This year my biggest discovery, or inhibition to systems in place actually working was my own energy. You see, I needed to improve systems, repair systems, take care of normal house hold stuff and spring birthdays, travel, work, and help friends, and also make a baby. I’m at that awkward time of innovation where the systems are almost functional, so you could have someone work them, but they will break and need repairing, so only special individuals who can make it through breakable systems can actually take over the task. Sort of “apprentice innovators”. Never having been in this situation before, I now have to learn the new skill of skill transfer and delegation.
That said, here is a synopsis of the details of what happened and what I learned.
1. Ground hogs are evil. Okay, yes, I’m sure they have their place, but they don’t just nibble at the garden, they mow it. On purpose. They don’t run from dogs, even the little baby ground hogs; they try to attack the dog or stick. We can pretty well co-exist with certain measures of deterrence to avoid significant loss from most all other creatures, but the ground hogs will dig, claw through, squeeze through, climb over, and take his/her chance with a full-grown hunting dog, whose scent is everywhere rather than coexist. Therefore, ground hogs, sadly, are to be firmly evicted from our yard at every turn at this point.
2. Potatoes. I will grow potatoes. I will. The first year I grew potatoes was in a small plastic bag nailed to a post on a pole-facing balcony and it was amazing. The second time I grew potatoes was on another property that was a sandy east-facing hill. They soil wasn’t REAL great, but I got an okay yield. Now I’m in a clayey boggish environment and the plants look beautiful, but then- no yield. I have researched this a bunch. PH needs to be low. Can’t be a recent lawn conversion. Hill heavily. Don’t over fertilize. Sunny. Okay, okay, thought I got it. Maybe I did. I did get some potatoes, and some half-eaten potatoes. I also found out sand + peat is hydrophobic. Oops. Well, if the soil isn’t moist, they don’t potato there, so hilling with that didn’t work. I then notices a plethora of mole holes in the hill and an abundance of bug holes in the potatoes. Well, that does it. Next year I’m going to go for the bucket method so the moles can’t get it and I hopefully imitate that first amazing year. All I need to figure out is where I can place a few buckets.
3. Greens: Endive: awesome. Romaine: depends, but I seed save for that reason. Green onions: going strong. Parsley: I got different seed and this year was awesome. French sorrel: a little aggressive here. Kale: pathetic, but the ground hogs don’t help. Swiss Chard: decent, kind of a winter treat. Buttercrunch: volunteers, but small. New Zealand: also a lovely volunteer. Spinach: Still not successful. Lamb’s quarter: wild and tasty. Carrots: some winter hardy, need lots of patience.
4. Herbs: I connected with an herbalist and started trading herbs with her. Herbs being easy to grow, pretty, easy to store, high value, and useful in small quantities makes this one of the ideal crops I can grow on my micro-farm. Hyssop is amazingly prolific. Anise hyssop looks like it will be too. Lemon balm loved our mild weather and so I have had to pull it out a lot. Peppermint won against many garden plants, even though I tried to remove it from the back and only keep a small, contained quantity. Spearmint did well in it’s little hole. Lavender’s giving me hope of future proliferation, though in general they are slow. Chives aren’t thriving yet, but they seem impossible to kill. Chamomile (perennial) is beginning to sprawl, and gave a humble but continuous yield. Oregano popped up in places unexpectedly. Thyme is doing alright, same with creeping thyme. Bee balm, we shall see. I successfully grew some rosemary from seed. I’m hoping with cover and lots of sun it will not die over winter. I would love to have more rosemary than just what I have in my potted variety. Echinacea was a favorite of some local critter, but it seems to be willing to keep fighting for it’s life and proliferating when ignored. Elderberry needs firm pruning from being massive and a careful watch to beat the birds. Garlic would have been fine, but I separated the cloves from the bulbs while storing-oops. Elephant garlic survived this error better than the other types. Potato onions did okay, but I left most of my onions in the ground for a round 2 this winter, so hopefully they will be bigger. And, research indicates black raspberry leaf can be used the same as red raspberry leaf, so now I have uses for extra leaves.
5. Fruittrees: Some began to yield, some lost blossoms to weather. I tried to cover it, but reality is, that did not help. The biggest problem with the apple trees was I didn’t pick them before something else did. The pears I got. I spoke with the neighbors and they prefer I let the trees lean over and fruit on their side of the fence, rather than me pruning it away from their properties. The nectarines were FULL of disease, but the rootstock, which is taking off, doesn’t show signs of that, so I will have to see if the fruit is decent. Many of the mail-ordered trees (esp. from Wilis Orchard) are growing from their rootstock, not the shoot stock. I don’t like the idea of grafting anyway. It depletes genetic strength, so I’m not totally turned off by this, especially since mail-order is the only way to get some of the stuff here. Still, it is frustrating to have such limited access to diverse crops. This is one reason I am trying to grow such a variety, so there will be genetic stock available locally in this area. I met someone else doing the same and selling a little. We are to meet and do some exchanging.
The citrus from seed is doing great, so easy as long as it is directly places in the soil upon fruit consumption. The lemon tree was tested for fruit size versus yield. It was able to hold a huge number of small fruit (ping-pong sized) that looked a lot like sour orange. The flavor is great and works as one lemon=1 slice.
Espelier is going pretty good. I’m a little worried about production affect by pruning and overall sizing, given the quantity of trees per space, but so far everything is coexisting with space to expand nicely. It is kind of funny how ridiculously many things are happening on such as small acreage. I get people wanting to look, tour, and even interview me about this. I’m not apposed to the idea, but unless they are interested in looking at a lot of details, a walk through of the whole yard would take a whole 15 minutes, and much is still under the 3 years needed for significant production. Some places are still yet to be conquered too, because despite it’s size, it is VERY intensely managed.
6. The Understory: Step 1 in forming the garden was planning. Step 2 was earth movement, Step 3 was fruit trees. This past winter I went on to the next step, officially, which was understory and vines.
The front of the property is not really a forest, maybe a forest edge, best described as a little shrubland and a little prairie and one annual bed. The reason for this is because that’s the sun direction and I want the windows to get as much as possible during winter and, this is the part that the everyone passing on the street sees. I want is to burst with flowers and fruit beautifully all spring, summer, and fall. I want the neighbor kids to harvest apples and pumpkins and berries, learning a love for gardening and where real food comes from. I have some apple trees from seed started there, with hopes of having them grow to full-sized, which would only shade the house during summer and be absolutely beautiful in both fall and spring. Everything else will be 6’ tall or less. Shrubs skirted with smaller perennials. The biggest problem I have with this is the fertility and weeds. I did not weed, I planted and then suppressed the weeds (including lawn) by pulling and snipping to reduce energy. It works, but looks like hell for a while. The reason I do this is to have the soil protected and as much biology present for a healthier transition. The city didn’t really appreciate it, but I wrote a stern letter, including a design, explaining how most of the plants are rare and had to be started from seed and look like weeds when they start to grow (which is all true) and they seem to be respecting this. The neighbors have been impressed with my work though, I think sometimes they get sick of looking at a mess. Last year I did some work and wasn’t happy with it. Over winter we had a sewer failure and had to have the whole thing dug up. This year I tried to make it professionally nice, but being pregnant I couldn’t keep it as neat as I would have liked. Still, most of the plants I grew from seed lived and some of the cherry bushes I ordered did too. The Juneberries seemed to have all arrived dead, which was disappointing. Luckily though, the company was true to it’s return policy and set me a new set. I’m hoping this set isn’t all dead, but if it is, I will have to find another source. The hazelnuts are also doing okay. The only vines I’ve worked with so far in any detail with the front are a few annual beans, maypop, and grape. I tried to get a vining-type berry (dewberry), but it arrived from Willis Orchard dead. Their return policy requires me to send back all the dead plants. I do not want to pay postage on that, so I won’t be buying from them anymore. Instead, I planted a few maypops from GardenDirect and they seem to be doing well, same with the grape from them.
The back (actual food forest area) I focused a lot on just developing the understory, though I also filled in a few remaining missing tree areas and planted some annuals. Of the many cherry seeds I planted, 3 grew. Of the 3, one survived until fall. I accidentally pulled it, and then re-planted it -oops. Something likes eating the mulberry leaves. The trees continue to live though, so I am counting on their hardiness to get taller than can be nibbled. The pawpaw from Willis Orchards arrived dead, I think. However, the seeds I grew from Sheffield’s are doing just fine in container. They need to be planted once they go dormant. Of the raspberries I planted, from Home Depot the gold is doing the best. I don’t even see the others. The Chicago Fig is thriving, despite being near a hole the dog digs at. I think I may have only lost one or two blueberries even though I planted a whole bunch. It was nice seeing that the varying locations and varieties meant blueberries all summer (though this year there was about 5 total berries). The rhubarb is doing okay, The new one I bought died. I could use another for the annual rhubarb pie. It may have to be moved to the front, since apparently they don’t like all the moisture native to the back. I actually have plans of a spring development in the lawn, that’s how much water we have in the yard. The horseradish does great. I am beginning to realize it is unkillable. However, my husband enjoys eating the leaves (new discovery) and the flowers make a decent broccoli substitute. I beat back much of the weeds I had struggled with the year before, but I know they are not dead yet, but at this point beating them back is coupled with th proliferation of the plants I want to grow, so they are getting out-competed. Though, I let a burdock grow thinking that was a good idea, but by then end of the season, I decided it was not and those burs are real annoying.The one violetta artichoke survived our mild winter last year and grew, but unfortunately didn’t flower. Another few I grew from seed this year lived for a little while, but only one survived all season. It’s a tough spot with a lot of traffic, but I chose it because of the proximity to warming things and the hill-side, imitating where I would see artichokes proliferate in California. I think though, the soil is not sandy enough for real thriving. The clay is really hard here and the structure is not real great either. Too many years as lawn. I am hoping that the roots have begun to establish and if they can survive until next year, maybe they will flower, which will give me a seed base more genetically adapted to plant for more proliferation. I may start some more from seed and find another location too. Artichokes are horribly expensive here and I would love to be able to pick them for free. Artichokes are also very beautiful with their blue leaves and purple flowers, so I could benefit from more. The asparagus patch near the compost should be ready for harvest next year. The black raspberry does have disease (which is why I didn’t mind putting some other varieties of raspberries out near it. Yet, the one near the compost is thriving, so I think that part of the disease issue is a soil health issue. As I continue to build the soil, it may go away. Despite that, the vines did go up the greenhouse and sort of hide it from view. The grapes (2 as structure covers) are alive and well, which is all one can ask for from a grape the first year. The mushroom patch seems to be doing okay. I hope it continues to thrive. It is totally awesome to harvest mushrooms after rain storms. The maypops from a previous year seemed to all die. The one that was doing good got hit by the sewer issue. The other that survived I didn’t see signs of, unfortunately. I also tried scarlet runner beans to climb up the fruit trees. I got two pods, which is enough to try again next year with my now improved selection next year. I found a large source of wood chips, and as long as I get to early in spring, it is more than I can probably ever need. In the “forest” area, I’m running out of bare soil, so that’s great! Less work! More food! I do still have some areas of understory to establish next year, but they will require some research to new plant types and involve a needs assessment. The last assessment I did was last winter and I need to re-evaluate with my new knowledge. All and all though, I’m happy how this is going.
The windbreak/”forest” is also doing just fine. It dries out more than I’d like, tough competition, but I think adding more organic matter over time will get it going how I would like it. I continue to add random trees there and fill in the berry patch.
7. Trellises: The grapes are looking good. They are basically covering what I want them to and old enough to allow to fruit, so this winter I will start the normal pruning schedule for normal grape care, rather than my wonkey establishment cutting. The hardy kiwis do not love where I put them. They are still alive, which is great, but they need to start growing more to get to the sun, which I think will help them thrive. If they are still pathetic this next year, then I might move them and replace them with grapes or another trellis vine. However, I will reference the rhyme: First they sleep, then they creep, then they leap. So this might just be the creeping year...I hope. The ground nut someone gave me is both beautiful and thriving. I haven’t tried eating it yet, but I might next year. It co-exists nicely so far with other things, so even if it doesn’t produce anything I eat much, it doesn’t hurt to have it around, in facts, it’s a nitrogen fixer.
8. Annual beds: Mint took over the back, despite pulling it out multiple times and using wood chips. I will have to be more aggressive with my mint removal in the future. The beds also were suppressed by groundhogs. I also tried some experiments, but didn’t weed enough to give them ample chance at life. There was also a too shallow a water table and slug damage, which I tried to compensate for, but I think the ultimate way to solve this problem will be to build the soil up in the beds about 3 inches so the baby plants in spring don’t have soggy roots. And, perhaps an extra blocking off using netting or wire for veggy eating rodents.
The raised beds kind of volunteered themselves to produce whatever, once I moved out of the way. I’m still getting things off of them, but yellow jackets decided to nest in one, so my bed work (since the soil level dropped) is waiting until it’s too cold for them to fly. Then I should be able to get out all the plants and raise the soil level back to what it should be.
The tomato row didn’t have the onions thrive like I wanted. The snap peas were suppressed by groundhogs. I need to be more careful in protecting them. The tomatoes showed signs of buckeye rot, but it was a particularly moist year, and they got off to a rough start due to my lack of fertilization and weed suppression.
The grain side got neglected. I wanted to finish my earth moving this year, but I couldn’t do that lifting while pregnant, so I let it go. I had to chop and drop huge weeds though. Some buckwheat volunteered it’s self, which was nice, but I find buckwheat to be a pain to harvest, especially since ours here only grows about 6 inches tall.
9. Yield: We got lots of lettuce, greens of varying sorts, horseradish, alpine berries, a few regular strawberries, lots of green onions, ample herbs for our needs for the year plus some herbs to trade, about 2 months of garlic, a month or two of black raspberries, about 3 harvests of garden giant mushrooms, enough tomatoes to enjoy in fresh, in salad, and on pasta (not enough for canning), snap peas to satisfy our interest, a few tomatillos, a few zucchini, a few ground cherries, about 5 lbs of sweet potatoes, enough lemons to last us all winter, some baby corn and some very small Indian corn, a few goldfish, about 6 pumpkins (enough for 7 pies) and a few baby squash and squash flowers. Was it worth it? I need to work on attending to what I planted, but all and all, yes. The plants have been thriving and potential is building up, along with enough actual to compensate for all the hard work.
10. Next year: This will be a year of a lot of fine-tuning. Weeding, filling things in that failed, adding guards against predation, where necessary, filling in dirt areas, and experimenting with grains. I do not think my plan needs drastic changing at this point, just continued building. Once I get all the garden part together, I hope to put together the quail hutch and get them to thrive. I also need to put a more solid-type roof on the green house. I have been avoiding paying the 100+ dollars that would require. I am hoping for some clever alternative to show up, but the plastic sadly only lasted one season, not even one year!
11. Hard-scape and home: still plenty of projects moving along slowly. Slower with pregnancy and still won’t be too fast with baby, but we have a wood burner, we have wood (not chopped enough) and we have part of the attic insulated and some other air leaks covered. We have had some assessments by the energy company and our own observations to figure out what needs to really be fixed. More research, and we will see, but I have high hopes of drastically reducing most of our bills. At this point though, I am not able to see a complete zero input-output system, but that’s okay. I expect that is some future innovation that I have not been chosen to have revealed to me and as long as I share my experiments, that future will come and make the world a better place for all. This sustainable thing is often pinned against the establishment, but I don’t think it has to be, I do think it is unbalanced right now which, like in an ecosystem, this leads to collapse for everyone and that can be remedied with more sustainable-type growth.