Since we completed the hugel beds and swales back in June, there hasn’t been much for us to do with the earthworks.
Shortly after we completed the project I seeded the beds completely with iron clay peas. The earthworks consist almost completely of subsoil due to my inability to separate out the topsoil during the excavation work. As a result, we’ve got a lot of work to do to build the soil into something that is productive. Iron clay peas were my choice for several reasons. I needed a crop that would create biomass for the soil while adding nitrogen and protecting the soil from drying out in the summer’s harsh sun. As with all of my other planting, the seeds were simply broadcast onto the swales and hugel beds a day or so before a light rain.
The iron clay peas did awesome for such a short season. The crop is a perfect fit for our climate, and we gave them LOTS of clay to enjoy! They’re currently in the flowering process, and we’ll probably see a pea harvest before the frost comes, even though that wasn’t part of our plan.
In a few months we’ll begin planting the trees for our future food forest, but for now we’re focusing on building the soil and getting some type of ground cover on all of the interswale areas. We’ve still got a lot of compacted, bare soil exposed in between the beds, and reconciling that is a top priority before winter sets in.
As we were planning the winter ground cover, somehow we decided to jump the gun a little and play with some actual winter crops. However, knowing that the odds are pretty good that the crop is going to fail, I really didn’t want to put too much time, energy or money into the experiment. As a result, we’ve decided to take a play out of Masanobu Fukuoka‘s book, and utterly neglect the winter crops. At least we’ll know exactly what we can grow in the native soil.
We also decided to experiment with three separate approaches to preparing the swales for planting. We’ll take notes and see which method yields the best over the next few months.
We struggled with the basic mechanics of transitioning from the cover crop of iron clay peas to seeded beds. Should we throw the seeds into the peas? If so, would the peas not tower over the seedlings, cutting them off from the sunlight? On the other hand, isn’t one of the arguments for winter-kill crops like peas that they are knocked down by the first frost?
Ultimately, we decided to take down the peas, plant into the beds and then mulch lightly over the seeds, adding more mulch later when the crops grow up and become more developed.
I made a simple map of the earthworks/garden area to illustrate our activities. The image represents an area that is approximately 100 yards by 100 yards. The swale is shown in green and the hugel beds appear in brown. The house is just out of the frame in the center at the bottom of the illustration. Here’s what we planted:
The iron clay peas were over seeded with Crimson Clover (12lbs/acre) and Daikon Radish (3lbs/acre). The plan is to harvest some peas later in the season and then let the iron clay pea plants mulch the clover and radishes when they wilt down after the first frost in November. This is essentially the same mix we added to the field last October after the land was cleared. In a nutshell, the Daikon will break up the soil while accumulating minerals and nutrients from deep in the soil. The Crimson Clover will provide a massive amount of biomass and fix nitrogen, both of which will improve the quality of the soil.
Back in July, I somehow managed to win a giveaway from Anna Hess at Walden Effect. I stumbled onto her blog a long time ago, and there’s something about her approach to everything that is interesting to me. She’s a prolific blogger, and I tend to check in at least once a week to see what kind of craziness she and her husband are up to. While we couldn’t be much more different in our approach, I always seem to find some nugget of interest on her site, and her spirit is unique, inspiring and oddly entertaining.
Anyway, I received an email saying that we had won, and a few days later a BOX of Egyptian Walking Onion tops showed up at the Ant Farm. At first, I was like, “What the heck am I going to do with these?”, however they are perennial, and that is one of our criteria for the long-term. So into the garden they went!
I leveled the peas on the end of the south hugel bed and planted the tops in three rows. The tops were separated by about 6″ and the rows were about one foot apart. After reading up on them a bit, it seems that they won’t produce tops (which are the parts you typically harvest for food) until the second year. I added a bunch of large rocks to mark the area with the onions and also to provide some habitat for garden allies like frogs and lizards. I’m really looking forward to see how they grow this spring.
This is one of the three areas of the swale that we planted in. Preparation of the bed was fairly simple. We used the lawn mower (with the deck set very high) to level the pea plants and bag all of the clippings.This approach will probably be a one-time deal. We noticed that the process of pushing the mower over the swales had a tendency to compact the loose material. While I don’t think we did any long-term damage to the berm, it definitely would compact the soil over time, which is not desirable at all.
After the mowing, the soil was largely exposed even though many of the pea plant stems remained in place, damaged and stripped of their leaves.
This area of the swale was prepared by mowing with the deck set very low. In this configuration, the mower cut almost to the soil, leaving very little trace of the pea plants. The clippings were bagged and added to the pile from the other swale areas. We then covered the area with approximately 1/4″ of compost from our chicken coop. I would have liked to have covered all three areas, but we just didn’t have enough available at the time.
A few weeks ago, Leigh and I began to harvest leaf mold from the back acreage of our property. We took a tarp and a rake and collected the rotting leaf material in 10ftx10ft sections from random areas in the forest. Our goal was to collect enough material to mulch the garden beds without harming the forest ecosystem. We drug the material back to the swale where we covered a section about six inches deep. Our plan was to slowly collect enough material to cover the entire swale/hugel system this way, but we realized it probably wasn’t a practical approach after we completed the first 20ft.
After several rains, the leaf mold settled in, and the pea plants began to poke back through the mulch. We decided to use the mower to knock down the remaining pea plants in this area and re-collect the leaf mold, so we could re-distribute it across the whole swale area in a thinner layer. We bagged the clippings and leaves, leaving a thin layer of the leaf mold on the swale and deposited the collected material in the pile with the other pea plant clippings.
C | D | E
Once the three areas were prepared, the seeds were broadcast over the whole swale by hand. The winter vegetable mix included the following:
- Kale (Siberian Common) – 1/10 oz.
- Turnip (Purple Top) – 1/10 oz.
- Radish (Cherry Belle) – 1/10 oz.
- Carrot – 1/10 oz.
- Broccoli (Green Sprouting) – 1/10 oz.
- Spinach – 1/10 oz.
- Swiss Chard – 1/10 oz.
We used about half of the mix for the swale, which is probably a gross over-kill. Lamar (my go-to guy at Central Seed & Supply) laughed when I asked him how much I could plant with this amount of seed. I think he grinned as he said, “Uh… two acres.” So I guess we put an acre’s worth of seed in about a 1/100th acre area! In retrospect, it was probably a bit of overkill… even for me.
After the seed was spread, we raked it in lightly and then covered it with our mix of leaf mold and iron clay pea clippings. The mulch layer was not very deep at all- just enough to barely cover the soil.
The inter-swale areas all got the Crimson Clover and Daikon Radish mix. I seeded some of these areas with a mix of Bermuda and Fescue earlier in spring, but much of the area has remained bare. Hopefully, this ground cover can take hold and become a starting point for what will ultimately transition into pasture grass for the chickens. In the short term, I’d just like to see something other than the lunar landscape that currently greets me on each trip to the field.