I've been a lurker for quite some time, but since I currently live in an apartment, my permaculture dreams have thus far been confined to only what I can grow on my balcony, or compost inside.
However, I just discovered earlier this week that my city has a decent-sized community garden that appears to have been vacated for at least a year, possibly two, and forgotten.
I called the city authority that manages it, and they said the plots are available for any residents, for free, with a signature. I show up, sign my name on a form, and get a plot. Maybe even a few plots!
The thing is, I'm tight on finances and time to invest in this. Hubby is working on his PhD, and I work an entry-level job, and he'll be finishing up his PhD and graduating by May of next year, which means we'll be moving.
So, I'm wondering: Are there any permaculture things I can do with this spit of land that won't cost too much, and won't require multiple years to see any sort of "ROI"?
I'm thinking to build a hugelkultur bed to grow some things, and experiment with that and companion planting. Also, I'm going to see if the city will allow me to designate one of the plots for just compost, so I can finally make better use of my vermicompost and finished bokashi.
Is there anything else I should consider trying? To me, this is an experimental season: Trying some techniques and things on land that isn't mine, so I'll be better equipped by the time we do actually do have our own land that I can work more intensively :).
What are some skills and knowledge I can be building now, given my limitations?
Attached is a photo of the community garden, but note that this isn't the full extent of the garden: It goes back a few more feet behind me, from where I took the photo.
USDA hardiness zone 8b
City water available by hose
Soil type is basically clay, through and through
Anything else I'm leaving out that would be helpful, just ask!
You can make it as hard or simple as you want. Permie is not defined by certain "must do's" like hugel, swales and comfry.
Something as simple as keeping it mulched or cover cropped would be free depending on your scavenging ability. The soil will get better every year and will hold moisture. Rather than a compost pile, you can bury your kitchen scraps straight into the beds. Earthworms will come.
Commit to no commercial type fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and i would say you are 90% there.
I had some experience with a community garden that my uncle ran in Pittsburgh 30+ years ago. Here the city worked with an organization that would haul in topsoil. The sites were usually temporary. They were also fenced like yours is. If it were me I'd take a spade there and check various spots throughout the plot. I'd pick out some good spots and focus on them. I'd also haul in horse manure and dig it in. At least an inch maybe two. I'd only plant annuals and only grow from seed and seedlings. You can't plan on the long term, someone is going to find a better use for it than gardens. The gardens we got were each about 12x20'
You need to worry about who your growing for. If your the only one there then there's no one else to help guard the garden. You might be smart to advertise. Do the organizing for no other reason than to have a steady stream of folks there. Good luck with this.
It looks to me as though there is nobody currently gardening here?
I would look for areas with the most broad-leaf weed presence. In community garden beds, people are free to spray all sorts of stuff on their plants and soil. since this plot looks like it's been fallow for some time, the areas with the most vegetative growth probably have the least amount of residual toxic gick in the soil. Beware the clear spots. They might be weed free growing beds ready for planting or they could be dead zones. I would plant these with a cover crop. Mustard, barley, rye, field peas, whatever and see how they go in the first season.
I currently have use of an area too big for me to put into full utilization with the resources at hand. So I rotate small grains through the beds each year so I have a resource of good straw that I know is chemical free.
I also plant a lot of annuals for the purpose of seed production. Radishes, dill, spinach, fava, etc all work well. You might like to consider biannuals for seed production like beets, carrots, parsnips etc in the extra space. The plants like parsnip, cilantro, and dill attract predatory wasps which help out in the garden too.
I also plant a good quantity of brassicas like Brussels sprouts. Not because I harvest them, but because we get ground hogs, rabbits, and deer and I found that they like to eat brassicas, and if there is a good quantity of them in the quiet corner of the garden then they leave my other plants alone.
Some sort of mulching is going to save you a lot of labor. If there are beds with clover in them, I'd be inclined to leave it be and simple plant into it. It doesn't grow tall and shade out your crops like grasses do, and it acts as a ground cover and Nitrogen fixer.
I like Nick's idea of looking for the plots that have broadleaved weeds in them. That is really a good indicator of the lack of ick.
I would suggest sourcing as much spent coffee grounds from local coffee shops or diners as possible. Worms go crazy for them, and they're nitrogen-rich, too.
You want to incorporate as much organic matter as you can into the soil, with all the clay you describe, and probably gypsum dust and grit, too. In many cases, impermeable clay will indicate a calcium deficiency, and gypsum will correct that without adversely affecting your soil pH. I would use a broad fork, sinking the tines in, then lifting the soil in place without turning it over to preserve the soil structure as is. This is less important if the soil is just lifeless dirt.
Ask if soil tests have been done, or if they have someone on municipal staff doing that. You never know. If all else fails, you might want to have it done yourself, but you can also look at what's growing in the plots, and that can sometimes give you an idea of what's going on there.
In my city, urban arborists will gladly drop a truckload of wood chips to you for free, as long as you can take enough of them. If the same can be said in your situation, I would jump on that as soon as possible.
It is a really intensive step, but charging your plots with compost extract is probably the single biggest step you can take to rapidly increase soil life and productivity. Bryant Redhawk has a number of really great threads on the subject of soil and including great information about how to make things like biodynamic-style preparations, sub-surface compost extract injectors, and compost extracts, as well as everything else you'd expect. I have linked to the list of threads below.
I mean, if you started up a vermicomposting plot and gathered organic wastes from reliable sources, you could, for instance, sell vermicomposting worms or quantities of their castings. You would need to do the legwork, as with any self-employment, but that's a return you can realise before the first season ends on the investment of your time and some labour involving spoiled organics and the wrigglers.
If you had an excess of woodchips, some reclaimed pallets to box in the shadiest plot, a tarp, and some spoiled mushrooms of a kind that would take to the specific type of wood chips, you could make a mushroom slurry with compost extract and a blender, inoculate the bin of woodchips, and harvest mushrooms, probably within the first season. It's entirely likely that, by the end of the season, you could be selling either mushroom compost or inoculated wood chip mushroom starters, both viable streams of income.
If your aspirations are to grow enough food for your household, and you want to be able to set up the drip irrigation and plant support infrastructure, and visit on evenings and weekends, to harvest when it's done, you can do that. I would think about companion planting in guilds. The Three Sisters are an example you've probably come across, an aboriginal technique of growing dried crops that involved corn, beans, and squash, where beans fixed nitrogen for corn, whose stalks supported the climbing bean, and squash, who's leaves shaded the soil (I believe there are other sisters added regionally for things like attracting pollinators, too). Adequate spacing and watering can make this technique work for wet-harvested crops in an intensive gardening setting (I have done it).
My favourite guild is actually my tomato guild. I grow many different kinds of heirloom tomato, but my favourite is Watermelon Beefsteak. I interplant with basil and use oregano as groundcover.
I prefer purple basil because I get reliably better yields, even over other basils. I think it's because the red in the purple pigmentation reflects the red spectrum light in the sunlight, increasing the percentage of red spectrum light in the tomatoes' diet, and red light is known to be advantageous in the flowering and fruiting stage.
Additionally, although I don't have a link to the study handy, it has been shown that basil grown within 10 inches of a tomato plant can increase that plant's tomato production by twenty percent.
I brought up tomatoes because they are an example of a higher-value produce that can be grown in quantity on the garden scale. You could grow potatoes and onions (and if you want to, do so, by all means) but if your motivation is primarily financial, you might want to look to higher-value choices.
If you are looking to make money, my bet would be on the vermicomposting route. Worms are probably the only livestock you are going to be able to keep there, but that's an inroad into deriving cashflow from the city's organic waste stream, converting rotting produce into worms and worm castings, and into that ROI you mentioned.
Keep us posted, and good luck.
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
-Robert A. Heinlein
Yeah I add coffee grounds a lot since I use it to accelerate snow melt. Just beware that if you leave them on the surface to dry out they form a crust which prevents seedlings from pushing up, and also prevents water from penetrating the soil. I've found the seedlings most inhibited but this are my veggie seedlings, not the hard working immigrant plants lol.
So you'll need to either incorporate the grounds into the soil, or much over the top to keep them moist.
Some great ideas already posted. Not much to add except ...
Seminole Pumpkins. Looks like you're in a suitable zone & guessing that you might be in their native area. NOT annuals once they are established with good fertile soil available under the fallen pumpkins. I said fallen because they love to climb. Makes a lot of food right up until the first hard freeze. Stores very well. Seeds save for at least 5 years. They do well in 3 sisters gardens. Can cover a lot of empty space with them.
Can vouch for deer loving brassicas. They ate 99 brocs & 99 cabbages down to the nub in just one night a couple years ago. Whoosh ... just gone.
Bees. They need all the help they can get. Raise some food for them & the other pollinators. Buckwheat is excellent for them & other critters too. Very tasty stuff. Easy to grow & an excellent soil builder. Can't go wrong with wildflowers. Better yet, try raising the actual bees if it's allowed there. Proceed with caution. All I wanted was one active colony to help produce more squash & cukes. That was very effective but now I have many hives in several locations with no end in sight.
Guerilla gardening. Especially useful for city dwellers.
Don't fret the size of the space. Start with one tomato or whatever & go from there at your own pace. If anyone hassles you just show them your bee beard. They'll run away.
Started thinking about first thing I'd plant in that particular situation. Same as always. Comfrey. Excellent soil builder. Good bee food. Can make a medicinal tea with it. Grows fast & propagates easily with just 1/2 inch or so of a root cutting. Chickens will eat it too.
Do you have access to water? If there is a hose and you can just turn it on, then don't bother with swales or a hugelkulture. That's an investment in time and energy that you don't need to make.
Mulch, cover-crop, compost, get your plants in the ground . . . just get out there and get a nice crop this year. One of the prime permaculture principles in "get a return". If the land has been gardened, the soil is probably pretty good.
Have a great gardening summer!
"The rule of no realm is mine. But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, these are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail in my task if anything that passes through this night can still grow fairer or bear fruit and flower again in days to come. For I too am a steward. Did you not know?" Gandolf
So this is a 'community garden' without a community? Maybe you can ask some friends to join you, to form a community around this garden? You can do things together, help eachother (f.e. when someone's on a vacation others can do the garden work). My experience is it's much better to have a garden together, as a community (group). Everyone has strong and weak points, together you can do almost everything
"Also, just as you want men to do to you, do the same way to them" (Luke 6:31)
So I left, I came home, and I ate some pie. And then I read this tiny ad: