At last I have been able to start preparing a perennial vegetable patch in my new “Borderland” garden – like this:
- dead sticks, boughs and twigs from the hedge
- turf from the lawn
- topsoil from the bank below the hedge
- humus from beneath the hedge
- and large flat stones dug from hedge and lawn
- lay the sticks, twigs and boughs on the ground and trample (gently) on them to flatten a bit;
- upturn the turfs and place them one layer, possibly two layers, thick on the sticks;
- cover with a mixture of topsoil / humus and spread gently;
- surround the patch with flat stones to make an edge.
This first veggie patch is situated at the side of the house, in a relatively shady area between the house and next door. It was chosen as the starting point because observations showed that this area is actually a little warmer than other parts of the garden as frost and snow both disappeared first from here.
One of the great gifts from this garden is that it lies alongside a road that has been used since at least Roman times. Along the edge runs a mixed hedge of hawthorn, blackthorn, elder, damson, ash, holly and hazel, entwined in ivy. It is set up on a bank which is itself two to three feet in height. Given that the boundary has been in place for (literally) centuries I can be sure that it has never been ploughed or disturbed by other human activity and is virtually certain to be teeming with lots of miniscule life forms.
At some time in the past the hedge was properly laid and there is still a clear framework of horizontal branches. However some have died and broken off, others have grown too large and need to be removed. As far as I am aware the hedge has generally been trimmed, in the way that many rural hedges are cut, by a local farmer using one of those cutting attachments on the tractor which slices across the top leaving the cut wood to fall to the ground. Happily this has led to a large quantity of decomposing and decomposed wood building up into a very rich, dark, humus-y layer at the base of the hedge making a lovely environment for insect life and decomposer organisms.
It has also meant an accumulation of small fragments of dead wood within the hedge and by removing it I have been able to let light and air in. This has enabled me to see parts that need pruning to keep them under control and also to identify some places where I can introduce new things into the hedge later in the year. The picture below shows an accumulation of dead twigs.
The garden has far more lawn than we need and over time much of it will be removed to make room for edibles of all kinds. But one of the first things to do is to make a welcoming bed of flowers near the entrance as a cheery greeting to us and all visitors! The turf ingredient for the new veggie patch came from the area being cleared for a wild flower patch.
The top of the bank where the hedge grows in is covered in a profusion of plants, as yet unidentified until spring brings them into plain view. I plan to keep the wild character, but to introduce all my favourite wild plants as well! I have so far been able to plant patches of three cornered leek, wild garlic, primrose, foxglove and sweet cicely.
To make room to plant these I had to remove some very tangled ivy stems, leaf litter and remove some of the top layer of humus to level the area. This liberated the humus-y materials for cladding the new veggie bed. I did feel a bit bad taking off the top few inches of beautiful, soft, dark, springy humus as I would not generally disturb such good habitat. However as I am only transferring it a few feet away and there is still plenty left I was happy that this was not a destructive thing to do.
I was also able to use some soil from the base of the hedge bank to clothe the new beds with. This looks to be almost entirely mineral in nature, being quite yellow coloured – I am presuming it is clay, but it was not lumpy and uneven textured as clay often is. Taking this soil has made the edge a little smoother alongside a planned path.
Mixed in with the soil in the boundary edge and beneath the lawn there are lots of sizeable flat stones, derived from a shaley rock that outcrops locally. I have removed the largest ones to make an edge to help the new patches stay in place. They should also provide a small amount of differential microclimate by heating up in the sun and also some interesting nooks and crannies for insects to live in. Smaller stones have been left in situ.
I knew that I needed a deep veggie bed, and that I would not be using any kind of conventional raised bed flanked with wooden sides. The method just developed in response to the materials on hand and the plans for the garden overall. This three part sandwich of materials that needed to be removed anyway – dead wood, turf and humus / top soil, will break down naturally (and hopefully quickly) into a deep, nourishing, fertile bed for my perennial veggies. This is what the patch looks like so far.
All the materials used were readily available and suitable for reassigning into a new purpose. The rationale for using them is as follows:
- The decomposing wood at the bottom will help hold moisture. But also I hope its presence, and the air it has trapped round it, will improve drainage. The area for this first patch lies in a bit of a dip in the landscape that has been holding water and growing moss. I want to raise the area, and have the finished beds at a level that will drain downhill towards the rest of the garden, rather than accumulate water.
- The wood will also be host to decomposer organisms which liberate, and store in their own bodies, the nutrients once embedded in the wood. This is one part of providing fertility and health for the patch.
- The turfs will break down, again providing additional fertility and the action of worms and other soil life should ensure the resultant soil has a good texture.
- I did something similar in the Telford garden last summer using a double layer of turf for a new veggie patch and started it off with a sowing of phacelia which grew very happily in the upturned turf. The deep bed that resulted made a fine home for some yacon plants which I am sure benefited from the depth of soil.
- Topsoil on the patch provides minerals.
- Humus, leaf litter and partly decomposed wood and twigs from the hedge bottom adds organic matter which binds minerals to its surface and adds more microscopic life.
- The final ingredient is to add some living things as soon as possible. Nature would do this anyway – in the form of “weeds” – ie plants that take advantage of available nutrients and store them in their bodies. I am happy for any such plants to live here until I have others ready to move in, but also planted peas in one part and broad beans in another. These will not only add life to the soil, they will start to add nitrogen and eventually give flowers for insects to visit and pods to harvest!
The day I prepared the first square snow still lay on the ground, quite a lot of it in parts. To save energy, carting water from the house, and to save mains water as well, I put large dollops of snow on top of the bed to water it as it melted. It began raining as I prepared the second square so I just let nature do the watering.
One of the principles of permaculture is to aim to create closed systems thus avoiding bringing in resources from outside and reducing or eliminating waste products. Happily, thanks to the kind gifts of nature my perennial veggie patch can be prepared without bringing in any resources from outside but just be rearranging things within the garden. All it took was time spent observing and thinking over the winter and my inclination to use as little physical effort and minimal time as possible.
So far I have prepared two adjacent squares, each of approximately one metre square, with a boot sized “path” of sticks between them. This together, with planting some things in the hedge has taken me
- 2 ¼ hours to remove dead wood from the hedge
- 5 ¼ hours to prepare the beds and plant
- 1 hour of my partner’s time helping
- Totalling 8 ½ hours
Doing this preparation did not feel like work, though it was quite hard at times. Being in the garden and being aware of nature, trying to co-operate rather than coerce feels more like play than work. It is fun, even in the cold and wet.
Whilst “playing” in the garden I was very glad to see a beetle that I had never met before. My reference book identified it as a violet ground beetle, an extravagantly deep purple edged creature and a slug eater to boot! Then just to add to the passing biodiversity that we are currently attracting these woolly friends were grazing the lawn first thing this morning having escaped from a farm down the road!