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: 03/05/2023.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 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.
When we bought our property in 2020 it was one long rectangle of lawn with pines along the south and west. It wasn't ideal, but given all other pros and cons involved with house buying, we were willing to accept the challenge of the yard. The first year we built 6 wood-framed raised beds, 12' x 4' and terraced them into the slight slope. The following year we built out a 50' x 20' in-ground raised bed system complete with drip irrigation. After studying intensive small-farming this was a design I was eager to try. In this system we have 5 30" no-till beds surrounded by a T-post/hog wire fence that we installed to deter local wildlife, namely deer and groundhogs.
The wood-framed raised beds, while very pretty to look at, are somewhat impractical when it comes to food production. We've transitioned them to perennial beds - planting herbs, flowers, and some perennial food crops like Asparagus and Chives. The majority of our annual food crop production takes place in the no-till beds. The drip irrigation along with the no-till methods make it very easy to grow a great deal of food here.
Throughout the perimeter of the property we have dozens of perennial gardens - full of flowers, herbs, evergreens, and ground covers that are beneficial to pollinators and wildlife alike. In 2022 the pines along the west side of the garden were removed after being engulfed with English Ivy and succumbing to termites. This opened up the opportunity to incorporate more perennial and native plants. This section is a work in progress, as we hand-remove the thick mat of English Ivy still present, but we've been able to add a few Elderberry bushes, fruit trees, and native Dogwood.
In 2023 we've begun building out 20-40' hugelkultur beds using the remains of the pines where we intend to plant blueberry and raspberry plants. This allowed us to put the energy in the carbon from the pines to use in the soil rather than burning it. Additionally we have built an aviary to raise coturnix quail for eggs and enjoyment. I was not keen to raise quail in wire cages, as is common, but prefer to allow them to live a life of foraging and exploring as is their natural tendency. We're hatching the quail ourselves and will introduce them to the aviary once fully feathered. We've raised chickens in the past(in fact the quail aviary is recycled from the chicken coop I had growing up!), always having the option to freerange (we were in a rural area prior to moving to city limits) and found that chicken manure can be really problematic when concentrated to a single area. Rats can also cause problems as they seem to thrive on chicken feed. Between the manure and rats not keeping chickens on this lot was an easy decision, but I still missed their presence in the garden. Coturnix quail are more quiet and clean by comparison. We've outfit the apiary with buried hardware cloth and a hanging feeding system to prevent rat intrusion, a 5-gallon nipple watering system to eliminate the issues of manure in water, and have natural floor layered heavily with dried pine needles. The idea is to 'compost in place' using deep mulch to absorb their small droppings. The decision to keep quail was based on the restrictions of our environment, a desire to raise our own nutrient-dense protein (eggs), to build an additional source of rich compost, and for enjoyment - I love animal husbandry and enjoy the dynamic animals bring to the garden and home.
Just south of the aviary is our apiary where we intend to keep a small number of hives (within zoning limits). Our first hive arrives this Spring, at the conclusion of a 5-week beginner's class, and will commence our beekeeping practice. We built a wall out of pine logs and rebar to block some of the North/Northwest winds that can be pretty brutal. We're using salvaged brick to create a base and cinder block and wood for the hive stand. Native Rudbeckia has been planted along one side, with a large container of Stinging Nettle at the back. In our community there are a few apiaries nearby; over the years I've watched the habits of our native bees and honeybees alongside one another and have observed that generally they either have different flower preferences, or coexist in the gardens peacefully. We certainly have far more native bees than honeybees in our garden; and we'll continue planting keystone plants that the native bees depend on.
Composting is a major component to our operation. We have two vermicomposting bins and two standard compost bins. The vermicompost bins are close to the back door, convenient to the kitchen. The static bins are nearby to the wood-framed raised beds which makes them easily accessible to both the wood-framed beds and the 50' in ground beds. The static bins are built of wood pallets; one bin for building and one for finishing. Initially I wanted three bins, but space restricted us so we went for two. This has worked out just fine and would recommend a two-bin system for anyone who needed the same. I have a large wire cage near to the bins where I keep extra carbon materials - dried leaves, hay, straw, etc.
We have three 50-gallon connected rainbarrels along the back side of our house that we use for watering the wood-framed beds, making compost tea, filling water cans, and such. The drip irrigation in the 50' no-till beds runs off of municipal water as it requires a certain amount of pressure to function correctly. Our municipal water comes from a reservoire that is part of a nearby 12,500 acre nature reserve. Our water authority publishes treatment details which I review each season. We're fortunate to have lower-than-average chlorine and chloramine counts. I've not observed any issues with the plants or soil when using this water - in fact the observable soil biology has increased since we built our beds. I am however exploring the possibility of adding humic acid within the drip system just to elevate it even further. Humic acid neutralizes both chlorine and chloramine (view source) and we have plenty of it at our disposal thanks to the leachate from our vermicompost bins.
The garden is an organism of organisms. It is not static and thus our design continues to evolve and transition as time carries us forward. Our objective is always the same: to feed ourselves while creating habitat and sustenance for the many creatures among us. Life begets life; from the microbiology in the soil all the way up to us humans - every link in between matters and we care for each equally.
Our food crop planning usually starts around Christmas time. I start by making a seed inventory, then I make a list of what I know we want to grow for Spring, Summer, and Fall. Sometimes I decide this based on recipes I want to make and preserve, things I want to try making like calendula salve or dried tea blends. I then sketch out the open beds on a sheet of paper (I like visual exploration) and work out what could go where based on length of bed space and plant spacing guidelines. Once I know what I want where and how many of each plant I'll need I organize the crop list by planting date - then count back 6 weeks and have my seed starting dates. With the seed inventory at hand I can decide what seeds I might want to purchase for the coming season. I keep detailed annual records of both my plans and the outcomes for the season. This helps me keep dates and tasks organized and to stay on track with planting times, compost teas, harvesting records, and more.
We start everything we plant from seed, either direct sow or as starters. This is the most economic way of operating a garden of this scale. I enjoy the process of starting from seed and like the control I have over the early stages of plant development. I use organic soil and sometimes combine it with other things - like biochar (soaked in compost tea, worm castings, or organic fish fertilizer) to help support the heavier feeders like tomatoes and peppers as they grow. We've generally used 72-cell trays to start everything, potting up as needed for plants that outgrow those cells before transplant. We've now begun incorporating the use of a soil blocker to reduce our dependency on expensive and fragile plastic trays. We have an indoor growing system that includes heat mats for germination and a metal wire rack with hanging LED full-spectrum grow lights. The lights are on chains that allow us to adjust the height throughout the growing process. This setup was around $200 and has saved us thousands in the cost of buying plants. As of 2023 we have added 5 cold frames to the south side of our house, nearly tripling the amount of seeds we're able to start. Timing for using the coldframes depends on the crops being grown, but have so far seen excellent promise in the start of our Spring crops. It is nice to have a system that does not rely on electricity.