When I started signing up for more permaculture classes this year, my friends and family made fun of me. The thing is, permaculture is more like an artist’s palette than an exact formula. Anyone can use it, but the more you learn and practice, the more likely you are to make a masterpiece. Plus, I just love taking classes.
In early spring we had a lot going on and all the extensive permaculture design courses in my region require a commute. I wasn’t sure if I could pull it off.
Our friend Shawn Jadrnicek started the Urban Permaculture Institute of the Southeast and runs Clemson’s student organic farm. He recommended we try an online PDC class from Permaculture Visions (PV). Looking through independent permaculture forums, I found dozens of positive reviews from people who had completed the course. I really liked that we’d have a full 2 years (if we needed it) to complete all of our PV assignments and that there was a discussion email list for students and graduates. We signed up for the class as a couple and have been slowly moving through the material — which is soundly based on Bill Mollison’s permaculture principles but the examples tend to involve Australian plants and climates we are unfamiliar with.
Photo Caption: This Rosa rugosa was blooming at the permaculture home where I stayed for my first class weekend, May 18th – 19th. I generally don’t think you need much excuse to grow roses, but this pink beauty also has great hips. Roses that expose their centers are good beneficial insect attractors, too.
Then I heard about the Roots and Seeds Permaculture in Action (PIA) class in Asheville, NC. I decided to jump on their work-trade opportunity in order to get hands-on experience in an area with similar growing conditions to my own. Asheville is a colder climate than Greenville, but it has a lot more familiar elements than Australia.
Our urban farm (as detailed in this recent post) already has some permaculturesque elements. However, I wanted more experience with plant guilds, earthworks, water catchment, cob building, and more. I was also becoming aware that permaculture is more than just projects.
I’ve seen so many agricultural “trends” like lasagna gardening, square foot gardening, hydroponics, intensive planting, rotational grazing, native plant gardening, and even organic gardening that I’d overlooked what permaculture really is. Projects and techniques are wonderful things, but they’re still just tools in the bigger picture. If you’re tuned in to nature it’s definitely possible to figure a lot of this out on your own… but it’s much, much faster to take a class.
Which brings me to my advice for anyone trying to decide if you “need” a permaculture class. No, you don’t. You can find out what you need to know by gleaning information from books, forums, videos, and most importantly — experience. That said, a class will speed things up. It’s amazing how quickly everything clicked into place once I had Zev Friedman and Dylan Ryals-Hamilton as my instructors… and I’ve only been to 2 PIA class weekends (4 days total) so far.
Photo Caption: Most of the large gardens in Asheville seem to involve some sort of retaining walls or terracing. Permaculture often adds water-retaining swales on contour. Potentially opportunistic (but useful) plants go on the far edges of the property.
I arranged to stay with one of the PIA class administrators for the weekend… every house should be as easy to find as a permaculturalists! One glance at all the yards on the street and I didn’t bother reading the house numbers. I wandered around her terraced milpa on Friday afternoon taking pictures and feeling surprisingly at home.
Photo Caption: I tried growing comfrey a long time ago and after killing it, assumed it couldn’t handle our hot summers. However, comfrey’s relative borage grows just fine in our yard. Now that I’m seeing it in so many Asheville gardens I think it is more likely that I didn’t invest enough effort getting it established. Comfrey is a permaculture superstar due to its nutrient accumulation abilities. It has a long tap root that sucks minerals from deep in the soil and can be cut as mulch to release that fertility in the upper topsoil layers. Herbalists use it as a medicine for a variety of ailments. I was also taught that the flowers are edible by a little girl named Evelyn.
Permaculture designs vary from place to place, but most of them contain comfrey. True comfrey tends to be preferred by herbalists, but it is an opportunistic escape artist in the garden (read: weedy as all get out). A sterile variety of Russian comfrey is available (usually as root pieces) and will not reseed all over the garden.
As you might guess, a persistent plant that is propagated by root segments is not a good candidate for a cover crop that gets tilled in. Comfrey is used for chop and drop mulching or just allowed to die back naturally each winter. Put it where you always want it since the deep taproots are not easy to get rid of.
Photo Caption: Cover crops including crimson clover and other nitrogen-fixing legumes.
Though I will never understand how red clover earned its common name (it’s purple), crimson clover seems fair enough. I wish we could go back in time and get the people who named hearts-a-burstin’, Jack-in-the-pulpit, and kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate to make up new names for them both, though.
Clovers are wonderful nitrogen fixing plants and beneficial insect attractors. We talk about them frequently in class. Considering where your nitrogen will come from is an important aspect of planning guilds in permaculture. If you produce a lot of manures on your property, having plants do the job may not be as vital. However, nitrogen is the most important nutrient for plant growth, and nitrogen-fixing plants interspersed through your beds ensure an ample supply in the soil.
Nitrogen-fixers use a symbiotic relationship with beneficial bacteria to fix nitrogen gas from the air into a form plants can use. During the course of a growing season, root die back releases nitrogen into the soil for other organisms and neighboring plants to use. Deciduous plants automatically do this when they die back for the winter, but you can chop and drop your nitrogen fixers in order to force a root die back combined with using the plant tops as a composting mulch.
Photo Caption: Burdock is another plant I gave up on when I killed it the first time I grew it. I need to stop assuming a plant doesn’t like my climate! A lot of seeds will grow without any assistance if you just toss them on the ground in February instead of giving them tons of attention in a protected seed tray. Burdock seems to be one of them. (I often plant seeds in February so they come up when they like the weather in my area — most seed packet sowing dates are written for northern climates).
My husband and I could eat pickled gobo (burdock) all day. It has lots of culinary uses and also has deep taproots that break through soil and accumulate nutrients. I tried to grow it a long time ago in an indoor seed starting tray and assumed the failure meant they were difficult to grow. I guess even weedy things are hard to grow if you don’t give them what they like, since this plant seems to completely carpet Asheville. “What is that plant growing all over the place?” was the first thing I asked when I arrived for class.
Burdock is a biennial, and I’m told the first year plants taste the best. Presumably, eating the first year plants means they never go to seed and spread in places you don’t want them to grow.
Photo Caption: Centranthus ruber is not the same thing as valerian root, but they both get called “valerian.”
Red valerian (Centranthus ruber) was another plant I was happy to see. I’ve always liked it as a beneficial insect attractor, and I’ve just learned its leaves and roots are edible in salads. It’s not the same thing as valerian root, Valeriana officinalis.
Photo Caption: Minnie is proud to live at the permaculture home in the above photos and is the most chill little dog I ever met.
Okay, I have to admit that I wrote the above segment of this post weeks ago and then left this in my drafts folder long enough that my memory of what we covered back in May is getting fuzzy. I hope I keep up better with documenting the rest of our classes in a timely manner since it serves as a nice reminder for me to look back through this blog and read past posts.
Here’s a jaunty effort at describing our first class weekend in May, which began on Saturday with some impressive lectures and Powerpoints on the fundamentals of permaculture by Zev and Dylan (you can get your own copy of their free permaculture principles ebook). Then we migrated to the Pearson Community Garden for some additional lessons and hands-on experience.
Photo Caption: Pearson Community Garden is run by the Bountiful Garden Project. The site includes extensive food plots, a nice shelter for social activities, a small outdoor kitchen, a cob oven, a hoop house, a greenhouse, a tool shed, an apiary, a fire ring, a solar dehydrator, and a cob composting toilet.
We began the morning with a fire starting ritual (no matches or lighters) that everyone but the neighbors enjoyed (early AM chanting wasn’t the sound one man wanted to wake up to, and he let us know).
We had all been instructed to bring a small amount of wood from a tree we personally know. Instead of the familiar workshop ritual of everyone in the room introducing themselves to the group, we were asked to tell what watershed we lived on, the name of a child and elder important to us, what we feel we bring to the group, and our name, before putting our wood in the fire.
Photo Caption: Zev is sitting to the right of the fire he started from scratch and Dylan is on the left adding more fuel.
We spent the morning getting to know each other and going over the 20 principles of permaculture that are being taught to us during the class. Other permaculture classes use fewer principles but theirs are a combination of both the sets that Bill Mollison and David Holmgren invented.
When many people talk about permaculture, they like to focus on certain projects that they are doing. One of the things that is really sinking in for me during our classes is that the projects and techniques aren’t permaculture — they’re the tool box.
Photo Caption: The meeting shelter was comfortable and very welcome when it started raining. In the background, one of the apprentices is trying to thwap a pinata that was made by his fellow apprentices for his birthday. The apprentices are people who (mostly) have already taken their PDC course and are gaining experience before they go out and spread their knowledge. Each apprentice oversees a small group of PIA students (3 – 5 people) when we separate to do projects.
One of the permaculture principles is often referred to as “stack and pack” or layering. This means getting a lot of elements and uses into the same space. The shelter is an example of this because in addition to being a multi-functional meeting space, the rafters are being used to dry herbs and the roof to collect water.
Photo Caption: Hot air rises and no direct sunlight hits the space in the rafters. This makes it an ideal place for drying herbs.
Another is “utilize edges and value the marginal.” When two areas meet, their edges contain the most biodiversity and productive potential. This pawpaw is growing against the edge of the shelter in a natural espalier pattern. Espalier is a method of fruit pruning that forces the tree or shrub to grow flat against another surface.
In the case of pawpaws, they often grow this way on their own, though they spread out more as they age. The pawpaw’s shape saves space while also producing fruit and shading the shelter in the summertime. A designer might choose to preserve this pawpaw’s espaliered shape over time.
Photo Caption: The fan pattern of this pawpaw’s branches are common to this species.
The roof is more successful at water accumulation than the cistern is at holding it, so a new plan was needed for the overflow. One of our projects was to move it up the hill and create a better path for the excess water.
Photo Caption: Rain barrels and cisterns require a plan for when they overflow or the water will collect next to building foundations or cause mosquito problems. We moved this cistern higher up the hill (behind the green trash can in the photo) so that it could also be gravity fed into the garden.
“Observe and interact” is an important permaculture principle when it comes to aggressive plants like horsetail. This is a plant that can be useful if it is contained, as in this case where it is growing in a container on top of concrete.
Photo Caption: Horsetail contains silica which is useful in garden remedies and for cleaning dirty dishes. The segments of the plant also pop apart like Legos.
Ponds have many uses in a permaculture context but this one appears to be largely ornamental.
Photo Caption: This goldfish pond contains plants, but I’m not sure what their uses are. Nearby honeybees were happily using the pond edges to get close enough for a sip of water.
Black locust has a multitude of uses including rot-resistant lumber, garden stakes, thorny woven fencing, protein-rich animal fodder, nitrogen-fixing roots, honeybee nectar production, and delicious edible flowers. It’s also an excellent choice for coppicing.
Photo Caption: Black locust flowers are crunchy and taste like jicama mixed with honeysuckle. We like them even better than the petals of our pineapple guava.
This cold frame doesn’t appear to be in use but was built using a recycled window.
Photo Caption: Cold frames with glass recycled windows should be placed where things are unlikely to fall on them. This one is positioned under some trees which may account for the broken pane of glass.
Pearson Community Garden has plenty of space to expand their permaculture plan. Each segment is being implemented in manageable phases, which means it is not finished yet.
Photo Caption: The long view of the garden shows the pond and black locust on the left, the vegetable beds on the right, and the apiary and cob oven in the back. There is also an outdoor fire pit which we didn’t use due to the rain.
Beneficial insect attracting flowers were abundantly scattered throughout the landscape. California poppies are perennials but also reseed.
Photo Caption: California poppies are so richly colored they almost look fake. The beneficial insects love them.
Asheville area beekeepers have to keep bears in mind when placing their hives. The two most effective protectors are electric fencing or putting the apiary on a rooftop.
Photo Caption: Having more than one hive in your apiary produces more honey and makes beekeeping a little easier. You can compare your hives to make sure everything is normal or fix a weak hive with frames from a strong one.
Their cob oven was skep shaped, which is an old-fashioned way to build a bee hive. Honeybees live in hollow crevices and do not make this shape naturally. However, they are often confused with more aggressive yellow jackets and paper wasps, who do build similar looking homes.
Photo Caption: I hope that we do some cob building projects in our PIA class since I would love the hands-on experience.
“Use and value renewable resources and services” is commonly used permaculture principle in gardens where bamboo is used for plant supports.
Photo Caption: Beans grow well on bamboo trellises, though it is important to let the bamboo fully die before inserting it in the ground. Otherwise, it will take root.
I have never been in a bathroom more pleasant than this cob composting toilet. It was spacious, clean, and did not smell bad. The only strong odor was of the pine sawdust used for composting.
Photo Caption: The composting toilet was pleasant to use and look at.
I’m not that familiar with the uses of a living roof, other than we need to clean out our gutters soon before we start growing one by accident. Maybe it will come up during my class. I assume they lower the temperature of a building, among other things.
Photo Caption: The living roof was covered in moss and many plants.
If I were designing it, I’m not sure I’d use a repurposed door with quite so many windows in it. Other than that, I’d be happy to replace my restroom with one.
Photo Caption: Using a composting toilet isn’t much different from a regular one. The main difference is that instead of flushing, you pour a scoop of fresh sawdust in.
The sign thanking me for my “donation” made me laugh.
Photo Caption: Someone had fun making this sign.
The birds have found a way to compound the usefulness of one of the ventilation holes while also utilizing the toilet…
Photo Caption: The composting toilet’s ventilation holes are stacking functions as a birdhouse (and bird toilet).
Though a large segment of the vegetable beds look like a typical garden, there was an area that was full of keyhole beds and fledgling forest garden plants.
Photo Caption: Keyhole beds are named because their paths look a bit like a keyhole. This one has a brick lining to make it easy to tell the walkway from the planting area. Stepping on soil compacts it and makes it less healthy for plant roots to grow.
Many of these plants will grow to form layers that mimic the natural state of a forest. Once that happens, it is often unnecessary to bring in amendments for plants to grow. The leaf litter will sustain the soil and keep nutrients cycling through the system.
The key is to garden like a forest, not to try to grow things under already established trees. Forest gardening is a permaculture method that imitates a pattern (otherwise known as “observe and replicate natural patterns”).
Photo Caption: This is how a forest garden looks in early succession.
Angelica is in the carrot family and has huge umbels of tiny flowers that attract beneficial insects. Unfortunately, I just missed capturing the open blossoms on camera.
Photo Caption: Unopened angelica flower heads look a bit like broccoli but are in a different family. It also has medicinal and culinary uses.
I have no idea what this thing is. Is there anyone who can enlighten me?
Photo Caption: What is this? I asked around, but no one seemed to know.
I wondered if the hoop houses had been used for winter vegetables, but at the time of my class they were full of bread poppies.
Photo Caption: Hoop houses extend the growing season right through the winter.
Few people realize that poppy seeds (or opiate drugs) come from such a lovely plant.
Photo Caption: Papaver somniferum has gorgeous blooms followed by attractive seedheads.
If you want to grow your own poppy seeds, they are simple to harvest when the seedheads are dry.
Photo Caption: Poppies rarely enjoy hot climates, though some will grow in the heat if you get them established while it is still cool out.
Comfrey is one of the most common permaculture plants for margins of the garden.
Photo Caption: Comfrey should only be planted in places it is wanted for a long time, since it is difficult to remove.
I doubt we’ll build a solar dehydrator during our class, but they are useful during big harvests. Maybe I’ll learn this at the next Organic Growers School since they usually feature a class on building them. Alternately, there are tons of DIY plans online.
Photo Caption: A little girl visiting the garden took a lot of convincing that this solar dehydrator was not a slide she could play on.
A lot of permaculturalists swear off seed starting by growing easy perennial foods, but some still have a use for a greenhouse full of young transplants.
Photo Caption: Greenhouses make seed starting a much easier process and eliminate the need for electric lighting.
Carbohydrates and fats are two areas where permaculturalists need to really pay attention to their design. They’re the hardest to obtain from a landscape. Energy storing tubers and roots such as Jerusalem artichokes are one way to fill that need.
Photo Caption: Jerusalem artichoke patches work well because you can never harvest all the tubers. Whichever ones you miss will sprout back the following season. They also have beautiful flowers, since they are a sunflower.
The milk thistle at the Pearson Community Garden seems to have spread more than they would like. In a community garden setting, I’m not sure how to solve that problem. At home, it is a good plant to put in a place you will walk past daily. That way seed heads can be noticed and removed before they disperse. This is an example of using the permaculture principle for “sectors and zones.” Zone 0 is usually described as the interior of the home or the person residing in the home. Zone 1 is the outdoor area most trafficked by the residents (the fuzzy slipper area), zone 2 is for garden and livestock that need frequent maintenance, zone 3 is for long-term food supplies and orchards, zone 4 is for systems that can exist outside of eye and mind, zone 5 is for wilderness, and zone 6 is usually the area outside the property.
Photo Caption: I killed the milk thistle I grew from seed this year, which my daughter wanted for her herbal medicine projects. Maybe I can bum some seeds from the Pearson Community Garden, who seem to have an abundance.
One project everyone enjoyed was edible mushroom inoculation. PIA provided spawn for oyster mushrooms, elm oysters (which aren’t true oyster mushrooms), and king stropharia which was mixed with sterilized coffee grounds. Everyone got to pack mushroom spawn into cardboard egg containers to take home with them, and the remains were added to the garden mulch.
Photo Caption: Oyster mushrooms grow very well on old coffee grounds, though you don’t need an entire wheelbarrow full.
Another project was learning to make cordage from natural fibers. We used yucca, which is supposed to be exceptionally strong. We were instructed to hang on to our cordage in order to use it again at a later date.
Photo Caption: Cordage is a useful item to have around the house and garden.
My photography during that class day was spotty due to how much rainfall we were getting. Our apprentices led small groups to complete a hugelkultur project in the back of the property near the cob oven, a French drain behind the hoop house, and the previously mentioned water catchment project that involved moving the giant cistern (though I understand that part of it didn’t function properly and had to be reworked after the class).
Photo Caption: I walked to dinner both nights that weekend and passed this little city garden.
Each evening, I walked to a restaurant in the River Arts District of Asheville called Pizza Pura, which I recommend.
Photo Caption: This is the olive appetizer (which comes warm in a little skillet), a Green Man IPA, and the “fig and pig” pizza which involves figs, Gorgonzola cheese, and pancetta.
The next day we met at the Haywood Street Congregation’s Loaves and Fishes Community Garden. Our primary purpose was for a long day of Powerpoint presentations and lectures, including one on forest gardening.
Photo Caption: The Haywood Street Congregation serves the homeless in Asheville.
The garden itself is designed to look like a fish (from a bird’s eye view). Like most gardens in Asheville, it has to deal with steep slopes.
Photo Caption: We returned to this garden on a sunnier day for our second class weekend and put in garden terraces with contoured swales and a new sheet mulched garden bed.
Perhaps they need a dovecote, since there is already a local population of squab. I’ve been excited about doves ever since Chuck Marsh mentioned them at the Organic Growers School a few years back as one solution to peak phosphorus. The pigeons leave the dovecote during the day and collect wild food that they then process into phosphorus rich manure and meat.
Photo Captions: In the foreground, a male pigeon (right) tries to impress his lady (left).
The ornamental alliums on the property were beautiful but already past their most useful stage for beneficial insects. If you look carefully, you’ll see the swelling green center in each flower. This is where the seeds are forming and means the plant is no longer producing nectar to attract pollinators.
It’s important to make sure there are always nectar producing flowers like this in a permaculture garden.
Photo Caption: Members of the allium, or onion, family are great beneficial insect attractors while they are producing nectar.
The next photo shows a seed head that has dropped its petals.
Photo Caption: The seed heads are beautiful but uninteresting to beneficial insects.
I took almost no photos at all for our 2nd weekend of class in early June. Again, this was due to heavy rain. It got so intense that we actually broke for rain activities during most of the weekend, which meant a lot of indoor class time. We made mead and honed our permaculture principles.
One of the more interesting activities was a permaculture forum that was open for the public to attend. A panel of experts fielded questions from citizens on how to use and spread permaculture ideas throughout the world… though primarily in the city of Asheville. Asheville happens to be a transition town.
Photo Caption: We attempted to go over the permaculture plan for this property in the rain, but it got too intense to continue. This property became one of our focuses during the 3rd class weekend, which I will write about later with plenty of rain-free before and after photos.
Some of the most useful lessons I’ve taken from the class so far involve staying conscious that people are integral parts of a permaculture system. After all, the primary permaculture ethics are earth care, people care, and fair share. I tend to stay wrapped up in the earth care and fair share details and take the people for granted. I definitely need to put more thought into how to nurture that part.
Photo Caption: I brought these roses from home to put on the refreshment table the first day of class.
Toby Hemenway wrote this article on The Myth of Self-Reliance. Permaculture is not about running off on your own and producing everything you need on your own land. It’s about learning to be part of a bigger system while designing your small section of it. I’m hoping the two classes I’m taking help me learn how to do that more effectively.
With all of this week’s heavy upstate rains, microbiological processes are kicking into full gear and bacteria and fungi are actively working on the process of decay. Many species of mushrooms are popping up in yards, lawns, mulch, and on almost any other damp substrate.
Mushrooms are rarely an eyesore — most of them are quite attractive. They simply indicate a healthy soil ecosystem. However, instead of colorful turkey tail mushrooms or fairy-tale fly agarics, some of you may find ominous patches of bright yellow mushy looking goop spreading in parts of your garden. It probably won’t take much imagination to think, “That looks like something threw up!”
You’re not the first to think of a disgorged meal when seeing these unexpected blobs and thus the common name of the mass is Dog Vomit Slime Mold (which in my opinion is one of the most gross common names of a living thing).
Photo Caption: Several clumps of this dog vomit slime mold (Fuligo septica) have shown up in our front yard over the past few weeks.
In truth, Dog Vomit Slime Mold (Fuligo septica) is not a fungus (as are true molds) at all, but instead a member of the Myxogastia order – aka the plasmodial slime molds (as opposed to the Dictyostelids - aka cellular slime molds). As a whole, slime molds are fascinating life forms. Like fungi, they go through a number of life stages. Generally, they act as amoeba-like protists hunting about in the soil while preying on bacteria and fungi in a process called phagocytosis (entrapment and internal digestion like other amoebas do, whereas fungi digest their food externally with excreted enzymes). When conditions get right (think “wet”) a colony of slime mold will change into its fruiting body phase to reproduce by spore. The emergence of these massive blobs of slime mold are the indicator of the species’ reproduction.
Photo Caption: These strands indicate an impending emergence of a patch of slime mold on our mulch.
Dog vomit slime mold will typically appear in gardens with mulch after heavy spring rains. The individual slime molds have been in the soil all along, but the wetness and the warming weather encourages the reproductive state. While often unappealing looking, the Clemson Extension says that these slime molds are generally harmless.
In our experience, they occasionally smother low-hanging plants in their way, causing a bit of damage. To avoid rotting leaves, simply scrape away the slime mold with a stick or spray it off with a hose (if your soil is already drenched from heavy rain, the hose might not be ideal). Within a few days the slime mold will loose its coloration, turning brown or grey, and then disappear entirely.
Photo Caption: After a day or two the dog vomit slime mold will loose its bright coloration and become brown or grey. A few days more after this point and there will be little to no indication that the slime mold was ever present at all.
Because slime molds predate bacteria and yeasts, their presence is often an indicator that there is some good active microbiology present. Slime molds eat other fungi and bacteria, so they prefer soils that have an abundance and variety of life. You can think of them as an approval badge for your healthy soil instead of a temporary eyesore.
Photo Caption: This pink slime mold (likely Lycogala epidendrum) is closely related to the dog vomit slime mold found in gardens. The slime molds seem to possess juxtaposing characteristics of both beauty and grotesqueness.
Other slime molds are out right now and they come in a rainbow of colors. The one in the above photo was found at the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and looks a bit like a cockscomb.
Photo Caption: White patches of slime mold (probably some species of Ceratiomyxa) growing on a stump in the woods.
This white one is separated into obvious circular clumps and looks a bit like Totoro dust bunnies.
Whatever form they appear in, slime molds contribute to the entire decomposition process and shouldn’t be a matter for real concern. They’re just part of the composting food web.
For me, guilty pleasure isn’t buying a bag of Doritos or reading People magazine (especially since I have no idea who most celebrities are these days). Instead, I feel sheepish when I grow plants without being able to explain what they’re good for.
“Useless” plants is how I got in to gardening in the first place. Around the age of 14, I picked up one of my mom’s garden catalogs and found a whole world of weird and freaky plants far outside the realm of my grandmother’s azaleas, nandinas, petunias, and hostas. Well, Plant Delights Nursery does sell hostas, but I forgave them since they’re named things like ‘Elvis Lives’, ‘Tattoo’, and ‘Outhouse Delight’.
Photo Caption: I was in high school the first time my mom drove me up to visit Plant Delights Nursery. I used to go every year but fell out of the habit as I migrated to edible landscapes. This year Nathaniel took me for a birthday trip. (I turned 36 on April 26th in case you wanted to know).
It turns out hostas are edible plants, but I didn’t know that at the time. What I knew was that I wanted weird things for my weird garden. If it screamed “Little Shop of Horrors” I could count on Plant Delights to have it in stock with an engagingly dorky description.
I never could figure out why the other kids didn’t think I was cool.
The week after Nathaniel and I visited Plant Delight’s May 11th open house (for a birthday treat), I went to permaculture class in Asheville. I’ll write about the bulk of the class in a later post but one of the weekend lectures was by Chuck Marsh from Useful Plants Nursery and Living Systems Design. To my very great surprise, he mentioned Tony Avent (of Plant Delights) in his talk as a great plantsman, and quoted Tony as saying, “You don’t know a plant until you’ve killed it 3 times.”
At that moment my gardening career came full circle. I remembered why I’ve been reassuring people who kill plants with, “good, that’s educational!” for the past decade — it’s because when I was a pink-haired kid standing in the Plant Delights display gardens, Tony Avent told me that you don’t know a plant until you’ve killed it 3 times.
Photo Caption: We also dropped in at Big Bloomers Nursery in a nearby town and saw this green tree frog. Tony Avent says, “friends don’t let friends buy annuals” but we couldn’t pass up the affordable 4-packs of beneficial insect attracting bedding plants. We planted them near perennial shrubs that are small right now but will take up more room in subsequent seasons. Plus, we finally found some compact blueberry shrubs for the front garden.
The thing is, I learned a lot more than a love of horticultural experimentation from Plant Delights Nursery. Their display gardens made a huge impact on me with the narrow winding paths, heavy mulch, amazingly loamy soil, and intensively planted species. It also fostered a sense of horticultural creativity and exploration that is incredibly useful in any type of garden design.
Tony Avent’s catalog plant descriptions taught me that trial and error is the best way to find out if a plant will grow in your area. Ignoring USDA zone recommendations made it possible to discover that rhubarb survives in my yard with afternoon shade, some citrus will make it through our winters, and that gooseberries can tolerate southern heat. I only wish I hadn’t believed that olives couldn’t be grown in humid conditions so that my trees were well-established instead of newly planted.
Photo Caption: The hardscaping elements of Juniper Level Botanic Garden (The Plant Delights display gardens) are ornate, and mostly subtle (he does have some redneck sculptures that are more ostentatious). There’s no need for showy ornamentation when the plants are already so weird.
I suppose that now I need to think of a new guilty pleasure. Maybe out-of-season organic produce from California or New Zealand? In the meantime, let’s talk weird plants…
Photo Caption: Ladyslipper orchids suffer poaching in many areas, but the ones at Plant Delights Nursery are tissue propagated.
I always laugh at people who use “vanilla” as a synonym for “boring.” Duh, it’s an orchid! If you’ve ever seen our native orchids in the wild and wished you could take them home, Plant Delights is a good source for ethical, nursery-raised stock.
Learning that ladyslipper orchids require a symbiotic relationship with fungi and microorganisms is the first time I can remember being aware of this aspect of the soil food web. At the time I thought it was unique — I had no idea that approximately 90% of plant species will form relationships with fungi or bacteria.
Photo Caption: We have native species of Jack-in-the-pulpit but Plant Delights carries specimens from many locales. I used to be obsessed with collecting them all.
There are few things that will stop a hiker in their tracks faster than a Jack-in-the-pulpit (what an imaginative common name). The Carolinas can boast Arisaema triphyllum, which also gets called the less creative common name of “bog onion.”
Photo Caption: Voodoo lilies and foliage can be beautiful, but quite stinky.
Voodoo lilies are sometimes mistaken for Jack-in-the-pulpits but are a different genus. They also have the unpleasant habit of smelling like roadkill on a summer day — an aspect of being pollinated by flies. Their often giant, wrinkly, and stinky maroon flowers are definitely a conversation piece.
Photo Caption: Voodoo lilies often bloom before their foliage emerges from the ground in the spring. The flowers are grossly pungent but short-lived.
I used to daydream about planting the largest flower in the world, voodoo lily Amorphophallus titanum, next to a pond full of Victoria lilies Victoria cruziana. Throw in a stand of thorny solanums, wild ginger flowers, toad lilies, prickly caterpillar, and maybe a winged rose and you might as well be in Wonderland… or on drugs.
Photo Caption: Bletilla looks dainty but is one of the easiest plants I’ve ever grown. Once established, it handles our summer heat and drought without flinching.
Moving back to orchids, if you regularly kill the potted florist varieties you might want to try bletilla. They’re more affordable than the ladyslippers and incredibly easy to grow once established. Calanthe and spiranthes are two more hardy orchid options carried by Plant Delights. There are also orchid lookalikes such as boesenbergia.
Photo Caption: Unfortunately, plants in the genus oxalis only look like nitrogen-fixing clovers and do not provide the same benefit in the garden. However, they are beautiful additions to the herb layer and some of them make tasty sour snacks or edible tubers (oca).
I’m pretty good at finding four leaf clovers but shamrocks make it easy (yeah, it’s cheating). There are many native species that are especially pretty in the early spring, plus they’re edible. Plant Delights specializes in non-weedy oxalis specimens.
Photo Caption: This alpine rock garden is sharing the space with some LBMs — unidentified Little Brown Mushrooms.
Plant Delights really turned me on to the idea of the “the right plant in the right place” due to their obviously delineated garden segments. As you walk around you can clearly tell what belongs in shady dry woodlands, sunny alpine rock gardens, or slow-draining bogs. Examining your landscape to decide what kind of habitat you have (or can amend) is key to making your plants happy.
Photo Caption: What’s that? Why, a named variety of fancy schmancy native poke sallet!
Another thing Tony Avent opened my mind to was the idea that non-native plants or so called “invasives” are not of the Devil. When you talk to gardeners in sustainable or naturalist communities, the prevalent idea is that invasive species should be eradicated and natives promoted.
The thing is, I’m not so sure. In spite of being a huge proponent of growing natives, I don’t think you have to choose one over the other. I mean, if your property is adjacent to a state park or other pristine native habitat it is a good idea to avoid opportunistic plants like privet or Japanese honeysuckle in your garden design. I also try to choose a native species to fit my needs before considering other options. But I’m keeping an open mind that certain plants are not the enemy.
Plant Delights Nursery sells North American native plants and even the more specific North Carolina native plants. But when this 1995 Tony Avent article came out, it made me carefully consider the “natives only” argument that was being loudly touted at the time. (Re-reading it now, I’m amused he mentioned household name Michael Pollan‘s New York Times Against Nativism article by calling him “Michael Poulan”).
Recently, I keep seeing this argument emerge in permaculture materials like Toby Hemenway’s excellent take on it and the book Invasion Biology: Critique of a Pseudoscience by David I. Theodoropoulos. At this point I’m feeling open to finding ways to use even the “worst” opportunistic plants like kudzu and autumn olive. I wrote this article on kudzu as a joke, but don’t be surprised if you see a post detailing its incredible usefulness in the near future.
This brings me to the native, but unpopular, poke sallet in the above photo. Last year I wrote about it as a potential permaculture superstar. Sometimes we need the jolt of seeing a hated plant in someone’s display gardens to look past our hard-rooted prejudices. Maybe I’ll eventually learn an appreciation for Bermuda grass, English ivy, and Carolina snailseed vine.
Photo Caption: I couldn’t find Hosta ‘Popo’ for sale on Plant Delight’s website but we thought this little miniature was adorable. I am a nut for the tiniest plants, but terrible about letting them get overrun by larger neighbors.
Hostas are another plant I used to turn up my nose at. Humans are so strange. I don’t know why most of us feel the need to resoundingly dislike at least one popular thing (country music, Star Wars Episode I, mimes, t-shirts with wolves on them, the Twilight series… I guess I won’t argue with that last one) but we all do it. As best I can tell, plants have a shiny and new fashionable period but every generation that starts gardening after their introduction finds them unbearably dull.
I get bored with red geraniums, petunias, azaleas, impatiens, and probably a dozen more common bedding annuals. Each year I grow some of them anyway and try to appreciate their true value. Daylily ‘Stella de Oro’ didn’t choose to exist in planters outside every gas station and mall in the nation. It also happens to be one of the best-tasting varieties for daylily fritters.
A lot of ornamental plants (again, including hostas) have edible parts. Plant Delights Nursery doesn’t encourage people to nibble their offerings, but throughout the PDN catalog you can find a black pomegranate (maybe it is higher in antioxidants?), hardy bananas, heat-resistant ostrich ferns with edible fiddleheads, Japanese woodland ginger, some wild gingers, Manihot grahamii which is a possibly edible tapioca, edible violets, some elephant ears (warning: although taro is bred from C. esculenta little info is available on whether ornamental varieties of the species are edible), spineless prickly pears, and edible/medicinal/tea herbs like salvia, catmint, oregano, echinacea, lavender, rosemary, and monarda. Make sure you’ve researched which part of the plant to eat and how it is safely prepared.
Additionally, many plants have other permaculture uses including countless beneficial insect attracting plants or fiber-producing yuccas. They also sell a lot of proven and potential nitrogen fixing plants such as baptisia, amorpha, indigofera, coral bean, non-weedy lespedeza, Korean cream pea, Chinese bush pea, Amicia, and heat-tolerant milk-vetch.
The important lesson here is maintaining a sense of curiosity and willingness to experiment. That’s how humans first find the best plant knowledge to pass down.
Photo Caption: Some pitcher plants are native to the southeast, but you can be sure the ones at Plant Delights Nursery weren’t poached from the wild.
We’re always trying to attract predatory insects to our gardens, but what about using carnivorous plants? Many of them are native, too — Venus flytraps are only found naturally in the Carolinas within the United States. We also have pitcher plants and sundews.
If you’ve got a wet area on your property, this may be the solution!
Photo Caption: This blooming cactus doesn’t need to crowd your windowsill with its pot to survive the winter.
On the other end of the spectrum, Plant Delights Nursery has an enormous selection of succulent plants that survive hot, dry areas. Many succulents also have flowers adored by hummingbirds and beneficial insects.
Photo Caption: Cacti are also a great choice for potted accent plants you may forget to water.
I don’t grow plants in pots unless they need to come inside for the winter or they are a xeriscape species that I can neglect. The structural nature of most succulents means they make excellent living sculptures.
Photo Caption: Agave leaves remind me of sharks.
Prickly succulents are also a great choice for areas you want to discourage animals (be it livestock, wildlife, or humans). If you have an area that needs a simple barrier, consider an agave instead of a fence.
Photo Caption: Prickly pear lining the roadside at Plant Delights Nursery.
Some succulents even provide a nice harvest, like this spineless prickly pear. It will bear sweet, pear-like fruits (sometimes called “tuna”) and edible pads called nopales. Note that even “spineless” prickly pear cacti have irritating hairs. You can burn the outside of the pads to remove them.
Photo Caption: Millipedes are great composters and love to hide in the mulch.
Any kind of plant diversity and high quality soil will become a habitat for wildlife. We saw an enormous number of frogs, toads, lizards, little mammals, and invertebrates as we walked around the display gardens.
Photo Caption: Ephemeral trilliums in bloom always provided a thrill.
Plant Delights is a good place to learn about layering and planning for abundance over time. Even though the plants are ornamental, they have similar characteristics to edible species and can inspire innovative design. There is always something in bloom, even in the winter.
You can visit throughout the year and learn what types of plants are adapted to the seasons and observe what animals (including humans) use them for. Plants with winter interest such as stalks, stems, and evergreen leaves provide habitat for wildlife. Ephemeral plants are a great space saver since they complete their life cycles before competing with other species for resources. Most of them come up in early spring before deciduous trees leaf out.
Photo Caption: This columnar sweetgum tree is probably the variety, ‘Slender Silhouette’ which does not require pruning to get its unusual, branchless shape.
When I first learned about forest gardening, I felt like I’d already seen it in the Plant Delights display gardens. Again, they aren’t growing many edibles on purpose (there’s a small grape, blueberry, and strawberry area) but the structure of the botanical garden is a series of wooded areas that open into clearings. Diverse tree species are spaced carefully and their understories are managed for shrubs and herbs to thrive. It would take a small leap to imagine them as edible landscapes with plans for succession and guilds to handle fertility and mulch.
Photo Caption: Baptisia is an ornamental nitrogen fixing plant.
Even the elements of the nursery were fairly permaculture-esque. The greenhouses were arranged in a branching pattern close to the parking lot to make them easily accessible for open-house visitors. Instead of maintaining large clearings, access roads and driveways were lined with displays of sun-loving plants.
Photo Caption: This umbrella plant is a relative of mayapple.
Social areas were planned throughout the garden, with larger ones located next to the house. There were frequent spots to stop and rest, with a focal point of some kind located nearby. A welcoming design like this encourages gardeners to walk through on a regular basis — which means problems or ripe crops are spotted early.
Photo Caption: This Tinantia pringlei looks a lot like our native, edible spiderworts and grows in the same conditions.
Every niche was planted with well-adapted species. Many of them had naturalized so that they spread on their own when gaps occurred in the landscape.
Photo Caption: Fairy wings are an easy, slow-spreading groundcover in shady, dry conditions.
With over 18,000 different plant species, Plant Delights Nursery is definitely planning for redundancy — if a few species die, open house visitors won’t be able to tell. Their garden plan also reduces potential pests with so much diversity. A problem bug may find a plant it likes but get lost or eaten trying to locate another specimen.
Photo Caption: Many of us don’t consider growing unusual dogwoods since we’re happy with the native species. This ornamental variety is a show-stopper, but it made us think of Cornus mas, a dogwood with edible berries.
No more guilty pleasures! From now on, I won’t skim the “boring” or “useless” sections of botanical gardens (the parts without something I can eat). I don’t want to miss out on discovering the perfect solution for my edible landscape.
While in Asheville, I found these cherries behind a building in a residential neighborhood I frequent. I hadn’t noticed them before which made me wonder if I wasn’t being observant or if this past winter was ideal for cherries. Many fruits need the perfect quantity of chill hours followed by a period without snap freezes to produce.
Photo Caption: I wonder who originally planted the old tree these golden cherries came from. I asked permission to harvest them (and was met with surprise that there was a cherry tree on the property).
I collect black walnuts in the same location every year.
Sometimes we guard our foraging spots and sometimes we want to share. For latter cases, there are foraging websites popping up online where you can input the location and variety of wild foraged foods.
Neighborhood Fruit, as the name would suggest, focuses primarily on fruit that is available to the public. Foragers.rs has a broader scope of food items. Both of them come with phone apps (and count as one of the rare times phone apps have sounded tempting to me — though I also liked the star gazing one that identifies constellations and most of the field guides for things like bird calls or mushrooms). There are a few foraging websites specific to a single city, but none of the ones I’m aware of cover the Appalachian region. However, if you’re reading this from outside the foothills, you might find your city listed here.
You may also want some field guides to tell you what is edible beyond easily recognizable things like cherries. In that case, we recommend that you get anything by Samuel Thayer. His books The Forager’s Harvest and Nature’s Garden are some of the best we’ve ever seen (and they feature different plants, so both are worth purchasing).
Mulberries, elder flowers, and chanterelles are some of the foods in season this week. Happy foraging!
Since my daughter is really into wild skills her grandma enrolled her in some classes as a Christmas present — including a full day of hearth cooking at the Hagood Mill in Pickens, SC. This class is taught by Carol Bozarth through the Pickens County Museum of Art and History.
We booked 2 slots for the April 13th class (yes, I am late writing about this one).
Photo Caption: The interior of the original wood cabin was picturesque and entirely functional. Surely women who had to do this every day would be baffled to know that people with modern conveniences pay money for the experience. We started around 10:00am and didn’t eat until late afternoon (and that was with 6 of us working nonstop)!
I’m a bit of a class junkie and can easily say this is one of the best I ever attended! In addition to Rayna’s Christmas present, it turned into an early Mother’s Day gift for me. It was clear that Carol truly loved her subject and valued her students.
The atmosphere was perfect. Multiple historic buildings are housed on the site and it is nice to walk around, even when nothing is going on. There is also a nature trail, a gift shop, and a small museum being built over an ancient petroglyph that was discovered on the property. The public is invited to come out every 3rd Saturday of the month when the mill hosts a major event tied to their corn grinding day — more than 25 different demonstrations of homesteading skills and old time music are on display. It’s like traveling back in time!
We arrived at about 10am and headed for our “classroom.” Apparently, this cabin was renovated and used for student housing in the Clemson area before being moved to the museum site and restored to its original state.
Photo Caption: At the end of the day we ate our meal on the porch.
One of the first things we learned was how to start a fire (though we did cheat and use matches). Carol showed us a couple different methods for stacking wood and tinder to get it to light quickly. Then she delighted Rayna by putting her in charge of making things burn.
Rayna did a good job!
Photo Caption: Rayna was in charge of getting our cooking fire started.
It was morning, but before we drank any coffee we needed to roast and grind the beans by hand. It’s not something you’d see if you went to Starbucks instead…
Photo Caption: This is what green coffee beans look like. They split and enlarge when roasted.
I was impressed at how difficult it is to shake a heavy copper pot at the end of a long handle over an open flame. My arms gave out almost the moment I began (it didn’t help that I had poison ivy blisters on my palm, but that thing was heavy)! We took turns shaking the pot, but Carol did most of the work. It took almost 10 minutes to roast the beans… that may not seem like a long time but I can see this as a very effective body building exercise.
Photo Caption: Our fresh roasted coffee beans smelled (and tasted) delicious!
Our coffee also had some roasted dandelion roots mixed in, courtesy of Carol’s prior labors. Rayna thought it was the best coffee she’d ever tasted!
Photo Caption: Rayna enjoys a well-earned cup of coffee.
Before we could begin our cooking and baking, we needed to prepare the fats. This butter churn may have been a little large for the amount of butter we were making but it definitely got the job done. Or rather, we all got the job done since we took turns working the paddle. Rayna did the lion’s share of the butter churning and was quite proud of the results.
Photo Caption: The cream is beginning to solidify in the churn.
I love that Carol makes an effort to find cooking and serving ware that is accurate to the period. It made us feel like we were time traveling that day. Our finished butter is packed into the crock in the foreground, with the small wooden spoon.
Photo Caption: The finished butter was sweet and delicious!
Hickory husks and jar lids make adorable improvised spice containers. I half expected some squirrels to come in and start sprinkling pinches into the pot, a la Disney style.
Photo Caption: Some of our ingredients were laid out for us but some we had to gather or make by hand.
After we ground our own cornmeal and made our own butter, it was time to start baking.
Hearth baking is accomplished by accumulating hot coals in the fire and then piling them on top of a cast iron Dutch oven.
Photo Caption: Believe it or not, it’s very important to burn the butter. This gives the cornbread a delicious, caramelized brown crust with a delightfully crisp texture.
I was so surprised that the cornbread looked exactly like the kind our Grandmother Holcombe makes. She cooks hers in a cast iron skillet and stresses the importance of putting in the butter when the pan is the right temperature. I’ll have to do a post that details how she makes it and include the recipe.
The first time I tried fluffy or sweet cornbread as an adult I was disappointed. The one I grew up with is very savory, dense, and has a gritty texture. Its dominant flavor is corn instead of sugar or wheat flour.
Photo Caption: This, to me, is how cornbread is supposed to look. The brown crust is crisp and richly flavored.
It was ironic that we could see the water mill out the window while we ground the corn with a hand crank. SC law requires that all the corn ground at the mill be USDA approved, so we had to do our little batch ourselves.
Photo Caption: We put the cornbread outside to cool before turning it onto a wooden tray. I can definitely understand why you’d need a miller. Grinding corn by hand is a workout!
We wild collected the greens for our salads, including violets for a colorful topping.
Photo Caption: Violets and dandelions were collected to add color to our wild spring greens salad.
Rayna was instantly thrilled to see chickweed on the menu, as it is one of her favorite edible weeds. It’s best before it goes to seed, but we eat it at all stages.
Photo Caption: Chickweed, dandelion, violets, wild onions, lamb’s quarters, and dock leaves made up our salad. The onions were marinated in the vinaigrette dressing which softened them and muted their sometimes harsh flavor.
We ate dock leaves in our raw salad as well as cooked. They make quite a mess of greens! Carol decided to leave out the traditional animal fat so that everyone could really taste the lemony flavor of the dock. It was one of Rayna’s favorite things on the menu! She was pleased to learn that we have lots of sorrels, including dock, growing in our garden.
Photo Caption: Wilted dock greens next to chicken and dumplings
Unfortunately, we forgot to take photos of the chicken and dumplings but they’re inside the lidded pot next to the greens in the above photo. We cooked the chicken down to get broth while the dumpling dough was prepared on the side. Carol had us experiment with mixing it without “real” measuring utensils, since that is how people did it back then. The rolled out dough was sliced into small, irregular dumplings with a knife.
The funny thing to me is that again, this dish came out just like home cooking. My mother’s chicken and dumplings are almost indistinguishable from the ones we made over the fire (and oh, so delicious).
Photo Caption: Need dessert? The sweet potatoes were cooked in layers of ashes and coals and served with local honey and our fresh churned butter.
Potatoes or sweet potatoes are a simple side dish for hearth cooking — you just bury them in the coals! Sometimes we use this trick when we go camping. If you don’t like the ashy skins you can wash them or just treat them like a bowl.
Photo Caption: Rayna loved the wild salad so much we thought she’d never stop eating it. Some of the class participants weren’t as excited about the wild greens… most people are used to lettuce. Fortunately, Rayna grew up eating unusual vegetables and wild foods so she was already accustomed to the texture and vibrant flavors.
Since taking Carol’s class we’ve been a lot more inclined to toss our salads in their dressing instead of pouring it over the top before serving. With sturdy wild greens it helps to tenderize them if they’re coated in a thin layer of vinaigrette.
We make pretty salads on a regular basis but this one seemed to outshine the others. There’s something about working hard to put food on the table that makes you appreciate it so much more fully. Chatting around the table with Carol and the other students was a wonderful way to close the day.
Photo Caption: Mother’s Day came early for me! I hope we can turn this into a tradition of finding a day class to take together every spring.
In case you have any doubt, we thoroughly recommend that you sign up for one of Carol’s classes at the Hagood Mill. They’re seasonal so you should check the museum’s events listing to see when new ones are posted (glancing at their schedule, I notice that our friend Robin McGee has herbalist classes available right now).
Now we need to build a cob kitchen so we can invite friends over to try this in the yard! We have an indoor fireplace, but I’m not sure the hearth is large enough.
I often do or learn a heap of things at once and think I’m going to break it down into a series of bite-sized blog posts. It almost never happens — I post the first segment and then get too distracted to finish the rest. The orphaned contents of Appalachian Feet’s “drafts” folder is bursting at the seams.
I don’t want to fail to tell the tales that have occurred recently, so I’m opting for a block of behemoth photo essays.
This post details our garden’s long-term goals and current progress. If you’re growing things (or planning to) you’ll probably find something you can use. I’m also hoping that a list of all the “pros” alongside the “cons” will make me feel better about the parts we haven’t finished yet. Like I said in my ugly garden post, it’s always a morale booster to photograph the best bits for posterity.
First of all, why permaculture? We already had an urban farm, so why change it?
The easy answer is because some harder work up front means a lot less effort, money, time, and input down the line.
The grander answer is that this sounds like the best way I can make an impact on the state of the world, from politics to climate change. Geoff Lawton says that you can fix all the world’s problems in a garden and this short BBC documentary does an excellent job explaining why conventional farming isn’t going to last.
I’ve spent the last 12 years frustrated that I didn’t buy land in the country instead of purchasing our highly-trafficked downtown location — we really want larger livestock and room for tree crops. However, people have become very interested in living sustainably while growing local food and our location gives us an advantage in spreading that knowledge.
We knew that one key area where our focus was lacking was aesthetics. In spite of having a background in art, I am prone to focusing on the practical at the expense of beauty. Few people are inspired to emulate an unkempt yard, no matter how much more beneficial it is to society and the planet.
Photo Caption: Here we’re combining two permaculture techniques. Keyhole beds favor planting space over pathways and hugelkultur (an agricultural method of burying wood) retains water and improves the soil. We kept finding new supplies of wood all season so our hugelkultur grew in depth as time went on. This bed is the centerpiece in our front yard, and we have a small water feature planned for it.
However, phase one involved making it even worse for a while. Here’s a quick history of our yard:
- In 2001, I bought the house and promptly tilled the front and back yards to make raised garden beds. (I have later learned permaculturalists would refer to this as a “type 1″ error, since I hadn’t planned for succession first. This meant I didn’t have enough plants to fill the newly disturbed and empty spaces before the weed riot began). This photo from around 2006/2007 shows my friend Kirsten and I fixing the resulting weed problems in the front yard with additional sheet mulching. It’s hard to see in the photo, but the yard involved heavily mulched raised beds with narrow, trenched paths snaking in between. There was one wide wheelbarrow path that passed around the house to the backyard compost piles. At the time, my mom was a fan of all paths being 2′ – 4′ wide and complained about my narrow pathways… turns out it is an encouraged space-saving technique in permaculture. At this time I also planted perennial fruit that included our passalong pomegranate, figs, muscadine grapes, a peach, a pear, and an Asian pear. They are all well-established now.
- Around 2009 my daughter and I decided to live with my mom and stepdad while renting out the house. We removed the extensive gardens and replaced it with lawn.
- Those plans changed when Nathaniel and I found each other. Our newly upgraded little family of 3 moved back in and gave our neighbors whiplash by putting all the garden beds back. No really, look at these before and after photos of what we did in 2 months. It’s insane. In 2011 we still had a front lawn that we had to mow (but you can imagine how effective 3 people who care nothing about lawns are at mowing them — it had to become something we were proud of so we’d maintain it).
- In spring of 2012 we sheet mulched the front yard to eradicate the Bermuda grass and other grass species that were growing there. It was essentially blank all year long… people must think we really love the way mulch looks.
- In February of 2013 I changed my mind about not having much of a garden and instead planned a massive garden overhaul. The idea is to do a ton of up-front work that streamlines the process later on. We decided to focus on the front yard first since it is the most visible (and neglected), working to make it pretty as well as functional. Thus our hugelkultur keyhole beds project began. The beds are similar in some ways to the old garden, but the bed shapes are more carefully designed and the intentional hugelkultur process is new (though for years I’d been using 8″ or more of mulch and random logs to create better soil in patches… I just didn’t know there was a name for it).
Photo Caption: I knew that erosion had been a problem with the old raised beds so I decided to come up with a retaining wall. Originally, I had planned to purchase the materials to build it, but it occurred to me that wood would hold the soil in place until perennial roots filled out enough to retain it.
The front yard was designed to maximize planting space and minimize pathways (while being able to easily reach into all the beds for weeding, harvesting, and other chores). We also wanted to reduce or eliminate watering needs without purchasing a drip irrigation system. Giving the paths a dual function as water catchment seemed like an excellent way to go, but we also double-dug each bed and put hugelkultur at the bottom before replacing the soil. The wood and wood chips under the beds and in the paths will retain water and break down to feed soil organisms and plant roots.
It’s important not to mix the wood in with the soil or it will break down too quickly and steal nitrogen from the plants. We put 8″ – 20″ of topsoil on each bed as our immediate growing medium. It was in decent shape, but will improve in tilth as the earthworms mix in all the organic matter.
Photo Caption: It’s easier to see the differentiation between the raised beds and the pathways in our earlier photographs. Once all the mulch was added the landscape blends together on camera.
A local tree removal service has been delivering our logs and wood chips right to the driveway. This is a windfall that is available in most cities since tree services have to pay a fee to drop their loads at the landfill. It becomes a win/win since we’re recycling the materials and the tree service saves fuel and cash when they don’t have to truck everything to a waste site.
Photo Caption: I’m concerned about the color of this redbud’s inner rings, especially since it has been looking sick the past couple years. I’ve never seen a larger redbud trunk so I suspect it is on the latter end of this tree species’ average lifespan. We had to cut a couple old branches because the tree has started to lean into the paved walkway that leads to our door and mailbox.
We also cut some wood in our own yard since we have some trees that needed attention. Two of our trees have been increasingly sick for several years so we cut one entirely and are planning to remove the other as well. This will increase the amount of sun available to our front yard garden and give us wood we can use in the landscape.
The focal tree of our front yard is a gorgeous old redbud with three massive trunks. In recent years their weight has caused them to lean away from each other and block the walkway to the front door. We cut two thick branches to make it easier to navigate the front yard and added them to our hugelkultur mounds.
Photo Caption: We cut a sick tree and two massive redbud branches which ended up increasing the biomass of our hugelkultur project. It also opened up a lot of sun for the plants we put in the front yard.
By the time we finished, the hugelkultur mass in some areas of the beds was 4′ or more deep. The mounds will diminish in size as they break down, but right now they are quite sculptural.
Photo Caption: Our hugelkultur kept growing as we cut branches and trees. These branches were piled on top of the wood already seen in the first photograph.
Here’s a series of five photographs taken from the same spot that shows the yard as it progressed from March 20th (the day we broke ground in the front) until now:
Photo Caption: March 20th, 2013 was when we started to dig up what was leftover from last year’s sheet mulching. The green patches are chickweed.
It turned out to be a slow project that was frequently stalled by heavy rains. The smoothed beds in the following picture already have hugelkultur underneath them. We did the beds first and then the paths because it gave us somewhere to put soil that was in the way.
Photo Caption: In the early stages we made beds around the few plants we decided to keep and I put some spring vegetables (potatoes, chard, onions, cilantro, and flowers) in a 2′ x 5′ section that we’d already finished. It’s easier to see the paths vs. beds before all the mulch was added.
The cardboard sheet in the picture was there to keep the wheelbarrow from tearing up the new path. We removed it after everything was thickly mulched.
Photo Caption: Most of the beds were already hugelkultured and finished before we cut the tree and redbud branches. We chopped up the wood and put it into the swale paths.
The last week of the project I’d wake up every day hoping to finish before I went to bed… it always takes so much longer than I think it will. My schedule was so busy I got up at dawn three mornings in a row to finish everything before I left for a permaculture class in Asheville (more on that, later). I was terrified that the potted plants we bought would die while I was away for the weekend. Plus, I can’t tell you how excited I was to get to plant things after all that prolonged earth moving and labor! I officially finished on May 17th.
Photo Caption: Finally!!! Fully planted the morning of May 17th, 2013.
Since we did so much digging and disturbing the soil life, we decided to purchase a product called Great White to inoculate our plant roots with symbiotic bacteria and fungi. In the future we have no plans to do heavy digging (and definitely no tilling) in order to protect our soil food web. We also inoculated our wood chip paths with king stropharia mushrooms that our friends at Tyrant Farms gave us.
You can’t see it here, but we’ve got a very cool social area planned into the design that I can’t wait to unveil (but I have to, since it involves some construction).
Photo Caption: Here it is again today, June 4th, 2013. Most of the plants are growing in leaps and bounds, though a few xeriscape species are not thrilled about how well the soil retains water.
Now for the fun part… the plants!
Off the top of my head the front yard plan contains 2 goumis, a goji berry, 15 tomato plants, 10 blueberries (4 compact, 4 rabbiteye, and 2 creeping), an aronia, 3 pawpaws, a gooseberry, 2 pineapple guava, 2 olive trees, 2 pomegranate trees, hardy citrus (still in pots – a kumquat and a satsuma), a prickly pear cacti, thornless blackberries, black raspberries, red raspberries, regular strawberries, pink-flowering strawberries, musk strawberries, around 20 pepper plants, around a dozen eggplants, half a dozen ground cherries, a bunch of sunberries, chard, potatoes, cilantro, rosemary, basil, lots of different sages/salvias, lemon verbena, thyme, parsley, celery, Okinawa spinach, creeping raspberry, fiddlehead ferns, 2 mountain mints, monarda, anise hyssop, yellow potato onions, French red shallots, bulb onions, Georgia savory, 2 established star anise shrubs (that don’t produce and may get replaced with yaupon hollies), spring beauties, columbine (A. canadensis), dutchman’s pipe, snakeshead iris, narcissus, summer snowflake, saffron crocus, perennial cyclamen, perennial begonia, perennial fuchsia, gentian, thalictrum, lantana (great for beneficial insects), hearts-a-bustin’, weigela, clethra, oakleaf hydrangea, Buddleia ‘Evil Ways’ (compact), Brugmansia ‘Miner’s Claim’ (not near road, since poisonous), shasta daisies, coreopsis, native sunflowers, goldenrod, clovers, agastache, native mallows, milkweed, Amorpha canescens, Indigofera sp., hardy geranium, sea hollies, zinnias, cosmos, hellebores, hosta, chrysanthemum, aster, Japanese anemone, ligularia, acanthus, rudbeckia, echinacea, lavender, comfrey, baptisia, amsonia, lespedeza, lily-of-the-valley, patridgeberry, epimediums, stokesia, passionflowers, corydalis, several different verbenas, pinellia, penstemon, balloon flower, roses, nicotiana, gomphrena, liatris, hens & chicks, sedum, Calla ‘Green Goddess’, muhlenbergia grass, Northern river oats, oenothera, perovskia, rabdosia, veronica, tiarella, heuchera, violas… you get the idea — diversity out the wazoo!
The variety of plants that can fit in the same space as a lawn is astonishing!
Photo Caption: We bought four compact blueberries as the highlight of the middle keyhole bed. Normally I pull fruit and flowers off my new transplants but these had such large, established potted root systems and were so close to ripening that I decided to leave them and see what happened. Two weeks later we were snacking on sweet fruit!
Our plant choices are a mixture of perennial and annual edible plants, wildlife attracting flowers (called “nectary plants” by permaculturalists), and fertility boosting plants (they either suck nutrients up from deep in the soil with their long taproots or are nitrogen fixers that work with symbiotic bacteria to convert nitrogen gas into a form plants can use).
Photo Caption: Short zinnias stay out of the way of main crop plants while attracting beneficial insects right where you need them. This one is planted adjacent to some pink-flowering strawberries next to the sidewalk.
When I was pulling weeds I discovered a long-forgotten and long-suffering pawpaw seedling struggling to get by. I carefully mulched around it and put a stake in the ground to mark the spot, but it has already doubled in size this season. I plan to put a second pawpaw right next to it — neither tree will obtain its full size but they will grow together to fill the space while boosting each other’s pollination rates.
Photo Caption: The little pawpaw on the right was buried under some ruellia and weeds. The potted one on the left has been hanging out next to the faucet for a couple of years and would prefer a permanent home. Their northern corner won’t shade the rest of the garden.
Since I was trying to keep focused on crowd-pleasing aesthetics I chose pastel flower colors with an emphasis on pinks, whites, purples, blues, and pale yellow.
Photo Caption: This low growing perennial verbena was chosen for its peachy-pink color and its beneficial insect attracting potential.
All but 2 of the 15 tomato plants in the front yard were volunteers, most likely the variety ‘White Currant’ since I grew it in the shrub border last season. We worked around them when putting in the raised beds (and transplanted a few) and they seem very happy with their newly mulched environment. I’m particularly hoping the “Great White” fungi & bacteria product we inoculated them with will help ward off Fusarium wilt and other diseases.
Photo Caption: This volunteer seedling is likely a ‘White Currant’ tomato which produces well from full sun to part shade conditions. The tiny, pale fruit means it requires less sunlight to ripen. We plan to let them ramble on the ground between the other plantings.
Nathaniel bought me this compact oakleaf hydrangea shrub for my birthday shortly after he proposed with a hydrangea engagement ring (it has an adorably tiny conflict-free diamond). Ironically, I tried to garden while wearing it which resulted in me bending it in less than a week. We had it re-shaped but now it sits indoors when I’m gardening.
Photo Caption: Our oakleaf hydrangea just started blooming. The wispy plant weaving through it is Appalachian mountain mint.
I really love unusual fruits and vegetables, especially perennial ones, but I made sure to plant a lot of popular, recognizable food in the front yard. Rainbow chard is a great choice since it is beautiful and often lasts for an entire season as a cut-and-come-again vegetable. I think my neighbors will feel more inspired to see food they regularly put on their tables (and recognizing a plant you know is like saying “hi” to a friend).
Photo Caption: Chard, potatoes, cilantro, onions, clover, and chickweed make up this small annual vegetable guild. My daughter and I love to eat chickweed in our spring salads. I can’t argue with a plant I don’t have to sow that is an attractive succulent with cute white flowers. It’s easy to pull, but since it hates heat I find it usually dies back before getting in my way. Especially in this bed, since I still haven’t mulched this segment (it was planted early before the project was completed and I’ve procrastinated because I hate mulching beds with established plants).
Achillea, or yarrow, is one of the best beneficial insect attracting flowers I know of. The tiny predatory wasps and little bees I particularly want in the garden tend to love it. I chose this perennial yarrow for its short stature and planted it on the retaining wall near the sidewalk.
Photo Caption: Yarrow blooms are small but are borne in abundance. It’s also tolerant of drought and poor soils once established.
One of our two pineapple guavas bloomed this year for the first time, I’m so excited! We planted them next to a sunny brick wall at the front of the house since they like hot and bright conditions. You can eat the flower petals without damaging the fruit production — they taste so sweetly tropical that I have to compete with sugar ants to get them. We aren’t expecting fruit this year since we read they need a pollinator, and only one of them flowered.
Photo Caption: Pineapple guava flowers compete with passionfruit as an exotically beautiful addition to our garden. As an added benefit the plants were reliably evergreen all winter, so they’ll look nice as a foundation planting.
I’ve been growing splianthes since my daughter was little because the blooms remind me of the weird eyeballs growing along the bricks in the movie Labyrinth. She thought they were pretty funny. Apparently, it can also be used as medicine similar to Novocaine, thus its common name of “toothache plant.”
Photo Caption: This is Splianthes ‘Peek-aBoo’ which attracts beneficial insects and can be used as a toothache pain relief.
The number of times I’ve bought and planted ostrich fern through the years because I wanted to grow my own fiddleheads is endless… but I never hugelkultured first! I’m hoping the reliably moist soil and shady spot under the redbud will finally enable my success. I’m looking into some other fern species to try once I get additional shady patches in the yard ready for planting.
Photo Caption: I’ve killed ostrich fern a lot… so at least I know what it doesn’t like. If this one lives, it should spread and eventually provide us with a harvest of edible fiddleheads.
Musk strawberries were an impulse buy this year when they went on sale. I hope they last long enough to produce the fruit. Right now the roly polies (pillbugs) are munching them.
Photo Caption: Musk strawberries seem to be a favorite food for pillbugs.
Most of our plants seem to love the newly hugelkultured beds, but this little hens & chicks plant is miserable. The center of the plant has started to rot and I’m not sure if it will make it. Nearby is a dianthus that has decided to kick the bucket (the pillbugs are eating it, too) but I think that was my fault for planting it too deeply. At the base of the sidewalk you can see our dutch clover seedlings coming up, I sowed it in the cracks between the beds and pavement all along the edge of the garden.
Photo Caption: The little hens and chicks plant doesn’t like the moist hugelkultur beds but the clover coming up next to the sidewalk is doing great.
We are watching the moisture level of the garden and plan to fill the paths with more mulch if it looks like the beds are drying out too quickly. Theoretically, we could fill the paths right up to the same level as the raised beds. However, the soil is so wet that right now the exposed sides of the raised beds seem to be helping it drain. I guess it is a good problem to have — it hasn’t needed watering since the day we put it in.
A not good problem to have… or at least a neutral one… is this:
Photo Caption: Dog vomit slime mold seems to start out bright yellow and fade to gray. It can cover nearby living plants and eat them once they are smothered, but it mostly wants the wood chips.
So far I haven’t seen any king stropharia popping up. Since we are striving for eye-appeal, Murphy’s Law has given us plenty of dog vomit slime mold. I hope it isn’t the only fungi species that took hold in the mulch.
It isn’t really hurting anything (though when it grows vigorously it can cover and smother foliage) but it’s not the ambassador I’d choose for introducing the neighbors to mushroom production.
We already have mushrooms growing in the back, but they aren’t visible from the road.
Photo Caption: If you look next to the house you’ll see two large star anise shrubs flanking a mostly hidden path to the backyard. We’ll be cutting down weeds and sheet mulching that shady area to use for mushroom production. We also may replace the star anise — which smell like dead animals when they bloom and don’t seem inclined to make seed heads for spices. We think dwarf yaupon hollies would be more productive (and equally evergreen).
Mulch and moisture means we have more mollusk pests, which are not typically a problem in the upstate. I’m keeping an eye on their levels but they’re another good reason for us to eventually get some ducks.
Photo Caption: This spiderwort is incredibly attractive to true bumblebees (as opposed to carpenter bees, which many people dislike). I see dozens of them collecting pollen from its blooms every morning. This slug is also enjoying a snack of high-protein pollen.
Our verge is narrow but it gets unruly easily, especially now that we don’t have anything else to mow. I’m probably going to sit down one morning and weed out the non-clover bits so it stops getting tall. I’ve been trying to think of something edible to put there, but maybe I’ll just grow some sterile comfrey. Too many dogs use the verge as their restroom to make me want to plant edibles like strawberries.
Photo Caption: Clover and comfrey seems like a good no-mow combination for our verge.
I used the last scraps of our mulch pile for the new hugelkultur beds, but fortunately we just got 2 more loads delivered. Now I can move on to finishing the front and starting on the back. We also received a large supply of logs that we can use for more hugelkultur.
Photo Caption: Lots going on in the driveway! If you look behind the mulch you can see our two pomegranates (bowed over from the rain — I’m not sure Mediterranean species are used to our downpours). Our brambles (thornless blackberries, black & red raspberries) are trellised along the cinderblock wall. Close to the road are our two newly planted olive saplings. If I can get some comfrey root segments I may try planting them in the cinderblock holes. I didn’t notice it until looking at this photo but it seems like the school’s groundskeeper must have sprayed herbicide along the edge of our property… I hope it won’t hurt the bees.
Here’s a long view of our bramble trellis if you’re facing the road. We’re very happy that Anna and Mark from The Walden Effect were kind enough to give them to us. We’ve been sheet mulching the driveway up to the brambles in an attempt to get the Bermuda grass in this area under control. Once the mulch starts to break down we will seed it with Dutch clover.
Photo Caption: Our thornless blackberry is in bloom plus we’re already harvesting the earliest black & red raspberries.
Our new olive trees are about 18″ tall right now and growing rapidly. We thought the formerly gravel driveway would be the perfect spot since it has intense sun, heat, and drainage. Through the years soil has built up in the driveway due to weeds that colonized it and broke down, making a decent layer of topsoil. The rocky underlayer provides excellent drainage for the plants growing there. We also wheelbarrowed in excess topsoil from our hugelkultur projects to create a narrow raised bed next to the cinderblocks.
The two pomegranates love their segment of the driveway and we thought the olives would feel the same way. Our prickly pear will likely end up in this location once we’ve developed a hole deep enough to plant it in (it has a huge pot). We don’t plan to hugelkultur this area (beyond a mulch layer) since we’re using it for xeriscape species.
Photo Caption: One of our tiny new olive trees. We sheet mulched around them but they will need a careful eye to weeding since the school’s Bermuda grass creeps into the driveway.
Speaking of the pomegranates, they’re loaded with blooms this year! Last year we didn’t get much fruit (normally we get more than we can harvest) and I think it is because I gave them too much fertility. They seemed to be producing leaves at the expense of fruit. Now that they’ve been neglected, they’re on track for a great harvest.
Photo Caption: This pomegranate has been passed down in my family for five generations. We also grow a named variety called ‘Wonderful’ but the passalong one will always be our favorite.
Spending all that time on the front yard was at the expense of the back gardens. Last week I started digging a backyard hugelkultur bed where I can put the rest of our annual veggies. We have a lot of transplants still languishing in their seed trays.
Here’s our updated goals (superimposed on a Google satellite photo of our yard because I’m too busy to have drawn it to scale yet):
Photo Caption: This is our garden plan as of June 2013.
I’ve changed this plan several times over the last year, most notably since this post with a different version. One of the biggest catalysts was the lack of an urban farm tour in Greenville this past spring. Since they didn’t have it, we felt free to renovate the entire garden (and live in a construction zone for a while).
I also changed our water catchment plans to include a much larger pond. We had a sprawling herb garden behind the deck and it occurred to me that I could put the pond there and move all the herbs to an herb spiral to save space. We’ll probably have a second, smaller pond lower in the landscape that catches some of the runoff. Another hope of mine is to eventually replace our shingles with something that doesn’t contaminate the water. In the meantime, a lower cost solution may be to mycoremediate it.
Another major change is that the more I read about how healthy soil food webs destroy diseases like Fusarium wilt, the more inclined I am to just get rid of our 4 quadrant crop rotation plan. I’m leaning toward putting in beds with mixed perennials and annuals to make sure that there are always living roots in the soil feeding our soil organisms. I also like the idea of hugelkulturing everything for water retention instead of putting in the drip irrigation we’d planned. Plus, I can plant things like columnar apple trees and other dwarf woody fruit.
Photo Caption: This is how it looks today. A pretty big chunk of the green here is lamb’s quarters… which I don’t mind. I do mind the sprawling patches of mugwort, but hope to destroy them with some industrial strength sheet mulching.
The chicken run is still overgrown with weedy vines (I’d hoped their scratching would kill it, but it seems I need to kill the weeds for them at least once and then let them maintain it). We have a vigorous supply of periwinkle, English ivy, poison ivy, Japanese honeysuckle, and Carolina snailseed that all the neighbors in this area seem to trade back and forth (we need to do a better job coordinating our eradication efforts — right now one person removes it from their property and it crawls back in from the adjacent lot).
Our peach and pear trees are enormous now and do a good job keeping hawks off of the chickens. I haven’t decided if I am going to prune the branches back or replace them with better (and better placed) varieties. I think I can get a lot more fruit into that area if I plan the spacing better.
Photo Caption: This view of the orchard and chicken run was taken on the same day as the previous photo.
We did hugelkultur a couple small beds in the back around February so we could put in some winter crops. Most of our brassicas end up in batches of Nathaniel’s delicious kimchi.
Photo Caption: Turnips, kohlrabi, radishes, garlic, kale, spinach, bok choy, arugula, mustard, raab, carrots, snow peas, and lettuce have all been productive this spring.
Our Passiflora caerulea doesn’t produce fruit, but it is evergreen and attractive. It was given to me a long time ago as a rooted cutting from the Roper Mountain Science Center butterfly garden and definitely does a great job hosting gulf fritillary caterpillars each season. It’s also a popular stop for carpenter bees, who get drunk on the blossoms. For delicious tropical fruit we can count on the edible (and native) Passiflora incarnata. Additionally, Passiflora lutea pops up here and there with its tiny yellowish blooms.
Photo Caption: Since it is evergreen and doesn’t die back to the ground each year, Passiflora caerulea blooms a lot earlier than Passiflora incarnata.
The garden has some volunteers from last year, such as this squash plant. I keep thinking I’m going to weed around them and see what happens… but we’ll see what happens.
Photo Caption: We have no idea what this volunteer squash will produce for us.
I’ve loved our southern catalpa tree since the day we moved in. Eventually, it is going to crush my shed, but we love the orchid-like blooms that appear each season. I’m also more than suspicious that the copious amounts of parasitized catalpa sphinx caterpillars crawling on the leaves breed huge populations of the predatory wasp that controls tomato hornworm (also a sphinx moth). I talk more about that in my natural pest control post. What I know for sure is that I grow a ton of tomatoes and never see any hornworms.
Photo Caption: Our catalpa tree is a show-stopper when it blooms each spring. It was a lot later to emerge this year than usual.
If you take a tree with enormous heart-shaped leaves, give it orchid-like flowers the size of golf balls, and generously cluster them on the tip of each branch in fat bouquets, you have a natural show-stopper. Need more reasons to grow a catalpa? They’re also gorgeously fragrant.
Photo Caption: The lines on catalpa tree flowers guide bees into its nectaries for pollination.
I was considering the logistics of planting some ‘Golding’ hops (a gift from a member of the Upstate Brewtopians) under our catalpa tree and coaxing it to grow up into the branches for support. I wasn’t sure if the hops would be able to tolerate the shade until it got established so I hadn’t planted it yet. While I deliberated, the hops escaped its pot, planted itself under the catalpa, and can be seen here scrambling up our elderberry and 14′ up into the tree. It is covered in hops cones, even in the shade. So, I guess that answers my question!
Photo Caption: A few feet over my head, our hops vine climbs up the elderberry and into the catalpa tree.
I bought a ton of cowpeas and buckwheat to use as cover crop placefillers in the backyard, but the lamb’s quarters did it for free. I did plant our nitrogen fixing mix in a few spots that were still bare.
Photo Caption: We eat lamb’s quarters every day but barely put a dent in it. I usually pick a few well-sited plants for reseeding and cut down the rest before they flower.
Nasturtiums are another reliable reseeding annual, and we love to eat its flowers and greens. I keep meaning to try to pickle the seeds like capers, which I hear is effective.
Photo Caption: Volunteer nasturtiums come up among crocosmia and lamb’s quarters.
I posted the next photo just so my friend Kirsten would try to pull that morning glory through her computer…
Actually, I am excited about two of the plants in this picture. The first, amazingly enough, is poke sallet, which seems like an excellent cut-and-come-again mulch. I also happen to think it is pretty (I admit that this plant, like squirrels, is something I had to cultivate an appreciation for). The second is green coneflower, which i recently learned is also called sochan and is eaten as a green in the spring. I didn’t taste mine yet — I’m waiting for it to flower again so I can be 100% sure I have the right plant. If it is, I’ll transplant some to a couple places in the landscape where it will get different levels of light. I’m told this should give me a staggered supply.
Photo Caption: Sochan, poke sallet, salvia, and some morning glories.
Our Egyptian walking onion patch is consistently reliable, even when the chickens kick them around. I’ve been growing these for about 8 years and they require almost no attention at all. They’re about to get moved again since they are sitting where I want a pond.
Photo Caption: Egyptian walking onions are alien-like and wonderfully productive. We’re also fond of yellow potato onions and French red shallots.
When we don’t harvest all of our conventional onion crop it usually comes back as a perennial, too. The bulbs we get this way are much smaller, but just as edible.
Photo Caption: Onion flowers are very appealing to beneficial insects.
Cilantro ‘Delfino’ is my favorite true cilantro because the ferny foliage is easy to shred into tiny pieces. We’ve found that it comes back true from seed each February and lasts into the early summer. It makes tasty coriander seeds, too.
Photo Caption: The ‘Delfino’ cilantro finally started bolting, but it lasted a while first. It’s growing next to a volunteer zinnia.
One of the nice things about having any form of diverse plant cover and lots of flowers is the number of beneficial insects we’ve been seeing in the yard. I found these three lacewing eggs when I was shredding greens to make kale chips. Their larva are so hungry as they hatch that they will cannibalize their siblings… thus the female lays them on thin filaments instead of attaching the egg directly to the leaf.
Photo Caption: Lacewing eggs are often mistaken for fungus, but they’re an excellent beneficial insect!
This pollen coated ladybug is one of many species we see in the yard (I saw a yellow ladybug walking on a cobalt blue chair today and was bummed my camera batteries had died).
Photo Caption: A ladybug walking on a wild lettuce leaf.
I wish beneficial insects could do more to help our peaches. The tree is loaded, but most are pock-marked and oozing a nasty gummy substance. If anyone has suggestions for disease-resistant peach varieties, we’re very interested in learning about them.
Photo Caption: Peaches are one of the most difficult things for organic growers to produce.
Our ‘Keifer’ pear must have heard me telling people that I was going to cut it down because it is fruiting fairly heavily this year. However, the fruit is still only on the tips of the branches. Anyone know why that happens?
Photo Caption: If they stay on the tree until ripe we’ll make my grandmother’s caramelized pear jam recipe out of these hard ‘Keifer’ pears.
One of the smartest things I did was plant cover crops in the bare patches this year. I knew I couldn’t get the beds developed in time to plant veggies, so this ensured that fewer weeds could take hold. The clay-loving wildflower mix we bought seems to be about 90% cosmos even though it was supposed to be made up of over 20 species. Good thing we like cosmos. We also have buckwheat, cowpeas, and lamb’s quarters.
Photo Caption: In the foreground is the area I am turning into a new hugelkultur bed for our vegetables. Behind it are 3 rows of cover crops plus our muscadine vines and fig tree.
At some point I’m going to write an update on our apiary since a lot has happened to get it up to 3 hives. I’ll let you know when I think it is going well… right now it is just going. I recently wrote an article about my trials in beekeeping for Edible Upcountry, which you can pick up on local magazine racks right now.
Photo Caption: Our 3 hives have had their ups and downs all season, but they are still alive.
Our chickens are one of the most successful elements of the garden. We just love how our coop opens on to the deck and the wonderful colored eggs we collect.
Photo Caption: This side view of the coop lets you see the temporary run they can use if we haven’t let them out yet in the morning. A ladder allows the birds to walk up into their roost and nesting boxes.
So far they haven’t gotten back out in the garden. If you’re familiar with our Houdini birds, you will know how joyful we feel to have finally contained them.
Other eventual hopes are solar panels, a cob oven, additional oil & carbohydrate sources, and more. We’re trying to pace ourselves and keep an eye on our main goal — spreading the knowledge so everyone can achieve this for themselves.
What are your garden goals?
April heralded my first (epic) case of writer’s block. I’ve never run so close on a deadline before, but fortunately my brain clicked into place at the last minute and you can read the result in this season’s summer “honey” issue of Edible Upcountry magazine. Let me also emphatically recommend The Carolina Honeybee Company in Travelers Rest, SC for excellent products and customer service (aka confused beekeeper survival hotline).
Photo Caption: This morning I picked up these two papalo seedlings and a copy of Edible Upcountry magazine at the Swamp Rabbit Cafe & Grocery. I love that they went with the red, white, and blue cover theme instead of a more predictable amber.
If you aren’t familiar, Edible Upcountry is a high quality free publication showcasing local food that is available at many local businesses. I picked my copy up at the Swamp Rabbit Cafe & Grocery this morning along with a delicious scone and a couple papalo transplants.
Photo Caption: I have been saving papalo seeds for a while but this year they molded! It’s hard to see, but each seed is covered with a frost of white fungus. A cloud of spores puffed into the air when I reached in the jar. We aren’t sure why since they had been thoroughly dried and stored in a breathable container.
What’s papalo? I’ve written about papalo as our second favorite summer cilantro substitute (Vietnamese cilantro is our #1 favorite… which means I should probably write about it soon). Since real cilantro disappears in the heat, we like to grow other herbs for our hot weather salsas.
For years I’ve been growing papalo and saving its seeds until this season when my stash molded. I tried planting some anyway but two weeks later there’s no germination — they should have popped up almost immediately with the warm weather we’ve had lately. Papalo pouts if you plant it in the spring but thrives in warm soil.
After resigning myself to live without, I was surprised and delighted to discover a flat of papalo seedlings among the transplants Parson Produce is selling at the Swamp Rabbit Cafe & Grocery. If you get one, put it in full sun and expect it to grow to at least 4′ tall.
In other news, expect a series of exciting blog posts this week! My schedule has finally cleared up a bit and we have a ton of cool projects and activities to report.
The key here is “when they become a problem.” In general, pillbugs, or roly polies as I grew up calling them, are quite nice little composters.
The textbook “fact” is that pillbugs prefer to eat rotting organic matter and only graduate to other foods when they can’t find enough. That’s actually false. They’re opportunistic omnivores, and they’re going to eat the most nutritious thing available. In addition to rotting vegetation, their favorite foods include tender plant growth, fine roots, soft fruits, moist tubers, and new seedlings. In small numbers you’re unlikely to notice when a pillbug has taken a nibble, but when they overpopulate it turns into a major issue.
Photo Caption: I can move just about anything in my yard and find a large nest of pillbugs.
This morning I went to water the seed trays in our straw bale cold frame and discovered many of the trays were missing plants. Some of the seedlings were teetering on nearly severed stems, but others were toppled or missing outright. People dealing with this problem are often told they are incorrect in their diagnosis. Before anyone suggests alternative culprits like cutworms or slugs, let me emphasize that I am pretty good at identifying pests and have obtained proof on countless occasions that pillbugs are in fact, whodunnit.
If you need further assurance that they aren’t always friendly denizens of the compost heap, here are other sources describing their destructive abilities:
Photo Caption: After I discovered pillbugs munching in my seed trays, I removed the critters I could find and lifted the trays to higher ground and brighter sunlight.
The problem is, a lot of the advice that people give simply isn’t accurate or effective. Popular word-of-mouth solutions aren’t necessarily based on personal experience. Additionally, gardeners are usually poor scientists. They try something and if it works, they think it fixed their problem. The reality is that it could have been brought about by other means the gardener didn’t notice.
We really need some brainstorming to solve this issue for organic and permaculture growers!
Here’s what I know for sure about pillbugs:
- They’re neat! As crustaceans, they’re more closely related to shrimp than insects. They breathe through gills and need moisture to survive. Also, their scientific family is Armadillidiidae, which is pretty adorable.
- Their favorite conditions are identical to the favorite conditions of most plants. They’re also able to burrow to find moisture and do not leave a garden entirely during brief droughts. Once irrigation occurs, they’re back. In order to completely remove them from an environment, you’d need to create a desert situation.
- Diatomaceous earth isn’t effective in moist conditions. Also, I have witnessed pillbugs nesting in it.
- Free-range chickens are only temporarily excited to eat pillbugs when they are abundant. My brown leghorns will still eat them half-heartedly, but my other two breeds turn up their beaks. In two years of owning chickens I have noticed no reduction in the pillbug population, even when the poultry fence was broken and they had months of unrestricted access to the entire yard.
- They seem to be active year-round in my climate.
- They do like mulch, but so do plants and the rest of the soil food web. Also, even when I let a seedling bed bake in the sun the pillbugs come out from nearby hiding areas at night.
- They don’t like bright light.
- They drown easily and it appears to occur evenly whether you use water or beer.
- They will collect in rolled up moist cardboard or upturned grapefruit rinds the same way that slugs do. They often nest just under the soil next to plants they like to consume.
- They seem to cause regional problems. I know of multiple farms and gardens in the upstate of South Carolina with this predicament, but have yet to find a grower in North Carolina experiencing the same issues. People who do not have this problem look at you like you’re nuts when you bring it up.
- There must be an environmental factor that keeps their numbers under control if there are regions of the country where they aren’t a problem. We just have to figure it out.
Photo Caption: I moved the straw mulch inside the cold frame and found pillbugs nesting in the wet spots.
One thing I would like to try, but do not currently have the means to do so, are ducks. Does anyone have experience using them for this purpose?
Regarding the infestation in my seed trays: I pulled them out of the bottom of the cold frame and balanced them on the straw bales. My reasoning is that the bright light exposure from all sides will drive the pillbugs off of the seedlings. I’m also considering water traps tucked inside the frame to cause drowning.
Consider this an open discussion. What would you do? Is there anything you’ve tried and did it work? No idea is too stupid, we could really use your help!
*Update: my husband’s first suggestion is that we eat them. Any suggestions on how to harvest them easily?*
One of the things we found when searching for permaculture materials online is that there is a lot of chaff to sift through to find the viable seeds. If you click on a “permaculture” video that shows nothing but dancing hippies or tells you to buy lots of drip irrigation and soil amendments, you’re in the wrong place.
In order to put some of the best sources in one place, we’ve created a permanent permaculture library for our website that you can access from the upper left navigation tabs (where it says “Home, About, Contact,” etc.). Click here to view it.
Photo Caption: Learning to mimic natural ecosystems in the garden provides for less work, higher productivity, and long lasting sustainability.
Here’s a sample of two videos in our library. The first is only 5 minutes long and quite possibly the answer to all the world’s problems. We’re not just saying that:
The second has the beautiful production quality, footage, facts, and narration you’d expect from the BBC — accessible to any grandmother, friend, boss, neighbor, spouse, expert permaculturalist, or random stranger:
View the rest at the permaculture library. If you have suggestions for materials we should add, please let us know in the comments.
On Tuesday evening we created the brand new SC Upstate Permaculture Society. Barely three days later we already have 80 members!
Here’s the description of our group:
Free & beginners welcome! Permaculture is an agriculture/garden movement that tries to be sustainable and self-sufficient. It incorporates the home and community as well. We’re planning to have meetings where members can talk sustainable living, resource exchanges (we can trade plants, seeds, labor, and other materials), activism events, site tours, potlucks, and more. Suggestions are welcome!
Again, just click here and request to join.
Photo Caption: A hugelkultur keyhole bed we put in this week. Our front yard is getting a makeover, expect a post with extensive before and after pictures soon!
Everyone is welcome to attend our upcoming planning meeting on May 5th, which happens to be International Permaculture Day. The location and time is still TBA. Note that you may not be able to see the planning meeting link until you’ve joined the permaculture group.
For the few of you who still don’t use Facebook, we plan to post a separate calendar of events on our website and we’ll be setting a regular day of the month to meet. We’ll also list additional events like site tours, swaps, classes, or shared labor days (as an example of shared labor, people might get together to build a cob oven at someone’s house).
Photo Caption: Zev Friedman talking plant guilds at the Organic Growers School this past March. His Friday full-day Forest Gardening workshop was outstanding.
We also want to make sure you hear about the free permaculture talk tomorrow morning, May 6th, 9:30am, at Furman University. Zev Friedman is an engaging speaker and you can’t beat the price! He works with Chuck Marsh at Living Systems Design in Asheville, NC. Click here for additional details about this event. There is an optional potluck after the lecture.
What else? Nathaniel and I are currently enrolled in a course to get our PDCs (Permaculture Design Course/Certificate). We’re very excited! More on that later…
So much good green stuff in the upstate!