Tag Archives: Hugelkultur

Creating A Bog For Water Loving Plants

I recently bought a gunnera manicata also known as: giant rhubarb (it’s not actually related to rhubarb but the leaf shape is similar) or dinosaur food. As with all things I purchase for my garden: I did a lot of research. It started years ago when I saw photos of this plant. I have always had it in the back of my mind, but I was too busy converting my backyard into a perennial food forest to make time for this.

The plant requires a ton of water. If you look at the surface area of its giant 4-10 foot leaves you can see how it would need a steady flow of water to keep the transpiration rate up. These wilt in high heat. I’m just hoping to create enough of a boggy home to keep it alive.

I ended up ordering from Joy Nurseries (I was extremely happy with the plant and the shipping: which was within a couple of days. I will definitely use them again!) and this is their description:

I lifted the two photos above from Wikipedia because I don’t have a mature picture of this plant… Yet!

At approximately 150 million years old, I can imagine an herbivore from the beginning of the Jurassic period munching on these leaves! And now,  with these impressive photos, you can see why I have made space for a small “defiance garden”: Where I defy mother nature and dare her to stop me!

I don’t usually create this type of garden because they are super difficult to maintain. But. I’m in love with the idea of this plant, so here it is.  I occasionally will add something that I am totally OK with nursing along and creating special conditions that are not natural for my zone or microclimate. I am stubborn. I’ve grown cantaloupe in the colorado foothills by planting water bottles next to the plants (to absorb and radiate heat when the temperature drops at night.)  

Sometimes, my defiance gardens succeed! But they are never a plant and forget situation! I’m expecting to have to water this plant daily in our summer heat. 

If you want to try to create your own defiance garden it will probably only be able to sustain one kind of broken rule for your area. I don’t plant things like peonies down here because that breaks two rules: 1. to bloom a peony needs full sun and 2. it’s too hot down here and they don’t get enough chill hours to properly break dormancy. 

As far as I can tell, the Gunnera just doesn’t like heat (even though it requires zone 8-10). I can provide every other requirement that this bad boy needs, so I am only pushing one growing rule with it. They do really well in England and probably would do well on the American northern west coast. Neither of those places are anything like South Texas. So, we’ll see if I can provide enough things that it needs that I don’t kill it straight off!

In all honesty my gunnera is probably going to fail here because it doesn’t like our temperatures. So, San Antonio is a poor place to choose to plant it. But, I saw a review on DavesGarden.com (a truly stellar site for all sorts of plant information and sellers) that someone had successfully  grown it down here in full shade.

I have a giant empty side yard. The fence is set way back and we just don’t do anything outside in that area. It’s on the north side of the house and it doesn’t drain well. I am attempting to grow the G. Manicata there.

I figure I have the perfect spot, to at least attempt, to grow this monster plant. I’ll show you how I chose to plant this thing and we’ll see how it does. The first thing to do (if you do not have a natural bog or ability to plant on the side of a water feature) to create a bog for any water loving plant, is find a low spot in a shaded area. 

I would not try this if you don’t already have an area that holds a good deal of moisture on its own. This is also not going to do well under a tree because then there will be water competition and trees always win those. I have a low spot, that I had intended to put a French drain in, but hadn’t gotten around to doing it yet. It does drain…  eventually, but every rain storm makes a big soggy mess out there. 

I have seen some videos of people planting Gunnera Manicata but nothing that matches my exact conditions. So this is what I did to make the most of my soggy, shaded,  side yard.

I’m big into soil prepping, especially if I have a feature plant and I want it to preform well for me. I dig huge holes for pretty much anything that comes in a pot.

Our native soil is really hard to work with. It’s like potters clay and full of limestone rocks. It’s also so basic that even our water from our aquifer will kill acid loving plants. Everything that needs acidic to neutral soil needs to be in a pot and my daily watering usually also includes dumping some of my morning’s coffee grounds on the soil in the pot.

I also put coffee grounds on anything with chlorosis (dark veining on yellowing leaves. It’s an iron deficiency and is very common in basic soil.) It works well, but needs constant reapplication. Soil ammendment down here is always necessary.

I would love my grandmother’s deep black Kansas soil, but this is what I have to work with. My soil is a very rich soil that usually only needs compost, iron and some regular applications of nitrogen. But it’s Hell to dig through!

I’ve also learned over the years that you can’t replace all of the soil in a hole because it will act like a pot. The roots grow fantastically until they hit the native dirt and then they turn around and grow back through the softer, amended soil until you end up with a circular mass of roots (this is called: being “root bound”). It will eventually restrict the plant’s growth and a root bound plant is going to be less vigorous and preform more poorly than a plant that creates a healthy root structure without restriction. To amend, and still encourage healthy roots, your amended soil needs to be at most a 50/50 mixture of the native soil and the soil/compost that you are adding. 

On the other hand, some plants have the kind of root system that you will want to control because otherwise they become invasive (and if you fail at restricting things like running bamboo you will have nothing but bamboo, as will ALL of your extremely unhappy neighbors!)

Gunnera Manicata is a monster. It has the kind of root system that can support its 4-10 FOOT leaves. It is invasive in some areas, and planting is extremely discouraged in places like Ireland. I’m not really sure where I’m going to fall in the realm of invasive or complete failure with this plant, so, I built in some options that I can easily change in my planting hole. I also did NOT plant it up against any structure. I’ve seen what this looks like above ground and I assume I’m going to deal with something similar below ground.

First thing of business is digging a suitable hole. I could have gone bigger but I really didn’t feel like putting more work into this. Here’s my hole I dug out in my swampy side yard.

My trusty old spade. This is a little deeper than the length of the spade blade.

As you can see from this side shot I dug a pretty big hole. 

The next part of this is trying to slow, but not stop, the water drainage even further. I have seen 1 year landscape fabric last years under soil so I didn’t try too hard with this. I shucked a Sunday newspaper of its plastic bag ripped it open and placed it in the bottom of the hole.

I drove the spade through it a couple of times and decided that was good enough to keep it draining. Doing this also achieves my goal of slowing water down.

Next I built a micro hugelkultur underneath the plant. I happened to have some well composted mulch that had sat unopened for a while in our backyard. I also opened my compost trash cans (having special ratios or even oxygen is not needed to break down plant materials. I keep rodents and other things out of my compost while keeping constant moisture levels by using my metal trash bins.) These were started a couple of years ago with rabbit bedding and kitchen scraps. I lined them with plastic trash bags because I use this on my vegetable garden and I have no idea what metals they used in the cans. It’s beautiful dirt now!

For a mini hugelkultur you need a source of rotted wood at the base of the hole to absorb and hold water. It will act like a sponge, keeping your planting supplied with moisture. I use a modified hugelkultur in my raised beds. You can learn about them here: Modified Hugelkultur Raised Bed 1

Modified Hugelkultur Raised Bed 2

In this bucket is the rotting mulch on the top with the composted rabbit bedding and garden scraps on bottom. This way, when I dump the bucket into the hole it will have everything where I want it from top to bottom.

Since this is a monster plant, I am purposefully creating a “pot like” environment. This is to keep the roots under control, for a while. I line my pots with newspapers.

This keeps the sides of the pot wettable and your soil doesn’t shrink and let your watering run straight down the sides and out of the pot.

In the ground, these newspapers absorb water, like wood mulch does, but stop the roots from spreading so quickly that I have no control. I have left myself an option to open the area around the hole by shoving my spade perpendicular to the newspaper lining, cutting through the future soggy newspaper and giving the roots free access to the surrounding soil. Until then, it will keep the water I add to the planting hole draining down, and then out, keeping as much moisture in the hole’s soil as possible.

And since I am trying to create a bog: it is a plus that I am draining soil slowly. This very set up would kill most plants. If I had full sun here it might bake the native soil’s moisture out enough to have plants survive, but this already floods so much and has so little sun that everything I’ve put out here has struggled.

Gardening usually means working with what you are given. I’ve already got a wet area: I’m just creating a small section of constantly wet bog, instead of the rain garden that I have been given.

The hole so far is lined with newspaper and a perforated plastic bag, has rotting bark mulch at the base and compost on top of that. It’s very hard to show depth in a photo but this is just the bottom 1/3 of the hole.

Next I fill the hole back in with a mixture of 50% native soil and 50% compost.

The reason I am taking so much care with this hole is because I am changing the native conditions. If I wanted to plant regular garden plants in here I would have put in the French drain (which would have been even more work!) If I had a normal slope and drainage on this side nothing I could do would be enough to qualify this as a bog garden. Gardening is always full of goals, this was the simplest answer to my mushy wet area. I used the lack of drainage to my benefit.

I filled the hole in and created a small area to place the plant. Then I ran the hose until I filled the hole full of water and then lowered the pressure to a dribble. I let that run for about a half hour. It was definitely soggy at the end of all that!

I let the hole drain for a day and then brought out my Gunnera.

The last things to think about are: maintaining moisture, creating a weed barrier and how you are going to deal with hardening off the transplant.

I accomplished these things with cardboard and a gallon milk jug. I was very aware of the problem of dehydration with this plant while I had it indoors. I was having to mist the leaves and base of the plant several times a day as the leaves would shrivel up and die without constant moisture. Because I hate the process of hardening off plants (getting them used to the sun and wind of the outdoors) I always protect mine with milk jugs. Just cut an x across the base of the milk jug and fold the corners out.

Cut a puncture hole into the flaps.

Plant your plant, cover the surrounding soil with cardboard and water in. Carefully place the milk jug over your plant and anchor with landscaping pins or whatever you want to use to keep the jug from blowing away. Add some rocks to anchor the cardboard and water in again.

This was a lot of work, so make sure you check on your plant at least once a day.

Mine is super happy in these conditions and is sending up new leaves!

Here it is a couple of weeks later:

I’m very happy with the results! I hope you enjoyed my bog tutorial! If you would like to know more about beginner gardening, I have a 4 part series that I repost at least once a year. It’s everything you need to know to grow!

Everything You Need To Know To Grow Part 1

Everything You Need To Know To Grow Part 2

Everything You Need To Know To Grow Part 3

Everything You Need To Know To Grow Part 4

Mother’s Day Raised Hugelkultur Bed!

This is a great time of year to plan and build raised beds. This is how I built my raised beds and I have given them no supplemental watering in the last two years of San Antonio heat and I’ve had bumper crops with almost no input outside of planting and occasional weeding! This has been a super fantastic bed for me and I will only build duplicates of these from now on!

2014 mother’s day raised beds:

I had a fantastic Mother’s Day!

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My boys and my husband made me a cake!

The best part of the weekend? I got another hugelkultur inspired raised bed! Don’t know Hugelkultur? Learn more here: http://www.richsoil.com/hugelkultur/

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This is the second year I’ve gotten a raised bed on Mother’s Day and I am super excited! The first one we built is here on my post: “Hugelkultur, Keyhole Gardens: Bridging Ideas”. We did this one a bit differently, but kept the main ideas we used on the original  Hugelkultur inspired bed.

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This is a cinder block bed. The inner dimensions are 6 by 10 feet. We lined it with cardboard.

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You need to wet this as you go. Cardboard and paper take a ton of water. It works well to step on it as you water. That will squeeze the air out and help your dry materials absorb the liquid.

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There’s a layer of packing paper. This is a great use of all the stuff you end up with after a move! We chose to add the wood chips again. These wood chips will eventually absorb water and act like a giant sponge. Through each new addition to the bed make sure you wet it well. It will be impossible to wet it thouroughly later on.

Expect to have the giant grubs if you are in Texas. You can see my solution on my post “When Life Gives You Grubs, Serve Them Nematode Tea!” I’ve seen a lot of queries about giant grubs on search engines from people down here so I know I’m not the only one!

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We used about 5 bags of mulch in this bed. I just bought the cheapest mulch I could find which ended up being pine bark mulch. The larger the chips: the longer the chips will last. Remember to wet as you go!

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The next layer is compost. I don’t buy anything I haven’t touched. I won’t buy anything that feels like there’s a ton of sand in it. We went to a local rock yard and were disappointed as usual. I’ve always done price comparisons between hardware stores and rock yards and have chosen hardware store bagged soil every time, but this rock yard had really poor quality soil as well. Bagged soil at Lowe’s was about a dollar less a yard and much, much better quality. I haven’t found good soil at Walmart or Home Depot locally, but you can certainly check whatever is near you and see if you have better luck. I skipped the hay in this bed. Since we’re in a severe drought: hay is not a cost effective option right now.

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Your access to brands of bagged soil will depend on your location. If you see this stuff at Lowe’s, it is what I choose for amending. It’s a good price and a great quality soil. Don’t be fooled into thinking you need something that has a certain “type” of soil listed on the bag. Touch it and judge the soil by what you feel. This bag says

“compost”, I call it: great soil. The only thing you need to stay away from (as far as it being too rich) would be manure (composted or not). Watch your added Nitrogen levels with manure. It will burn your plants if you add too much and will be full of the salts they add as supplements to animals in feed lots.

Please refer to my post “Making Sense Of Old Sayings” to help you learn the importance of building great soil and how to recognize good bagged soil.

Don’t know if you are dealing with hot or cold manure? Read up on adding valuable natural fertilizers to your soil here: http://www.garden.org/ediblelandscaping/?page=201104-animal-manures and here: http://www.moongrow.com/organic_gardening_guide/fertilizers/manure.html

Here’s a site that explains why our rabbit is my favorite source of fertilizer: http://www.vegetablegardener.com/item/8156/rabbit-manure-in-the-garden

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We added a bale of peat humus to lower the pH and help hold water. Everything down here (including the water from the tap) is basic. The water has such a high pH it will kill acid loving plants even if they are potted in low pH soil. I make my coffee in a coffee press. When I’m done I pour more water in, let it sit in the old grounds and then go water my gardenias with the water. Be careful with the grounds themselves. You can easily kill a plant with coffee grounds…even acid loving ones. This is the voice of experience.

In the last bed I used another concept called Keyhole Gardening. There is a beautiful how to video from Africa on this concept and it makes the idea really easy to understand: http://youtu.be/ykCXfjzfaco . I tried this with the last bed I built. Over the year that it’s been installed: the feeder areas that I made with chicken wire have collapsed. This year I am going to use different, more permanent materials (three large pvc pipes with holes drilled in it for drainage instead of chicken wire) and add another aspect to it: worms! I got the idea from this blog: http://milkwood.net/2010/10/12/how-to-make-a-worm-tower/

So, I’m creating 1-3 permanent worm bins inside the bed. I may put one in and see how I like it and add others later. The site above calls it a “worm tower”. This is the basic idea of the keyhole garden which is set up to feed and water the beds, but with updated materials…and some red wigglers, which will do fine as a permanent outdoor worm bin in our climate. I love the new addition to the theme because: I have no interest in keeping up with feeding and emptying independent worm bins. I also was wondering how I was going to keep critters out of an outdoor bin full of wonderful kitchen scraps and yummy worms. We’ve already got armadillos in the yard tearing up areas looking for grubs. So far, they have stayed out of the raised bed.

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Last year’s melons. I had a bumper crop but had problems with a family of opossums helping themselves to the ripe ones!

On the to do list: My husband is going to enclose the garden with fencing. I had trouble with opossums in my melons last year so I will probably end up using electric fence in conjunction with the fence my husband wants to put in.

This bed is cheap to construct, permanent, easy to maintain and I don’t have to deal with our crummy natural soil. I will be planting it this weekend.

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Instead of lining this with plastic tarp like we used on the last one I have discovered that filling the holes in the blocks with soil does about the same thing. We will then cap them with concrete block pavers. I am soo ready to get out and plant this!!!!

Watch for next weeks post! I will teach you a great way to water your raised beds and keep it from losing water to evaporation. Down here in the summer we have days over 100 degrees for weeks at a time on top of water restrictions. They have promised an El Nino year which will hopefully end our drought but will bring torrential rains. Either way, this bed is going to provide us with a great area to grow veggies this year, and for years to come!

Want more information?  The “Gardening Basics” tab at the top of this page will walk you through everything you need to know to start you on the path towards a successful gardening experience. The information is free and I’m genuinely interested in helping you succeed. Let me know if you would like more information on specific topics for future posts. I’m here to help. Good luck and go out and get your hands dirty!

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Winter: Garden Planning

Winter is a wonderful time to read up on gardening literature. When your garden is fast asleep, it is the perfect time to make preparations for next year. Whether you are new to gardening or an old hand: this is the yearly time for reflection. What has worked for you? What have you struggled with? What are you sure of? What would you like to learn about?

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Follow along and learn how to create a long lasting, low maintenance gardening experience. There’s a lot of practical knowledge in here that I would love to share with you! Below is a list of articles by category. You can quickly find solutions to past problems or plan your garden design to avoid those problems altogether.

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My instructions are heavy on preparation, but they create gardening solutions that will last for decades.

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Does it seem like you are spending $20 for each tomato you grow? If you are struggling to get anything from your garden the problem could be your soil. Raised beds are a great way to create the perfect conditions for vegetables. Unfortunately, a lot of instructions out there look nice: but they are ideas from novice gardeners. Frequently the beds are too shallow, too expensive or built from materials that will quickly rot. Building raised beds is a lot of work and I don’t want to have to redo everything in a couple of years. I doubt you want to start over every couple of years, either. Here is my solution involving a sheet mulch, hugelkulter and keyhole bed combination with cinder block walls. This is the cheapest, most fertile, longest lasting solution I could come up with and it works beautifully: Mother’s Day Raised Hugelkultur Bed and a second article here: Hugelkultur, Keyhole Gardens: Bridging Ideas

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If you need help choosing products to either amend soil or to build raised beds: these are my picks for choosing bagged soil and soil additives and also my choices and suggestions for building your own soil with cheap sheet mulching supply ideas. Making sense of old sayings

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Once you’ve created good planting conditions your next step is efficient watering. This will help you whether you are in an arid area or just need to save on your watering bill: Efficient Summer Watering In A Raised Bed

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Are you struggling with pollinators? If you aren’t getting abundant squash, melons, cucumbers and other veggies in the cucurbit family you may just need more bees. While you are waiting for your newly planted flowers to attract pollinators this year, here is what you can do: Be The Bee! How And When Hand Pollinating Makes Sense This also explains how to help plants that are wind and self-pollinators.

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If you are brand new to gardening or if you are really struggling overall: this is my “all in one stop” to learn your way around common mistakes. You must know the subjects in orange and you can add the rest as you get more success under your belt: All You Need To Know To Grow The same information is also at the top of this page under Gardening Basics

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If you are struggling with clearing Bermuda grass and are impatient to have finished beds I suggest this approach: Beds Over Bermuda grass Or: Landscape Fabric Sandwich

Inexpensive Vine Support

Inexpensive Vine Support

If you would like to try to train your vining plants on a cheap support next season: this is a fast, inexpensive and strong solution- Simple, Inexpensive Vine Support

Seed Starting: Tips and Tricks

Seed Starting: Tips and Tricks

My tips for starting seeds in milk jugs and my recommendations for mail order seed and live plant companies: The Seed Collector’s Insanity (Tips And Tricks For Starting Your Seeds)

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If you dislike the hardening off process (getting your seedlings ready to plant out in the garden) like I do, here is a short cut: Short Cut Through The Hardening-Off Process

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If you would like to see what other people have been interested in on here, this is Crazy Green Thumb’s most read article. I don’t advocate using gravel in the landscape and this is why: Please Don’t Rock Your Yard!

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If you are longing for a fun craft project for this winter, here are a few ideas. These are the projects I have enjoyed creating this year:

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Melted Perler Bead and Pony Bead Craft Projects

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Last Minute Kid Friendly Halloween Decorations

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Come On, You Know You Want To! Recycled Glass Flowers In The Garden

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Solution For Sore Shoulders: Microwavable Rice Sock

Want some new ideas for using plants that you may already enjoy growing? Here are some of my favorite recipes from this year. These are my own recipes. They may make you interested in adding a few of these plants to your plans:

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Ever Had Spiced Hibiscus Flower Tea?

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Cooking With Lettuce?!?! Yes! And It’s Delicious!!!

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Garden Huckleberry: A Completely Nutty Science Experiment!!!

I love my short winter down time! I get to look at my successes and challenges, plan my garden for next year and organize and choose the seeds I want to grow. I hope you have a productive winter planning your garden! Here in the Northern Hemisphere our season is at an end. If you’re on the Southern part of the globe: Happy Spring/Summer!!!

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See you all in the garden next year!!!!

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Hugelkultur, Keyhole Gardens: Bridging Ideas

I do a lot of research before I try new things. There are two ideas floating around right now that I really liked. One is Hugelkultur. The idea is basically a huge, permanent, water retaining, slow composting hill. This is a great site about it: http://www.richsoil.com/hugelkultur/ Down here, anything that saves water is welcome. The other idea I have seen around is Keyhole Gardens. These are used in Africa. It is way to farm otherwise unusable areas. Best explanation I have seen is in video format (I almost never watch videos but this one was worth it.) http://youtu.be/ykCXfjzfaco I also overcame my initial feeling that Hugelkultur was going to be too massive for a backyard garden with this lovely lady’s breakdown of the idea that she labeled “Half-Ass Hugelkultur”: http://www.nwedible.com/2012/03/half-ass-hugelkultur.html (I really get a kick from this gal’s site!) Anyway, I decided with my emphasis on site preparation (and my wonderful husband offering his back) that I would bridge the two ideas and create something that incorporated the best of both ideas. I wanted the slow breakdown of wood (I used bagged mulch. I could have found something free, but I didn’t. It was a simple and disease and insect free choice, plus I was still recovering from an illness. Easy was the only available route. I did almost nothing on this other than instruction from a chair and the photography. It was a wonderful Mother’s Day gift!)

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I had saved our packing materials from our last cross country move with this bed in mind.

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I also used rotted baled hay I had left over from another project.20130512_161304

I used bagged soil and compost.

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Most importantly I wanted to use the cheapest construction method I could find. I settled on cinder blocks. They are fast, cheap and pretty permanent. Since my husband lovingly volunteers to do the heavy labor, it was possible to use them.

We have evil Bermuda Grass (which I hate and wish I had never had the opportunity to try and deal with) so we sprayed roundup and laid landscape fabric over it. The cinder blocks are on top of the fabric. Like many of my projects this one started and stopped at random intervals. We got the cinder blocks down and I had some serious health issues that slowed our forward momentum. As the cinder blocks sat there I watched them wick water during the day. I soon realized these were going to make it a challenge to keep the bed wet. For better or for worse I decided to run plastic tarp around the inside of the cinder blocks. I taped the tarp down with painters tape to keep it up and out of the way as we worked.

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Next came the lining of cardboard and packing paper.

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I made wire cages to hold the hay and the future compost material from the kitchen. I estimated I needed three to keep the bed hydrated and fed equally. (Chicken wire is a hazard to work with but I always seem to be using it.)

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We filled the beds with mulch and placed the cages.

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Added a layer of hay and the soil and compost20130512_183747

Then with some help from my boy’s favorite pet:

galaxy s3 pics 139Red, Red, Rabbit Head,

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we mixed it rich with the expectations that the first season would be a rocky road: with the things that were composting drawing nitrogen and the soil not having enough adhesion to draw water effectively.

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Despite the soil being new I have had a wonderful year. I have peanuts and Amaranth growing this summer and it has exceeded my expectations with it’s water retention…even in three digit heat. I love this bed, it will continue to bear the fruit of it’s (extensive) labor for a very long time with only minimal care from me. Thank you to all of the innovators who inspired me, and a very special thank you to: my husband and kids, for the best Mother’s Day ever!

Here’s an update! One year after building it the soil has settled and we were able to remove a course of the cinder blocks. We’re now building our second bed. Everything will be built the same. The only thing we will not use this year is the plastic. It really helped the original bed retain water down through the center of the bed, but has proven difficult to remove. I had originally planned on using much thicker ply plastic…but: “Do not look a gift horse in the mouth.” I love
this bed enough to duplicate it!
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See the second completed bed and what we changed here: Mother’s Day Raised Hugelkultur Bed!

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