Tuesday, November 10, 2015

New Garden Layout for 2016

I was not happy with my garden in 2015. I had intended to just use the west side of the garden and cover the east half with a heavy mulch and let it rest this year. But doing that caused me to crowd my plants too close. The soil is very rich so it could easily support the plants, and they grew well. That was a big part of the problem, I couldn't walk between the plants to take good care of them. The garden got overgrown and weedy. I also had major problems with rabbits, groundhogs, and deer this year. 

So I decided to reorganize the garden to create more open space and pathways between the beds. 

I used a rope to lay out each raised bed and dug out a pathway between it and the next bed. I dug down about four to six inches and piled that dirt onto the raised bed. This now gives me a planting bed that has rich top soil eight to ten inches deep. On top of that I added two inches of compost and raked it in. This will all break down even further by spring.

Each of the dugout pathways was then filled with wood chips, about ten to twelve inches deep. The walkway along the left side, by the raspberry bed, will stay bare but I put concrete pavers on the three walkways going across the garden. These walkways will get heavier use so I wanted a cleaner, sturdier surface.

The open garden area on the far right has been tilled under and leveled out

As you can see I put railroad ties and landscape timbers around the perimeter of the garden. I will install a fence of some sort and this will, hopefully, cut down on the wildlife damage to the garden. These are very old timbers so there should be very little leaching of preservatives and they border on the wood chip walkway anyway.

I covered the open area of the garden with six to eight inches of chopped grass and leaf mulch. I might dig out another raised bed in the spring or use this area for bigger crops like cucumbers, melons, and potatoes. 

While these are not true raised beds with exposed sides, the wood chip walkways between them will serve the same purpose. The planting beds are deep and drainage should be enhanced by the wood chips pathways. As the wood chips break down and rot, they will add nutrients to the soil that the plants can reach out to and use.  I will add wood chips on top as they break down into compost and eventually pull up the pavers and till all this under and mix in the composted wood. But I should be able to put that off for at least three years I think.

I pulled out all my carrots this weekend. They are stunted because animals kept eating the green, leafy portion so they were always recovering from damage. But they are crunchy and sweet so at least I got something out of that bed.

I try to spend as little as possible on my garden, and most other pursuits of mine. I got most of the timbers for free but bought a couple railroad ties at $9.84 apiece. They will last the rest of my lifetime so they are a good investment, especially if they improve yields with the raised beds and help me to keep out rabbits and groundhogs. We shot or trapped ten groundhogs from my little garden this year alone. Some of them became compost and some were trapped and released three miles away on my farm.

The wood chips were free. I got them from a tree service that did some work in my area. They dumped a truckload up on my farm property and I brought two wagon loads down for this project.

All the pavers were free. I accumulate pavers and bricks over time. Anytime I see them put out for trash I stop and grab them. Over the past ten years I have collected about 80 assorted paving stones in various shapes and sizes. Craigslist is another good source for free pavers and brick.

All my compost is free. One could say, well the yard vacuum and lawn tractor you use aren't free and that is true enough. But I have to cut my grass anyway and my yard is too big to rake when the cut grass is too long to leave behind and the leaves need to be taken care of. 

I will probably end up buying some fencing in the spring but I have collected enough fence posts that I shouldn't need to buy any of them. I will watch Craigslist for fencing too.I have a couple rolls in my equipment shed but I'm not sure if it is enough to do the job. 

2015 Composting

If you go through all my blog postings you will see frequent references to composting. I've been an avid composter since I was a kid. My first posting on the subject dates back to 2011; http://eatbettercheaper.blogspot.com/2011/11/composting-101.html
In 2015, using my four bin setup, I created 48 cubic feet of high quality compost. In actuality, that came out of only one bin. I am only using three of the four bins right now. One bin is completely filled with aged compost, 2.3 cubic yards (64 cubic feet). That is a lot of compost for a house garden. That is sort of my reserve compost that I use when planting.

One bin, almost empty. The bin behind this one is filled to the top with finished, cured compost.
This fall, I completely re-organized my garden into three raised beds (3'x10') and one 10'x14' planting bed. I put 2 inches of compost on each of the raised beds and raked it in. The rest of the compost went on my strawberry bed, several flower beds, and around a couple small trees. 

Two beds completed and one almost done, with walkways between them.
What did it cost to create all this compost? Just some time and effort. Each fall I clean out and screen the compost from a bin. This is not overly hard, physically, but it takes time. I made a screen box using 3/8 inch hardware cloth. I shovel the mostly finished compost into the screen box and shake it through. The finely screened material goes into my garden wagon for immediate use. The material that is too large to pass through the screen gets saved to go back into the bin with fresh composting materials. 

This is my screening box. I made it out of 2x2 posts and hardware cloth. One screened bin filled this wagon one and a half times.

The wheelbarrow holds the material too large to pass through the screen. It will go back in the compost bin.
Next I clean out my garden and take all the dead plants and place them in the bottom of an empty bin. This course material creates air pockets under the pile to help oxygenate the pile. Next I run my lawn tractor with the attached yard vacuum to pick up all the dead leaves and they get chopped and mixed with green grass clippings that are also cut and sucked up.
The mix of chopped dead leaves and fresh grass is almost perfect and is already heating up due to bacteria starting to break down the material before I even get it unloaded into the bin. One day later I stuck my hand down into the pile and it was hot; a good sign that the bacteria are active and hard at work breaking down the material.
I filled the bin and heaped it as high as I could without it falling over because I know that this will break down to only about ten percent in volume fairly quickly. To this pile I added the course material that didn't go through the screen box. This material will get another year to break down. At the same time, it imports the bacteria from the old pile and gives me a great jump start on the composting process.
Each fall I hope to get a couple weeks with above freezing weather so that the compost pile can get a good start breaking down. It generates quite a bit of heat, initially, and that keeps the pile from freezing until it gets really cold. I live in Northeast Pennsylvania so once it gets cold the pile will go dormant for most of the winter. Eventually it will freeze solid. But once the warm weather of spring arrives the pile will thaw and start the biodegrading action that makes compost.
Throughout the rest of the fall and winter all the household bio-material (kitchen scraps, mums, coffee grounds from work, remains of animals from hunting, etc.) go into the pile and get mixed in (until it is frozen solid). I will also mix in some wood ash from the wood stove to add minerals and charcoal.  During winter all this material pretty much lies dormant and frozen until spring. When the warm weather does finally arrive, I give the pile a good turning and mixing and add whatever fresh material I can come up with to get it cooking again.
If I desired, I could make compost faster by more frequent turning and adding manure but I have 64 cubic feet of compost in storage all the time so I don't need to expend the added effort. My composting process is slower but creates more than I actually need in any given year and it is relatively low-labor.