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Beginner's garden in New England  RSS feed

 
Steven Kovacs
Posts: 226
Location: Western Massachusetts (USDA zone 5a, heating zone 5, 40"+)
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I'm trying to plot out my first real garden and would really appreciate any pointers. Since my time to plant and manage the garden is limited this year, and I am a rank beginner, I'm only planning to use part of the property initially. Over time I plan to expand the garden over most of the property.

We're in western Massachusetts, near the Connecticut River. USDA zone 5a, heating zone 5 I think. In the few years I've been here there have been a few winter lows of -15, but -5 is probably more typical. Some highs in the 90s in the summer, but mostly lower than that (for now).

We get more than 40" of rain and 40" of snow in an average year. The precipitation is spread out pretty evenly around the year, so we have plenty of water. Actually, we have too much, since our house is on a slope and we get runoff from the hill above us to the west. Drainage is an ongoing issue. Since New England is forecast to get wetter over time, this issue isn't going to go away.

However, the soil is very good loam, some of the best in the country. A simple soil test showed slight acidity ( 5.8 ) and a deficiency in P; otherwise it was in good shape.

Sun is a significant constraint on our property, as you'll see in the attached images. Briefly:

The south side of the property is not usable for much, since it is narrow and taken up almost completely by a garage and driveway.

The west side is shaded by a large hill and trees on other properties, though our immediate neighbor has significantly trimmed their trees so the shade this summer should be less than last year. In the winter, the garage casts a long shadow across the back yard, but in the summer it is minimal.

The east (street) side has a dry patch near a Norway Maple and a very shady patch under a Linden.

The north side is narrow and very shady. Right now only moss and some sad grass grows there.

Wind is not a significant factor - we're in a valley, and the back yard has almost no wind at all because it is sheltered by a hill, trees, and buildings.

I'm going to focus on the back yard for now. I've split it into 3 rough areas. Zone 1 is immediately outside the back door; right now there are steps to that door, but we'd like to build a small deck (10' by 10' maybe?) off that door, which will cut into the Zone 1 area. Zone 2A is sunny in the winter, partially shady and partly sunny in the summer. Zone 2B is mostly sunny in the summer, but fairly dark in the winter due to the shadow cast by the garage. Zone 1 is maybe 20' by 15'. Zone 2A is about 35' square. Zone 2B is about 20' by 50'.

The whole property slopes down from west to east. Rough contour lines are shown in brown on the diagrams.

My main goals are:
1) to grow fresh, varied food for my family
2) to learn how to grow food (and cook new foods, and preserve food)
3) to have fresh vegetables in the winter

For goal 3, my thought was to put annuals in rows in zone 1, and use row covers / cold frames / etc. to protect winter vegetables. Last spring we put some kale and herbs in zone 1 and the adjacent part of zone 2A, then totally neglected them, and they all thrived - the kale got 4 feet tall. So at least zone 1 is a good spot.

Zone 2A is shadier, and 2B is shadier still. I figured I would use 2A and 2B for a mix of experimenting (seeing what can survive where) and longer term edible perennials.

The plants I'm thinking of including are:
milkweed
blueberries
black raspberries
ramps
nine-star perennial broccoli
rosemary
mint
parsley
walking onions
asparagus
sea kale
pawpaw (only if room allows)
garlic
strawberries
Alpine strawberries
scarlet runner beans (on north fence)
rhubarb
kale
spinach
mizuna
tatsoi
grape (maybe, on trellis on south side)
hardy kiwi (maybe, on trellis on south side)
chicory (radicchio, etc.)
chives
sunflower
radish

The contour lines run almost but not quite north-south; at the northern edge of the property they start to run NW-SE. Does it make sense to plant beds / shallow terraces along the contour lines, with tall plants to the north? Are the proposed locations for black raspberries and blueberries good? There are fences along the edges of the property, so the raspberries would have support. Would it work to have the ramps under the blueberries?

The first picture shows the whole property; the second shows what is in now; and the third shows my rough plan.
property-overview-2.png
[Thumbnail for property-overview-2.png]
overview of the property
zones-1-and-2.png
[Thumbnail for zones-1-and-2.png]
current status of the back yard
zones-1-and-2-plan.png
[Thumbnail for zones-1-and-2-plan.png]
plan for the back yard
 
Dougan Nash
Posts: 67
Location: Eastern Shore, Maryland
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You are way more organized than I am. I try desperately to make charts, lists, etc. but end up just doing what I feel will work in the moment. I am a beginner, so I suggest you take my advice with a grain of salt:

- Starting small is great, I made the mistake of trying to take over my whole yard in one go. Now I have grassy-veggie-compact soil.
- Get some perennials in the ground now; don't go to big - maybe just some berry plants.
- Learn how to compost. I've been attempting it for a few years, but haven't quite gotten it down
- Don't be afraid to bend the rules of permaculture with annuals. I find most permie guidelines fit really well in a primarily perennial landscape with animals involved. As far as annuals, loosening the soil via hand tilling benefits them (make sure to add some organic matter when you do). Also, don't skimp on watering. I had this idea that once established a garden didn't need water except for the rain. My landscape was crispy when the August drought hit last year.

Not much, but it's all I got. A few books I have loved - gaia's garden, The resilient farm and homestead by Ben Falk, and How to grow more vegetables by John Jeavons. Fantastic reads all of them.
 
Amit Enventres
Posts: 456
Location: Ohio, USA
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dog fish food preservation forest garden fungi solar trees urban woodworking
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It's good to be organized and then, it's good to go with the flow. The more I think about my garden, the more I think, oh it would be better if I... So, I usually work slow. By slow I mean at whatever pace I can do it by myself without burning out. This is a great start! I work in more neutral to basic need tlc soils usually, but I see nothing wrong with the list other than it being potentially hard to find the ramps and perennial broccoli. You can always start with the easy to find things and work your way up. Make sure you get the right variety of rosemary if your thinking zone 5 and putting it in the right microclimate. My understanding is rosemary is native to a Mediterranean climate and been bred for northern climates. I grow mine in a sunny window during window and take it out in summer. Instead of walking onions, you might want to look into walla-walla, shallots, and/or multiplier onions, since they can be left in the ground all winter. Garlic- I assume hard-neck. Sea Kale - I think you might need to be careful with micro-climate on this too. For us, some years ground just freezes. Period. No changing it. So, it might not be worth having a less productive perennial that will die every-other winter when you can save seeds from an annual. Do you get dandelions? These little beauties still amaze me with their deliciousness, hardiness, and beauty. It's no wonder they were transported to the Americas early. My understanding of ramps is they like hanging out under deciduous trees, so I could imagine them under blue berries if they were tall and pruned right, but I've never grown them.
 
Bella Simple
Posts: 16
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Hey dude, I'm pretty new myself, so can only give basic tips. My biggest tip is that if you're doing all this more-or-less by yourself, do your best to curb your enthusiasm. I learned pretty quick that I only manage to achieve about a third of my plans for each season. I'm okay with that now, because the whole "you'll overestimate what you can achieve in a year, but underestimate what you can achieve in five" thing is very true.

I also highly recommend focusing on things that are hard to kill. It's a great confidence booster! My climate is different to yours, so I can't comment too much on specific plants. I was absolutely amazed how bonkers my rhubarb grew with zero tlc. Broad beans, runner strawberries, herbs, and garlic are also way up there with my most successful newbie plants. I literally did nothing but plant them and water when things got dry for too long.

On a related topic, I'd focus on plants that grow quick with little care, and that will attract beneficial bugs into your garden. For me, the priority was shading the soil during summer, so I grow a lot of spreading herbs and flowers. The fact they're edible means that I can hack them back and eat them or feed them to the chooks if things start to spread too much. And I highly recommend leaving roots in the ground when you clear out any annuals. The difference that little trick has made to my soil is amazing.

Best of luck with your new garden!
 
Steven Kovacs
Posts: 226
Location: Western Massachusetts (USDA zone 5a, heating zone 5, 40"+)
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Dougan, I'm working on the compost. We had an Earth Machine bin, which was too small to produce hot compost; now we've got a pile that I plan to corral with wire into a cylinder. I've got Gaia's Garden, and expect to lean on Coleman's Four Season Harvest, but I'll have to look into those others - thanks for the suggestions.

Amit, we're extremely lucky here to have good permaculture plant sources nearby including Tripple Brook Farm which does carry ramps. I'll look into the onion options you suggested. I didn't realize sea kale couldn't withstand the ground freezing; ours absolutely freezes each winter so sea kale may not work for us.

Bella, planting things that are hard to kill sounds like excellent advice. I did that with kale last year, and it was definitely good for my confidence. I'll leave the roots in the ground when I rip out the (now dead) annuals from last year - thanks for the advice!
 
Kate Muller
Posts: 212
Location: New Hampshire
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I am on the Merrimack Valley north of you in NH. I do have friends who garden in the Connecticut River Valley.
Raised beds are great for dealing with water situation in the spring. They dry out faster and warm up faster if you remove the
mulch once the snow melts. By mid June everything is warmed up enough to mulch the beds again. I do this for my annuals
and when I am establishing new plants.

As you are expanding the garden building new beds is much easier in the fall. The soil is drier and there are no black flies.
Build the bed, mulch with leaves and follow the instructions above.

Soil testing is worth doing so you know what you are starting with.

Also take a tour of Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates place in Holyoke MA. It is an amazing tour and they sell seedlings. http://www.foodforestfarm.com/visit/tours



 
Steven Kovacs
Posts: 226
Location: Western Massachusetts (USDA zone 5a, heating zone 5, 40"+)
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Kate Muller wrote:I am on the Merrimack Valley north of you in NH. I do have friends who garden in the Connecticut River Valley.
Raised beds are great for dealing with water situation in the spring. They dry out faster and warm up faster if you remove the
mulch once the snow melts. By mid June everything is warmed up enough to mulch the beds again. I do this for my annuals
and when I am establishing new plants.

As you are expanding the garden building new beds is much easier in the fall. The soil is drier and there are no black flies.
Build the bed, mulch with leaves and follow the instructions above.

Soil testing is worth doing so you know what you are starting with.

Also take a tour of Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates place in Holyoke MA. It is an amazing tour and they sell seedlings. http://www.foodforestfarm.com/visit/tours


Kate,

Thanks for the advice! I'm planning on some raised beds, at least for the annuals, partly to deal with wet soil and partly to reduce the chance of any lead uptake. We had soil tests done that show low lead levels, but low is not zero. Our soil is wet enough in mud season that regrading makes sense to do in the early spring, but the fall may be a good time to build new beds as you suggest. Fortunately we have no black flies here. Fall is a good time to build hugel beds, too - hopefully I can build some this fall and let them settle over the winter for a planting the following spring.

I actually know Jonathan socially, so hopefully we can do the tour soon.
 
Steven Kovacs
Posts: 226
Location: Western Massachusetts (USDA zone 5a, heating zone 5, 40"+)
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I have a lot of brush and dead vines (all under 2" diameter, mostly under 1") that is taking up a lot of room in the yard. I'd like to turn this waste into a resource. We don't heat with wood, so my thought was to turn it into wood chips - but I lack a chipper and am reluctant to use a fossil fuel powered tool (and an electric one would still be effectively 50% fossil fuel, since our grid is mostly gas powered).

I do want to put in some hugel beds, but 1) those won't be done for a while since they're low-priority for me and 2) they won't use a large percentage of the wood.

Do you have any suggestions?
 
Casie Becker
gardener
Posts: 1474
Location: Just northwest of Austin, TX
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Take a common garden lopper and chop them into manageable lengths (couple of feet maybe) and then use it as mulch. Just think of it as extra thick and long lasting straw.

I have one bed which I pile sticks into in just this fashion, and it works fine. The worst thing is having to move the sticks aside to dig holes for new plants or seedlings, but that's easily done. All but the thickest branches break down at a speed close to my wood chip mulches.

Have to admit, discovering how well this worked was an accident. First it was just the most convenient place to gather small deadfalls when mowing the lawn. It took me just over a year to actually begin planting in that bed. As I was only putting in a few plants, it didn't seem worth the effort to move the small stack, I just shifted it to the side. By the end of the next season it was obvious those sticks were well on their way to complete decomposition.
 
Steven Kovacs
Posts: 226
Location: Western Massachusetts (USDA zone 5a, heating zone 5, 40"+)
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Thanks for the idea, Casie! My hope right now is to move the brush out of the way, plant blueberries, and then put down cardboard to suppress the goatweed in the area. Would it make sense to put the lopped branches as mulch on top of the (soaked?) cardboard, or should I use pine straw / pine bark for the blueberries and save the branches for something else?
 
Casie Becker
gardener
Posts: 1474
Location: Just northwest of Austin, TX
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I don't have experience with blueberries (just starting my first one this year). But I don't see any reason not to use them on top of the cardboard. Under a bush is probably the best spot since that would be minimal digging. I have heard that blueberries are particularly reliant on fungal relationships, which decaying branches would promote.
 
Steven Kovacs
Posts: 226
Location: Western Massachusetts (USDA zone 5a, heating zone 5, 40"+)
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A very quick update for anyone who cares:

The blueberries are in along the W and N edges.  They are not in great shape, partly because of the drought this summer, and partly because some of them are too shaded by neighboring trees (which also block rainfall).  Oops.  Hopefully they make it through the winter.  If not, they'll likely get replaced by pawpaws and I'll try for blueberries elsewhere.

I scrapped raspberries for now due to not wanting to have to control their spread.

Ramps (allium tricoccum) went in in one spot, probably the wrong spot.  We'll see.

4 4'x6' vegetable beds went in approximately where the plan had them.  They've been very helpful in the drought - they needed hand watering but stayed green while the grass died hard and the trees look ill.  Tomatoes ran riot but the fruit has largely stayed green - apparently this is common around here in the drought, despite a fair amount of hand watering from the rain barrel.  Peppers failed.  Kale of course did well.  Sorrel, chives, and lettuce have all been successes.

Multiple trees overhanging our property have been trimmed and the branches (and vines and other brush) have been turned into rough wood chips by an arborist.  I've used the chips to mulch the blueberries and suppress the goutweed.  The latter also suffered from the drought, so I'm cautiously hopeful that I can keep the goutweed down enough that it's not an issue.

We have volunteer tomato and squash plants from some temporary compost piles, so that's a happy accident.

No terracing or hugels or anything for now.  I might do mild terraces/swales at some point but it's a low priority.

Right now most of our priorities are house-related, but I'm planning to put a low hoop house over one or more raised beds to extend the harvest of greens with succession planting.

 
Ken W Wilson
Posts: 465
Location: Nevada, Mo 64772
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I don't hesitate to move plants that don't like the original site. If you're sure they aren't doing well after a season, you might try moving them this fall if you have time.
 
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