" mentality. Now I recognize "edible" weeds like Miner's lettuce, and prolific self-seeders like Corn salad, as friends that help to keep the soil shaded and if they're in my way, I chop and drop them or dig a small hole and drop them in to feed the worms. Some veggies do like to be in a "patch" with their like, but many are happier with companions - "friends with benefits". That requires the resilience to not only accept the "messy look" ourselves, but be prepared to gently defend it from others who have not yet been enlightened! Being able to say, "yes, that's Dock and I love to add a few leaves to my soup," or "yes, those are dandelions, but my worms love the leaves," will gently spread the message to others, (and hopefully not get you labeled as "that weirdo who grows weeds").
I) You mentioned that you work from home. Would it help or hinder if you planned an outdoor "thinking" or "working" area that made part of the garden "part of your office"?
 
Oliver Klimek
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Hi Jay,

thank you for your extensive reply. I will address a few things you mentioned to give you more details about the garden.

Let's start with the "messy" mindset. I have always disliked the typical manicured gardens which are the norm in here Germany. I much prefer more natural or even "wild" gardens. The problem here is that it has become too messy because I don't have enough time to do the chores that traditional gardening comes with. So I am looking for a "low maintenance" approach, at least in the long run, that will save me time while giving me a nicer garden.

The plot is completely flat, so there are no potential slope issues. Annual rainfall is ~900 mm, but there can be longer dry spells during summer. The soil is draing very well. I have never seen a single puddle on the soil even after vigourous thunderstorms. There are a LOT of shrubs and undergrowth that I would like to get rid of. And the prospect of turning this into much needed compost gives me hope.

A lot of the garden is rather shady which might improve after a proper purge. The result is a lawn that is very mossy. I have never been a fan of lawn anyway so I'd be happy to convert at least some of it. The lawn is orchard like with quite a few fruit trees, but many of them are already old.  Earlier this year I chopped down a large cherry tree because it was almost dead. There are some more trees growing, so something like a forest garden also looks like an interesting idea. The vegetable section is partly sunny and partly shady.

Regarding vegetebables, my goal is variety over yield. I don't have a lot of people to feed, and I am not even such a huge vegetable fan, so I won't need an awful lot of produce. So I'd be more than happy if much of the garden in its final stage will be simply "tamed nature". The vegteable section is just where I see the dearest need to start with.

Unfortunately I can't turn the garden into my office because my job requires more than just handling a laptop computer.
 
Anne Pratt
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You might start to like vegetables more when they come from the garden - my family certainly did.  Made a convert out of my husband.

But, sounds like you have a bigger plot than you need.  A great opportunity to plant flowers from seed!  Marigolds and chrysanthemums repel many pest insects.  Most others (especially natives to your area) attract beneficial insects.  
 
Oliver Klimek
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Anne Pratt wrote:
But, sounds like you have a bigger plot than you need.  A great opportunity to plant flowers from seed!  Marigolds and chrysanthemums repel many pest insects.  Most others (especially natives to your area) attract beneficial insects.  



It is much bigger than I need. But the sheer luxury of having a huge garden just outside one of the most expensive German towns to live in is priceless. The ground is leased but I am free to do what I want as long as I repect the local restrictions which are not very tough.

We already have quite a bit of wildlife in the garden. Currently there are almost no planted flowers but there is plenty of wild stuff that attracts bees and bumblebees. The compost heap is harbouring gold beetle grubs which are a treat for the hedgehogs.

The more I think about it, the more I see the need for a complete overhaul of the garden. They way it is now is chaotic in a way, but permaculture seems to be just what it needs. I want a largely self-sufficient system that I can enjoy without feeling the need to do gardening work in every spare minute.

I may take a few pictures and draw up a plan. Maybe I will start another thread for it because this ventures far beyond the original topic.
 
Jay Angler
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Oliver Klimek wrote:

I may take a few pictures and draw up a plan. Maybe I will start another thread for it because this ventures far beyond the original topic.

I think that's an awesome idea. In a perfect world (and the one we're in is hurting badly and changing in unpredictable ways!) it is good to start with how water moves on your land, identifying wetter and dryer zones and moving from there to useful groups of trees/shrubs (low-maintenance food and fuel and even potential sources of mulch - I used Wisteria leaves to mulch my raised tomato bed for the winter as an example). Ideally, now is the time to plan for what the garden may look like in 10 years and we've got lots of experienced people here who love to give their opinions. Pictures are really helpful and identifying what plants/trees you think should be kept is a good first step in having a total plan that will be as self-sustaining as possible.

If you want to keep everything together on this thread, we can always change the subject line of the thread to something more suitable. (I can help with that if need be - just PM me.)
 
Oliver Klimek
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Jay Angler wrote:
If you want to keep everything together on this thread, we can always change the subject line of the thread to something more suitable. (I can help with that if need be - just PM me.)



Thanks for the offer, but I think it's better to start a new thread in the permaculture subforum, not the least because it not just about "gardening".
 
Jay Angler
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Not a problem - please stick a link here so we know where to find your next installment!
 
Oliver Klimek
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As luck has it, I have just finished writing the post.

https://permies.com/t/140324/Newbie-permaculture-neglected-garden#1100132
 
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