geometric flora logo

Garden Overview

Growing in reciprocation with nature.

We are situated on 0.25 acres at the edge of the city's center in Southwest Virginia. We are in USDA Hardiness Zone 7b in a valley surrounded on all sides by the Blue Ridge Mountains. Typical soil in this region is acidic and heavy with clay but can sometimes be primarily sandy as in our garden. Our lot is long, west-facing and has several massive white pines along the southwest corner. The situation of this lot in relation to the rest of the city's landscape makes it a near endless wind tunnel in all seasons. This is one of our biggest challenges. I like to say that here in Virginia it's either raining all the time or not raining at all - and that's true for pretty much all seasons. While this lot is not the perfect orientation for growing food, we've learned to work with what we have rather than fight against it. Spring and Summer are our most productive seasons and we take advantage of this knowledge. We garden with the guidance of the 12 permaculture principles at the forefront of our minds, aiming for an infinite cycle of reciprocation between ourselves and the land we steward.

“But I think we are called to go beyond cultures of gratitude, to once again become cultures of reciprocity.”
― Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

The information on this page, much like nature, is not static but evolving as I learn and discover more through my lived experiences. Last updated: 12/18/2022.

Soil background and overview

Our soil is a sandy loam with a pH of 6.7. Because we are in the city we elected to do a soil lead test through the University of Delaware. The results indicated 58 parts per million, well below the recommended limit of 400 parts per million.

In 2021 our Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC) was at 7.7 and in 2022 it jumped to 13.3. CEC levels basically indicate the soil's ability to hold onto nutrients; the higher the number the better. This leap in one year tells me our practices are sound and we're moving in the right direction.

Soil health practices

To maintain soil health we use soil tests to determine our nutrient management plan. We use cover crops when beds aren't being planted. When we can't cover crop (e.g. too late in the season, too short of a window between plantings, etc.) we cover the soil with leaf mulch. We plant diversly in every bed and in every season. We utilize perennial herbs and flowers to hold soil in place along edges and margins. We only till to establish new beds, but not beyond. We are devout worshipers of soil biology.

→ Key Points
  • Soil testing is a valuable measurement for guiding soil management.
  • Test for lead if you have any suspicions.
  • Follow the 4 core principles of managing healthy soil: Keep it covered, minimize disturbance, maximize living roots, energize with diversity.

Nutrient Management

I approach soil management a lot like a veterinarian approaches caring for a patient. I want to see the current baseline which I do with a soil test. The test provides me with information on macronutrients, micronutrients, organic matter, CEC, and more. Depending on the results I have three options: maintain things as they are (keep up with my regular care routine), increase overall strength and ability (aim for athlete level), or craft a treatment plan ("sick" zone, get back to a healthy baseline). To go back to the veterinary analogy these examples would be a healthy dog, a dog training for search and rescue, and a dog with bloodwork that indicates the need for specific care. This approach comes natural to me after spending a decade working as a veterinary assistant. Soil is a living organism and I believe caring for it as such deepens our perception of its vital importance.

Maintenance

Different crops have different feeding demands which I take into account when crop planning. If I know I've got a lot of heavy feeders I'll use a fast-release organic fertilizer as a foliar spray or drench. This includes making a brew out of vermicastings or compost, using organic fish and seaweed fertilizer, or using a batch of Fermented Plant Juice I made from a broad-spectrum plant material like Stinging Nettle. I almost always use these in combination with Lactic Acid Bacteria (LAB) which increases the plant's ability to access these nutrients and aids in soil tilth. I do this at planting, at fruiting, and in the peak of summer when the environment is most extreme.

Strengthening

I approach this with a focus on the living aspect of the soil. Increasing microbiological activity amplifies the soils ability to sustain life. Basically, life begets life. This is where I really love the Korean Natural Farming practices as well as cover cropping, vermicastings, and biologically active compost.

Treatment

The soil test will indicate if anything is amiss such as excessively high or low macronutrients, micronutrients, soil pH, or low organic matter. Most soil tests will also recommend treatment options which are generally slow-release fertilizers or pH adjusting amendments. The key word here is SLOW release which means they are not immediately accessible to the plants like the fast-release fertilizers are. Slow-release is a steady supply in the soil that the plants can only access once they've been converted through a process that happens in reciprocation with soil biology (it's an amazing process and if this alone doesn't pique your interest in soil health and plant ecology I don't know what will!). Amending your soil with guidance from the test is imperative to long-term health. This can be achieved with organic materials and blends that are readily available at farm and garden supply stores.

→ Key Points
  • Know your soil's baseline of health so you can respond wisely.
  • Know how plants function, what their individual needs are, and plan accordingly.
  • Don't fertilize blindly; let a soil test guide you so you can sleep easy at night knowing you're not contributing to red tide.

"Pest" Management

I will start by saying that I define pests as something that takes more than it gives. This could be a plant, an insect, or an animal (or a human, if I'm honest). One slug is not a pest. Enough slugs to decimate a lettuce crop overnight is. I approach pest management with a series of questions: Can I quantify the damage being caused? What is the < plant/animal/insect > and what life stage is it in? How long will this behavior last? What is the most benign thing I can do to change the behavior? If I do X what are the chances of achieving the desired outcome and what are the side effects?

Animals

In my experience, and general understanding of animal behavior, it is not difficult to predict or alter their habits. They do not like to work too hard to get to something - it burns valuable energy. This is where physical barriers are helpful - fences, logs, bricks, etc. They do not keep eating the same thing over and over again as long as they have access to their primary diet. Breeding, pregnancy, and rearing of young is when they are most hungry and thirsty. If they can't find water access they'll look for juicy plant material instead.

Insects

The insect world is pretty brutal. A lot of things eat insects, including other insects. Where there are a lot of insects ("pests") some advantageous insect will arrive at the buffet. Birds also rely on a tremendous amount of insects to feed their young. One clutch of chickadees will consume 5,000 caterpillars (view source), including cabbage loopers which are our primary challenge. Nesting boxes are our method of control here, as well as planting diversily to attract as many different insects and birds as possible. Diversity is everything.

Weeds

Weeds are interesting plants that can tell us a lot about our soil and growing environment. Weeds with deep taproots are usually found in compacted soils because these roots help break it open, creating access for water and air penetration. These deep rooted weeds are usually covered in thorns and spikes; urging everything with a mouth to stay away - it has important work to do. Other weeds draw up nutrients in their leaves and stems, releasing it all back into the top soil when they die so that younger or shorter-rooted plants can access the nutrients. Some weeds grow in acidic soil, others in alkaline. Some indicate high nutrient levels - a good thing for gardeners. Knowing your weeds can make you a wiser gardener.

Mother nature does not want her soil bare therefore she has a catalog of possible ways to cover up, some of which are considered "weeds". Keeping your soil covered with plants you prefer is one simple approach to weed management. When I find a plant I think is rather weedy I consider whether or not it has any redeemable qualities (can I eat it? Can I ferment it for fertlizer? Is it passive enough to act as a free cover crop during the off-season?), quantify the harm it's causing (taking up space, blocking sunlight, attracting swarms of animal or insect pests, prolifically reproducing, spreading rapidly, etc.), and either leave it or pull it out. I do not use glyphosate because I believe it is, in the majority of cases, an overkill approach with rippling consequences for humans and nature alike. I can however appreciate the thinking behind its development - particularly in cases where foreign invasive plants are out-competing our native plants for resources and no amount of hand pulling, goat grazing, or solarization can make a dent in its persistance. Regardless, it is a personal decision of my own to not use it or any other herbicide. For me, the risk of harm far outweighs the potential (but not guaranteed) benefit.

→ Key Points
  • Animals are predictable. Get to know your wildlife to know how to better compromise in the garden.
  • Insects are at the bottom of the food chain. Attract whatever it is that eats the thing that's causing problems.
  • "Weeds" can be useful, or at least passive, in some cases - learn to discern and respond accordingly.

Garden Design

I'm still writing this section, check back in 2023.

Crop Planning

I'm still writing this section, check back in 2023.

Propagation

I'm still writing this section, check back in 2023.