One of our larger guilds has a Pakistani mulberry tree that I’d planted last spring, and around it had grown tomatoes, melons, eggplant, herbs, Swiss chard, artichokes and garlic chives.
This guild was too large; any vegetable bed should be able to be reached from a pathway without having to step into the bed. Stepping on your garden soil crushes fungus and microbes, and compacts (deoxygenates) the soil. So of course when I told my daughter last week that we had to plant that guild that day, what I ended up meaning was, we were going to do a lot of digging in the heat and maybe plant the next day. Most of my projects are like this.
Lavender, valerian, lemon balm, horehound, comfrey and clumping garlic chives were still thriving in the bed. Marsh fleabane, a native, had seeded itself all around the bed and had not only protected veggies from last summer’s extreme heat, but provided trellises for the current tomatoes.
Marsh fleabane is an incredible lure for hundreds of our tiny native pollinators and other beneficial insects. Lots of lacewing eggs were on it, too. The plants were coming up from the base, so we cut and dropped these dead plants to mulch the guild.
The stems were hollow and just the right size to house beneficial bees such as mason bees. This plant is certainly a boon for our first line of defense, our native insects.
We also chopped and dropped the tomato vines. Tomatoes like growing in the same place every year. With excellent soil biology – something we are still working on achieving with compost and compost teas – you don’t have to rotate any crops.
We had also discovered in the last flood that extra water through this heavy clay area would flow down the pathway to the pond, often channeled there via gopher tunnels.
We decided to harvest that water and add water harvesting pathways to the garden at the same time. We dug a swale across the pathway, perpendicular to the flow of water, and continued the swale into the garden to a small hugel bed.
Hugelkultur means soil on wood, and is an excellent way to store water in the ground, add nutrients, be rid of extra woody material and sequester carbon in the soil. We wanted the bottom of the swale to be level so that water caught on the pathway would slowly travel into the bed and passively be absorbed into the surrounding soil. We used our wonderful bunyip (water level).
Because of the heavy clay involved we decided to fill the swale with woody material, making it a long hugel bed. Water will enter the swale in the pathway, and will still channel water but will also percolate down to prevent overflow. We needed to capture a lot of water, but didn’t want a deep swale across our pathway. By making it a hugel bed with a slight concave surface it will capture water and percolate down quickly, running along the even bottom of the swale into the garden bed, without there being a trippable hole for visitors to have to navigate. So we filled the swale with stuff. Large wood is best for hugels because they hold more water and take more time to decompose, but we have little of that here. We had some very old firewood that had been sitting on soil. The life underneath wood is wonderful; isn’t this proof of how compost works?
We laid the wood into the trench.
If you don’t have old logs, what do you use? Everything else!
We are wealthy in palm fronds.
We layered all sorts of cuttings with the clay soil, and watered it in, making sure the water flowed across the level swale.
As we worked, we felt as if we were being watched.
Mr. and Mrs. Mallard were out for a graze, boldly checking out our progress. He is guarding her as she hikes around the property, leading him on a merry chase every afternoon. You can see Mr. Mallard to the left of the little bridge.
After filling the swale, we covered the new trail that now transects the guild with cardboard to repress weeds.
Then we covered that with wood chips and delineated the pathway with sticks; visitors never seem to see the pathways and are always stepping into the guilds. Grrr!
At this point the day – and we – were done, but a couple of days later we planted. Polyculture is the best answer to pest problems and more nutritional food. We chose different mixes of seeds for each of the quadrants, based on situation, neighbor plants, companion planting and shade. We kept in mind the ‘recipe’ for plant guilds, choosing a nitrogen-fixer, a deep tap-rooted plant, a shade plant, an insect attractor, and a trellis plant. So, for one quarter we mixed together seeds of carrot, radish, corn, a bush squash, leaf parsley and a wildflower. Another had eggplant, a short-vined melon (we’ll be building trellises for most of our larger vining plants), basil, Swiss chard, garlic, poppies, and fava beans. In the raised hugelbed I planted peas, carrots, and flower seeds.
In the back quadrant next to the mulberry I wanted to trellis tomatoes.
I’d coppiced some young volunteer oaks, using the trunks for mushroom inoculation, and kept the tops because they branched out and I thought maybe they’d come in handy. Sure enough, we decided to try one for a tomato trellis. Tomatoes love to vine up other plants. Some of ours made it about ten feet in the air, which made them hard to pick but gave us a lesson in vines and were amusing to regard. So we dug a hole and stuck in one of these cuttings, then hammered in stakes on either side and tied the whole thing up.
The result looks like a dead tree. However, the leaves will drop, providing good mulch, the tiny current tomatoes which we seeded around the trunk will enjoy the support of all the small twigs and branches, and will cascade down from the arched side.
We seeded the area with another kind of carrots (carrots love tomatoes!) and basil, and planted Tall Telephone beans around the mulberry trunk to use and protect it with vines. We watered it all in with well water, and can’t wait to see what pops up! We have so many new varieties from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and other sources that we’re planting this year! Today we move onto the next bed.