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Rain Management with Hugelkultur

 

hugelkultur trench

Hugelkultur trench

Learning how to harvest rain and manage water use is an urgent topic in California where I have been visiting, but it is a big topic for all of us. It is important for us all to manage our use of that precious resource – water. My husband Henry and I have been visiting friends. We have also been visiting wonderful gardens like the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanical Garden, and the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens with garden writers from all over the country. It was at the Arboretum that I saw the ongoing installation of the Crescent Farm project and saw examples of hugelkultur, a technique that helps to harvest and manage rainfall. It also builds good soil and sequesters carbon.

The first thing I noticed was a deep and wide trench that had been filled up with sections of large logs with smaller spaces filled with smaller branches. The idea was to make this log filled trench stable so that if you walked on it the logs would not shift and cause a fall. The trench was strategically sited to capture the most rainfall and run-off.  In California where rains are infrequent (even when there is not a serious drought) run-off and flooding are the problems that come with the heavy rains. The trench will capture the water, but it is the wood logs and branches that will absorb the water. It then takes a long time for the logs to dry out, enough time for the useful bacteria and fungi to grow and benefit the soil.

Example of Hugelkultur

Hugelkultur example

I also saw large log sections circling a tree. Inside the circle cardboard sheets had been laid down, watered, and then covered with strips of bark to provide a mulch. I am familiar with this technique and have been using it in my new garden. I was not as familiar with the idea of providing ‘nurse’ logs to help my garden grow. The purpose of the encircling log lengths was twofold. First, to keep people from walking near the tree and causing compaction of the soil, and second, providing a medium for the growth of more helpful bacteria and fungi. The soil is a living thing; the nurse logs, and the logs in the hugelkulture trench are ways of increasing the beneficial forms of life in the soil.

I interviewed the learned horticulturist John Latsko about the making of the hugelkulture. “The whole idea is to keep the water on site in the soil, and even in the aquifer. In a really heavy rain the water may fill the trench and make the wood float, but it will not overflow,” he said. “What we want to do is slow the movement of water, spread the water, and save the water. Slow, spread and save.”

John Latsko and Yara Herrarte

John Latsko and Yara Herrarte

He also pointed out that what looked like a berm at the edge of one of the large planting beds was a different form of hugelkulture. In this instance they had piled up logs and then covered them with soil to make a type of raised bed. “The covered bed absorbs moisture in the air and wicks it into the wood. We planted pumpkins on this bed and without any irrigation or fertilization at all we harvested a lot of pumpkins.”

I also noticed a few small trenches cut into the planting beds at a slight angle. They were going to be filled with logs, again the purpose was to capture runoff. I was told that the logs and branches used in hugelkulture can be from any kind of tree. Trees like cedar and black walnut have a reputation for being harmful in the soil and that they will kill crops planted in that soil. While it is true that some woods have volatile oils that could be harmful, they dissipate within a year and are no long a threat. All logs, hardwoods and softwoods, will breakdown and provide a source of nutrients for the plants over a long period of time. The raised beds will slowly lower themselves as the logs decompose, but they can always be added to.

The point was made that by burying these logs the gardener is also sequestering carbon Latsko told me that the soil in this garden had been heavy clay, but over the two years that the garden had been in process the soil had improved considerably.” He was aided by Yara Herrarte, a young college student who was also working in the garden as an interpretive horticulturist. That day she was getting ready to teach a workshop on lasagna gardening, which I have often mentioned here. She is preparing for her teacher certification. Her goal is to teach younger children, and to show them “that you can discover so much in the garden.”

I can tell you that I was learning a lot on this 2.2 acre garden. While the goal of the hugelkultur beds and trenches at Crescent Farm is to slow, spread and save water on site, I have a different problem. My garden site is very wet, at least seasonally. My neighbors’ garden are also wet, so I think this is an ongoing situation. I have already built some slightly raised planting beds with cardboard, compost and loam, but hugelkulture can ameliorate my problems with water too. I can dig a huglekultur trench to capture water so that I do not have standing water for as long a time, and I can build raised hugelkultur beds that will not need irrigation. Whether a trench or a raised bed the hugelkultur technique will be improving my soil. And my soil definitely needs improvement!

Between the Rows   September 26, 2015

Drainage Problems and Happy Irises

The day after we planted all our water tolerant shrubs Greenfield was inundated by torrential rains. I was told over three inches of rain fell the afternoon and evening of July 7. We knew that our Greenfield house had a wet backyard and after planting nine shrubs we were fully aware of the heavy clay soil. However we did not expect several inches of standing water in the back half of the yard.

Fortunately, our excellent plumber, Scott Zilinski, helped us out by helping to design and dig a drainage trench near the old sheds. The yard looks flat, but in fact there are subtle dips and hollows which were identifiable by looking at the worst areas of wet. The drainage trench may be extended in the corner next to our neighbor’s driveway.

It was also clear to see that the area next to the northern fence was equally under water. We are now considering the possibility of a rain garden in that area to catch heavy rainfall, and rain runoff. We now realize that our lot is slightly lower than the two lots next to us, and that those two pieces of property have a lot of paving causing some runoff onto our lot.

It was while attending events and programs at the Conway School of Design that I first learned about the importance of permeable surfaces that would allow rain to be absorbed and kept on site. It was also about that time that our son in Cambridge, Massachusetts told us that the city had regulations about how much of a lot could be covered, and how much had to be given to permeable surfaces. Cambridge’s concern was the capacity of their storm sewers. I now have a whole new appreciation of that concern and the importance of permeable surfaces.

Carrying out our Home Outside design plan has come to a brief halt while we consider various options to improving our drainage.

One new drainage idea surfaced when I joined a Greenfield Garden Club tour of Jono Neiger’s forest garden. Neiger is one of the founders of the Regenerative Design Group in Greenfield. Their mission is not only to create sustainable landscapes, but to make them better, to regenerate them. One of the topics that came up as we walked through the different sections of Neiger’s garden was hugelkulture (hoo-gel culture) which makes use of logs and woodland debris to improve the soil. There are many aspects of hugelkuture but one in particular caught my attention.

When I explained our situation to Neiger he said one could dig a trench, two feet wide and three feet deep and then fill it with logs and other compostable debris, sod and leaves and such like and top it with a layer of soil. The wood will slowly compost, adding nutrients and soaking up water, improving the soil. Not a quick fix, but fascinating nonetheless. Our soil could use improvement.

Beardless Irises

Beardless Irises

While we think about next steps I have been reading Beardless Irises: A Plant for Every Garden Situation by Keven C. Vaughn and published by Schiffer. My own experience with beardless irises is with Siberian irises which are one of the most beautiful and easy care flowers in the world, and Japanese irises which often have a flatter flower and are truly spectacular. I never knew that beardless irises ranged from the sweet and petite, to the tall and stunning spurias.

I never knew anything about Pacific coast native irises which we cannot really grow in our area because of the winters, but amazingly Louisiana irises, and spuria irises are definite possibilities. I will never take the iris family for granted again.

We have purple and white Siberian irises in Heath and I always planned to bring some of them down to Greenfield. They are not only beautiful they don’t mind being wet. In fact, one gorgeous clump of deep purple/blue Siberians somehow jumped into a swale in our field where they have lived very happily for several years.

A few years ago I bought a beautiful white Japanese iris from Andrew Wheeler at Foxbrook Iris Farm in Colrain. He told me that Japanese iris didn’t need to be growing in a wet site, but they did need to be planted where they could be watered regularly. I planted it in front of the house where there is excellent drainage, and where I do keep it watered, but I am hoping that it will be even happier when it is moved to Greenfield.

Spurias love water so much that Vaughn suggests taking a plastic kiddie pool, with holes cut in the bottom, and sinking it into the ground, then filling it with good soil for a planting site. Then that area can be watered heavily without causing a problem for surrounding plants which might not need quite so much water. Spurias are tall ranging from three to five feet although we are warned that in our colder climate they may be slightly shorter. In any event they promise to be a dramatic planting, the clump growing larger every year, but not demanding to be divided.

Vaughn is a scholar, hybridizer and has a PhD in plant genetics. He gives us common gardeners the information about whether a particular type of iris will thrive in our climate, as well as the usual cultural info about soil, fertilizer and sun requirements, but the book is also rich in the stories of hybridizers and their work. If you like to know how a stunning plant came to be, or even how to create your own hybrids, this is the book for you. The many beautiful color photographs showing the full range of color have inspired me. Expect more beardless irises in my garden.

Between the Rows   July 25, 2015

If you want to play around with your own garden designs on the free Home Outside Palette app for smart phones and tablets click here.

A Country Woman’s Language of Love

Tussie Mussie

I have written about the language of love before, giving it my own modern spin. Sharon Selz at The Country Woman Magazine has created several bouquets filled with loving messages in a more traditional tone. The bouquet pictured here says:

I am lonely without you and desire a return of your constant love and affection.

Flowers: hyacinth (constancy), jonquil (I desire a return of affection), rose (love), heather (solitude) 

I expect one could deconstruct her beautiful tussie mussies to create your own specific Valentine’s Day message. Did you know that while the rose is always about love different types of love require different roses. For example the white rose is for innocent love, while the red rose says ‘I love you’ in  the most direct way. There are many  ways of looking at the language of the rose.

I have an annual subscription to the Jacquie Lawson website which allows me to send gorgeous animated and musical e-cards (for any occasion) to  friends. A card I have sent to many people is The Eloquent Arrangement in which a basket of flowers is assembled and when it is done the recipient can let her mouse hover over each blossom to read the message sent – allium for patience, dogwood for durability and pimpernel for change, all aspects of love. The basket contains other flowers and other aspects of love as well.

As you prepare for Valentine’s Day, what tussie mussie might you assemble – with traditional meanings, or possibly with your own symbols and references?

Beaver Lodge on NESEA Green Buildings Open House Tour

Marie Stella

“I’m a designer. I’ve always been absorbed by fashion, interior and landscape design,” Marie Stella said when she began my tour of Beaver Lodge in Ashfield. Her current and ongoing design project is the landscape surrounding her beautiful house which has been give a Platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating. This is very unusual for a residence.

LEED designations require that materials be as local as possible, that recycled materials be used when possible. For example, at Beaver Lodge floors are made with wood from trees removed from the site. Stella touched on many other examples as we walked.

Since her house has been designed with energy efficiency and environmental concerns in mind, it is no surprise that the limited domestic landscape shares these design constraints. The garden is designed on permaculture principles with a large emphasis on edibles.

Front view of Beaver Lodge

The first notable aspect of the garden that stretches to the south, in front of the house is the absence of lawn. In the center are large raised vegetable beds, with perennial crops like asparagus, rhubarb, blueberries, raspberries and dwarf fruit trees along the eastern border. A small new collection of shitake mushroom logs rests in the shade of the woods.

The western border includes a grapevine covered arbor furnished with a rustic table and benches to provide a shady resting space,. Closer to the house a wild garden filled with native pollinator plants nestles against the broad Ashfield stone terrace that is the transition between the garden and the house. Instead of grass, woodchips carpet the ground. This relatively small cultivated space is held in the embrace of a mixed woodland.

To the north of the house is an old beaver pond which gives its name to Stella’s model house and landscape. In addition to being a designer, Stella is a teacher, and she has designed Beaver Lodge as a teaching tool,. She gives classes at the Landscape Institute at Boston Architecture College, and online.

She did not begin her career as a teacher, and gardening was only an avocation.  However, 25 years or so ago, when her children were young, she took a couple of Elsa Bakalar’s garden classes at her house here in Heath. She found those so inspiring she was led to a course in plant materials at the Radcliff Institute in Boston. That was so engaging that she went on to complete the certification program, and then another one.

During those Radcliff classes she realized a new future was waiting for her. She could combine her earlier background as a historian with her interest in the landscape. She liked writing. Soon she was writing and lecturing about landscape history. She organized and led garden tours to Japan and Italy.

As fascinated as she has been with the history of the landscape, she began to look towards the future, and so came about the construction of Beaver Lodge which will be part of the free NESEA Green Buildings Open House Tour.

Water retention pond

Of course, Stella realizes that if you have a vegetable garden it must be watered. I was very impressed with the systems she has in place to supply adequate water to the edible gardens. At one end of the house the rain gutters bring water to a large stone retention pond that serves an important function, but is also beautiful since it is constructed of stone blasted from construction of the house. A pump brings water up to the vegetable garden when it is needed. She has added a bit of whimsy as well. She has created a small fountain that uses water from the retention pond, and then brings it back to the pond down a created stream bed.

Bubbling fountain

Marie Stella’s greenhouse

Since I visited last in 2009, Stella has added a small greenhouse that incorporates a cold frame and makes use of recycled windows. The greenhouse will give her a chance to get seedlings started early. Inside the greenhouse is a 550 gallon food grade plastic cistern that collects rain from the gutters at the end of then, and then pipes it into the garden.

She also has a root cellar where she can overwinter bulbs and tubers. The constraint for other uses is that snow build up in often prevents access during the winter.

Shakespeare once penned the line “Sermons in stones and good in everything . . .” Those who study and visit Beaver Lodge will find encyclopedias of  good knowledge in this living lesson book.

For information on visiting Beaver Lodge and all the sites on the Green Buildings Open House Tour on Saturday, October 5 you can go to the NESEA (Northeast Sustainable Energy Association) website, www.NESEA.org, and click on the Green Buildings Open House button. There you will be able to put in your own zip code and the distance you are willing to drive. Over 200 houses are on the tour in the whole northeast from Maine to Pennsylvania, but 37 house are within 30 miles of Greenfield. Several are in Greenfield itself with others in Montague, Colrain, Northfield, and South Deerfield, in addition to Beaver Lodge. The website will give you information about each house and it’s green elements, along with cost, benefits, and suppliers. The tour is free, but you should sign up.

Just browsing the Open House website will give you a lot of information and ideas. The owner of an historic house in Montague will be giving a talk from 10am-noon “about how we successfully survived a Deep Energy Retrofit with our marriage AND our historic windows intact!”

Between the Rows   September 28k 2013

Fallen Trees Equal Good Fungus

Fallen log

This fallen log on the Wildside Garden’s eastern slope is there for a purpose.  Good fungus! Sue Bridge has been working with Jono Neiger and the Regenerative Design Group to create a sustainable, edible, permaculture garden. One of the things she learned is that the food chain in her garden doesn’t begin with the vegetables and fruits and end  with her.  The edibility of her garden includes the fungal growth in a healthy, fertile soil. The life in healthy soil is fungal, not bacterial and should be supported.

Like all organic gardeners I am always talking feeding the soil, n0t the plant. When I say this I am usually talking about adding slow release organic fertilizers to the soil like greensand, lime, cottonseed meal, compost to provide the nutritional elements for plants without killing the microbial life in the soil. In a permaculture garden the support for that fungal growth can be provided by fallen logs, just as it would be in the forest.

Sometimes the practice of permaculture is referred to as a forest garden. This confused me. How could we have a garden in the forest?  The term forest garden is somewhat metaphorical. The point is to recreate the kind of layering that you find in a healthy forest with trees, like nut and fruit trees, providing the tallest layer, berry bushes providing the middle layer, and vegetables, herbs and  other edibles, including weeds, providing the lowest layer.  Permaculture does not demand that  these three layers necessarily exist in the very same space. but it may be practical to have them overlap in some areas.

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service has an excellent, readable site explaining the types of soil fungi, and what they do here. Perhaps you have seen fertilizers at the garden center that include mycorrhizal fungi to help roots make use of nutrients in the soil. Maybe we can do this job by leaving some rotting tree limbs in our garden. I want all the good fungus in my garden I can get.