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Saturday, May 31, 2014

Weeds to Riches

A Glimpse Back to 2012: "Before"
This is the earliest photo I have of this site, located just above the main garden. 

St. John's Wort can be a great medicinal plant, but when it is set free in the wild, it takes over with no regard for what it is overriding. (Here it is seen with an orange hue as the flowers begin to set seed.) Unlike knapweed, St. John's Wort does not stick to areas where the soil has been disturbed. I have watched it swallow up native sagebrush plant communities. In the past there was a lot of houndstongue here too, most of which I pulled manually in 2010 and 2011 before learning about sheet mulching. However, my attempts at pulling the St. John's Wort made it clear that I needed to take a different approach. Enter many truckloads of cardboard and a whole bunch of barley hay...

After applying a generous dressing of fresh manure for heat, then laying cardboard down and layering the barley hay on stop: smothering works! I used barley hay because it was available for free, and because it came with a cover crop seed built in. (Funny how this made it undesirable to others, but doubly useful for me!)

Little by little, the St. John's Wort retreats.

2013: The barley seed has sprouted and I've planted a few tiny rhubarb plants from my neighbor's garden. I've also moved some extra strawberry plants in from the main garden area and added more apple trees.

The rhubarb is growing, and the first smothered area is taking on new life... but in the foreground you can see there is still a lot of St. John's Wort to contend with.

I saw no reason why this project couldn't happen during winter, so I gathered up as many leaves as possible in the valley and brought them home at every opportunity -- for mulch on top of the cardboard.

This time around, I went without manure. While this method lacks the heat component, it also avoids introducing new weed seed to the site. The manure worked great for helping rot the St. John's Wort plants under the cardboard (and for building rich soil), but I did find new weeds cropping up as the cardboard decayed. I'm always up for tweaking the process and comparing results. 

Slowly the weeds made way for cardboard and leaves. I also added an above ground hugelkultur bed, but that is a topic for another day. 

In some places I experimented with using old cotton fabric sheets instead of cardboard, and they were a lot easier to work with, with the added benefit of being much more durable. 

I am thankful for all the people and businesses who have shared cardboard and leaves with me!! Thank you!

Early May 2014:
The snow is gone, and so is the St. John's Wort! 

I added Ponderosa Pine branches from some forest thinning that my husband did. These branches turned out to be critical to the success of the cardboard/leaves method, as we had some strong spring winds that began blowing the hard-earned leaves away! As I ran about laying more branches on top, they did the trick in securing the leaves to the ground. *Whew* This ain't Kansas, but the winds sure can blow sometimes. 

I'll take layers of debris over weeds any day. There can be concern about fire hazards when layering debris. However, if you irrigate, pine needles and leaves turn into beautiful compost. Even without irrigation, over time this is a soil-building process.

This is how it looks today, May 31, 2014. The orange hue you see now is from pine needles, which will rot and make the soil richer -- helping other, more desirable, plants to grow. 

Zooming out a little, you can see the context of the larger area. The posts form cages around apple trees, six different varieties. What was once a choked-out noxious weed zone is now supporting rhubarb, strawberries, horseradish, garlic, lettuce, valerian root, and asparagus. I didn't actually intend to make a garden here, but after hauling in loads of manure to help rot the weeds out, and after seeing the space open up, it naturally became our "garden annex." 

Weeds to riches, no doubt about it!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Gardening with Marmots

Yellow-Bellied Marmots are, admittedly, very cute. They are also voracious eaters and especially enjoy mowing down promising-looking carrot and pea plants. We have a lot of rock outcrops and piles of boulders, making our property excellent marmot habitat. They are here to stay, so I've been thinking long and hard about how to successfully grow a garden in tandem with their appetites... I mean, a garden that we get to eat from too! 

Hardware cloth is the first order of the day. I've been running it along the bottom of the deer fence, making it less convenient for marmots to run into the garden whenever hunger strikes. As you can see, I've run it vertically along the lower 2-3 feet of fence, and then horizontally along the ground for another foot or so. I placed cardboard underneath for weed control -- fencelines just seem to invite difficult weeding situations. Then on top of the ground-laying hardware cloth I piled wood chips and rocks.

You will notice I said, "to make it less convenient." We have watched baby marmots climb up and over 4 foot tall chicken wire, so I am not under the illusion that the hardware cloth can actually prevent them from entering. They are good at burrowing under barriers, so on the south section of the garden that faces their favorite rock hangout, I piled many gallons of small rock on top of the hardware cloth. But if I stopped there, I would still be inviting disaster. 

Second order of the day: Sacrificial garden beds. Above is the first garden bed offering for the marmots. It is a raised bed (made with, you guessed it, rock!), and here you see various weeds I pulled for a nitrogen layer in the soil. Under the weeds are some pieces of wood... Yes, even the Yellow-Bellied Marmots get their own hugelkultur bed here!

Next a layer of hay... I'm sure it will sprout lush orchard grass, which they will probably appreciate. Even if they don't eat the grass, it will help draw their attention. 

Then a layer of soil and a wide variety of seeds: carrots, lettuce, sunflower, calendula, radishes, peas, etc. This may not be enough, in which case I'll add more sacrificial beds.

It can be very challenging to grow food in a dry climate with lots of hungry animals all around. The chipmunks love cherry tomatoes, the gophers love carrots, the deer get desperate in September... the list just goes on. You've heard it all before. But there are benefits too, besides the fun of seeing so much wildlife. I am looking forward to (hopefully) having the Dusky Grouse in the garden again this year... they love to eat the slugs, and I just cheer them on! (Yes, we live in a semi-arid climate and we have thousands of slugs... but that is a topic for another day.)

In the meantime, we're hoping for harvest success through the combination of making it harder for marmots to enter, and enticing them with greens outside the garden fence. Fawn and I have also added cages around some of our favorite asparagus and strawberry plants, just in case the marmots get in, for a double layer of protection. Thankfully they estivate starting when summer gets hot, so we only need to keep them out of the garden for the first part of the growing season. (Estivation is a summertime hibernation to avoid the dry part of the year when food is scarce. I'm grateful that the marmots employ this survival strategy -- it takes some of the pressure off the garden!)

What do you do, to preserve some of the harvest for human consumption?  
I'd love to hear about your creative ideas and techniques; please comment below.