Starting a Garden on a rough Patch

(I found this post as a draft, I wrote it a year ago, on April 15th, I liked what I read, so I’m going to use it, and add an update to the end.)

We all have done it, or will do it at some point. Decide we want a garden, and this right here is just the spot where we want it. My current garden is on a block of land carved from a pasture. I started by hand. I had no rototiller and it was all done with a shovel, hoe, pickaxe, and rake. Coastal Bermuda, Sunflowers, and all the nastiest weeds you could imagine. I knew we had a layer of sandstone under the surface all over this little hill we live on, and this patch was no better than anywhere else I have dug. About 6-10 inches of topsoil, and then the sandstone. The sandstone is kind of soft for a rock, and if you’re not careful a tiller can break it up and make a heck of a mess, as well as possibly break the tiller. I decided to cheat a little setting up the original garden. I have used raised beds before in gardens, and thought it was a great idea. I really like to plant in blocks rather than rows, and think it helps with weeds, water, soil compaction, and packs more crops into a smaller footprint. I decided on the size I wanted to work with, being 4 feet wide, and 16 feet long. I wasn’t sure how I was going to like the whole layout, so I went on the cheap. 1 x 6 lumber, and all 8 footers. I just cut a bunch in half, and attached the ends and midpoints with a million bits of pipe strap and short screws. I knew the wood was going to be short lived, but decided to go ahead, I could always replace the frames as needed with better materials. I figured stealing the dirt from the walkways and using it to make the soil in the beds deeper would also help. In a perfect world I would have brought in loads of mushroom compost from the farm down the road, but the cost was prohibitive considering what it all was already costing. For a couple beds I went with 8 feet wide and 8 or 16 feet long for Potatoes and Sweet Potatoes. I thought cleaning the walkways with a hoe and a rake would be easy, and working in the beds would be easy. So, I cleared, pulled, built, and shoveled. I raked, and raked, and picked up rocks, and pulled weeds. When I was done with each area, I was pleased, and it looked like all was going well. It was taking a lot of time, and I made that worse by deciding to add in a farm engineered rainwater catchment system after finding a few large tanks for a pretty good deal.

There was a point when I brought in a 3 point tiller and broke up the remaining area of the garden, which helped speed things up a bit. There was still all the raking, and cleaning all the weeds I could out.

I knew, of course, that working the soil always brings up seeds long since buried, and revives some roots to regrow. The first year is always heavy in weeding, and I was prepared for that, but since the beds were nice and tilled, usually weeds pull easily.

A start on the raised beds

A start on the raised beds

Here are some pictures of the original efforts..Photo1163

I began planting a few things where I could, while still working on getting the rest of the garden into shape, and at some point a good friend let me use his Mantis tiller. I was pretty surprised at how well it worked in the beds, and it made short work of getting the beds in good order. I obtained about 40 yards of horse litter from a farm up the road, and added it into many of the beds, and I’m sure it brought it’s own troubles with it, more weed seeds. I did notice the weeds started growing almost before the beds were getting planted… It had started… that race between my wits’ end, and the weeds.

There were several mistakes I made, ok, maybe more, but the very worst mistakes were – Not getting a soil test… not bringing in mushroom compost… not finishing the irrigation system before planting… and not using better lumber for the frames. 4 years later, the frames are still here, in various stages of decomposition, but still useable. The soil test I had done this year showed just how bad the soil here really is. My PH is 7.9, and there is precious little (as in 0) Nitrogen, and an astronomical amount of Calcium. This all together creates a tough environment for most of the plants I want to grow. The high PH causes Iron to be hard for many plants to access. The high Calcium causes the same thing, doubling the problem. There is a condition called Iron chlorosis that makes leaves turn yellow showing green venation (you can see green veins in the leaves still). There was also a high Phosphorous, and Potassium count. Many people will say get more compost, however, compost is high in Phosphorous and Potassium, and low in Nitrogen. Also, if the compost has wood chips in it (like the horse manure I brought in) the Nitrogen you do have gets tied up in decomposing the wood, and becomes unavailable for the plants.

All this I didn’t know while I was putting the garden together. I was winging it, off the cuff, eyeballing the look of the soil, and farm engineering the rest. Really, the soil can look great, but be a hostile environment for the plants we want to grow. But, the weeds?, yea, they also showed signs of Iron Chlorosis, as well as some leaf curling. As I planted things, I began to see things. Especially in the beans and peas. I was seeing the results of what looked like persistent herbicides. These are weed killers many farms use on hay fields, and grazing pastures for cows. They kill the weeds, and not the grass. And they take a long time to go away… They get into the grass, and survive the digestive system of the livestock that eat it. We compost the manure, and think it’s a great thing to add to the garden. The problem is, the plants we want to grow look like weeds to the herbicides, they have no way to decide what plants to effect, and what to not. I know for a fact this area was sprayed when my parents had calves back in that pasture. In retrospect, I know much of the hay we feed was sprayed when it was being grown, and I have no idea about the Horse manure I added in. This is a phenomenon commonly called ‘Killer Compost’. The soil test will not show this. The only ‘fix’ if you do have it in your garden is to till every 6 months or so, and allow it to ‘off gas’ or age long enough for the herbicides to dissipate, somewhere around 5 years or more…

Fast forward to 2017..

I decided the garden I had, was not the garden I wanted. It was in a terrible place, on the North side of the barn, right in the path of every storm from the north. There can be some pretty vicious weather come in from the North, Also, it was right on the property line. Whenever the neighbor sprayed his property for weeds, the drift came into my garden. As did the grasshoppers, skunks, possums, armadillos…. etc, etc…

Also, the raised beds were too restrictive, there was too much walkway (with grass). And, as if that all wasn’t enough, it was too far from my zone 1. Zone 1? Yea, well, that’s the zone I travel in every day. My most frequented area of the property. The area I see from the house, walk past to do daily chores. Zone 1 is where I need my garden, so I can keep abreast of any situation needing my attention. I can pull weeds on the way to feed the animals. I can tie a plant to a support when I come home from town. I can see insect damage before it gets out of control, as I have my morning coffee. Another bonus… the dogs can see the rabbits as they think about entering the garden to munch on my plants.

So, I made the decision to abandon the old garden, and turn it over to the goats for the moment, while I reclaim yet another rough patch of ground for my new garden. In front IMG_5285of the house, across the driveway there is an odd area left by a strange fencing decision from some previous owner, so I decided I was not going to try to cut and bale this tiny patch, and I wasn’t going to try to put cows on this tiny patch… I would make it a garden. It was growing coastal bermuda, and johnson grass, and hay grazer, and weeds, and rain lilies. It was full of rabbits, and who knows what else the dogs kept chasing out there. I needed to get rid of all that grass somehow, and was advised to simply spray it all with round-up. Wait… I just fought that stuff in the other garden for the last 5 years and never had peas or beans due to it… No, I think, this will not have that… I haven’t sprayed weed killer on this property since 2009, I am trying like crazy to heal this little patch of land as best as I can, and I just can’t do that, especially where I am going to 20170129_143731grow my food. So, I decided to feed the weeds to the animals. I put pigs out there, and chickens, and turkeys as well. They ate and ate, dug, and scratched.

The pigs scared away anything big enough to be a bite, or a meal, and the birds ate any bug or rodent that strayed into their yard to escape the pigs. The pigs dug, pushed, sniffed out all the grubs they could find, they tilled, and made a general mess of the space I gave them. But they broke up the hard ground, and left behind a generous helping of the results of their work. Finally, I could wait no longer, there was an offer from a neighbor to come over with a 3 point tiller and a tractor… and I wasn’t about to let that opportunity slip away! I moved the birds, and the pigs, and away he went, spinning and turning, chopping and fluffing. When he was done (a very short time later) The space looked like a new penny… 20170212_125001(well, to a gardener any ways, lol) Even as good as it looked, I refused to fool myself. I know for a fact the grass will come back. 20170214_161202So, I used a shovel, and made walkways, raked the beds, tilled with a walk behind, and raked again, tilled again, and raked again… until I was somewhat satisfied I had gotten a good portion of the grass clumps, and leveled the beds and planted some stuff. A very limited selection of stuff, but some stuff. If I am diligent, persistent, and downright manic, I might be able to slow the weeds down, and have a decent go of a garden by next Spring, lol. 20170223_125424For now, anything I harvest is a bonus, and I’m not going too crazy trying to plant any particular crop, just whatever I have, into what ever beds I think are suitably weed free. I am also not going too crazy planting for another reason – irrigation. The total garden I am looking to put in is only about a half acre, but it is well over the size where you want to drag a hose around and try to keep things watered properly. That just isn’t good time management… So, for now, i’m only putting in what I can water, and weed with the time I have, until I can put together a proper drip irrigation system.20170414_172842


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