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Garden-to-table Buckwheat

This weekend, we had garden-to-table buckwheat pancakes for breakfast. We ate them about 20 feet from the garden bed where said buckwheat grew. This buckwheat is my first real homegrown grain harvest, and it checks all the boxes for me: gluten-free, locally sourced and hands down delicious, with a distinctive nutty flavor.

To most urban gardeners, growing grains might seem like it’s outside their wheelhouse. After all, when we think of growing grains, we think of hundreds of acres of farmland extending to the horizon. If this is you, I encourage you to read Small-Scale Grain Raising: An Organic Guide to Growing, Processing, and Using Nutritious Whole Grains for Home Gardeners and Local Farmers by Gene Logsdon. It inspired me to try growing small patches of grains myself. This year, I dedicated one long bed (about 4 x 20 feet) for growing a grain crop. I decided to start with buckwheat, a plant I’m already familiar with, as I’ve grown it as a cover crop many times. But I haven’t actually been methodical about harvesting the groats until now.

Buckwheat really is a fantastic beginner’s grain. It is nutritious and so friggin’ easy to grow:

  • You don’t need rich soil. In fact, buckwheat seems to do better in poor soil!
  • You barely need to irrigate.
  • Buckwheat has few disease or pest problems
  • Buckwheat (like other pseudo-cereals, such as quinoa and amaranth) has a favorable nutrient profile, forming a complete protein
  • It’s gluten-free!

Growing buckwheat

Buckwheat is a remarkably resilient plant that not only tolerates, but in fact thrives in poor soils. Once established, it grows even if you ignore it, as long as it gets some rain from time to time.

Buckwheat prefers cool temperatures, but is frost-tender. That makes it somewhat tricky to figure out an optimal time window for planting buckwheat, which has a sow-to-harvest time of 10-15 weeks. Here in the South, the best time to plant buckwheat is actually mid-August. That way, the buckwheat gets to grow during the cooler fall weeks, but can still be harvested before the first frost, which here in Asheville, NC, comes in late October.

 

Harvesting buckwheat

Harvesting the buckwheat groats is reasonably easy. I say this after unsuccessfully trying to harvest enough lambsquarter seed to make a quinoa-like meal… After those nearly invisible, tiny seeds, the buckwheat groats seem bulky and easy to extract.

 

When grown on an urban garden scale, buckwheat is best harvested by hand. One option is to walk through the buckwheat patch whenever you need some, simply stripping the dark brown grains off the stalk with your fingers until you have a cupful.

To harvest an entire bed of buckwheat at once, cut the buckwheat down with a scythe or sickle mower, tie the plants into bundles, and let them dry protected from rain. I brought mine into our sunroom. Chicken and (other) birds also seem to love buckwheat, so if a few plants are left behind it will all get eaten eventually.

When the stalks are completely dry, thresh them inside sacks or old pillowcases. What you’ll have at this point is lovely buckwheat groats, but with a fair amount of plant matter and leaves in the mix.

 

Processing Buckwheat

This is the part that can be a bit challenging and time-consuming. Take your time. You may have to try a few different methods to figure out what works for you, as I did.

The next step is to separate out the chaff from your buckwheat groats. If you’re in the small minority of modern folks who have winnowing skills and a decent winnowing basket, it’ll be a breeze. Otherwise, you may have to try a few different setups. I had the most success with a fan set up next to a shallow tray. I placed a couple of cups of buckwheat on the tray and grabbed a handful and let go, grab a handful and let go, on repeat. All the dry leaves and other chaff flies off because it’s very light. Ideally what ends up on the tray eventually is just the buckwheat groats.

Here’s another setup I tried: using one of my Excalibur dehydrator trays as a tray. The perforated silicone is ideal for letting tiny pieces of chaff to fall through, but catching the buckwheat.

After winnowing, you have yourself a nice batch of wholesome buckwheat groats.

You could grind them into flour as they are, but the taste is better if you remove the dark brown hulls.

  1. First lightly toast the groats, or put them in a hot oven for a short while. It’s well worth the effort, as it helps the hulls to separate easily.
  2. Grind the toasted groats to remove the hull. You can use a blender or a food processor, but I had the most success with a good old-fashioned food mill. The hulls just shattered off (all over the table, as you can see…). The resulting coarsely ground buckwheat will still have some bits of hulls in it, but they can easily be sifted out with a flour sifter at the end.

Now you can grind the groats into flour. If you don’t have a grain mill, a food processor or blender will also work.

 

Here’s the pancake recipe I used to make ours. Some people like to use 50% buckwheat flour and 50% all-purpose wheat flour, and that works great. But in my opinion it’s not necessary to cut the buckwheat with wheat — the buckwheat’s flavor is not overwhelming at all. Even my daughter, who usually demands “ordinary pancakes” (as opposed to her mom’s experiments), gobbled them up enthusiastically.

 

Gluten-free Buckwheat Pancakes

  • 1.5 cups buckwheat flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 3 Tbsp salted butter, melted
  • 2 Tbsp maple syrup
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 3/4 cups buttermilk
  • butter (for the pan)

Set a well-seasoned cast iron pan on medium heat. Mix the dry ingredients together well. Mix the melted butter together with the syrup, eggs, and buttermilk separately, and add to the dry ingredients. Mix until the batter is well blended and there are no more dry lumps.

Melt a dollop of butter on the heated pan and ladle the batter onto the pan in desired sizes.

Rotational Grazing with Backyard Chickens

Rotational grazing — rotating animals across pastures — is a common practice in large-scale sustainable farming. Put simply, it means subdividing a pasture area into smaller paddocks with fencing, and moving the grazing animals from one paddock to another on a specific timeline. The idea is to create a strategic disturbance for limited periods of time.

On large diversified farms, multi-species rotational grazing sees the animals moved in succession: for example, first cattle, then sheep, followed by poultry, and maybe pigs at the end. Rotating animals in this way is beneficial for both animal and pasture health: pasture paddocks get to rest and regenerate when the animals are in other paddocks, and the animals always get access to diverse, fresh, good-quality forage plants.

But what does rotational grazing look like in the urban or suburban backyard, and with a single species — in our case, chickens?

We don’t have acres and acres of pasture. What we do have on our 1/3 acre is a vegetable garden, young food forest areas with perennials, and some grassy areas. Still, we’ve found ways to move our chickens through the landscape in ways that help to optimize their health, and integrate them into our garden management system. I’m sharing some of what we’ve learned in case it’s useful to others.

 

managing chickens in the urban garden

Chickens are great foragers (though some breeds have a stronger foraging instinct than others). Access to diverse landscapes with plenty of greens, bugs, grains and seeds provides them with a healthy, varied diet. And the eggs we harvest are much more nutritious as a result: pastured chicken eggs have twice the vitamin E, more omega-3 fatty acids, and a better ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids as compared to eggs from commercial chicken operations.

The ground in the chicken run quickly becomes dusty, compacted, and devoid of any greenery, which is also a sign that chickens shouldn’t be kept confined to the same area for too long. They are so happy when they get to explore new ground, to kick and scratch good garden soil and take some dirt baths in it.

At the same time, chickens can be destructive if left to their own devices in a vegetable garden. Like any gardener, I’ve had moments of heartbreak when a less-than-perfect fencing setup allowed the chickens to rip apart carefully tended young seedlings.

In a nutshell: you want some combination of free range and smart fencing.

For rotating our chickens around in the garden, we create designated fenced-in “paddocks” in the specific spot where we need their scratching, pest control and fertilization services. We have two primary ways for doing so: 1) a chicken tractor and 2) movable fencing.

 

Chicken tractor

A chicken tractor is any simple outdoor enclosure that’s lightweight enough to be moved around. We built ours out of 2 x 4’s, PVC pipe, and chicken wire, but there are tons of designs out there for building a chicken tractor that works for you.

The chicken tractor is particularly handy for getting to narrow spots. Here the chickens are foraging and doing weed control in between rows of young currant bushes. Bringing the chickens through here every couple of weeks is all we’ve needed to keep the weeds from taking over.

 

Temporary fencing

Whenever we want to let the chickens forage on a larger area, or clean up a particular garden bed after it’s been harvested, we use 3-foot wire fencing to create a “paddock” in any shape we want. Some people use electric poultry netting. On hot summer days, we use shade cloth over the fenced-in area to help keep the chickens cool — as well as to discourage the most mischievous of them from trying to fly out.

No-TILL Garden bed prep sequence

My favorite way to integrate the chickens into our no-till garden is recruiting them to do the cleanup after a particular bed is harvested. This is roughly the sequence:

        1. Harvest food + pull out any large stalks or vines that chickens are not likely to eat.
        2. Create a fenced perimeter around the bed and bring in chickens (yes, I carry them one by one from the chicken run) to forage and scratch
        3. Move chickens to another area and rake off any remaining plant debris
        4. Aerate the soil with a pitchfork or a broadfork
        5. Spread a 1″ layer of compost
        6. Plant next crop or cover crop

One caveat: our setup is not perfect. My preference would have been to have fully free-range chickens with access to all areas of the garden (except the annual vegetable beds, which they would quickly rip through). Alas, we don’t have a perimeter fence, and all of our neighbors have large dogs, so it hasn’t been possible. So we always need to have some kind of protection around the chickens.

naturally dyed yarn

Colors from the Garden: Growing Natural Dyes

How would you like to be able to grow your own colors in your yard? To have non-toxic, natural dye pigments for dyeing textiles, wool yarns, or even children’s art supplies and soaps?

If you have a garden, chances are that there are already some plants there you could dye with. Some of the most common garden plants can be used as dyes since they release pigment when simmered in hot water:

    • marigold
    • Black-eyed Susan
    • coreopsis
    • tansy
    • purple basil
    • fennel
    • marjoram
    • onion (skins)

Even if you don’t, many so-called weeds — plants that grow wild by the roadside or in wild patches — make great dyes:

    • stinging nettle
    • pokeweed
    • goldenrod
    • yarrow

You could easily get started with these plants.

But if you’re really drawn to the idea of über-local, non-chemical colors on your textiles, and if you have access to garden space, I encourage you to create a designated dye garden. You get to participate in the process of choosing your plants/colors, growing and tending them through a growing season, and then experimenting with different combinations, plant parts, time of harvest, and the various mordants and afterbaths that help to modify your colors.

 

planning Your Natural Dye Garden

Choose a site that gets good sun, ideally at least 6 hours a day. Decide on the shape of your dye garden area. It’s better to start small the first year, and then expand later if you find that you can manage what you have so far.

Many dye plants tolerate poor soils, but they’ll be more productive in rich soil. Prepare the soil as you would a vegetable garden bed: remove any plant debris and the sod, then dig deeply to loosen the soil. Work in compost, aged manure, or other organic matter to improve soil structure and drainage.

Then the fun begins: what plants — what colors — will you grow? Take a look at the list of common garden plants above: many of them are incredibly attractive as they bloom in the summer, and provide nectar for pollinators. Even if you just plant marigolds, Black-eyed Susans, zinnias, and purple basil, you’ll have a striking flower bed all summer long, and can harvest colors ranging from sunny yellows to sweet pinks at the end of the season.

But besides these plants, there are some that are usually specifically grown as dye plants — and for a reason: they have unusually strong and colorfast pigments:

  • madder root (reds)
  • Japanese indigo (blues)
  • woad (blues)
  • weld (yellows)

You’ll probably have to source the seeds or the plants from a specialist seed company or nursery (see Resources below). But it’ll be worth it.

 

My Dye Garden

For me, choosing the location for my dye garden was easy. On one side of our property is our neighbors’ retaining wall, built out of railroad ties that likely contain creosote. I’ve done enough research on creosote to not want to grow anything edible near them. So I turned that entire strip, behind and surrounding our greenhouse, into a dye garden.

 

In designing my dye garden, I started with a handful of dye plants that both look gorgeous in the garden, and make strong dyes: marigold (for yellow), weld (for yellow), madder root (for red and orange), Japanese indigo (for blues) and zinnia (for beige to light yellow).

In future years, I can easily expand and add new plants. Elsewhere in the garden, I also grow purple basil (for pink), fennel (for green/yellow), and stinging nettles (for green/yellow).

Here are a couple of my favorite dye plants that made their way into my dye garden plan without any hesitation.

Japanese indigo (Polygonum tinctorium) is, like the name indicates, a source of blue color. It has pretty pink flowers in the summer and the leaves can be harvested for the loveliest blues — not quite the strong dark blue of real indigo, but a strong dye nevertheless.

Space the plants about 10 inches apart. You can harvest the leaves several times in the course of the growing season.

Madder root (Rubia tinctorum) is an age-old dye plant (pigment from it was found on cloth in Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb!) for reds, ochres and oranges. As the name suggest, you harvest the dye from the root. Madder roots have to be minimum 3 years old before you can harvest a strong red dye from them. Madder is a sprawling, vigorous plant that will spread, so it’s best if you either give it plenty of space, or plant it inside a raised bed box to confine the roots. Other than that, it’s one of the easiest plants to grow: you can virtually ignore it and it will thrive.

 

My 6-year-old is now old enough that we can work on dye projects together. We play witches, stirring potions in big pots and magically creating colors. I promised her that if we get a range of colors on wool yarn, I’ll knit her a rainbow hat and mittens with colors from the garden.

So far we’ve got blue from Japanese indigo, yellow from marigold, green from marigold with iron afterbath, and pink from purple basil… We’re well on our way!

Resources

Books on natural dyeing:

Online suppliers of dye plant seeds and starts:

Simple Herbal Remedies from the Garden

Making your own herbal medicine may seem daunting at first if you’re new to it. Medicine tends to seen as the domain of specialists — and for a good reason, as this year’s events attest.

I’m not formally trained as an herbalist. I’m a gardener, a cook, and a maker, and my herbal medicine making has evolved pretty organically as a result of learning to use plants. Many simple medicine-making practices have become a part of my routine — making herbal teas, putting chewed-up yarrow leaves on wounds to stop bleeding, or resorting to elderberry, honey, thyme and garlic to keep the winter colds away. I wouldn’t claim to be an expert.

 

But my point is that there’s a lot that you can do with a basic skillset. Most garden plants with medicinal properties — familiar plants like chamomile, red clover, yarrow, mint, or garlic — are absolutely safe and hard to go wrong with. Just find a reliable, go-to resource that you consult before making or taking herbal medicines.

 

I’ve had Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide pulled out from the bookshelf all summer long. Whenever I’ve noticed something ready to harvest in the garden, I’ve checked out what she has to say about that particular plant, and tried to find a time to process it into a tincture, a tea, or a salve. Other books I use regularly are Herbal Healing for Women (also by Rosemary Gladstar) and Richo Cech’s Making Plant Medicine.

Crafting herbal medicines is a great activity to do with kids. This summer, my six-year-old has accompanied me to harvest blossoms and leaves into a colander, fill up the dehydrator, or put herbs to infuse in oil, vinegar or brandy on the windowsill. I call it our “witch magic” and that’s enough to get her fully engaged in the process.

Because making tinctures, vinegars, and oils feels a little bit like being witches or alchemists: we’re mixing potions with fresh herbs and leaves and, after a few weeks of those jewel-toned jars steeping on a sunny windowsill, the solvents inside have become potent with the plants’ power. It’s like magic: transforming one thing into another. Who doesn’t love that?

Below are five safe and simple remedies using common garden plants.

 

Calendula lotion

Calendula is an all-purpose healing plant for various skin problems, such as cuts and rashes. In a family that’s into gardening and adventures, we get cuts and scrapes a lot! I’ve made calendula salve before, but Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs also has a recipe for a luxurious moisturizer that uses calendula flowers, olive oil, beeswax, and lavender essential oil. Whipping up oils, beeswax and essential oil in a blender until it thickens and becomes opaque is one of those alchemist moments that both kids and grownups love.

 

Herbal Teas

Making tea out of herbs is a simple process of harvesting leaves, steeping them in hot water, straining, and enjoying. I use herbal teas primarily for their mental health benefits: they help to soothe anxiety and stress (not that any of us have any reason to soothe those this year!).

Good tea herbs with calming, anxiety-reducing properties are chamomile, tulsi (holy basil), lemon balm, anise hyssop, spearmint, and lavender.

Thyme honey

I love using thyme in cooking, but it’s also traditionally valued as a cold and cough remedy. Just pop a few of its fresh leaves onto your tongue and you’ll see why: it has an almost menthol-like freshness to it.

Honey makes a great base for a thyme syrup, since it not only extracts the healing properties of thyme, but also has beneficial enzymes of its own. Thyme honey is the simplest natural remedy to make: gently warm honey to 100 F, add it to a jar half full of fresh thyme leaves and flowers, and keep the jar in a warm place for a couple of weeks to steep. You can take it straight or mixed in herbal tea, where it adds its own healing properties to the tea.

Elderberry cold syrup

Elderberry syrup is a potent natural remedy for sore throats and other cold and flu symptoms. The berries of the elder tree (Sambucus) have anti-viral, immune-boosting properties and are high in vitamins A, B, and C. The syrup is really easy to make and it’s one of the best-tasting herbal syrups out there. You can use either fresh or dried elderberries. Simmered in water with ginger and cloves and steeped in honey, they turn into a luxuriously deep-red and sweet-tasting remedy. You can either take this syrup preventatively to ward off the cold or, if the sniffles and the cough already got you, to speed recovery.

Here are a few different recipes for elderberry syrup:

 

Tinctures

Tinctures — concentrated liquid extracts of herbs — are one step up in the herbal medicine making game, though still easy to make. They take a few weeks to steep, and you also want to take care in choosing the proper solvent. The most potent tinctures use 80 to 100 proof alcohol like vodka or brandy; for children or adults who don’t want to use alcohol, you can use vegetable glycerin or apple cider vinegar instead. The amount taken daily is very small, 1 to 2 teaspoons per day. That’s a dropperful, taken straight or mixed into a water or a beverage.

(Sometime I wonder if I make tinctures just because all those little bottles look so darn cute in my herbal home apothecary…)

Basic instructions for making tinctures:

Chop the herbs fine and put them in a clean glass jar. Pour in either 80 to 100 proof alcohol, vinegar, or vegetable glycerin, enough to cover the herbs by a couple of inches. Put the jar in a sunny spot and let soak for 4-6 weeks, shaking daily. Strain and store in a clean bottle or jar. Take as directed either by the dropperful or diluted in tea or water. A tincture will keep for 1 year if you used vinegar, 2-3 years in case of glycerin, and several years with alcohol.

Good beginner’s herbs to make tinctures with: echinacea, cinnamon, tulsi, yarrrow, St. John’s wort, dandelion, burdock, and valerian.

Garden Tour Video

Welcome to the inaugural video garden tour of our urban homestead!

Friends and family both far and near have asked me for a while to post a video tour of the garden. Here it is at last!

On the video, I share how we transformed a 1/3-acre urban lot with compacted soil and grass into a diverse edible landscape of vegetables, fruit, berries, medicinals and dye plants over the last 2 years.

So make yourself a glass of iced tea (or something) and imagine you are coming on a stroll along with me.

 

Our garden is designed using the design principles of permaculture. I will probably do a full post about the design process some day; in the meantime, below is the design drawing/map that might also help you to orient yourself as you go along (the greenhouse, which you see on the video, is not in the drawing since it was a later addition).

And if you’re curious about how we built good garden soil in our first two years, check out these posts on sheet-mulching and no-till gardening.

Questions? Let me know in the comments below!

For the new gardener

Dear new gardener,

If you’re planting your first edible garden this spring — first of all, thank you for taking this step. You’re taking responsibility for your needs and for your family’s needs. You’re taking responsibility for your food and how it’s grown, and that’s incredibly powerful in today’s world.

And you’re not alone. You’re joining hands with others who are also stepping up to become stewards of our degraded lands and our broken food system. People everywhere are picking up shovels and starting new gardens, or expanding existing ones. I see this on my daily walks in my neighborhood: people out in their yards, new raised bed boxes where there weren’t any before, vegetable seeds being sold out in stores (when was the last time that happened?). It’s one of the more life-affirming and empowering responses to the Covid-19 crisis.

So first of all, thank you for being a part of this movement.

 

To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.

— Audrey Hepburn

 

At the same time, starting out gardening can feel overwhelming. “Where do I start? There’s so much information out there and so much I don’t know. I can’t tell a cucumber seedling from a pepper seedling. I don’t know the Latin names of vegetables.”

I know all too well how that feels. I wasn’t always a gardener. I didn’t always know how to do this.

I now grow food on a third-acre lot. But this is where I started, about 10 years ago:

 

And because I remember being a new gardener, I know that gardening absolutely can be learned.

If you want practical tips, like finding planting calendars or choosing vegetables that grow fast or provide maximum calories, scroll to the bottom of this post. But what I want to offer first is some advice about the beginning gardener’s mindset. For along with good compost and non-GMO seeds, you also need some patience, self-compassion, and a good dose of humor.

 

It takes time, and that’s okay.

When I planted the first garden of my adult life — patio containers for some salad greens and herbs — I read in one of my gardening books that gardening involves a steep learning curve. To be precise, it said, it takes 10 years to learn how to garden. You can’t speed-date nature. You learn simply by experience, by making mistakes. There will always be a new unexpected challenge each year: a summer of nothing but rain, late frosts, a new pest, a new crop.

I remember despairing. Ten years! That’s too long! (Patience was not one of my virtues then and still isn’t.) I felt embarrassed about all that I didn’t know, I felt that I should be further along, and yes, I was wondering about all those Latin names.

But now that I’ve been gardening almost a decade, I can say that confidence in gardening really comes simply from doing it over and over again, year after year. You make mistakes and learn from them. But. It. Is. All. Worth. It. That feeling when you make your first meal entirely from homegrown ingredients, or grow your first perfect artichoke or braid of garlic — you can’t buy that in a grocery store produce aisle. In fact, a lot of the food you will go on to grow will also be food that you simply cannot buy in a grocery store.

Whether this is your Year 1 of gardening, or Year 10, there’s only one way to become a better gardener: to garden today, and the next day, and the day after that.

 

Start small.

You don’t need to have a lot of land to garden. You don’t need to own land to garden. And no, you don’t need to plant a jaw-dropping food forest your first year.

Start with some potted herbs, or salad greens on the windowsill. If you do have a backyard, build a couple of 4×8 raised bed boxes and start with that. The following year, you can add some blueberries in half wine barrel containers and try your hand at double-digging or sheet mulching.

As one of my permaculture teachers, Marisha Auerbach, puts it: Start small, and then roll over the edges. If you take on too much all at once, you’ll only become discouraged if you can’t maintain it all, and you might give up. Take on what you can manage, and then expand.

 

invest in good soil.

To grow healthy, nutrient-dense, delicious vegetables and fruits, you need good soil. This is the one part where I wouldn’t recommend skimping.

You can build good soil on a low budget over time; my two favorite ways of building good garden soil are sheet mulching and no-till gardening. But both of these take time. If you want to fast-forward things, invest in a bulk order of compost (by the cubic yard) from the best source you can find locally, and mix the compost with your existing soil to fill up raised bed frames or to establish beds. Start a home compost pile to grow your own soil fertility going forward.

 

Grow foods you actually like to eat.

If you don’t like kohlrabi, don’t grow kohlrabi. If pesto on a summer day is what makes you happy, plant as much basil as you can fit in. You get my point.

 

You don’t have to know everything.

You don’t have to read every gardening book on the planet. Find your 2-4 go-to resources that are like a couple of good friends you can turn to. (See my suggestions below.)

If a specific problem comes up, you can always find help on Google or Youtube.

Don’t fret about all that you don’t know yet. It will come. If you fall in love with gardening the way most people do, you will find yourself gravitating towards your garden beds, checking on the seedlings. You don’t need to memorize the Latin names of the different vegetable families. Over time, you’ll start to notice that turnip seedlings look exactly like broccoli and kale seedlings, and beets and Swiss chard look similar too, and so do carrots and Queen Anne’s lace. Over time, the family tree of plants will become familiar to you because the characters in it pop out of the soil every year to greet you, like old friends.

 

Dear new gardener,

We don’t know what lies ahead. But I’m willing to wager that 5 years or 15 years from now, you will not regret learning how to garden. Enjoy this time of apprenticing and growing. Put your hands in the dirt, be curious, and have fun.

And now…

 

My top resources for the brand new gardener

Online trainings and inspiration:

My go-to gardening books:

Other resources:

Fall Garden Checklist

When the harvest season winds down and the abundance of the late summer and early fall has been brought in, it’s the time to put the garden to bed. Here’s how to prepare your garden for the winter and for optimal vigor in the spring.

Harvest the last of…

  • basil for pesto
  • herbs for herbal teas
  • tomatoes, okra, sweet potatoes, squashes and pumpkins

 

Clear and Cut back

  • Clean up any remaining dead plant matter and compost it, unless it is diseased.
  • Cut back herbs and perennial vegetables such as asparagus and rhubarb. It helps them to grow with new vigor in the spring.
  • Cut runners from strawberries, and top-dress them with compost.
  • Cut old fruiting canes of raspberry and blackberry.

 

Amend and cover the soil

  • Dig in amendments such as compost, manure, bone meal, kelp, or rock dust. They will have all winter to break down and enrich your soil.
  • Rake leaves and mulch garden beds with them. A thick layer of mulch helps to regulate the soil temperature, protects your crops from freezing, and adds organic matter into the soil.
  • Alternatively, leave the leaves where they are – it’s free fertilizer for your lawn, and an all-around good thing to do.

 

Cover crop

  • Plant a winter-hardy cover crop such as rye, vetch or Austrian winter pea. Cover crops help to prevent erosion, as all those tiny roots hold the soil in place; they aerate the soil and break up compacted lumps; they increase the level of organic matter in the soil. A leguminous cover crop such as vetch or peas adds nitrogen to the soil. Grasses, such as rye, improves the structure of compacted soil.

 

 

Protect your plants

  • Take cold-sensitive house plants and potted tropical plants indoors
  • Protect young trees and shrubs from deer, rabbits etc.
  • Prepare to protect overwintering vegetables with row covers. Mulch all the frost-sensitive plants with straw or leaves to protect them from frost.

 

Plant

We get to plant some, too, in the fall! Fall is the time to plant:

  • Garlic, shallots, and leeks (mulch generously to cover them well)
  • Flower bulbs (daffodil, crocus, tulip etc.) that will surprise you with their color in the spring

 

With these simple measures, your garden will wake up with the return of the spring, rested under cozy blankets of organic matter and replenished by amendments and cover crops.

Play in the Dirt: The Potent Antidepressant Called Gardening

 

Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.

           – John Muir

 

A dear friend who’s going through a divorce and a lot of exhausting relationship drama has a place where it all dissolves and falls away. Her apartment building has a few raised bed boxes for the residents, and this year she got one of them to grow some vegetables. There, sitting on the edge of her garden box and trellising the tender peas, pulling the weeds around the carrots and checking on the broccoli florets, she says, her mind is at ease, no matter what is going on. 

Ask any gardener, and they will tell you something similar. The garden is their happy place — the place that de-stresses and relaxes them, chases away the blues, and puts them in the “flow” mode of just enjoying the present moment.

In a lovely essay, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks writes:

I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains, but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens, even for those who are deeply disabled neurologically. In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication.

 

Now scientific studies are starting to bring to light a fascinating explanation for the healing, even euphoric effect of gardening. The secret, it seems, lies in the soil itself. Gardening increases our exposure to beneficial micro-organisms that live in the soil, some of which have anti-depressant qualities. Researchers have been particularly interested in Mycobacterium vaccae, a harmless microbe that can be found in soil and water. Initial studies suggest that the immune response to M. vaccae triggers the release of serotonin in our brain. Serotonin is our bodies’ “happy chemical” that reduces stress and contributes to a sense of well-being.

Illustration by Christopher Silas Neal, from “Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt” by Kate Messner.

 

But no single microbe is a miracle cure. More likely, says Daphne Miller, M.D., it’s the exposure to a diversity of micro-organisms that is healing for our immune and nervous systems.

Unfortunately, exposure to a diversity of micro-organisms is exactly what’s lacking in our microbe-phobic, over-sanitized modern lives. We’re killing the microbial diversity that we’ve evolved with and seem to need for our well-being. Asthma and allergy, for example, are lower in farming communities than in urban areas, as farm children get exposed to a diversity of bacterial species through their interaction with animals and farm dirt. These very bacterial and fungal organisms promote a healthy immunological response.  

As Maya Sherat-Klein writes in The Dirt Cure, “It turns out that all the things that are messy and dirty in the world, the very things we thought we needed to control and even eliminate to stay alive, are actually the very elements necessary for robust health.”

So go ahead. Get your hands in the dirt and let your kids play in it too. Glove-free digging, handling compost, saying hello to the occasional earthworm — and above all, eating the fresh, not-obsessively-scrubbed garden produce — may be one of the best things you can do for your health. Unlike with pharmaceutical anti-depressants, gardening has no side effects. Warning: it may be highly addictive though!

The regenerative urban garden II: Sheet mulching

This is the second in a series of posts about regenerative gardening techniques. Read Part I on No-till here!

If you’ve heard of permaculture, you’ve probably heard of sheet mulching. Sometimes it feels like the two are treated almost as synonyms: every Permaculture Design Course must include the initiation rite that involves laying down cardboard as earnestly as if you were trying to cover the entire planet in it. Every self-respecting permaculturist will be spreading cardboard… I mean, the gospel of sheet mulching, wherever, whenever.

I’m being just a tad sarcastic. Sheet mulching is hands down one of my favorite and most effective methods of garden establishment and soil-building. I’ve done a lot of it myself, made some mistakes in the process, and almost gotten into trouble for pulling cardboard out of the dumpsters behind Target. I think sheet mulching is an essential tool in the toolkit of regenerative gardening. But just to be clear: I don’t think it’s always the right choice, and it’s not bulletproof.

What is Sheet Mulching?

Sheet mulching means laying down layers of organic material, including a weed block layer of some kind (usually cardboard or old newspaper), to smother existing plants and create a blank canvas, if you will, on which to establish a new garden area. Some people call it “lasagna gardening” — the same idea.

Here are the main benefits of sheet mulching: It

  • acts as a great weed block (if done right), giving you and the plants you choose to plant a competitive edge over weeds
  • takes materials out of the waste stream (such as newspaper or cardboard) and converts it into garden soil
  • is a great soil builder! The layers of organic materials gradually break down and get incorporated into the soil. Earthworms and other critters crawl up to munch on them, aerating the soil. The whole process builds the humus layer.
  • …and that is why sheet mulching is a regenerative and carbon-sequestering gardening practice, especially when combined with cover crops. It provides soil cover; it feeds the diversity of biology in the soil; and it has the potential of turning carbon-rich organic materials like straw or cardboard into the kind of carbon that feeds the living soil.

Since Toby Hemenway has written a killer how-to for sheet mulching, I don’t need to go over all the steps here. Instead, I’m going to share the sheet mulching process we’ve done as part of establishing our urban homestead in the past year, and some lessons learned.

Here’s our front yard a few weeks after we moved in in Spring 2018:

Our goal was simply to build soil in this area for a year before planting anything (in contrast to the vegetable beds that you see me double-digging in the background in this photo). Having the blank canvas of the sheet mulch also allowed some design ideas to come forth.

Once the last layer was on, I seeded the entire area with a cover crop mix. And here’s what the area looked like about three months later:

In other words, the cover crops took off. They pushed their roots through whatever layers of cardboard remained, pumped lots of nitrogen into the soil, and grew flowers that attracted pollinators. The Nitro radish in Sow True Seed’s cover crop mix busted through the compacted soil with its thick tubers and such vigor that it drew many remarks from neighbors and passers-by.

The one challenge, I’d say, with using a cover crop mix with multiple plant species in it is that it became challenging to monitor for the weeds that inevitably did push their way through the cracks of the cardboard layer. By the fall, I was happy with how the cover crop was working the soil, but also finding a lot of pernicious vines and weeds.

For that reason, we scythed it all down in the fall, and in the spring, we did it all over again.

This time, we used thinner rolls of brown paper instead of cardboard, laid out pathways with woodchips to create the teardrop shape for this future mini forest garden, and started planting perennials. I’m really happy we did two rounds of sheet mulching, even though it was a lot of work. Now when I put my hand into that soil, I see a new dark brown layer over the lighter, clayey original soil, and the soil’s got great texture and fluff to it. That’s what we’re going for.

 

Top recommendations and lessons learned:

  • Do smaller areas at a time. It’s a lot of work, wheelbarrowing all that organic material, and you’ll tire yourself out if you try to do too much at once.
  • If using cardboard, find the biggest pieces of cardboard you possibly can. Bike shops, kayak and canoe shops, furniture and home appliance stores usually have huge boxes in their dumpsters they don’t mind you hauling away.
  • An alternative to cardboard are rolls of brown paper (sold in the painting section at Lowe’s or Home Depot, for example). You’ll want to do at least two layers, but don’t need to spend time pulling out tape and staples from cardboard.
  • Make it a work party! Sheet mulching is overwhelming if done with too few pairs of hands, but a riot if you invite your friends.
  • Water the soil well before starting, and keep watering the weed block layer as you go. The soil-building organisms that will be munching on your sheet mulch cake need moisture to do their thing.
  • If cover-cropping, a single species cover crop seed might be a good idea, for reasons explained above
  • Plant any large perennials first and sheet mulch around them, rather than trying to cut into the cardboard and then dig a planting hole. Again, I speak from experience.

 

 

The regenerative urban garden I: No-till gardening

I am an advocate of regenerative farming. But I am not a farmer myself. The piece of land I steward is 1/3 acre — still sizable for an urban lot, but laughably minuscule compared to what Real Farmers are working with.

Yet, when I landed here last year and set out to establish our gardens, I decided I’d try my best to apply the same principles that regenerative farmers use when working the land. The benefits of regenerative farming practices add up to something pretty phenomenal: improved soil health, improved ecosystem health, better water retention, less erosion, more carbon sequestered in the soil… and more nutrient-dense food as a result.

Why would I not want all those benefits in my own garden, too? What would regenerative gardening, or carbon gardening, look like?

This post series is my attempt to answer that question. (Mind you, this is only our second year of gardening on this land, so no doubt I have a lot yet to learn and some steep learning curves to climb.)

 

Regenerative growing practices on the urban backyard scale

Here’s my back-of-the-napkin, off-the-cuff summary of key regenerative land management principles:

  • Disturb the soil as little as possible.
  • Always keep the soil covered.
  • Always keep a living root in the soil.
  • Plant more perennial crops.
  • Diversity, diversity, diversity!
  • Incorporate animals into the system, and have a system in place for rotating them through landscape.

Now, all of these can absolutely be applied even on the urban or suburban garden scale. Soil is soil is soil. There’s nothing inherent about them that says you can only do them if you have 200 acres to manage.

Let’s start with the first one. The way to disturb the soil as little as possible translates to:

 

no-till (or no-dig) gardening

No-till is exactly what it sounds like: you farm, or garden without ever tilling the soil. Tilling and plowing are almost synonymous with land cultivation, aren’t they? Yet they actually destroy soil structure, create compaction, and kill the very soil biology that’s the basis of fertility, like fungal networks and all those earthworms that make the soil nice and squishy.

But if you don’t till, how, then, do you break up and loosen the soil? How else do you kill all the weeds? How else do you build fertility?

In a no-till garden, these goals are achieved in a couple of simple ways:

1. Aerate using a broadfork. This is a fun annual spring ritual. The broadfork allows you to gently fluff up the soil and improve its structure without turning it over completely. It’s a garden chore my daughter loves doing with me — we rock back and forth, she can’t stop laughing, I get good exercise.

 

 

 

2. After broadforking, layer on a “lasagna mulch” to suppress weeds and build fertility. In other words, you layer on different types of organic material, one of which is a weed block layer like cardboard or newspaper. On garden beds, I like using a few layers of wetted newspaper because it breaks down faster.

There are many variations to lasagna or sheet mulching. Mine usually ends up looking something like this, from bottom layer to top layer:

  • bottom: slashed vegetation (any weeds or cover crops on soil surface)
  • any soil amendments
  • thin layer of composted manure
  • newspaper or cardboard
  • 2 inches of compost
  • top layer: seedless mulch, like straw, leaves, lawn clippings, or cut-down cover crops

All these layers gradually break down, and the compost or manure invites lots of juicy earthworms that aerate the beds and gradually pull the organic materials deep into the soil.

The mulch shades the soil, blocks weeds, and creates fantastic habitat for soil micro-organisms, which are your partners in building good soil.

You can literally see yesterday’s news turning into good garden soil! Now there’s something to meditate on while gardening.

Once all the beds are established in this way, you can simply plant seeds into the newly formed, weed-free bed. Or, in case of transplants, break a little opening into the wetted newspaper layer and transplant directly into that hole. You now have an effective advantage over the weeds: by the time they break through the mulch, the plants you want are already well-established.

 

My favorite video resources for No-till gardening:

How to make a No-Dig Garden with Morag Gamble

Anything by Charles Dowding, but especially this and this