I've been looking into permaculture for about half a year, but I've only just now found this forum. I'm not a complete newbie to gardening, but I thought I better post in this section anyway, in case my questions are too basic.
Some information about the land in question:
I'm living in Brandenburg, which is a state in north-eastern Germany (surrounding Berlin). This state is infamous for its sandy soil. (The state anthem starts "Rise, red eagle, high over swamp and sand") In fact, where I live, it's literally hills of yellow-white sand left over from the last ice age and the watertable is at least 30 feet down. The only thing that grows well here is pine trees, and Frederick the Great had to order people to start growing potatoes because the attempts at grain farming used to lead to frequent famines.
The climate is just on the edge between maritime climate heated by the Gulf Stream and the continental climate of Russia. This means it's a bit warmer here than it should be (Berlin is on the same lattitude as Calgary, Canada), the summers go up to about 100°F and 14-24°F is normally the worst for winter nights, but we can still get the occasional winter with -4°F. We also have a phenomenon called the "Ice Saints", where we get a few consecutive frost nights in May, so you can't plant anything sensitive outside despite April usually being mild. The vegetation period for somewhat frost-resistant native plants starts in March or April and is over in late October. Though this period is predicted to lenghten in the future (it's already 24 days longer than in the 1970s). I've read about local agrarian scientists that are seriously trying to breed variants of peach and grapes that might be able to grow here in 10 years, because the traditional apple and pear trees are destined to get into trouble with drought. Of course, the problem is that you can't just import mediterranean species, because the trees still have to survive a potential -4°F winter.
Brandenburg is the German state with the least rain, about 20 inches per year. Climate change predictions say the precipitation patterns are going to change so that we will get flood-like rain in winter (half of the winter days are usually just above freezing) and almost none in the summer. And especially the spring rain is going to become rarer, causing problems with germination. I'm already noticing problems with our well in July and August, when I can't keep pumping for more than a few minutes at a time, so I want to try to limit my irrigation needs. Though Brandenburg is also the German state with the most surface freshwater, and I have a stream and a lake in walking distance that never dry out. So if push comes to shove, I could still rescue at least smallish plants from drought-induced death by investing some time with buckets.
Another point about sunshine: Germany gets less sunshine hours than Alaska, thanks to chronically dismal weather outside of high summer. And even then I've seen an August in the last 5 years in which the thermometer didn't go above 70°F and it drizzled almost constantly. As for our garden in particular, it's full of large conifers and surrounded by walls and ivy trellisses. The two-and-a-half storey house also throws a lot of shadow. Unfortunately, I can't remove the trees. (I don't have the money to hire the heavy machinery necessary to do it safely, the actual owner of the land wants the privacy afforded by the house not being visible from the street, and there are municipal laws that say I have to plant half a dozen new trees for every live, mature tree I want to fell.) So I mostly have to make do with plants that will grow in the shade.
The plot is fairly small, just 1/8 of an acre excluding the house and paved backyard. I don't have much free space for traditional rows of vegetable beds, and they wouldn't fit visually either. And I can't really do any major changes, as it's not my decision in the end and the person who makes the decisions doesn't believe in permaculture. (She does believe in organic gardening if possible and the basic idea of keeping things low maintenace, though.) Plus, I don't have any money to invest in more than a few small plants and packages of seeds. I'm lucky in that this plot had been used for food gardening until about 20 years ago (it was a basic necessity in the GDR, as you couldn't really buy much fresh produce in the shop), so there are some leftover berry shrubs and nut and fruit trees. The latter have been very neglected, though, and are slowly dying off. The soil beneath the 'lawn' (read: spongy forest moss, clover and wildflowers in the shade, steppe grasses that outcompeted everything else in the sunny spots where we couldn't irrigate in the summer for the last few years) is a few thin inches of darker topsoil thanks to about a century of buildup, but I wouldn't dare to till up the sand underneath. Instead, I'm making my own soil. The garden is a mature one that produces plenty of green waste (We don't mow the 'lawn' more than 2-3 times a year, but we are obligated to keep a strip of actual lawn on the street side of our fence, and we have plenty of Boston ivy, hops and mile-a-minute-vine that need harsh cutting every few months.) We've had a compost heap going for the last 30 years - not anything scientific (I've never known the thing to grow hot), just a 6x4x4 ft enclosed space that gets filled up with any plant-based waste on the top and where I take dark humus from the bottom to fill a huge amount of pots and planters. (Yeah, it's work-intensive. But I figure it's better than letting the nutrients wash away into the hill of sand underneath our feet. Plus, I need to be able to take in most annual plants for the Ice Saints, and the only spot sunny enough for tomatoes is the paved backyard.) I've also made a few raised beds from old cupboards and office desks in the last few years - designed as a type of raised bed that is supposed to provide warmth in the spring from rotting plant material underneath the topsoil (basically, a Hügelkultur without the water-sponging wood). But that didn't work, they actually froze solid in the winter and killed all the strawberries I had planted in there. (A few strawberries that had propagated onto the ground in the sandy soil survived, so it was probably more a matter of drought induced by freezing all the moisture than actual frost-based damage on the plants.) They do seem to hold moisture better, though. I actually have to mix the humus with sand, or it will get so soggy that the roots start to rot.
So, on to my questions:
1. I'm currently clearing an old flowerbed that had been gradually overgrown by some small conifers. It's also regularly mulched by walnut leaves raining down on it. So from that and the needles, I expect the soil to be quite acidic by now. I'm planning to put a liberal amount of humus on it to improve the soil first, and maybe some more leaf mulch. However, I've read that walnut leaves contain growth inhibitors, especially for nightshade plants. So potatoes are right out. The area is also very shady, as it's between the house, some 20 ft high tuja trees and a blue spruce you could use as a christmas tree in front of the Rockefeller Center. It'll get direkt sunlight for a few hours at noon, but that's about all. I can't completely change the acidity of the soil because of some old rhododendron bushes that are growing adjacent to this spot and whose removal is not an option. What kind of vegetable or edible shrub could I plant there, if any? I'm already thinking about blueberries, as they grow naturally in the pine forests here and they need the acidic soil. But those need years to grow into fruitition, generally are considered difficult to grow, and I would like something nitrogen-fixing as well. I had some good results with bush beans in another semi-shady spot underneath a chestnut tree last year. But I don't actually like green beans and I don't need more of them for those in my family that do. Would peas work, maybe? I want to try brokoli somewhere, too, though I fear that this area isn't really defensible against slugs... (I could try planting thyme to keep them away? Or does that need a lot of sun? My mint and basil seem to do better in the full sun or even the oven heat of the roof balkony surrounded by heat-radiating brown tiles.)
2. I have a row of 3 inch wide, 2 ft long wooden stakes that make up an enclosure for a strip of decorative river stones (which keeps dirt from splashing against the white wall of the house when it rains). These wooden stakes have been in the ground for about 15 years and they're starting to fall apart. I want to take them out and clear a 2 ft wide stripe of pavement infront of where they were, then plant a row of currant bushes. (There's more space than I really need, so what else would go well with that?) The stakes are really too rotten to be worth keeping as firewood, so I thought about burrying them in place, so that it maybe improves the water retention a bit. (I don't think the currants need much water. The bushes we still have in the garden survived the last 15 years without much care or watering.) However, the stakes were originally impregnated with something probably not very healthy to make them resistant to fungii and moss, like all construction wood destined to spend much time out in the weather. If I recall correctly, these kinds of wooden stakes look like they were painted with blue-green watercolors when you buy them new. On the other hand, I figure they've probably leached whatever chemical it was into the ground at that spot anyway, over the years, so it can't do much damage anymore, right? I'm not really worried about toxic currants - we only eat them once a year and I not going to have any kids, so it's not that important - but I worry that the bushes won't grow on that in the first place.
By the way, has someone tried sowing clover under currant bushes? Or something else? I'd like something there to keep the soil from splashing up in the rain, but not something that will steal much nutrients from the bushes. It should also stay short, so I don't have to cut it and potentially injure the bush. Are there any more good arguments for groundcover under small berry bushes? (I'll need to convince my mother, who has just removed the grass cover in a 2 ft perimeter around the existing currant bushes for the purpose of easier access for watering...)
3. I have a small mound of compost that was originally supposed to smother a cluster of tenatious goldenrod and leach some nutrients down to the roots of a young plum tree planted at the same spot. We eventually wanted to grow some vegetables there as well, because it's pretty much the only sunny and moist spot in the garden (it's right beside a leaky faucet). But unfortunately, my brother poured a large amount of water mixed with cement on top of it last year (washwater from the construction of a new wall for the composting corner). It doesn't seem to have hurt the plum tree, but I worry that the traces of cadmium in the cheap cement ruined the spot for vegetable growing. Is there something I can do to remediate the soil? I want to grow at least some flowers to attract bees (nasturtium seems to grow fast here and the bees like it at least on the balcony last year; I've got some seeds left, too; plus, it would be self-sowing; but is it safe from slugs?) and maybe a few sunflowers, to have something to feed to the birds in winter and because I've seen sunflowers used to de-toxify soil in a documentary about urban gardening in Detroit. Any other suggestions that would work on a budget? And do I have to throw the plants into the municipal waste afterwards? I know I could just cart the soil away and put it somewhere it won't do much harm, but I'm kind of loath to lose any hard-won fertile soil.
4. I want to grow a little hedge of hazelnut bushes, to keep our asshole neighbor (who hates our unkempt-looking garden and keeps the "green concrete" kind of lawn) from throwing slugs on my raised beds all the time. And to get some more non-acidic leaves for composting or mulching. Plus, we have a couple of squirrels that have been sorely disappointed with the walnut tree lately (which hasn't carried anything since it nearly died from long and harsh frost in winter 2010). I already have one old hazelnut bush - well, a large stump that kept on sprouting after I cut it down for an allergic relative, so I figure it's hardy and likes the spot. I wanted to propagate this plant with cuttings, but the twigs I planted last October never developed any roots. Should I have left all the leaf buds on them? Or will it just take a while longer, into spring? Also, since these are clones, will I need to buy another plant so that they can successfully pollinate and bear nuts? I don't know what species of hazel it is - my father originally planted cuttings he brought with him from the 200-year-old farm he grew up on.
Or is there anything else that would be fast- and straight-growing, that doesn't need watering, and would be potentially useful?
5. We have a small cherry tree that hasn't carried fruit in many years because it's infected with monilia and we can't get it out. I'm intending to try one last heal-or-die amputation this year. If it survives that, is there anything I can do in terms of companion plants to help it recover and/or so the fungus doesn't come back? The spot underneath is sunny, sandy and dry, but does have some hardy creeping croundcover plants.
6. Similarly, we have a few at least 40-years-old apple and plum trees, most of which have been slowly dying off over the last few years. (Probably because my father grafted 3 different kinds of apples onto the trunk, so that the tree was forced to support fruit throughout a large part of summer and autumn. These grafted branches are now dying off one by one.) There is one apple tree that hasn't been grafted, but it also hasn't grown anything but marble-sized apples in years. I realise we can't do much about the lack of cutting it received these last 10 years, and it's too late to cut it back now. But we did have a fairly decent harvest a few years ago when we actually could afford to water and fertilise it in the summer. I'm hoping the same can be done in more natural ways. Would sowing a disk of clover around the trunk help in terms of nutrients? Or a heap of humus? Or do I really need the extra minerals due to our sandy ground? Given that apple tree roots go fairly deep and only the small, outermost roots acutally pull water and nutrients, does planting companion plants on top actually help anything with an already mature tree? Maybe washing the nutrients deep into the sand really is the only way...
The plum trees of a similar age have been infested with ants and are literally leaking globs of golden sap, thick like tar. They are similarly sacrificing one branch after the other. Though I don't know if that's because of the ants or because of the summer droughts. (We haven't watered them in years.) Any chance of helping them recover?
7. There's a kind of earth-filled wall, 4 ft high, going along our driveway, because the street is lower than most of the plot. Imagine a long, 3 ft wide strip on a hill that's been cut off with a straight wall made of large pavement stones to keep the soil in. Originally, this sunny spot had a couple of blackberry bushes growing on it. But for some reason, my father took these out and tried his luck with roses and some blueberries. Neither grew, and by now this strip of soil is kind of shady (due to some spruce trees on the neighboring plot growing branches over it, but the spruce trees stand on the northeast side, so it still gets some sun) and it's desperately dry. Not even the root-propagated offspring of a nearby lilac bush can survive there, and those are normally unkillable. Since it's also way too far to divert some of the runoff from the roof to this area, I'm contemplating using Hügelkultur principles to improve the moisture retention there. But will that help if not much rain ever lands there? (Keep in mind that it's also not getting any runoff because it's elevated relative to the surrounding area.) I don't want to grow cucumbers or anything like that, I just want the area to support some blackberry or raspberry bushes again. I could artificially load it up with water in the spring or autumn, when the watertable supports longer use of the well. Also, I don't really have access to much wood aside from a dead spruce that needs to go anyway, some pine branches that I might scrounge from the forest surrounding our town, and a few square feet of old firewood (mainly birch) that's gotten too rotten and worm-eaten to burn. (The dead branches from the fruit trees don't make up all that much mass. Besides, I want to keep at least a few big logs of half-rotten soft apple wood to build a nesting place for wild bees.) I gather conifer wood isn't what you want to use for Hügelkultur beds, but if I only care about the water absorption, would it still be worth the work? I've seen blackberries in the wild here, or at least large bushes that haven't seen any human care for decades, so they can't need that much nitrogen. And the soil probably already is acidic, due to the spruce needles, so there's no helping that.
8. Because I want to remove some rather large bushes this year: Does juniper need a long time to rot? And does it produce an acidic kind of compost? I want to start two seperate composts this year, one normal and one with all the slow-rotting, acidic and potentially growth-inhibiting stuff (walnut leaves, chestnut leaves, pine needles, etc.) Because my mother wants acidic humus for the rhododendron bushes (I'd rather not buy peat products), and so I won't put that stuff on the vegetables. And I've read it's bad for apple trees, too, at least the walnut leaves or proximity to walnut tree roots. Or won't that hardy stuff rot at all if I don't add any kitchen scraps?
If the juniper branches don't compost well, I'd rather keep them for winter cover (creates an air bubble that keeps some of the worst frost out, especially if there's snow on top of it) and then burn it next year, and then just use the ashes for mineral fertiliser.
ok, you asked a lot of questions at once and i got distracted. here's the answer to #1 -
JUST DO IT.
Plant some seeds of anything you might think would do well. The worst that will happen is that the seeds won't grow this year - but they might next year. Also something that does well in one spot might do better in another spot of your place.
Heck yeah,if I lived there I would grow peas... and asparagus, rhubarb, strawberries...
You could try checking out other areas of the planet that have climates similar to yours for inspiration. If your area is similar to a spot in Canada, then what do they grow there? I've learned a lot by doing that. Also check out what your neighbors grow and what was historically grown there.
Also the pH issues which you may or may not have obviously are not soooooooo bad, since you have plants growing there. It's very easy to overthink gardening. Plants just grow if they like a spot, and if one doesn't then try something else. Compost good. Thinking too hard...
will come back later for the other questions..
Test your soil. Most garden centers has the ph meter or you can spend a few more euros and get it tested by a local university. After testing adjust your soil. Depending on what you want to grow you may or may not need to adjust you soil.
Soil testing is cheaper than wasted time, wasted materials and dead plants.
Also lime will help acidicity. Compost will help your soil in many ways. For the freezing you can make small hoop houses ( like a mini green house) that are movable and removable. Instructables.com or YouTube for easy ideas. You can also container garden on your pavement. 20L or larger for tomatoes and peppers.
Take a deep breath and just list out the steps you want to take with your property. Plan, prep, organize, execute.
Also look through the forums here lots of good knowledge available.
1. Try long asian beans instead of green beans. seriously tasty.
for the hazelnuts and other trees, if you want to propagate cuttings, try soaking them in willow twig water for a few days. keep the bucket covered (lightproof) so roots develop.
for the trees that arent flourishing, try a little magnesium (epsom salt) and some zinc before giving up on them. it leaches away pretty quick, and is needed so it can use other nutrients.'
I have had good luck with the SeaAgri sea salt too, but havn't tried it on the fruit trees yet.
burying any and all wood works. is great moisture sink. i would dig it down a couple feet if you can.
I have had good luck starting plants before last frost by cutting open the bottom of gallon milk jugs. cut em open into strips, so you can stake em down with wood sticks. use em as cloches
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a bit late but I read your post just now.
I'm living in Saxony, Germany. So I know quite a bit about the conditions you're working with.
We have locally the same problem with not only sandy soil but literally living on a really big sand dune with a bit of topsoil on top.
Read about or watch on youtube Permaculture strategies for deserts and drylands as that may be helpful unless you want to bring in a lot of clay to change you soil structure.
I do a lot of gardening and selling produce to the neighours and passersby and if I want to harvest a decent amount I have to water in july and august. So maybe some rainwater catchment might help to tide you over those months.
And mulch, mulch, mulch. Since I read about permaculture and started mulching every bit of soil that isn't completely overgrown, I have to water at least half as much as before.
Even if you can't fell the trees that produce so much shade, same laws here many neighours just cut them down halfway when they get too high. So they are quite a bit shorter and need some years to regrow so big.
If you don't know if your soil is acidic try to google for "Zeigerpflanzen" there are some lists online. You only have to know what weeds are growing and they tell you what soil conditions they prefer and what you have.
We have lots of stinging nettle and it prefers slight acidic, nutrient rich soils for instance.
We have planted lupins in between the currants and mulch them with horse manure but this year I will try to establish some wood strawberries underneath maybe that works for you too.
I'm a bit more south than you so we can grow peaches but in our wet climate they are prone for fungal infections what helps here is to make "Schachtelhalmbruehe" (sorry don't know the english common name) and spray it over the trees.
Just try searching for the term "Pflanzenjauche" and you get a lot of recipes.
#6 - I would wonder if the ants are causing the sap or are just there because of the sap (or perhaps aphids that seem to love sick plums). The gobs of sap (and the dying limbs) sound more like a fungal disease in the wood than an ant problem.
In general, sand soils are improved by a mix of minerals (Lime, dolomite, rock phosphate, granite or kelp, etc...) and lots of organic matter. I'd suggest looking for what is growing well nearby, and starting there. Nothing more discouraging then spending you time trying to grow plants that don't want to grow, or are already half dead. I'd stay away from stone fruits!
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