Ingredients for a New Perennial Vegetable Patch

At last I have been able to start preparing a perennial vegetable patch in my new “Borderland” garden – like this:

Ingredients

  • 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

 Method

  • 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. 

DSCN4596

 

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.

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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. 

DSCN4581

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!

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About Anni Kelsey

Author of Edible Perennial Gardening and avid researcher into edible perennials and associated useful plants.
This entry was posted in Borderland Garden, Forest Gardening, Perennial Vegetables, Permaculture and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Ingredients for a New Perennial Vegetable Patch

  1. Vivi says:

    Good work. A few things to consider, though:

    Using a lot of wood for a (mini) Hügelkultur is nice for water retention, but the process of decomposing wood uses up soluble nitrogen in the soil (the bacteria need it to grow and wood doesn’t contain much on its own). This won’t be a problem now, with the peas and beans, but it might be later if you plan to plant anything else.
    Peas and beans fix their own nitrogen, but they’ll only release it into the soil if you leave the plant matter there to decompose. Since you’ll be eating most of the protein-containing parts, the soil won’t get enriched much. You should still add some compost, especially if the humus wasn’t very rich.

    Vegetables generally need a lot of sunlight to produce all that starch and protein in the seeds and storage roots that have been enlarged beyond the natural through human selective breeding. So putting it in the shade might not have been the best idea, unless you plan to grow mostly leafy vegetables and asparagus.

    Some woods and leaves contain growth inhibitors for other plants or decomposing bacteria. I don’t think it will be much of a problem in your case, but I just wanted to mention it in case someone else wants to build their own vegetable patch. For example, pine needles and bark (often sold as mulch), as well as oak and chestnut leaves make the soil acidic, which is great for blueberries, but bad for vegetables. Walnut leaves and wood contain growth inhibitors that are especially bad for anything from the nightshade family (tomatoes, potatoes). All resinous evergreen woods decompose badly and are not recommended for Hügelkultur beds, but I’ve read that stuff like thuja and juniper shouldn’t even be put in the compost heap, and instead just be used to mulch under flower bushes and such.

    By the way, have you any tips on transplanting crocuses and snowdrops? I want to clear a patch of lawn for a vegetable patch, but I want to save the spring flowers that have proliferated there after I planted them 15 years ago. I was planning to do it now, before the grass starts to grow, but I wonder if maybe I should wait until after the plants have bloomed. (The bloom is very belated this year, because of the coldest and snowiest March we had in Central Europe since the late 19th century.)
    I can’t plant anything until after the Ice Saints, anyway, so I still have a month of leeway…

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    • annisveggies says:

      Hi Vivi, thank you for your detailed comments.

      I will be making some more additions to the newly prepared vegetable beds over time and probably planting some nitrogen fixers that I won’t be eating – clover and possibly wild vetch. The peas and beans went in because they were handy and I tend to use what is available at the time!
      I hope that the wood I put at the bottom will not need too much nitrogen to continue its decomposition as much of it has been hanging around for a long time and is already very decayed and brittle.
      I will also almost certainly be mulching the top as the season goes on with bits and pieces.
      Yes, much of what I will grow will be leafy vegetables, but also tubers such as Jerusalem artichoke, yacon and oca. I have grown them in my other (main) garden in situations that were more shady than the new bed, which does get some early and late sun, and they were fine. I guess there will always be more to be gained from sunny situations and I will get a chance to use sunnier parts of the new garden in due course. It is in part an aesthetic choice to put the new beds in a relatively tucked away location as my partner thinks they look like graves and did not want them in what is effectively the front lawn!
      I don’t know about transplanting crocus as I have never done it. I understand the general advice on snowdrops is to wait until they have flowered and then move them, but a recent gardening programme showed the presenter moving a patch in flower. I have just done a search and found this link from the magazine that goes with the programme:
      http://www.gardenersworld.com/how-to/projects/planting/how-to-grow-snowdrops/308.html
      I would guess that crocus can be moved either in flower or after as long as you are careful.
      We have had a very cold March here, but yours sounds terrifyingly cold. I hope it is warming up a bit now.
      Anni

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      • Vivi says:

        Thank you for that link. That really helps. Our weather has been making up for lost time with more than 20°C and eternal sunshine these last few days (all my carefully pre-grown bushbeans got severe sunburn *sniff*), so the snowdrops and most of the crocuses have already lost their blooms anyway.

        I’ve got a mostly shady garden, too (it’s surrounded by large connifers), so I know your pain. Unfortunately I don’t much like leafy vegetables. And I already have digestive troubles, so Jerusalem artichokes are right out. Besides, I refuse to waste space growing a vegetable whose calories my body mostly can’t access. So I’ll be trying my luck with shade-grown peas this year as well. (You’re right, they’re just so easy. The pound pack of dried peas you can buy for soup are far cheaper than peas sold as seeds and they germinate more reliably than anything I’ve ever bought in a seed package.) They grew pretty well in a shady, north-facing window throughout March, so I figure they won’t actually die off from too little sunlight hours, like tomatoes or cucumbers would, for example. (Although, the test seedlings I grew in January on a window sill did die from lack of sunlight. But then again, it was the cloudiest, darkest winter Northern Germany had in decades. Climate change is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?) I’ve also had a lot of success with bush beans / French beans (grown for green beans, not the actual seeds) in the partial shade underneath a dense chestnut tree last year. And they come back from saved seeds very heartily – though I still have to see what the seedpods of the second generation look like, if there are any survivors after yesterday’s scorching, anyway.

        “my partner thinks they look like graves”
        Heh. Ouch. But judging from the photo, I can see where your partner is coming from. Is there a particular reason why they would have to be free-standing in the middle of the lawn? What we’ve been doing for the last few years is progressively encroach on the meadow space (*) from the sidelines, or making islands around tree trunks or things like water spouts, all separated from the meadow by an irregular, organically curving line of fist-sized river stones or leftover cobbles. (Mainly to keep grass and moss from recolonising the claimed space.)

        (* We don’t really have a lawn, as such. It started out as one, but my father refered to the type you have to mow every other weekend as “green concrete”, so he started sowing wild flowers and stopped fighting against weeds. The large amount of crocuses he had me plant as a teenager wasn’t just so it would look colourful in early spring, but also to provide an excuse not to mow until July (they don’t proliferate if you cut off the leaves early). There is some grass in there, but right now, it’s mainly large carpets of blooming bluebells and growing poppies and forget-me-nots, and occasional clumps of wild chives, crocuses and snowdrops. In the summer, it will be ferns and thick forest moss in the shade, and dry steppe grasses that outcompete most other plants in the sunny spots, because we’ve stopped artificially irrigating the area a few years ago and our summers get drier every year. I don’t understand the problem people have with moss – it’s nice and soft to walk on, keeps rainwater like a sponge, and looks green even frozen in winter or completely parched in high summer.)

        Oh, on the topic of chives: You’ve got perennial spring onions in your garden, right? I mean Allium fistulosum. I want to grow some, too, but while they did germinate readily (inside, in a large pot – due to the frozen March I couldn’t sow them right outside like I wanted), they seem to have stopped growing since then. They don’t actually die off, but the seedlings mostly lie flat on the ground like blades of trampled grass and seem to neither lengthen nor thicken over the last few weeks. Is this because they’re standing too closely? I figured they could take it, since they’ll hopefully grow in tight clusters someday. And the seedlings also look too fragile to separate yet… I’ve moved the pot into partial shade outside, in case they just need more sunlight that what they got indoors, but they’ve been outside for almost a week now and I can’t see any difference.

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  2. akgpodcast says:

    What a lovely hedge 🙂 Good luck with the new bed!

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  3. annisveggies says:

    Just a PS about the situaion of my new (grave like) veggie beds. They perhaps look like they are in the middle of the lawn, but they are in fact pretty much out of sight from most of the house,. They are about 6 feet from the house and I have just taken the picture so that you can’t see the house. Round the front of the garden – where most of it is – I am starting new beds by nibbling away from the edge by the path and later in the year I will probably be making beds within the lawn to plant fruit trees and fruiting shrubs.

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