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Using my climate in my favor, instead of the opposite.

 
pollinator
Posts: 1559
Location: Denver, CO
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Hello, I'm looking for advice as to how the scenario sounds, especially from folks in the Denver Metro. For those who do not live here, we have a dry climate, with most of the rain falling in March, April, and May, and with the Fall and Late winter being the driest times of year. March and April are so wet that sometimes they delay planting. We are running an acre of community farm vegetable garden/ orchard.

I'm trying to rethink how we run the farm around what our climate has to offer. For instance, compost piles don't do so well here. (Too dry) Neither do fall planted cover crops. (Cover crops can't be economically transplanted, and their broadcast seeds need lots of spray watering to keep them wet. ) I'm thinking that we will combine these two problems and come up with a solution. Instead of hauling plant debris out of the field, I think next year we will chop them down and chop them up in place, and then leave them on the surface over the winter as a mulch layer to keep the soil from eroding and keep microbes happy. The stuff would weather down over the winter, and then, toward the end of February, we would either till (though I hope to mostly eliminate tillage eventually) and plant cover crops, or plant them right through the mulch layer. That way we would benefit from the dry weather (January and February are the driest months of the year) to get the work done, but the rains and snows of March, April, and May would water the cover. (We might have to use row cover or black plastic to temporarily heat the soil in February to get the seeds in; put the plastic on, take it off and plant the seeds. In a long term sustainable future, we could char the surface trash to blacken and heat the surface. This could be done by firing the field, or by using a propane flame weeding torch. Most years the soil does not freeze hard.) Then the cover could be slashed down or shaded back and left in place as a mulch as we planted main crops in May and April. The cover crop would then stop using water as the main crop took over and the rains stopped in July and August. Of course, this all depends on finding cover crops to fit the bill. I think field peas, which fix nitrogen, oil seed radish, which loosens the subsoil, and agricultural mustard, which suppresses weeds and provides a good mulch, are all possibilities, as are a few others.

Of course, I could just haul in wood chips or straw, and I have done that to start things off. However, I don't want to be dependent on outside inputs in the long term, and also as we get larger, hauling that much mulch will become prohibitive. And it is a lot less work to plant seeds instead of hauling and spreading mulch. Not to mention the fact that chipping equipment needs oil and straw has to be bought, and that off farm inputs come with a risk of contamination. I will be using off site inputs for years to come yet, but want to minimize them.
 
Posts: 529
Location: North-Central Idaho, 4100 ft elev., 24 in precip
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I think it sounds like a good idea! Mulching and composting in place with the leftover debris from the previous season just makes good sense. You could even tuck the previous year's growth underneath the mulch you have in place to kind of keep things looking neat and tidy ( a plus in an urban environment with lots of lookey-loos, etc). Minimal effort/expense, maximum return in soil fertility!
 
master pollinator
Posts: 11376
Location: Central Texas USA Latitude 30 Zone 8
745
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I don't have to deal with as much cold as you do, but it is quite dry here with high evaporation.

I think sheet composting with the debris is a good idea. Then if anything is left by spring it can be raked up and made into low heaps or even trench composted for summer crops such as squash and melons. I never make real compost heaps, I just sheet compost everything or use weeds and trimmings as mulch.

Look into the possibility of creating some buried wood beds (below ground "hugelkultur") - these have saved my garden completely. I used to not be able to keep the garden growing through the hot summer, no matter how much I watered. But now, with the garden in a more sheltered position and with buried wood beds, I can garden year-round.

Also, look into the possibility of planting nitrogen-fixing support plants around the perimeter of the garden for windbreak and for mulch materials, native leguminous shrubs such as False Indigo Bush http://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=amfr


http://www.plantsofthesouthwest.com/
 
Gilbert Fritz
pollinator
Posts: 1559
Location: Denver, CO
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Hello Tyler,

Good idea on the leguminous support plants. Russian Olive grows like a weed here. Of course, some people would not be happy if I planted that! There is a more mild mannered relative, Goumi, with a plus of edible fruit, that I might try. And I will look into False Indigo.

I tried to build shallow hugelkulture, and did get one 100' by 6' swath done that way with a bobcat loader, but the soil was so hard that it almost stopped the bobcat. I may very slowly put in more by hand.

Dave;

Yes, aesthetics matter here! Both the scrappy mulch and the "weedy" cover plants may be a problem that way. One thing I am doing is laying out nice tidy paths through it all and log boarders.
 
Tyler Ludens
master pollinator
Posts: 11376
Location: Central Texas USA Latitude 30 Zone 8
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If you do the buried wood beds, try to make them, if possible, good and deep (mine vary from about 18" to 24" deep) and don't build them above the surface of the surrounding soil, they should be level or slightly depressed - no raised beds! They have a tendency to sink down anyway, and then you can just add more compost or soil on top.

 
Posts: 11
Location: San Luis Valley, CO zone 4, alpine desert, elevation 7500, average precip. 7.5"
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I know this is an old thread, but on the off chance you are still watching... Don't give up on the idea of composting in the Denver area! I used to live in Northglenn in the metro area. Our soil there was hardpack clay. It took us 5 years but we finally got decent soil, just in time to move.   We had a lovely compost pile! Because of the lack of humidity it had to stay under a tarp and was watered 3-4 times a week. It was also quite large (10'x10') for a back yard garden of 2000 square feet. I believe the size and the tarp helped it to retain the moisture level for the pile to "work". We also had great luck with using winter rye as a fall planted cover crop and buckwheat as our spring planted cover crop. We planted in 3'x6' beds (not raised) and had comfrey and red clover planted in permanent places at the end of each bed for a quick chop and drop type mulching opportunity. I hope your project is going well!
 
Gilbert Fritz
pollinator
Posts: 1559
Location: Denver, CO
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Well, a year on, I have to say that cover crops established in February and March don't make any sort of significant growth by June. Also, they are outcompeted by perennial weeds.

I used some black plastic to smother the mess, and it did leave a very nice seedbed; the debris rotted, and all the annual weeds died, while the perennials were set back far enough to let us stay ahead.

I'm now thinking about using a summer growing cover crop, such as Sudan grass or sunflowers, which will die and weather overwinter and leave a nice cover on the ground by spring.

Fall planted cover crops are just too difficult to get established, as I found again this year.
 
pollinator
Posts: 1793
Location: Wisconsin, zone 4
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Gilbert Fritz wrote:Well, a year on, I have to say that cover crops established in February and March don't make any sort of significant growth by June. Also, they are outcompeted by perennial weeds.

I used some black plastic to smother the mess, and it did leave a very nice seedbed; the debris rotted, and all the annual weeds died, while the perennials were set back far enough to let us stay ahead.

I'm now thinking about using a summer growing cover crop, such as Sudan grass or sunflowers, which will die and weather overwinter and leave a nice cover on the ground by spring.

Fall planted cover crops are just too difficult to get established, as I found again this year.



Gilbert, I lived in Aurora for 7 years, so I know what you're dealing with.  If it's an option, I would bring in all those wood chips you talked about.  I understand your concerns about being dependent on outside resources, but it isn't forever.  If you can get 4-6 inches of mulch in, you will keep that early spring moisture for much, much longer, and that will let you get your cover crops growing.  After a couple years, it kinds of steam-rolls, with your soil getting better, holding moisture better, then things grow better, then you have more mulch from your cover crops, then...
 
Gilbert Fritz
pollinator
Posts: 1559
Location: Denver, CO
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Gilbert, I lived in Aurora for 7 years, so I know what you're dealing with.  If it's an option, I would bring in all those wood chips you talked about.  I understand your concerns about being dependent on outside resources, but it isn't forever.  If you can get 4-6 inches of mulch in, you will keep that early spring moisture for much, much longer, and that will let you get your cover crops growing.  After a couple years, it kinds of steam-rolls, with your soil getting better, holding moisture better, then things grow better, then you have more mulch from your cover crops, then...



I tried that, but I found that the cover crops wouldn't germinate in the mulch. Did you manage to get a good stand established? How did you do so? I've talked to others who say that grain type cover crops just don't like wood chips.
 
Posts: 13
Location: New Mexico USA
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There is this saying that before you can plant the vegetables you have to plant the water first. This means coming up with ways to capture the water you get, sequester it in the field/garden bed.  

You appear to be seeking ways to make 'traditional' farming work in your area, you may want to think about how to capture the water you do get and store it for when you need it.

Ever hear of no till gardening?

In essence you start off with a ground cover broadcasted when you plant your plants. As the plants grow the ground cover grows. You can have nature tomatoes with a buckwheat ground cover that is ready to be harvested between the tomatoes. Instead of cutting it all the way down to till it up, you harvest that which you need to break the seed off (for buckwheat) and then cut the rest and drop it to allow it to become your mulch. Then you seed in your next cover crop say clover or a fast warm weather rowing wheat that will do well being sheltered in the shade of your tomatoes.

Once tomatoes are harvested you have your wheat. Instead of cutting the wheat all the way down you cut off the heads and then roll the rest down. End of season you have a mulch that is rooted in place. Next spring you broadcast more seed and then plant individual plants.  There are ways to do row planting, not with tilling but with cutting the soil and spreading it to plant things like rows of lettuce seed.

Organic material in soil is a living web of microbial and tiny life. Insects, bacteria, fungi all work together to process the available minerals. Plants produce sugars which a majority are released from the roots to feed the microorganisms. Those feed nematodes which feed fungi and various worms and bring in pests which bring the predatory species. The healthier your soil the more predatory species you have. So having pests is crucial to well balanced soil.

Worms are essential tillers, they will go deep, tunneling and pulling material from the surface down. That material is composting organic material that absorbs water and when pulled down it holds water deep in the soil. Tilling the soil, turning the soil ends up wiping out most of that life, thus causing your soil to go through shock for a couple of years until life reasserts itself.

I suggest you learn more on this web of life, no till farming and companion planting of covers with profit plants. Try it out in a small area, figure out which ways works best for your farm to produce by experimentation.

All of those covers and sheets and other stuff you want to bring in to work your farm are expensive and most likely are not needed should you get a soil established with vegetable matter always in place.

BTW I live in Albuquerque, I moved from the Central Valley California and I have been relearning the art of gardening. I have been testing waffle beds over raised beds, planting new forms of cover crops that are hardy for the area. The Native Peoples figured out a lot about the area and I turn to their wisdom.  Find the local wisdom of the peoples who lived there before the advent of modern technology driven farming. Take what you can from their hard won wisdom.

 
Gilbert Fritz
pollinator
Posts: 1559
Location: Denver, CO
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Hi David,

I've heard of using a living cover crop under crop plants. My reservations about a continuous living cover crop is that it may outcompete the desired plants, weeds may take advantage of it, and that there may not be enough water. I've grown both buckwheat and wheat; both were hard to harvest on a small scale, buckwheat particularly so. Weeds, in my case bindweed, can outcompete most living cover plants, unless the living cover crops were tough enough to outcompete the crops as well. Hoeing out the bindweed would destroy the cover.

I am trying to do no-till; there are many ways of doing this. Growing cover crops which are then killed by rolling or tarps is no-till, as is a deep layer of wood chips, as is a continuous living cover.

I know the natives used waffle gardens; did they use a continuous living cover?

Have you succeeded in growing vegetables with a living cover crop in New Mexico? What did you use?
 
Posts: 43
Location: Lowell, Massachusetts, USA
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Also, tomatoes grow well for me. I never intended to plant them, watered them the least, and they were my 2nd biggest crop.
 
David Singer
Posts: 13
Location: New Mexico USA
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Gilbert Fritz wrote:Hi David,

I've heard of using a living cover crop under crop plants. My reservations about a continuous living cover crop is that it may outcompete the desired plants, weeds may take advantage of it, and that there may not be enough water. I've grown both buckwheat and wheat; both were hard to harvest on a small scale, buckwheat particularly so. Weeds, in my case bindweed, can outcompete most living cover plants, unless the living cover crops were tough enough to outcompete the crops as well. Hoeing out the bindweed would destroy the cover.

I am trying to do no-till; there are many ways of doing this. Growing cover crops which are then killed by rolling or tarps is no-till, as is a deep layer of wood chips, as is a continuous living cover.

I know the natives used waffle gardens; did they use a continuous living cover?

Have you succeeded in growing vegetables with a living cover crop in New Mexico? What did you use?



I do three sister type things. Such as vine type squashes or sweet potatoes/yams.  This year it was sweet potatoes under tomatoes. Sadly the tomatoes didn't do much due to there not being enough soil - just dirt.

I have actually had purslane sprout in part of the bed. I have decided to break it apart and spread it as it is a native plant that does well in native conditions and it can be eaten.  I also started mint, which is more or less a permanent ground cover that looks nice, smells nice and will hold more water down in the soil.

I'm trying four different experiements next season to see what will work best with as little added water as possible.  

Should I buy property in or around this area I'm going to do swales first and forego doing a 'real garden' until I can get a decent water harvesting situation started.  Around here a thousand dollars can by an acre - but its total high desert removed from city pipes.
 
gardener
Posts: 458
Location: Sierra Nevadas, CA 6400'
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All I can say is that I feel your pain! I struggled over and over this year to get a cover crop established. Even when it would rain, the next day the top 1/2" of soil would be bone dry from the lack of humidity and sunshine. Adding in the squirrels and birds meant that any larger seeds got eaten way before they were able to germinate. I think I planted 1lb of field peas and maybe got two dozen plants out of it. This is really frustrating to me because there is plenty of water — just not in the right places. With no irrigation, the soil was still moist about 2" below grade all year round. Mulch was unhelpful for me. Enough to keep the soil moist prevented seedlings from emerging, and less than that got blown away by winds or hauled off by animals.

One thing I am trying this year is seeding a spring cover crop right now, when there's only about a 1/2" of snow on the ground. I am hoping the snow cover will keep the seeds dormant and animals  away until the spring (most of the birds have migrated away by now), and the seeds can germinate as soon as the snow melts, which is always highly unpredictable. I'm also considering a strategy similar to yours, where I broadcast a cover crop in the spring, then cover the plot with burlap / fabric / plastic (something I can pin down) for a few days to allow the seeds to germinate, then remove it for the rest of the growing season.
 
Todd Parr
pollinator
Posts: 1793
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Gilbert Fritz wrote:

Gilbert, I lived in Aurora for 7 years, so I know what you're dealing with.  If it's an option, I would bring in all those wood chips you talked about.  I understand your concerns about being dependent on outside resources, but it isn't forever.  If you can get 4-6 inches of mulch in, you will keep that early spring moisture for much, much longer, and that will let you get your cover crops growing.  After a couple years, it kinds of steam-rolls, with your soil getting better, holding moisture better, then things grow better, then you have more mulch from your cover crops, then...



I tried that, but I found that the cover crops wouldn't germinate in the mulch. Did you manage to get a good stand established? How did you do so? I've talked to others who say that grain type cover crops just don't like wood chips.



Gilbert, I don't really have much advice to give about grains.  I've never grown them (unless you count corn) until this year, and I'm in WI now.  I grew oats this year and they did pretty well.

I grow everything pretty much the same way now.  I cover the area I am going to convert to garden with rubber roofing material until everything under it is dead.  After that, I normally cover the entire area in wood chips immediately, before my clay ground can bake back into it's normal pavement-like surface.  I say normally because on rare occasions I will just plant a cover crop as soon as I remove the rubber roofing material.  When I do put the wood chips down, I try to get at least 4 inches down.  When I'm ready to plant, I open a narrow row in the chips down to the ground level.  If I have compost, I put a small layer to plant in, say 1/2 inch deep and plant in that.  If not, I scratch the ground surface a little and plant directly in it.  The compost method works better I think, but I have pretty good results either way.  I water if I need to until the plants sprout, and I pull the wood chips back in against the plant as soon as they are big enough to handle that treatment.  I never water except to get seedlings going, but I am in an area with more rain now.  If I were still in Aurora or Phoenix, I would still have to water sometimes, but the mulch retains a lot of moisture and helps considerably.
 
Posts: 189
Location: Kachemak Bay, Alaska (usda zone 6, ahs heat zone 1, lat 59 N, coastal, koppen Dfc)
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Gilbert, do you have Sunchokes?  they might be a good element for you since they are very cold and dry tolerant, make a lot of biomass and have some economic value ( I saw the tubers for sale in a grocery store here for something outrageous like $8/lb).  Mine do well and are the most dry tolerant thing in my garden- succeeding without watering while other plants wilt.
 
Todd Parr
pollinator
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Corey Schmidt wrote:Gilbert, do you have Sunchokes?  they might be a good element for you since they are very cold and dry tolerant, make a lot of biomass and have some economic value ( I saw the tubers for sale in a grocery store here for something outrageous like $8/lb).  Mine do well and are the most dry tolerant thing in my garden- succeeding without watering while other plants wilt.



The only problem with sunchokes is getting rid of them once they are established.  You can do it, but it isn't the easiest thing to do.
 
master pollinator
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I found (quite by accident) a way of cleaning a sunchoke patch: Have some ducks working alongside as you fork up the tubers. They will gobble up all the small ones and broken bits.
 
Gilbert Fritz
pollinator
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Thanks for all the discussion everyone!

My main problem is that getting an annual cover (or grain crop, for that matter) established is almost impossible in this climate, except for a few weeks in spring. The scale I'm working on (quarter acre to acre size plots) makes deep mulching less desirable (it takes a surprising amount of material to cover a quarter acre with a foot of mulch), as does the fact that my soil is oversaturated with potassium, and very dense; I've dug into old mulch beds, and found the same brick-like clay a few inches from the surface. I need the rooting power of cover crops to break this up.

A perennial, spreading cover could work in theory, but most of these are aggressive and would make growing any crops with small seeds almost impossible, except by transplants. Transplanting hundreds of turnips is a lot of pointless work. Also, I'm cursed with perennial weeds; they will happily grow among a perennial cover such as clover, which will simply impede by efforts to dig them out or hoe them down. Cover crops need to be strong enough to outcompete thistle and bindweed, or grow at times of the year when thistle and bindweed are dormant. Any cover crop that can compete will compete with my vegetables.

 
pollinator
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Hi Gilbert.

I would like to know what you've done to enhance water infiltration and control runoff. Is your piece of land flat, or is there a grade? Could you provide a little information about your land and the surrounding circumstances, and maybe your particular microclimates?

The clay could be a good thing, actually, but I could see it also creating drainage problems for you.

Also, I want to second that suggestion about wood chips. Where are you sourcing them? I ask because I have found urban arborists to be a boon for my backyard, and as none of the city trees are allowed to be treated with anything, its all clean biomass.

With all your seasonal moisture, I would think that a layer of mulch before the wet sets in would already have begun decomposing. If there was any question of this, I would innoculate the mulch with a dilute EM solution and mushroom spore as soon as the temperature is above freezing, and maybe after the heaviest of rains, preferably something local and of culinary interest. You could scrape rows in the mulch when the waters recede and sow directly into there.

If you're adding mulch as a barrier layer, I think that it will buy you some time to worry about green manures. I would go with some variation on the three sisters method, as mentioned earlier.

Are you in a position to use animals to accelerate soil development? You could go whole hog and see if a daikon radish guild for soil building and pig forage would work, should you have access to pigs. Ideally, after doing the mulch layer, you could seed with a buckwheat guild for sheep, and they would eat everything, whether the buckwheat grows quickly enough to choke out the "weeds" or not. Chickens a number of days after that would eat any dropped seed, parasite larvae, and other tasty "weeds" that you don't want in your growspace. You could seed the daikon guild right after you remove the chickens. Depending on what else you're growing, you might be able to plant a fast-growing couple of crops in rows with the daikon guild in the alleys between. Then, after harvest, you run the pigs, which eat the crop residues, the daikon radish guild, and whatever else they find tasty. And some days after that, you run the chickens again, who again snap up any dropped seed along with any larval parasites.

You've probably seen some iteration of this method a few times on permies, but I would bet that it would get the Sepp Holzer stamp of approval. Of course, if you can't use livestock, "... then you must do the animals' work." (I am paraphrasing. I believe the original featured "pigs," not "animals.")

Also, what weeds are you talking about? Have you identified them? Are they animal food? What do they do in their environment? I would suggest that you investigate what the pioneering species are in your area, and how they and their cohorts turn disturbed land into soil. What hosts nitrogen-fixing bacteria? Is there something with a deep taproot? Dynamic hyperaccumulators? If you could find some "weeds" in your area that are doing things you want done, you could more easily employ them, as they are already adapted to your environment. And no guesswork as to how. Just look at how they each come up throughout the season.

One thing to mention is the effect simply having dead wood on the ground has on the texture and structure of the soil. The macrobiota responsible for breaking down woody matter apparently also loosen soil to a dramatic degree.

Hope some of this helps. Please keep us updated, and pics would be lovely, if you're willing.

-CK
 
Gilbert Fritz
pollinator
Posts: 1559
Location: Denver, CO
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Hi Chris (and others)

The overall picture is as follows. I'm using borrowed land in fairly large patches (quarter acre to acre size) in an urban area to grow vegetables; I'd also like to grow some grains. Animals are not an option, since I don't live on site (and usually the land is vacant.) I'm currently between plots right now; I've never used the same land for more then three years, though I'd like to use them for longer. The temporary nature of the gardens means that usually I can't dig swales. However, I try to choose land that is fairly flat, and if it is not, I run rows or beds on contour. I've never seen water flowing over any of my site, though I have seen water pooling after heavy rains; my last field was flat as a sheet.

The weeds are mostly bindweed, mallow, and Canada thistle. I don't mind the mallow and usually leave it. The other two spread aggressively by runners and by seed, and the seeds of bindweed can lay dormant for 20 years. Also, a tiny snip of bindweed root will grow into a new plant, and they can quickly smother most vegetable plantings by covering and pulling them down (bindweed is a wild, perennial morning glory.) Left for even a month or so, the bindweed in invested areas turns into a solid mat of vegetation that can be rolled up as it is hoed off. The Canada thistle is very painful.

As far as succession, what I've observed seems to be as follows. When a grass field is plowed, tilled, or mulched, the grass dies out, and some annuals show up; buffalo bur, purslane, and various weedy amaranths being the most common. I've eaten a good bit of purslane, and none of these weeds are a big problem for me. I try to eliminate the buffalo burs, since they are toxic, have stinging hairs, and produce sharp burs that can pierce through gloves. Meanwhile, the pre-existing bindweed, Canada thistle, and mallow start spreading. Within a year or so, a combination of cultivation and succession has eliminated the annual weeds, and the perennials are dominating. Mulch does not change this trajectory much; it merely lessens the amount of annuals. Once such a site is abandoned, perennial grasses reclaim it and crowd out the bindweed, mallow, and thistle, though they still persist at lower levels. If the site is not mowed, it remains grass, with the eventual addition of yucca and a few low, woody shrubs; it may also eventually include the non-native Russian olive and Siberian elm. Non-irrigated grass fields only need one or two mowings a year to keep them short; there is not a lot of biomass produced by native or wild vegetation here. Along creeks, the native vegetation includes willows and cottonwoods. Native vegetation here tends to be fire and grazing adapted; without fire or grazing, nutrients are not cycled and dead organic matter builds up, unlike in tropic forests or temperate broadleaf forests.

On one of my sites, I had some alfalfa growing, which I left if it was not in the way; however, it did not spread, neither in the cultivated areas nor in the undisturbed grass; it instead was fading out and being crowded out by the grass. Most of the other weeds are either undesirable or don't produce significant biomass or nitrogen.

Microclimate; I try to choose sunny but sheltered locations.

Mulch; I spread a foot of mulch over an eighth acre garden, a mix of horse manure and wood chips over a layer of cardboard. It certainly got rid of grass, but it did not get rid of the perennial weeds, which took over in the same way that they would in a tilled area. In fact, in the tilled area, it was easier to hoe them off; the wood chips impeded the hoe. The ground a few inches below the mulch layer remained hard; it did not dramatically loosen the soil, though it did help somewhat. My cultivated plant roots tended to stay in the mulch layer, which left them prone to drying out. (The foot of mulch rapidly shrank to a few inches.) Spreading that much mulch was a huge amount of work, much more work then tilling or broadforking would have been, and required lots of trucks showing up to dump loads; some owners are not thrilled by that, some sites don't have good truck access, and when the field is wet, trucks can do a lot of damage. (Most of the pieces of land are leftover strips of land between rows of suburban and creeks or drainage ditches. There is usually the brown grass field (when I'm looking at google maps I can spot untended land, because it is brown, unlike the green lawns) and then trees or shrubs along the creek or ditch.

Now that the ash tree borer is in town, aggressive salesmen are going door to door, convincing ash tree owners to spray or inject their trees. Ash trees make up a quarter of the urban forest here, so I've stopped importing wood chips. In any case, it was so much easier planting into soil then into woodchips; compost would be an ideal mulch, but it is expensive to buy and hard to make. And I'd prefer not to import more potassium to the garden anyway.





 
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Gilbert Fritz wrote:Thanks for all the discussion everyone!

My main problem is that getting an annual cover (or grain crop, for that matter) established is almost impossible in this climate, except for a few weeks in spring. The scale I'm working on (quarter acre to acre size plots) makes deep mulching less desirable (it takes a surprising amount of material to cover a quarter acre with a foot of mulch), as does the fact that my soil is oversaturated with potassium, and very dense; I've dug into old mulch beds, and found the same brick-like clay a few inches from the surface. I need the rooting power of cover crops to break this up.

A perennial, spreading cover could work in theory, but most of these are aggressive and would make growing any crops with small seeds almost impossible, except by transplants. Transplanting hundreds of turnips is a lot of pointless work. Also, I'm cursed with perennial weeds; they will happily grow among a perennial cover such as clover, which will simply impede by efforts to dig them out or hoe them down. Cover crops need to be strong enough to outcompete thistle and bindweed, or grow at times of the year when thistle and bindweed are dormant. Any cover crop that can compete will compete with my vegetables.



hau Gilbert.
I would suggest you start brewing some compost teas or even better (if you have access to enough good compost) compost extracts. A tea uses around 4 lb. compost to @ 50 gal. water, while an extract would use 12 to 25 lbs. compost to @50 gal. water, both are aerated via an air pump and air stones (bigger is better in air stones). The resultant supernate (the liquid that has been infused with all the goodies from the compost and also will have grown a multitude of microorganisms, when poured over the mulch or simply on the soil, will infuse with all the microorgansims and the minerals, humic acid and everything else. This will start to break up your hard ground and give you a better soil in just a few weeks. The more compost tea/ extract you add, the better the soil will become in short order. This has been proven to work many times already, it would also make water infiltration better and last longer which should get you able to grow cover crops and vegetable crops much faster than just compost or mulching will do. The compost will include fungi, bacteria and all the other important microorganisms that actual make dirt soil. The increase in microorganisms will greatly reduce the potassium at the same time as well as opening up access to other minerals to plant roots.

Redhawk  (pm me if you need specifics)
 
Chris Kott
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That sucks about the Ash Borer.

If you can find clean wood chips, I have another idea for you that has the advantage of increasing your soil depth, increasing access, and creating a more receptive environment for RedHawk's compost teas (which I agree with. He has a very comprehensive thread he's working on regarding a how-to of soil building and management, along with the whys. Thanks again for that, RedHawk!).

You mentioned that you have dedicated access paths to your beds, I believe. Assuming that the compost tea applications manage the added potassium you mentioned you didn't want, and assuming you were able to find untreated wood chips, what would you think about digging the paths out as deep as you can (I think standard for French drains is 6') and replacing the material with woodchips? Again, you'd want to inoculate them with mushroom spore for their beneficial effect on the soil, but if that was in place for the rains, wouldn't they increase the moisture retention capacity of the soil around it? You could run a perimeter path, as deep as you could go with the help and tools available. I would keep it all in the ground, of course, as you get severe dry spells like you said. All that moisture would make your acre a haven for worms into the dry season, increasing soil fertility and moisture retention capacity just by virtue of the worms alone. You could even top the paths with a mixture of top and mineral soil (I am assuming that's what you'd be digging) and seed them with a polycultural groundcover mix that likes to be trodden upon, probably including clovers.

This could have a number of advantages. The large quantities of dry wood chips in the soil the first year would soak up all the early water, enabling better early drainage into what would essentially be wood chip french drains, but surrounding your beds, or however you have them arranged (I am assuming some amount of settling, so the first year after implementation would also be a few inches above ground level, probably), allowing for proper establishment of crops or at least green manure. You'd still have to select a variety of hardy cover crops, probably local pioneer species, and ones that like the wet, no doubt, but that would get a root mat established.

By the way, have you thought of growing rice in your wet season? I don't even know what the required temperature profiles look like, but I was under the impression that they were unfazed by wet roots. Perhaps an early season variety might stand a chance. Rice and clover, then the wood chip paths fill and saturate, and the standing water kills off the clover, releasing nitrogen for use by the rice. Very Fukuoka.

I am assuming that the wood chip drains would only help so much, and then the standing water would probably drown any established green manures for you. I think that they wouldn't trap standing water, though, as the open structure of the wood chip drains would let it pass easily through them to the surrounding soil when it starts to recede. The chips would, as mentioned earlier, obviously act in the same way as buried wood beds; giant moisture-retentive sponges. So as soon as you could plant on it again, you'd have the perfect nursery bed, with drowned ground cover in place, and maybe even a rice crop, but it would have to be a very early and fast-growing one.

So granted, its work that ideally would take lots of free labour or, like, a trencher (digging machine for trenches to lay conduit and pipes and such, I think that's what it's called), but this happens exactly one time per project, so once until you expand. You might need to top up sinking paths until the soil levels settle unless you account for it the first time around, but that would be more likely for an expansion project, when you have an idea of how much it will all settle over time. The point is, you do this once, creating a soil-life reactor of sorts by smoothing out the peaks and valleys of your water cycle, allowing our friends in the soil to do their work. You don't need to import animals. This way, they'll come to you and breed (worms) and do their job on the soil for you.

So first, the initial blow of the wet season is mitigated enough (hopefully) to allow a start where none was previously possible. Your wet-tolerant local pioneer species go on to create biomass in place that will become your mulch and added subsoil structure. This makes it easier to get seeds to germinate, and earlier because of the added drainage capacity.

They don't dry out, though, because of your wood chip moisture bank, which extends your goldilocks period much longer than earlier. How long would depend on the volume of buried wood chips.

So when everything else is drying out, the grass surrounding your acre community garden is vibrant green, as is the much more impressive crop yield in your beds. This combination of buried woody matter and compost tea has worked so spectacularly that losses among the newly planted orchard crop are virtually nil, and breaking records for healthy fruit tree growth in the area.

When harvest rolls around, the whole community gathers and encircles your garden, chanting, "Gil-bert, Gil-bert, Gil-bert..."

Then they burn you as a witch.

Sorry, got distracted. I don't think you'll be burnt as a witch, and I doubt there'll be chanting of your name, but I think this idea might work for you.

And the other part that might appeal to you is that it won't appear unruly to the uninitiated. It will just be a bright green spot in a sea of greenish brown in the dry season.

-CK
 
Gilbert Fritz
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Thanks for the idea Chris! I think it would help a lot, and I may use it in my home garden. I'm not sure if I could convince landowners to let me do it though; that is a lot of displaced earth! It would be hard to restore such a garden to its pre-existing condition.

I tried something rather similar, laying logs along the planting rows. They did help to conserve water somewhat, I think. But the bindweed grew under and around them and was hard to get at.
 
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Gilbert,

I have family out there, and they are trying a Zai pit approach (or you could do checkerboard mulch). This may keep the bindweed from going from one location to another since the ground in between will be like rock. That is a tough climate.

I can tell you my experience with wood chips so far has been good, and morons spray stuff here too. I try to make large piles and get high fungal mass working on it before I plant anything.  One time I did not and it killed quite a few things. Is it OMRI? Heck no. But I would target soil prtection in  winter which has many freeze/thaw cycles and humidity is low, so you are prone to getting sublimation. Water loss in winter is staggering and sunburn is an issue too because of the altitude. I doubt goumi will grow there (you should definitely try) but the more hardy parent plant autumn olive may.

The secret out there is that you need DEEP mulch, because you must have many effective evaporative plates to try to recondense the vapor before it reaches the surface. Only then will it make water from decomposition and keep you from having to water it. Alternatively you could put down chips and tarp them, if you could keep a tarp on in the wind out there.

I hate to say it, but that is one of the least productive climates I have seen due to the dry windy winter. I just think tchniques opimized for dry windy summers like zai pits may be the best.

 
Gilbert Fritz
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I have family out there, and they are trying a Zai pit approach (or you could do checkerboard mulch). This may keep the bindweed from going from one location to another since the ground in between will be like rock. That is a tough climate.

I can tell you my experience with wood chips so far has been good, and morons spray stuff here too. I try to make large piles and get high fungal mass working on it before I plant anything.  One time I did not and it killed quite a few things. Is it OMRI? Heck no. But I would target soil prtection in  winter which has many freeze/thaw cycles and humidity is low, so you are prone to getting sublimation. Water loss in winter is staggering and sunburn is an issue too because of the altitude. I doubt goumi will grow there (you should definitely try) but the more hardy parent plant autumn olive may.

The secret out there is that you need DEEP mulch, because you must have many effective evaporative plates to try to recondense the vapor before it reaches the surface. Only then will it make water from decomposition and keep you from having to water it. Alternatively you could put down chips and tarp them, if you could keep a tarp on in the wind out there.

I hate to say it, but that is one of the least productive climates I have seen due to the dry windy winter. I just think tchniques opimized for dry windy summers like zai pits may be the best.



Thanks Tj,

It is a harsh climate! I doubt the Zai pit technique would keep out the bindweed; it burrows through anything. Russian Olives are invasive here; they were originally planted for windbreaks, and are now illegal. However, the idea of planting perennial nitrogen fixers has got me thinking . . .  If I could either 1. Find a perennial cover crop that went dormant during the summer, or 2. plant alley strips of some type of perennial cover, I might have the problems solved. (Except for the bindweed, I don't think there is a solution to that.)

With option number 1, the cover would start growing quickly from established roots in the spring, utilizing our wet, cool season, and then go dormant in June, leaving a mulch on the surface. It would be established and ready to go as things cooled off again in October, making at least a little more growth, perhaps with some irrigation, to hold the soil over the winter. They summer dieback would release nitrogen and other elements for the crop.

With option 2, the cover strips could protect plantings, both crops and cover crops, from the winds, and could be mowed down to provide a mulch over establishing covers or around newly planted crops. Or, this crop could not go dormant in the strict sense, but might suffer enough from the heat that it would be outcompeted by the crop.

It would be really cool to have both options working!

Has anyone used pampas grass as a cover crop? (For option 2.)
 
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I don't recommend the wood chips. too dry here, wont work.

one thing that works wonders for me is to spread out mowed up apple leaves into your garden beds in fall/winter before spring. This would be the perfect time to do it. I once had  some soil i grew corn on corn on corn for several years that was nutrient depleted, compacted, hard as a rock and literal cracking open, dry as a bone.

I tried the mowed up apple leaf trick instead of hauling them to the landfill and that piece of soil was so lush, full of nutrients, and literally soft as butter that i used a butter knife to plant my watermelon proto-landrace seeds that year. The watermelons did great! So try that!



Also here is a rough guide planting dates that might help. From this i can plant peas in late march. Other things i like to plant by April 1st if possible.

And finally, i don't recommend you plant the russian olive trees. They are illegal here for a reason. They zap the water from everything else, have deep roots, are hard to remove even with teams and chainsaws (trust me i've done it), and they spread everywhere. Not to mention super ugly. I cant stop you from trying, but someone might report you.

On the other hand, i have a wild idea i kind of want to try. I wonder if Mediterranean olives would survive here if grafted onto a Russian olive tree. More a curiosity than anything though.

Hope those peas i sent you do well this year though! Good Luck!
 
Gilbert Fritz
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Yep, the Russian Olives are quite invasive.

Goumi might be worth a try; it is a mild mannered relative that is legal here, and it has better tasting fruit as well.

I can't wait to plant the peas! I hope to increase the quantities on all of them, and see what they are all like, and be able to return some if desired; then I will proceed to use some of them in an overwintering pea landrace project. I think that if I could get peas to overwinter reliably here, they would have a huge advantage over spring planting.

Field peas are said to overwinter here in a mild winter, but not in a harsh one; the lack of snow cover probably has something to do with that.
 
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