Belle of Dirt

Missouri Ozarks mom, mover of earth, photographer, maker and plant enthusiast


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Patio visitors

We try to keep our yard as toad and frog friendly as possible. My daughter loves them. She loves to catch them and take them to a “safe place;” she loves to watch them swim in our little pond. Every summer we wait for our annual visitor under the Amaryllis pot on our front walk.

Creating habitat for toads and frogs in your landscape is pretty easy. Toads and frogs need a water source near their home. This can be anything from a small garden pond to a birdbath saucer placed on the ground near their habitat. Keep the water changed fairly frequently if it isn’t running or moving- you don’t want to create a breeding ground for mosquitoes. 003.JPG
If you have pets, keep them away from the area your toad house is in. Don’t put the house somewhere that outdoor pets frequent. One of our cats was an adept toad and frog hunter, when we brought her inside the population of toads and frogs in our yard tripled!

Broken flower pots, crockery, old dishes, buckets, etc. make excellent toad houses. You can put a wet rag or some wet moss inside the house, under some leaves to keep the house cool and wet for toad friends. They LOVE those self-watering pots with the bottom taken off. There is just enough room for them to squeeze under, it stays moist and cool from watering the plant above and it’s fairly safe from most predators- ours especially, it’s sitting up high on a trellis rail. Since I’ve been putting this pot out on the porch, we have had a toad living under it all summer without fail.
It gets sun in the early morning, but is in shade during the hottest part of the afternoon.

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If you have kids, get creative! Toad houses are even better than those fairy houses kids love to build, since they can watch the actual animal living in the house. I Googled “Building a toad house” and pulled up TONS of great photos and ideas. Clay pots are often featured because they stay cooler and hold moisture better than plastic. If you can half bury the pot in the ground, it also gives your toads and frogs a place to dig in a bit and stay cool and safe.

Toads are great little insect eaters and I encourage as many as possible to hang about the garden. The more predators on plant eating insects, the better!
Share your toad house pictures! I love to see other people’s creative ideas and projects.

PS. Forgive my long hiatus from Dirt. I was busy all the month of June painting this mural for my daughter’s school. The posts will probably still be spare for a while. There is a possible move for us in the works, so I’m not doing many new projects here right now, mostly maintaining what’s already here. I’ll share some pictures and things though, because I still HAVE to be outside! 🙂
-B

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Shiny New Toys

It’s seedling time!

I spent a good part of today getting seeds started in the table top greenhouse Mister bought me for Christmas. Together with the HUGE greenhouse he gave me for Valentines’ Day, I’m SET for the season. A man who truly knows where my heart lies… in the dirt. LOL

We’ve been saving up our plastic water bottles for a couple of weeks. Had a whole box full under the kitchen sink- they were starting to overflow the box and roll out on the floor. I’d have to punt water bottles at random while doing dishes or making dinner. I cut the tops off about half-way down and use the bottom portion for planting seeds.

If anyone has any brilliant ideas for a use for these cut-off tops, I’d love to hear it. You can only keep so many about for funnels.

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Mister was kind enough to mount a bracket under the cabinet where my table-top greenhouse sits, to hold the grow light in place. It wasn’t a have-to thing with this set up, the photo on the box shows the light sitting directly on top of the greenhouse itself. I feared that it would wind up melting the plastic when left on for a long time or get knocked off and wind up broken. Those grow lights can be expensive! It gives TONS of light, even mounted a couple inches above the box. Much more than the light through the window or the grow bulb I had rigged up the previous year. This was a nice kit- the lid sits up almost a foot high, so the seedlings have plenty of room to grow, there are vents in the top that can be opened and closed. I’m not sure exactly where he got it, but I found one on Amazon that looks very much like this one for around $50, light included: Table Top Seed Starter Kit

There are some really pretty Victorian style ones if you’d rather have something elegant that isn’t plastic. I’m happy with this, it gets the job done, it’s washable and it will do a fabulous job growing strong seedlings. I’ve always had issues with not enough light in the past. Our only window with southern exposure is in our office. It’s tiny, the cats love to knock off the few plants that are in there, it’s not the most optimal place to start seeds. No cats here, it fits on the counter and did I mention… I really love the light. There’s something really inviting about it, like with real sunlight.


I’m doing several different sorts of tomato this year, as I couldn’t decide which I liked best. I have a yellow cherry, a roma, a beefsteak and a roma grape that we’re going to try. I’ve been saving up bell pepper seeds from the peppers we get from the grocery store, they worked fine last year. They aren’t quite true to the original, but actually had a stronger (but still sweet) flavor. Peppers LOVE heat, so I may keep some of those plants in the greenhouse this year and see how they do. We also have a package of carrot seeds that Burpee sent as a free gift. We’ll be starting cucumber and snow peas, but I direct sow those into the garden at planting time instead of starting them in the house. Peas don’t mind a little chill and cucumbers grow extremely fast and produce long before other plants that are direct-sowed.

I use a basic seed starting mix (which is mostly made of peat) to fill the bottles. The reason you use this instead of potting soil is that it’s sterile- meaning there shouldn’t be weed or grass seeds sprouting in it and competing with your plants. Also, it’s very light, fluffy and holds water well, so those frail little starter roots don’t have to fight through heavy dirt to get moving. I filled  over thirty bottles with a single bag.

The Popsicle sticks I saved from ice cream bars. I love these things, they are great for stirring paint, apply glue or plaster, scraping sticky things and work great as plant markers. I just write on the ends with a permanent waterproof marker. The last time I started seeds, I used bendy straws. Whatever you have handy is fine, so long as it’s waterproof and you can write on it. I’ve used bits of foam egg carton, plastic bottle, straws, peeled tree branch, you name it.

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This is the final set-up, all planted and sunning on my counter. I noticed that the the light spreads quite a bit past the sides of the greenhouse. I think I may add a couple more bottles on one side with a  pear and cherry tree seeds I want to play with. If I don’t cut the tops all the way off, they’re like single mini-greenhouses. Might as well take advantage of that light! 🙂

I’ll post more progression pictures as things start to sprout. One note on water- don’t drown your seeds! They only need a bit of a drink to start with, then check them every day to make sure they don’t dry out, but don’t let them just sit in water. It can rot delicate roots very quickly if they get too wet. I don’t have a heat mat under mine, so they don’t get quite very warm and dry out quickly. The clear bottles aren’t organic like peat pots, toilet paper rolls or as convenient maybe as plastic cell flats- but they are really nice for checking on whether the plant needs water at a glance (the peat is darker when it’s wet) and how the roots are coming along. If there are seeds near the side, you can even see them break through the seed coat and sprout. My daughter loves to watch this happen, she thinks it’s amazing.

She helped plant and water all the seeds. She even tagged a couple of the sticks for me. 🙂
She’s a wonderful little garden helper.

I was serious about those water bottle tops. I would love to hear your ideas or suggestions. I hate putting useful stuff in the trash!

-B

 

 


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Baby it’s COLD outside  

BRRRR! I got spoiled with our mild October weather. Today really FEELS like winter is on its way. It feels like it for my garden too. Everything that wasn’t covered last night is wilted and frost-nipped today, but the REAL cold hasn’t even truly hit us… yet. It’s supposed to get down in the 20’s this weekend, followed by several nights of at or below freezing temps. The garden is taking a true dirt-nap, any annuals that have struggled along are now down for the count. 010
I have a few things around the yard that are perennial, but they need a bit of help surviving a Missouri winter. Mostly I buy plants that will be suitable for zone five or below, even though the Lake area is in a tiny hot spot of zone 6b. Sometimes though, even plants that are properly zoned can use a little extra help for a year or two until they get deep root systems established. Also, I don’t like digging up my elephant ears every fall, (it’s a pain to pot and store all of them) so I’m going to try caging them year and see if the bulb can survive in the ground till spring.

It doesn’t take too much work or cash to see a tender plant through the winter. I’ve caged a very small rose bush, two little crepe myrtles (a new type, supposed to be cold hearty to zone 4, but until they’re bigger, I’m 009not risking it!), my Japanese Maple that Tom and E bought me (it’s the graft site on this that concerns me) and the elephant ear. I save my cages from year to year and use them as compost towers in the garden during the spring/summer/fall. They made some great compost this year to toss on top of the garden mounds and served as an convenient place to toss organic waste while I worked in the garden.

These cages are nothing more than a bit of that plastic coated garden fence (3 to 4ft), formed into a cylinder and held in place with yard stakes. I use the leftovers I have lying around from where we fenced the yard years ago, but they do sell it in smallish rolls at the garden center if you don’t have any scrap handy. My cages are only about a foot or so across, so a 3 foot long section will make a single cage. For the elephant ear, I made a new one that was about 3 feet across. This took a section of fence about 5 feet long. I snipped off one end with wire snips, leaving the long horizontals, these can be used to wrap around the fence after you roll it into a cylinder- no extra wire needed.


I carefully place the towers over the plants I want to protect. The bigger the plant, the bigger your cage is going to have to be. I used cardboard this year to line the cages before stuffing them with leaves. Last year I lost almost 50% of my leaves to breakdown and wind before spring. By the time it started warming up; the tips of my plants were showing through the top. The crepe myrtle and rose are no more than a foot tall. The graft on the maple is about 2 feet up and the elephant ear, I’m really only protecting what’s in the ground. I use about 3 garden stakes per tower, kind of weaving them through the fence a couple times before shoving them in the ground. You want to do this BEFORE the ground freezes!

Towers in place, I raked the sidewalk. This filled about a tower and a half, so I had to mow the back yard and use that to finish off the rest. Mowing has the added benefit of chopping up the leaves and adding other coarse yard material. Leaves are excellent insulators. Just ask any kid that has climbed into a giant pile of leaves, raked up in the fall. They are nice and warm under all those little layers of air. The cardboard adds another layer. I stuff the towers from the bottom up, packing them firmly, but not ramming the leaves down so hard that it snaps branches or crushes the plant. You want to protect it from freezing, not ram it into the earth.

Mowing the yard to get leaves gave the added benefit of my not having to rake massive piles and then figure out what to do with them after. Burning leaves sets off my asthma in a big way, so I hate having to burn those huge piles every fall. I spent all of 20 minutes raking this year and we have a BIG yard. The only intensive raking necessary with the mulching mower is to get the leaves away from the fence so they can be chopped up. (Mulching mower isn’t some highly specialized machine BTW- it’s simply a push mower with a grass bag attached)
I did rake the yard lightly after mowing, to get up any remaining leaf bits, thatch (common with Zoysia grasses) and little rocks that have surfaced. 20 minutes of raking and my yard looks like this.
After I’d filled up my leaf towers, I used the rest to put mulch rings around our trees.

If I remember this summer, I’ll try to re-post here about whether or not the leaf tower worked for the elephant ears. They are zoned for 8-10, but I’ve had them survive winters in the past by keeping them right up next to the foundation of our house. This one is on the foundation, but it’s on the North side not the South- which means it doesn’t benefit from the warmth of the sun- EVER. One more note on the towers… I can imagine some people find these cardboard and leaf towers standing in the yard to be an eyesore. Wrap them in burlap or black weed barrier fabric if you like. It will add an extra layer of protection and hide the ugly. I put Christmas lights on mine last year. 🙂

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My daughter put in Frozen for us to watch today, built a tiny 3 inch snowman from last night’s flurries in our yard and made snow cones out of collected snow and Gatorade. The radio is playing Christmas songs, every other commercial on TV is about holiday shopping. I have to concede that my growing season is over and the chill is here.

Stay warm folks.

B


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Quick raised bed

004My daughter threw a few zinnia seeds at the end of our driveway this spring, which resulted in a slightly haphazard patch of gorgeousness by midsummer. I mulched her spontaneous flower garden in August to help protect them from drying out too quickly in the horrible dirt they’d been planted in. When we cut away the last remaining stragglers last week, (zinnias bloom forever!) I promised her a much nicer medium for next year’s seeds.
This is my basic recipe for any raised bed I do in our yard now. It’s part hugelkulture mound, part lasagna gardening. Both are just fancy terms meaning I layer a bunch of organic material and then plop some plants in at some point and watch them grow.
I was breaking down a previous very large bed I built nearly 12 years ago, so I pulled rock and small boulders from that to use as a border. Some of my beds are made with scrap lumber, some with purchased landscape blocks. Most of them are rocks from various places on our property- because they are a) free and b) look organic instead of overly formal and contrived.
Build your border out of whatever you like. Just remember you’ll want it high enough to accommodate several layers of material, unless you mound the bed (tall center, near ground-level edges.)
First layer, if you are concerned with underground lovelies, such as moles, should be hardware cloth. Our “soil” here is clay and rock, rock and more rock. I seldom bother with hardware cloth. If you are lucky enough to have wonderful, silty soil, you probably have critters to go with it. Put down hardware cloth, save yourself grief later. (Hardware cloth is not actually cloth. It is a metal grid with holes small enough to put your finger through, but not small enough for rodents to climb through. I’m not sure why they call it “cloth” at all.)
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MY first layer is cardboard and/or newspaper. I receive a ridiculous number of catalogs and papers stuffed with ads from every grocery and hardware store within a 30 mile radius… And the occasional phone book. I use them for weed barrier. Worms like this stuff, MUCH better than they like that black weed barrier on a roll crap you get at the garden center. Put a nice thick layer on the bottom of your new beds in the fall, water well, you’ll have 99% fewer weeds to deal with later. I’ve also used cardboard boxes ripped up like in the photo with the ferns at right. Cardboard lasts longer, but it’s harder to place around delicate plants.
107To the newspaper, I add a course layer of twigs, leftover mulch, chopped leaves yard clippings, whatever I have around for drainage. I avoid grass cuttings though, because we have a lot of crabgrass that sprouts everywhere and that stuff is vicious if it gets a foothold.
Over the roughage, I’ll add the actual soil or planting medium. How amended this is depends a lot on what I’m planting. For annual flowers like zinnias or marigolds, native clay with a bit of last year’s compost is usually fine. If I’m planting veggies, I use a lot more nutrient dense mix. I may add blood meal, peat moss, mushroom compost.

By now you’ve probably built things up enough it’s time for the second course of border (if you used rocks). Some people mortar these together or use landscape adhesive. I used it when building the pond and can vouch that it holds pretty well. I just use clay to hold together most of my rock borders. Since our native soil is 70% clay and 30% rock or clay that has turned to rock, it makes great glue when it’s wet. Start the base of your border with newspaper or cardboard to keep weeds from growing up between. Add the first course of rock. Fill your raised bed to the tops of the first level of rock, covering the tops with a bit of earth. The lay the top course over the bottom. If you’re doing this with landscaping blocks, bricks or concrete that you purchased, you’ll need to level each course and use sand/mortar to secure them in place. Rocks are a bit more forgiving. Kids can even sit/climb on the big boulders without damaging the bed.

On top of leftover straw, I added a couple wheelbarrows of burned  up trash from our burn pile. Over this I added 3 wheelbarrows full of native soil. This spring, I’ll add the plants, maybe a little blood meal to give it a nitrogen boost and mulch on top of that. Water each layer well to settle the bed and prevent air pockets.

In seriously weed prone areas, I sometimes newspaper between the plants again, on top of the soil, to keep weeds from taking over between my plants.


The mulch I start as a light layer, then build to about 3-4 inches deep as my plants mature. The idea is to retain moisture and soil nutrient content without smothering your plants. If your mulching material is fine (like shredded leaves) you may need to add to it a couple times a season as it breaks down.
117That’s it. Follow that recipe for your raised planting beds and they will be low maintenance and grow very healthy plants for several seasons. As the organic materials break down, you may need to re-layer every 4-5 years or so. On this bed, I’ll eventually have to replace that big stump with rock as it rots… but it looks kind of cool for now. 🙂
Raised garden beds are MUCH easier than raking, tilling and hoeing all season. Healthier for the micro-organisms in your soil and for your plants too!
B


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A Shady Problem

FrontWalk2003When we moved to this property over 15 years ago, the previous owner had lost it to repossession. I guess he decided he wasn’t letting the bank have anything that wasn’t in the original deal, so he tore the back porch down that he’d built, ripped the gutters off the house, etc. The yard was pretty much a blank slate of clay and rock, barren of even weeds in most places.

The front walkway has evolved over the years with the yard, but I’ve never really found quite the right solution for it. The first couple years, we just threw down straw to keep from tracking mud in the house. Then I let the weeds grow and just trimmed them short so that you could tell where you were supposed to walk of you came in the front door. I had built a concrete walk for the back, which we used and the front walk remained ugly and ignored for years. My first attempt at building a raised bed from rocks was under this window. I planted it full of elephant ears, which was really pretty, but then they got so big after a bit that they were hanging over the walk. Then we had an especially cold winter and the elephant ears were no more.

I finally got around to leveling at some point and building a  walkway. At first, the sides were only filled with gravel I’d robbed from the driveway. I sprayed the weeds that popped through with Roundup once a season. I was mostly content with that for a couple of years, but every time it rained or snowed, rocks from the edges of the walkway wound up scattered all over the place. I finally got sick of raking them back into place and put landscaping bricks around the edges to separate the walkway from the surrounding area. I took the gravel out when the brick went in, thinking I would plant some sort of perennial garden in the two strips along the walk and it would look fabulous in a couple year’s time.

FernWalk 005So I bought dirt, mulch and about $60 worth of seeds, planted everything and then it started to rain. And rain. And rain. And… it rained for a freaking month straight. Most of my dirt packed down and stayed in the beds, but nothing else did. The seeds washed away or drowned. The mulch wound up in the driveway and eventually down in the woods. I was left with barren dirt beds that the house was now digging a trench in each time it rained, because we’ve never put gutters back on the house.

I didn’t want to fill it back in with gravel, but that flower bed has been a real pain in the ass before, even when there was no real sidewalk. I’m limited as to what will grow in this strip along the house. Until 10 am, it gets no sun. Then from 11am-12 noon it’s full sun. Around 1pm, it’s back in full shade until the next morning. Right around the corner of the house, FULL SUN. Elephant ears was one of the few plants that tolerated those conditions well. Hostas did ok… sometimes they would get sun scorched though during those couple hours around noon.

This past summer we spent a lot of time down in our woods, riding the four-wheeler, looking for rocks for the fire-FernWalk 002pit, planning a camp-site. I already knew there were thousands upon thousands of ferns in our woods, I’d just overlooked them as a usable resource. I made trips to the woods with buckets, brought up a few ferns and stuck them around the back edges of the sidewalk with some flowering clover. They have been very happy there all summer and are filling in nicely. I decided today that I’d do the same with this ugly, washed out, shady problem spot. Except instead of just ferns and mulch, I also added larger river rocks to stop the rush of water off the house from flooding this bed and sending everything down the walk into the driveway when it rains.

FernWalk 004There are two different kinds of ferns in our woods- a tall, delicate kind that grows on thin stalks (I think this is a Bracken Fern?) and a broader leaf kind that sends up curly fronds that flatten out as they mature (Christmas Fern). I’ve seen both reach a foot in height and spread. It took 4 buckets full to give me enough plants for this bed, probably about 25-30 ferns in all. If I’d had to pay for these, this would have been a MUCH more expensive project.

Same with the rock, I made 4-5 trips to the dry creek beds in our woods for rock. Not that I don’t have rock near the house, I have plenty. But the ones in the creek bed have that riverbed, old, worn, fossil look that I wanted with the ferns. I mostly took ferns in the path that were in danger of being run over by the ATV anyway. As you can see from the picture, I left PLENTY of them in the woods. I also brought back some rotted tree and leaf compost.

I dug holes in the bed and planted the ferns, mixing up the two kinds. Mostly I kept the broad leaf ones near the back. This is the part of the flower bed that takes the most abuse from falling water and since the other kind were more delicate, I placed them in front near the sidewalk.FernWalk 006

I had some cardboard boxes saved that I hadn’t burned and used this between the planted ferns as a weed barrier. Cardboard is one of the best free weed barriers you can put in your garden/flower beds. It breaks down over time, but doesn’t shred like that black plastic yuck you get from the garden centers. Worms love it and it holds moisture at the root level of your plants.

Placing the river rocks was sort of like a jigsaw puzzle. I just fitted them in where they looked best to me. Again, I kept the bigger rocks right under the roof-line, since they’ll be taking the worst beating from falling roof water.

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I saved the compost and what little mulch was left in the bed to toss on top of everything. It falls down between the rocks and hides the cardboard where it might show through between rocks and plants.

Anytime I’m building a new bed like this and especially with transplants, I give it a REALLY good drink right after planting and water it well for several days after. This helps get air pockets out of the soil that can dry out plant roots, helps the soil settle back in so it doesn’t get washed out by heavy rain and encourages the plants to establish to their new space quickly. FernWalk 009

 

Once they’re settled, these ferns will need next to no maintenance (The ones I planted in spring are doing wonderful without any intervention on my part all summer). When I dug them up from the woods today, they were growing out of rocky, dry soil that didn’t look like it had much nutrient value. Most of the websites I’ve visited for fern care recommend well drained, humus rich (humus is compost- hence the rotted tree I brought back with them) soil. I dump chopped up dead leaves on mine whenever I get a FernWalk 011chance. I figured that was the closest mulch to what they are adapted to in nature.

 

Now that I’ve finally established a working plant bed for the shady side of the sidewalk, I’ll have to come up with a plan to fill in the other side. Phlox would be the lazy fix. Maybe I’ll do some research…

 

-B


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Oops, I Forgot My Wisteria is Insane.

This is a post where you get to learn from my poor planning and lack of foresight. Or if you’re a more experienced gardener, you can just say, “Tsk. Tsk.” or “I feel your pain.”garden 003

A couple years ago we made these great wooden planter boxes out of leftover boards from the back deck rebuild. I planted tomatoes in them two years in a row and they did wonderfully. I’ve occasionally had to trim the wisteria vine behind them back to keep it from getting down onto the tomato trellis. There was a storm that blew hard enough to lift the entire wisteria vine and flop it over to the other side of the trellis a year or two ago. We had to use our pickup and a tow chain to move the trellis back in place, the wisteria itself was too heavy to re-locate back where it was, so I was forced to cut it back severely. It didn’t bloom the next year and I was sad. I was afraid I’d not see it bloom again for years; sometimes new growth on a Chinese wisteria can take 10 years before it will produce blooms!

garden 004This year though it bloomed like crazy, the bumblebees were back, the birds are nesting in it and all is right with the world. Except…
Because the bulk of the plant now grows towards the driveway and not the yard, the way it did before the storm relocated it, it now almost completely covers the planter boxes we built by the fence. I wanted to grow peppers in them this year, but the wisteria grows somewhere at a rate of 6 inches to a foot every day I think… once I’m sure it grew 3 feet in about 5 minutes when it realized I wasn’t keeping an eye on it.

I fear that one day it will eat our house.

Anyway, the planter box that had once been in a nice sunny spot for growing vegetables was now in almost complete, deep shade 90% of the day. It got a little morning sun, but that was it. AND the wisteria continues to grow. If I don’t cut it back every week, it will reach the ground and start traveling towards the cars. I’m sure of it. Maybe I can train it to go do my Wal-Mart shopping for me?

So today, because of poor planning and a Wisteria that grows like Kudzu, I had the pleasure of emptying out the entire planter box, moving the frame and then putting all the dirt back in it. It took me almost as long to move it as it did to build it in the first place, but I’m fairly certain it will get plenty of sun in its new home. I dropped it on the front corner of the what is slowly becoming our new vegetable garden. garden 001
Anyway, lesson learned and I thought I’d share. If you’re thinking of building a structure like a raised bed, make sure you plan it away from plants that may grow very large, or especially aggressive growers (like wisteria!), unless you don’t mind your structure being taken over by Jumanji nightmare vines. A little planning and consideration for the future look, size and scope of a project could save you a lot of trouble later!

Ok gardeners. You can stop smirking and shaking your heads now. 😛

-B


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Hugelkultur

Walking through the woods a couple weekends ago with family, we came across an area of Pa Pa’s property that we hadn’t visited before. It was a far corner along the property line, the woods there so thick and close that the light was dimmed at least by half by the canopy above.

HugelkulturMound

Very old Hugelkultur mound

The wood’s floor was deep and spongy with leaves- even the usually prolific Poison Ivy and Virginia Creeper wouldn’t sprout; mosquitoes were abundant, we could smell the leaf mould and wet permeating everything. Many scrubby cedars stretched up to the canopy, struggling for light but found little in the understory of taller trees. As a result, only the branches at the very tops still remained green and held needles; all the lower branches within reach were dead or dying and brittle to the touch. We pushed through to the edge of the property line and began to back track, when we came across several large mounds of earth in our path.  The mounds were 3-4 feet high and about 10-12 feet long. Rocks were piled on top of one of them as if to mark that spot. The larger two mounds were planted at the foot of a big cedar, this one towering over its straggling, sad looking younger cousins.

Shawnee are common in the St. James area and I had already spotted multiple thong trees pointing in the direction of a dry creek bed nearby. My sis in law speculated that they might be burial mounds. Under that darkening canopy, with sounds of water, critters chewing away at the rot and squirming about under a foot-thick carpet of decaying leaves and spongy wood- the idea of burial mounds seemed not only plausible but very likely. We also kept hearing something near us like footsteps or small rocks being tossed… but each time we stopped to listen, we heard only insects chewing and the whining hum of mosquitoes trying to feast on our ears.

I climbed to the top of one of the mounds so that I could look at it from a bird’s eye vantage point- it occurred to me that this would be rather irreverent if these were graves. Looking down on them though, they looked less like burial mounds. They reminded me more of  my Great Grandma’s old root cellar. We found four mounds in sets of two. They were placed with a space between them almost equal to the width of each mound. The tops of the mounds were squishy; the soil rich, deep and covered in moss.

We walked in the direction the thong trees were pointing after examining the mounds. Most of the thongs were in mature oaks that I’d guess their age to be about 80-100 years. By the way, I found this little guide from Missouri Conservation most helpful in guesstimating the age of  trees without counting rings: http://mdc.mo.gov/your-property/your-trees-and-woods/backyard-tree-care/how-old-tree

After traveling downhill for a bit, we came to what I expected to find, which was a creek bed. It was dry though, no active spring feeding into it. We wanted rocks to take back with us and had ridden down to that part of the property on Pa Pa’s 4-wheel drive mule, but I wasn’t sure that I would make it down to the stream-bed through all the thick undergrowth and trees. We opted to backtrack to the field and look for the source of the stream instead. We found it, at the bottom of a wide ravine that allowed a perfect size space to park the ATV in.

BigAssRockAt the top of the stream bed, there was a dam. It had been built of stacked rocks, earth and chunks of concrete that I noticed were decorated with bits of glass. The dam was about 5 feet at its widest point and spanned the bottom of the ravine like a bridge. The rocks I found there had mineral deposits that reminded me of the formations you see in the caves around here- I took one back to the house and Thurman said it had a lot of iron oxide in it and a fair amount of pyrite. It was a REALLY heavy rock for the size that it was. I also brought back another monster rock, which Miranda had to help me lift into the back of the mule. I’m still trying to decide where in our yard I want to park it. For now it’s sitting near the frog pond, since that is as far as I could carry it myself from the trunk of our car. :-p

When I got home, I decided to do a little research into what those strange hills in the woods might be. My husband read a fair bit about Shawnee burial mounds. I started looking at different types of root cellars. It was during my browsing of root cellars that I stumbled across pictures that looked EXACTLY like our mounds. 3-4 feet high, paired in sets of two, at the base of large trees. The word under the caption was Hugelkultur, which is a German word for “Hill culture.”

There has been a lot of interest in recent years regarding perma-culture, or permanent, sustainable methods of gardening or small scale farming. I’ve heard gardening called a “retired person’s” hobby, it’s coming back into vogue thanks to the popularity of survival-ism and prepping. Hill culture is method of lasagna gardening, which is layering different materials for your garden bed and planting right on top of the layers, then allowing all the materials to compost there in place. It’s less labor intensive than building compost piles and turning, watering and caring for them every day. The material breaks down slowly, feeding the plant roots on top as it turns into compost. The mounds we found in the woods would have broken down over time, spreading out and losing height as the bulky inner layer decomposed. After I read how Hugelkultur mounds are built, I understood why they felt spongy when I stood on them.hugelkultur

The inner layer of a Hugelkultur mound is bulky, rough material- such as tree trunks and limbs. Over this you would add a layer of a slightly lighter compost material- straw, chopped leaves, grass clippings, sod, large vegetable scraps, newspaper, cardboard, etc. Soil amendments can be added on top of this layer. I’ve read that the first couple years, nitrogen rich additives may be needed, since the tree trunks will absorb most of the free nitrogen in the pile until they reach saturation and begin to break down. Blood meal is great for this and relatively inexpensive. If you have access to manure, it’s full of nitrogen. Plants in the Legume family will also add nitrogen to the surrounding soil.
On top of all this bulk, you would add your actual soil. I have mostly clay and rocks here, so I’d probably use a mixture of purchased garden soil from the nursery, cut in half with some native clay. Clay is wonderful for holding nutrient value, it just sucks for drainage. Add plants, then mulch well as the final layer.

hugelkultur_how_to_imageThe mounds are built in pairs at an angle where the sun will pass over them side to side; some pictures I saw used  trees as a wind break on the north. Some left the space between the mounds empty so that every part of the hill was easily reachable. Others used the middle space for extra compost and added this center to the tops of the mounds as it broke down; this would give the hills a constant source of renewal and nutrient build up.

I’ve already chosen a spot in our yard where I intend to try this out. Even though I have a commercial drum-style composter, I would love to see if Hugelkultur gardening is as pain-free as its proponents claim. I already build raised beds for practically everything I grow in our yard, since few plants really love the rocky, clay soil. Plus, tilling clay only serves to dry it out and completely strip it of any nutrient value. A tilled garden simply wouldn’t work well in our yard. I tried it a couple times, then my tiller was retired to the shed up the hill after about 3 uses, it will likely see a revival only if we move.

I know our local Amish and Mennonites are genius when it comes to growing anything- if you’ve ever had one of their tomatoes from Farris Fruit Market in Camdenton, you’ll stop in there JUST for those. The Amish on Pa Pa’s property would have been the ones who built these mounds. I’m guessing they might have also dammed that spring, maybe to create an artesian well, in order to water their gardens.  I’ll post more pictures when I get back up to St James and can visit the mounds with a camera in hand. When I build mine, I’ll try to do a step by step write up on what I put into them and post later on whether or not they were superior for growing plants or not.

This site has some really excellent information about Hugelkultur and a ton of photos if you’re interested in learning more. http://www.richsoil.com/hugelkultur/ It also shows the progression of the mounds in graphic form, from year one all the way up to 20 years.

http://gardenhillbilly.hubpages.com/hub/Gardening-Without-Fertilizers-Tips# also has some great how to’s and tons of info on Hugelkultur gardening.