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Prepping my garden and would like all the advice I can get!  RSS feed

 
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Hello!! My name is Trey. I am a beginning gardener, permaculture enthusiast and first time poster here. I have started helping my parents install our first garden in hopes of growing in the Fall/Winter. We live in Vestavia Hills, Alabama. A suburb of Birmingham, in ag Zone 7b. The area we are prepping is on the south side of the property with good shade from surrounding pine and oak trees, as well as good sunlight. It measures out as a 12 ft x 65 ft rectangular plot. We have almost zero topsoil here due to the heavy abundance of red clay and rock. Over the past year, we have been piling all of our yard waste in this are (grass clippings, leaves, sticks, etc.) as well as the occasional household vegetable waste. I have taken all the piled biomass in the area, minus the large sticks and limbs, and spread it over the area as a thick mulch, probably around 8 inches deep. After doing this, we added compost, manure, peat moss and a topsoil mixture on top of the mulch and tilled it in with a machine. I have built a 4 x 6 ft compost bin, equipped with worm tubes, for the back (west) end of the rectangle and placed a 6 x 10 ft raised bed about 4 ft in front of it (east side).

My idea is to try to grow some Fall/Winter crops within the raised beds to harvest, and plant cover crops (winter peas, rye grass, and radish were my thoughts) in the rest of the area. I have a few questions and am open to any and all suggestions to further my knowledge. I have seeds and a basic idea of what I want to plant, but would like to see suggestions from others in similar zones or the same area? What should be my next step to continue prepping my soil outside of my raised bed for spring (amendments, mulch, organic material, etc.)? What cover crops do you suggest? Also, I plan on doing a rain barrel catchment system behind the compost bin (west) to irrigate the garden. I want to double that system as a heater in the winter by using heat from the compost pile. My idea is to run a hose from the barrels, through the compost pile and coiled down on a rigid piece of pipe stuck vertically in the center of the pile. The hose will then split in two sections that drain towards the bottom of the pile and out into the raised bed. Instead of draining directly into the bed, I would like to empty the water into two separate tubes on each side of the bed that are capped at one end. I will paint these black and fill them full of heated water during the winter months when my bed is hooped and covered with plastic to add thermal heat. Any suggestions on how to make this system more efficient?

Thank you for reading this post and I look forward to chatting with you all about our project. This is a great site with a wealth of knowledge that I look forward to learning. I have pictures, and as soon as I can figure out how to post them Ill get them up. Thanks all!!
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Trey Robbins
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More...
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Trey Robbins
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And More...
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Trey Robbins
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Last Ones...
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gardener
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Location: Victoria British Columbia-Canada
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Welcome Trey. It looks like you are off to a good start. The peat and tree waste is bound to make the soil acidic. Some lime or oyster shells could help with this. Many of your neighbors may have good organic waste to give away. I've gathered tons of coffee waste. Worms love it. Grass and hedge clippings form great mulches. A good mulch reduces evaporation and heating of the soil.

You used a roto tiller, I assume. Although useful on hard ground, in the long run, it's best to let little critters do the digging. This is the most important thing about mulch. It feeds all of the creatures that make future tillage unnecessary. Any time that you feel the urge to dig, consider putting that effort into gathering more mulch materials to feed your soil organisms.
 
Posts: 503
Location: Central Virginia USA
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amen to what Dale said.

And i thought i noticed you said about adding the worm tubes to the compost pile, i' not familiar with worm tubes, but i would add worms to the garden bed itself, if you get a good hot pile going, the worms wouldn't do that well, and if you have all that organic waste in the beds already it would seem they might do better there. Dolomite is another favorite for worm growing.

It looked like you didn't completely fill the raised forms, which i would do, all that good soil does no good laying in the footpaths and remember the worms you buy for composting table scraps live in the mulch, not the soil.

you also might consider taking those sticks and such that you didn't use and making a hugel bed, that might come in handy during a hot dry summer, creating some texture and edge to your gardens.

an herb spiral might go good somewhere as well, with a small pool at the base to bring in little critters and increase habitats.

I've always been told to feed suet in the winter to attract insect eating birds to the garden, and discontinue feeding in the spring so they get busy eating the bugs. having a safe elevated birdbath for them will increase the attractiveness of your property as well

I'll stop now and let others add. welcome to Permies
 
steward
Posts: 3999
Location: Wellington, New Zealand. Temperate, coastal, sandy, windy,
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Welcome to permies Trey
I'm definitely not from your area, but some stuff's pretty universal.
First off-yay on the progress photos!
I usually remember I should take photos after I've finished,
but it's pretty meaningless without the comparison between 'before', 'during' and 'after'

Apologies if I missed it, but could you clarify the role of the raised bed within the larger, non-raised area?
Do you plan to build more raised beds, or maybe grow 'fiddlier' plants in it
using the non-raised area for things like potatoes, squash etc?

Do you have plans for paths?
I design plenty of wide access paths into my garden projects.
I've widened a lot of paths where I'd initially thought "I'm not wasting good growing space on a wide path-I can squeeze through..."
Trying to squeeze wheelbarrows full of stuff past plants that have no respect for edges soon changed my mind!


 
Trey Robbins
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Than you all for your input! I am replying from my cell, so forgive me if I miss any questions. On the tilling, I am familiar with and an advocate of no till methods. That's how the garden will be established going forward. The thickness of the clay and rock here made the tiller the only logical choice just to initially break that up and get the process of rebuilding the soil going.

On the beds, my goal here is to plant within the smaller raised bed in the middle over the Fall/Winter while growing winter rye and snow pea as a cover crop in the larger outside area where I added soil yo start fixing nitrogen and to till under before spring for organic matter.

Probably next Fall, we will remove the bed and compost bin and do our annual veggies elsewhere. The idea behind this is to have the soil in the whole 12 x 60 ft area ready by next spring to plant fruit trees and start establishing a food forest.

Thank you all again for the responses. Keep them coming!
 
Trey Robbins
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Also to add, what I plan on planting in the small raised bed over Fall/Winter will be Kale, Cabbage, Broccoli, Carrots, etc. I am also contemplating mixing in some radishes and beets in with the rye grass and winter peas to help start the tilling process (larger area surrounding raised bed).
 
Posts: 15
Location: Central Virginia zone7
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My favorite cover crops for cool season are mix of legumes (vetch, winter peas) + a winter wheat. For warm season, I like cowpeas and buckwheat. I also tried sorgum sudangrass this year. In 2-3 months, it grew to 8 feet tall and very dense. I chopped it and it made a terrific mulch.
 
bob day
Posts: 503
Location: Central Virginia USA
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hey Ray ko where in central VA are you? i'm in Buckingham

I've got some sort of grass that hitched a ride in with some cow manure, and it grows about 8 ft tall without planting it, wherever i spread the manure i get that mulch crop (whether i want it or not)

But it does a terrific job at keeping out other weeds

Yes, a cover crop is the way to go for winter, or till you have an idea what to plant. i always look for nitrogen fixers, although if you have a specific deficiency you can look for the "weeds" that will mine those minerals and encourage them. comfrey for instance will mine calcium (and other nutrients)
while producing flowers for bees, forage, chop and drop, and of course highly medicinal--avoid the early growth in spring if you're concerned about the pyrolizidine alkaloids.


We just went around gathering yarrow, chicory, misc things growing wild that we'd like to see more of in the garden.

I like poke- very medicinal-but a specialty plant, so for most folks it's either a spring green, or a succulent mulch plant that is easy to kill by chopping and dropping, or easy to control with judicious pruning, produces fall berries that the birds love, and if you do decide to kill the plant for the sake of others, it leaves a sort spongy hole in the hard clay where its tap root has softened everything with a deep penetration.

people also talk about using mullein, also a very medicinal herb, with many uses nice chop and drop, and magical besides, used in many formulas it is the original funeral or graveyard dust, native americans kept a stalk or two next to the entrance as a protection (also i suspect to restart the fire if it went out).

also plantain, i like the broadleaf, it's so valuable and is growing so well i hate to move or disrupt it, guess finding a market for it would be the best of both worlds, but in the meantime it diversifies and occupies space where other weeds i don't like as much might be

i would also look for lambs quarters which should be producing seed right now, a green that is an easy wild forage replacement for lettuce or kale or spinach (probably has as many nutrients as all three), and comes back on it's own every year

I know this is a bit of a sidetrack , but if your garden looks too neat and under control, it'll give the rest of us a bad name. seriously though, a few easy volunteers Predesigned into the system can help distract insect pests, help diversify everything from soil microbes to available minerals when you start to chop and drop and provide seeds and other forage for wild critters of all kinds.

although my tomatoes hit about 7 ft, the weeds are taller than everything except the loofas which got to climb on a pergola, and i'll probably have to wait for the winter kill to see what is on all the different squashes i planted, cause it's all so overgrown---but i actually kind of like it that way
 
Ray Ko
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Location: Central Virginia zone7
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The property is in caroline county, but I live in stafford. I walked a couple parcels in Buckingham before buying the one I have. I liked it a lot, just a bit too far away. But, man, I still dream of the 10 acre pasture + 20 acres pine that was going for <2k an acre. Beautiful piece of land. But, I am waaay off topic.
 
bob day
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good to meet you, yes, buckingham is out of the way--that's the good news, the bad news is that it's out of the way
 
Trey Robbins
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At this point I am just wanting to focus on getting a productive cover crops in the area to build the soil for the Spring. I have ordered a fall cover crop mix of Austrian Field Peas, Crimson Clover, Hairy Vetch, Annual and Winter Rye. I also plan on adding turnips and beets to help tillage. I would love to plant comfrey but I dont have a local source that sells it, and I dont know if this is the right time of year to plant comfrey. Any sources or information on this specifically would be much appreciated.

I am from Florida originally and need to familiarize myself more with the local plants and weeds in Alabama. Any good suggestions on resources for this? I have done some reading about plantain and definitely want to include it into the list of crops I want to establish in this area when I start converting it into a food forest. Thank you for the plant suggestions, I have made a list of all your other suggestions and plan on doing more research on them individually.


I want this area to eventually be a well established food forest with lots of layers and multi functional plants. Fruit trees and shrubs, herbs, perennials, nuts, legumes, etc. This area is at the bottom of the yard with a slope thats 30 ft long and around 15 degrees so it gets good water flow when it rains. Take a look at the side profile picture of my raised bed, this is the area that I plan on making a small swale to help irrigate the soil, once the fruit trees and others are planted. I will try to do some drawing on these pictures to help out with the visuals. Thank you for all your advice.
 
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If I could give some advice, having used a permaculture framework to get my parent's place in NC with similar utisols going:

Pay particular attention to access and water. If the garden is going to remain for annuals and herbs (a veg/herb garden), try to lay out double reach beds. Utilize key hole pathways and make your paths at a minimum 2ft across so that they are comfortable to work from. If your parents are a part of the project, get them involved in the layout of the beds so they feel comfortable as well. Access is of paramount importance, no matter what scale a garden is. Of course, pathways can change. However, it makes very good sense to ensure that your hard work to decompact the soil is followed through.

See if a "pits and mounds" strategy to increase the diversity of site conditions would be useful. Adding texture to otherwise flat ground in this way is a wonderful tool for increasing productivity. It is very similar, although on a much smaller scale, to sepp holzer's crater garden/farm pattern.

Also, keep up with your cover crops because you never know if you will have a mild to non existent winter. Push the limits of when and what you are planting. If your crimson clover, for example, does not grow swiftly and with an intense green color, you will want to dig one up and cut open the root nodules to see if they are actually fixing nitrogen. The nodule should be a pinkish hue if it is active. I found that for peace of mind it was helpful to purchase the appropriate bacterial inoculant for the first year when planting legumes for a cover crop. This way I would know for sure that subsequent sowings of legumes would meet their symbiots (its also ridiculously cheap). That also reminds me of mycorrhizal inoculation: endomycorrhizae, which associate with the vast majority of our herbs and vegetables (including clovers), almost never form a mushroom. So knowing that their spores are present and ready to begin rebuilding their mycelial networks in a garden that has been tilled/doubledug/otherwise severely impacted, is also something that cannot be known for sure. If you know someone who is practicing no-till veg gardening and has very good soil, see if you can follow the home-grown inoculant instructions from the Rodale Institute and make your own if you don't want to buy a commercial product (from a reputable company).

Lastly, see if you can dig a small pool for frogs. If a suitable place for a small wildlife pool is further from the garden, link the pool and the garden together with perennial herbage.

This link will take you to the archive of my blog that follows the project back in the States to see one example of what is possible in our soil. Oh, that reminds me: see if you can send topsoil samples in to your state lab. While it is possible to read the landscape from plants and soil conditions, and it is true that many of these tests are not perfect, they do give a good baseline from which amendments can begin.

Anyway, from one Floridian to another, good luck and welcome to Permies.

Edit: If you want Russian Comfrey Bocking 14 cultivar, send me a PM here. I may be able to have my parents dig up some roots and send them to you all. They've been growing exceptionally well and behaving as expected (not walking all over the place, sterile seeds [but ample nectar/pollen for insects]) since 2011 in Winston-Salem NC)
 
Trey Robbins
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Joshua, thank you so much for the great advice. For now we are just doing the one raised bed, until Spring. When it comes time do redesign in the Spring, I fully plan on making a scaled drawing of my plans and sharing here. I will probably start working on my water catchment system next. This will help irrigate the raised bed, and be used in the future when a small, in ground water source (small pond) is added. In the final design, I plan on having one central 2 ft path that stretches the length of the area from east to west, about 70 ft, and follows the back edge of the small pond between the fruit trees that will eventually be planted. I plan on doing huegel beds for the fruit trees to establish mounds and diversity in the terrain. I should have my cover crops within a week, with the inoculate. I plan on sending off a soil sample before they are planted and before I plant in the spring. I built small starter boxes that will double as worm bins once the starters are transplanted, and started my seeds two weeks ago. I will be adding pics today. Will send you a PM about the Comfrey. Thanks again!
 
Trey Robbins
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Starter Boxes/Worm Bins
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Trey Robbins
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Starter Boxes/Worm Bins
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Trey Robbins
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A few more pictures
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Trey Robbins
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Update: As you can see in the recent pictures, there are some salad greens coming up from where I scattered left over seeds right next to the bed. I made a small mound in front of the rest bed and buried a few sweet potato transplants that I had started in pots along with some bush beans. This is all sort of experimental planting, just to see how things do in the soil outside of the bed. Turning my focus to my raised bed, I will be planting this weekend. Im getting a late start, but it is still staying in the 80s during the daytime. I have all my materials for my topsoil and if I plant now, this will give me time to build a cold frame and cover the seedlings before the first frost. I am adding a list of crops I will be sowing this weekend, along with a picture of my layout. Any advice on special care to these crops or suggestions on planting outdoors this late would be great!
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Trey Robbins
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Topsoil went in today along with seeds. Info update soon. Here's more pics...
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Trey Robbins
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Shameless bump
 
Leila Rich
steward
Posts: 3999
Location: Wellington, New Zealand. Temperate, coastal, sandy, windy,
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Hi Trey,
I've never used the 'square foot' method, but whenever I see diagrams I'm astonished how many plants are supposed to fit.
Do you use dwarf varieties? One of my ginormous costada romanesco zucchini plants would probably take up an entire bed!
Speaking of zucchini-it seems late to plant to me, but I know you're warm down your way...
 
Trey Robbins
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This is my first go at SFG.I just use normal varieties. I've got some sprouts showing already and it's looking good so far. We are building a cold frame this weekend for the raised bed. I planted a few things late and wanted to see if they would still grow with a cold frame over the bed.
 
Trey Robbins
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Cold frame in progress...
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Posts: 495
Location: Northern Germany (Zone 8a)
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hey trey... nice project. how is it going?

could you post photos as an update, please?
 
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