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Does this make sense? Mashup of gardening principles

 
Anne Sony
Posts: 6
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I'm a long time lurker with a few (mostly unsuccessful) seasons gardening. I'm in houston area, with hard clay and tons of trees. Even the weeds have trouble here.

With the condition of the "soil" and lack of draining I decided to do a raised bed. My first bed was built against the house in winter. I took The biggest rotting logs and branches I could find, Put them in the bed and topped with bagged topsoil and store bought compost (which was in retrospect really just sticks and small wood chips dyed black) I planted some seeds and watered them and waited, and watered and waited. While I was waiting the trees filled in their leaves and now I was down to about an hour of sun in the late afternoon. This obviously didn't work out. Eventually things sprouted, weird mushrooms popped out everywhere, then eventually everything died.

Since then I've done a ton of research, and have been tracking the sun trough the seasons and carefully plotting my next real intent to garden. I have some containers doing very well, but every once in a while I still mysteriously kill things. There's one bit of our property that gets about 8 hours of sun in the spring/summer, and has afternoon shade to help the plants survive the heat. I have a truckload of free woodchips, and have cleared and heavily mulched the area in question. I have a hot compost pile that I think is ready, but not too sure about (it doesn't heat up anymore, but isn't as fine as most that I see) A cold pile that has been brewing for about a year, it gets turned every one in a while and 2 worm bins that eat most of my scraps. This area is visible to 4 neighbors from their house and the street too.

So, I would really like someone (or lots of someones) to make sure this makes sense before my husband bans me from the yard forever. I know there's gonna be trial and error as part of the process, but the truckload of wood chips were really testing the limits, and if I do as poorly as before I may never be forgiven.

The woodchips are about a foot deep. I'm going to build the bed on top of this woodchip base, then going to sneakily pee in the out line of the bed as long as I can, hoping to give the chips a nitrogen surplus so they break down quicker and don't leach my bed. Then I'm going to do a semi-standard sheetmulch/no-dig bed. Cardboard, cold unfinished compost, hot compost, clay, chopped greens,  more compost, aged manure and vermicompost then top with mulch (not sure If I should use more chips, or pine needles.  So, What do ya'll think?

Thanks!
 
Tyler Ludens
pollinator
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Location: Central Texas USA Latitude 30 Zone 8
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Just be aware the sheet compost bed might not perform really well the first season, and it might help the plants to get started if you can provide some nice topsoil in the planting hole for each plant or seed.  Some plants don't like growing right in composting stuff.  I think some squash and melons do better than some other things.

If it's any consolation, I've been gardening for decades and I still regularly kill plants.  The learning process and striving to improve never ends (for me anyway)....

 
Casie Becker
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Location: Just northwest of Austin, TX
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I think this might be an appropriate question to link to a long essay I posted once about how my mom gardening in Central Texas.
https://permies.com/t/53929/Successful-annual-vegetables-Central-Texas

Another big thing is find a good organic nursery. Many of the smaller nurseries are filled with truly educated staff who are familiar with the particular challenges in their surrounding areas. Even a nonorganic nursery will often be up to date on the most successful organic methods for their particular specialties.

edit: Note that I say a nursery. The plant section of a big box store is a completely different beast.
 
K Putnam
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Location: Unincorporated Pierce County, WA Zone 7b
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I would consider trying a two-part approach.

For the short-term garden bed that you want to be a success, I would simply build it, buy soil, fill it, and garden.   Enjoy the results.

Everywhere else, think long-term to grow perennials, shrubs, and trees.  Wood and wood chips take awhile to break down and give the promised results.   Then they are fantastic.  But, I would not make that the short-term plan for growing annual vegetables.  Plant your perennials, shrubs, and trees, and mulch neatly to keep the hubby happy. 

Enjoy growing veggies in your raised bed while the rest of your yard comes together over two or three years.

 
Anne Sony
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Thanks for the inputs. Life long learning is inevitable, why fight it? I do take heart in the fact that we all started somewhere, and all still have failures. Casie, that was absolutely, very helpful. I've never seen the term caliche before but that sounds like the stuff I'm dealing with. Giant composting pits are now part of my plan, and In the event that things do start growing, I've bookmarked it.

My yard has been in progress for a few years already, All organic matter seems to disappear from the surface. With all these trees you'd expect to find some rich nice soil, but not so. I don't pickup any of the organic matter, just leave it alone thinking that compost happens. In the photo below, that's not a stick, but a tree root that couldn't make it below grade any further. I cleared leaf litter with my foot and there you have what my yard is comprised of. It's like moist concrete that turns to slimy mud in the rain. I really am hoping the woodchips do something to help over time. Maybe the key is to incorporate it, not just leave it...?

The other picture is of the sunny spot I'm working on. Maybe it would be best to just fill a bed with soil. I considered it, then decided against that route because I thought it would just wash away, without constant input from me. Is just filling a bed with soil enough? I know it sounds dumb but, I honestly have no idea. In CA as a kid I just put some seeds in dirt, add water, and eat delicious veggies. Since that didn't work here maybe I've gone overboard and jumped right over a very logical solution.

I was almost thinking of the bed in this area like a nursery bed, if that makes sense... Not just for my perennials and as a seasonal bed, but for the soil too. If I continually re-fill the bed with decomposing matter, get my perennials started, and then transport the whole established soil and plant to a more permanent home, maybe the organic matter en masse would stay put longer, and spread the love throughout, I don't know, maybe that is nuts too.

This seems crazy even to me, the leaves must go somewhere!
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cleared the leaf litter
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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hau Anne, Caliche is serious stuff to deal with (Jack hammer works fairly well).
Most likely the disappearing humus is blowing away with the wind.

For helping your wood chips do well, add as many spent coffee grounds as you can.
This adds nitrogen and several fungi as well as many bacteria, once you have covered the wood chips you will begin to see rapid break down of those wood chips.
When you plant into wood chips the first two years, make sure you are using a decent potting soil in the holes those plants go in.
This helps condition the wood chips as well as giving better moisture holding abilities for those plants.

Spreading spent coffee grounds does wonders for both woodchips and compost heaps. The coffee grounds are rich in N and that helps build the heat in a compost heap.
Worms will come to feast on the fungi as they spread as well as on the bacteria you will be introducing with the coffee ground additions.

Casie does great things, following her lead is never a bad idea.

Redhawk
 
Tyler Ludens
pollinator
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Anne Sony wrote: In CA as a kid I just put some seeds in dirt, add water, and eat delicious veggies.


Seriously, gardening in CA is "Just Add Water" - I had a great garden in CA, but struggle here still. 
 
Marco Banks
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Location: Los Angeles, CA
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Tyler Ludens wrote:
Anne Sony wrote: In CA as a kid I just put some seeds in dirt, add water, and eat delicious veggies.


Seriously, gardening in CA is "Just Add Water" - I had a great garden in CA, but struggle here still. 


And I thought that I was some kind of gardening savant.  It's just a matter of living in a place with a moderate climate and good soil?  Oh.


Anne -- keep doing everything you are doing.  When in doubt, add mulch.  Keep it moist and those wood chips will break down beautifully. 

You'll find something that does well, and then it'll be worth all the hard work you've put into the system thus far.  But it takes time.  I've been mulching heavily with wood chips for 16 years ---- HEAVY clay soil.  I still need to keep mulching, but every year the soil gets better and better.  Give it time.  10 years from now, when everything is super productive, you'll look back at these early years and be astounded with how far you've come.
 
Lee Missouri
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Do you have any neighbors with great gardens, or see any good gardens in your area? Asking the gardeners how they grow would give you a good leg up. Quite a lot of people are into growing organically, if not entirely using permiculture ideas. They would at least know what grows well in your area. University Extension Division? Grass roots community gardening people?
 
Anne Sony
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Thanks everybody! I really appreciate the help, and with it I have a new and improved plan.

Step 1 Build bed, add coffee grounds to wood chips directly under the bed, then cardboard, and layers of stuff. Each planting hole gets a good (finished) mix.
Step 2 Trap the organic matter, and dig giant pits to improve over time. Keep mulched and don't disturb once finished.
Step 3 Try to find a good nursery, and other local people to see what they're doing.


continually work coffee grounds around the yard and in the heaps. Keep adding wood chips over time.

I'm looking forward to getting to grow some more things, and learn new lessons.




 
Amit Enventres
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Location: Ohio, USA
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Everyone says "you have a green thumb." I say "No, I just killed enough things that some survive." Nature kills hundreds of seedlings all the time, no qualms. Tree seedlings will carpet a forest floor after a fire, most will be dead before maturity. With this in mind, I garden. I will start seedlings inside a lot because then I can see them come up (or not) and that way when I plant into the ground, I know what I put in was viable. Then, I will often start a variety of things, and more than I need. If I have too much I can give them away to friends and then if my friends garden's proliferate abundantly and mine doesn't, I can feel more legitimate about begging for fresh produce . I then seed densely interspersing things that, if all goes well, they can be harvested early or directed in a different growth direction. So, leafy greens next to basil and green onions, radishes lined on the side next to a row of butternut squash seeds. I save my own seed so I don't have to feel like I'm wasting money when I'm throwing seed around here and there and it doesn't take. Nature seems to do the same.

That's my advice on what to do if you want to get a harvest (on top of all the other many things that the plants need: soil, water, sun).

I grow in Ohio. I lived in CA. I have to say here does better than my balcony in CA because water falls from the sky and I actually get to plant in dirt.

For those of you who struggle, consider what grows like weeds in your area and work with those or relatives to those. Tomatoes go rouge here. Endive and lettuce grow wild. I had onions and elephant garlic seed sprouting in my driveway cracks (oops). Gourd tried to conquer my neighbor's roof. We have mid-day sun in back in the middle of summer, and now it will probably go shady for another 6 months. Another thing  to consider with lots of trees is nutrient loss and water suckage. I'm always amazed at how much stuff I have to throw on my corn here to keep it happy, but the area is infested with windbreak roots. Nutrients cycle in these robust ecosystems much faster than in CA's fragile ecosystem, so nutrients applied wash away faster. Also, plants here are used to a lot of water and nutrients. I don't know how to explain it, but put it this way: if it rained like it did here in CA, the ground would stay wet for a week. It is dry in a day here and a week later the plants are wilted.
 
Kirk Schonfeldt
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Location: South-central Iowa
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Anne,
I started my gardening career on Houston's gumbo clay soil. It has its challenges, but overall, its not bad to work with. Consider its advantages: it is near neutral pH, has excellent water-holding (and nutrient-holding) capacity and is fairly high in minerals. Good compost and ramial wood chips do wonders for that clay. After a few years it will be friable and bursting with life. Raised beds are clearly beneficial as this soil can get waterlogged at times. Deep mulch (6+") helps even out the drought/flood cycles. As far as warm-season crops, I had great luck with sweet potatoes, peppers, okra, all the crops that can really handle the heat. Tomatoes do well in spring and fall but poop out in mid-summer. I think you'll find your winter garden to be even more rewarding (or at least less challenging). All the cool-season crops do well over winter. As for perennials, I recommend citrus, figs, persimmons, pomegranates, jujubes, black mulberries, blackberries for adaptability and low-maintenance. Low chill apricots, peaches, plums and apples will do well but be more demanding of you. Treesearch Farms is an excellent source of stock for fruit trees (they may not sell directly to the public but a lot of it will be available at Urban Harvests annual plant sale in February). Speaking of which, Urban Harvest is a great gardening resource for Houstonians. Check out: http://urbanharvest.org/gardening-advice

Best of luck!
Kirk
 
Kirk Schonfeldt
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Location: South-central Iowa
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I would also recommend gypsum in your annual beds as a source of calcium that won't raise your pH and really loosens that clay.
 
Anne Sony
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Thanks!

I am planning to go to urban harvest's plant sale, but didn't realize the amount of outreach they have; they'll be an amazing resource. I have also taken the advice to get out and talk to other people here. I went to a composting class, and joined a local facebook group that does a swap twice a year. I have the bed filled with a mix of my compost, "organic garden soil", and my native soil. Most of what I planted is sprouting, and beans have their first set of true leaves. If the plants are not happy with the mix what should I be looking for? just general poor performance? I'm still concerned with whether or not my compost is finished. My perennial onions seem very happy, but that might just be because they were getting a bit root bound in a pot.


I'll have to look into gypsum, never really heard of it. I've heard a ton of talk about green sand, Anyone have experience with it?

I have a fig in the ground for about a year now, Can't wait for it to produce for me, I'm dreaming of that first fig, hopefully next year I'll get a few. I'm dying to get a pomegranate tree, Hoping I have enough sun though. Blackberries sound good, but I've heard they can become invasive bramble patches, Is there any particular variety you'd recommend? Low maintenance, and shade tolerant sounds like my kind of plant. PawPaw is also pretty high on my list of must get perennials.
 
Kirk Schonfeldt
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Location: South-central Iowa
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Gypsum is a type of calcium sulfate. It is well known for loosening clay soils. It also adds calcium to the soil without much impact on soil pH (unlike lime). And almost all soils need a calcium boost considering it is needed in larger amounts than any other mineral and can be relatively easily leached from the root zone. I used a big bag of greensand when I planted out my orchard there but don't know if it played a big role in their success (it is a good source of potassium, iron and trace minerals). I'm not sure how those soils rate for potassium status, but compost is an excellent source of potassium and I think there are cheaper sources of trace minerals (azomite, basalt rock dust, kelp meal). If you wanna get really serious about your soil, read Steve Solomon's The Intelligent Gardener and get a $25 soil test done and amend with what is truly needed.

I always gardened in anthropogenic native soils. That is the native soil amended with various degrees of decomposed locally found organic matter (basically compost and "native mulch" or ramial woodchips) with some gypsum and kelp meal or azomite. I cannot understate the importance of sun for annual vegetables, even in the long, sultry conditions of Houston. I leafy greens are best adapted to up to 50-70% shade, but in my experience, annual vegetables and most fruit trees thrive much better 8+ hrs/day of full sun. We had a pomegranates and figs in our yard growing up and they produced spectacularly until they both got overshadowed by chinese tallow trees after which they begrudgingly produced a few ripe fruit a year. Its almost impossible to beat fresh ripe figs. Pomegranates I just cut in half and squeezed-juiced right into my mouth, one after the other.

I didn't grow Pawpaws when I lived there but they should do okay in 50+% shade (particularly afternoon shade). They do take several years to start producing. One thing to keep in mind is your chilling hrs. This greatly impacts what varieties of most fruits will do well in your location - generally the further N and W from the coast, the more chilling hours. More chilling hours give you quite a bit more latitude in selecting varieties. Most Pawpaws for example are northern selections and may not produce well so you may need to look from selections from TX, LA and FL of which there are a few. Elderberries can take a fair amount of shade too. Citrus can handle maybe up to 50% shade and still produce okay, but more productive with more sun. Keep in mind the shade from larger trees may help get your fruit trees established but production will be seriously hampered without opening it up to some more sun.

As for blackberries, Navajo and Arapahoe are good selections but need around 400 chill hrs I think. You can probably find some recommendations with chilling hour requirements on A&Ms websites or via google search. Also worth considering are asian pears (particularly fireblight-resistant vars), low-chill peaches (who can resist a ripe peach), also if you have a protected micro-climate (sunny south side of the house) you can grow dwarf bananas or papayas (amazingly delicious when homegrown) and things like ginger and tumeric beneath them. Southern highbush or Rabbiteye blueberries (with some modest amending of soil), muscadine grapes, feijoas (pineapple guava), asian plums, loquats and of course pecans (Moreland and Pawnee in particular) all do quite well. You have a wide plant palate to choose from and all those perennials, once established, should get by on little to no irrigation if you've improved and mulched your soils and provided at least minor water-harvesting earthworks (even just mulch-filled basins around the dripline). And you can easily harvest enough irrigation water for your annual gardens from roof runoff.

That was long. Hope I'm not overloading you. Your area has its challenges, but the long, year-round growing season and large perennial plant palette including lots of subtropicals and lower-chill temperate fruits really makes it rewarding. Build on your successes and in a couple years maybe you can convince the hubby to let you take down a shade tree to build on your garden if that makes sense. Get connected with Urban Harvest folks and you'll meet lots of passionate gardeners with experience and cuttings to help you along. Speaking of which, I have a small orchard at my parents place in Dickinson and would happily share cuttings of 3 varieties of fig, 'Pakistan' mulberry, 2 varieties of pomegranate, some citrus, and scionwood of a few other things. BTW, you should take a grafting class - it is much fun and opens a world of fruity possibilities on the cheap.

Cheers!
 
Anne Sony
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Thanks Kirk that was all great info. I appreciate the time you have taken to help me out. I may take you up on your offer of cuttings down the road, in the meantime if you do some serious pruning let me know. I'd hate to have you take cuttings just for me to kill them, but if they're coming off anyway... Well, it'll be a learning experience.
 
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