Category Archives: Bed preparation

A Garden Homemaker: Lupine

by Julia Frisbie

posted June 27, 2021

It’s lupine season! This plant will always remind me of the happy summer weeks I spent in the mountains of northeastern Oregon as a child. I love seeing her by the roadside. I held her purple/blue spires in my arms on my wedding day. I’ve slipped her seed pods into my pockets for years, and like Ms. Rumphius in a favorite children’s book, scattered them when we found a place to call our own.

Like all legumes, she works with a symbiotic bacteria to fix nitrogen in the soil, enough to meet her own needs and also share with neighbors. She has a long taproot that breaks up compacted earth. She can collect moisture from the air, with leaves shaped like tiny hands that cradle a single dewdrop in their palms. She makes a huge mass of greenery each year, only to lay it all down on the ground after the first frost, protecting soil from winter runoff and feeding the microbial community below. Her nectar feeds bees and her seeds feed birds.

In other words, she is a homemaker, showing up to disrupted or neglected soil and creating beauty and fertility. She can make something from almost nothing.

I’ve invited lupine to my yard as an early succession plant. Right after I mulched over most of the lawn in our front yard, I scattered lupine seeds. For several years, a long hedge of lupine has lived alongside what’s left of the grass:

As I add longer-lived plants to the landscape, I’m gradually pruning/removing the lupine to make space. Many perennials take years to get established and come into their own, and lupine fills out the garden around them while they bide their time. Lupine self-sows readily, but she’s easy enough to remove, so as long as I’m paying attention she doesn’t choke other plants out. Here’s a first-year peony growing in the shelter of lupine:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I often call on lupine as a companion plant for young trees. Planting a nitrogen-fixer in the same hole as a baby tree is something my partner learned while volunteering at the Bullock’s Permaculture Homestead on Orcas Island. I dig up the lupine, taproot and all, and plop it right in there among the roots of the sapling. Abundant nitrogen allows the sapling to make lots of new greenery (and, I think, helps it feel less lonely and more at home). Here’s a little plum tree hiding from deer among the lupine:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can sow lupine any time of year, but my favorite way is to take my cue from the plant herself, and spread her seeds right after they pop from her wonderful fuzzy seed pods in July. I cut the seed heads when they get dry and begin to rattle, and then I pile them into a washtub basin and invite my four-year-old to thresh them by jumping up and down on the pods until the seeds are released. Then we winnow by pouring seeds back and forth between buckets in the middle of our street on a windy day. This ritual yields a quart of seed from our couple dozen plants. If you’d like some for your garden, I’d be delighted to give them to you. That’s part of how I respond with reciprocity to lupine: by finding good homes for her seeds. They’ll be part of Transition Fidalgo’s seed bank. Email info@transitionfidalgo.org to get connected!

Monoculture lawns to Polyculture garden beds

By Julia Frisbie

posted May 6, 2021

We buried our lawn five years ago under a layer of cardboard and then compost, planted a living mulch the first season, and have been mulching with arborist chips and rotating poultry through it, and growing a happy riot of annuals and perennials in it ever since. You can see the difference in this picture between our backyard soil (front right) and the soil in the adjacent easement (back left), but now after a soil test we have quantitative data. Using this data to estimate how much carbon we’ve sequestered was the most fun I’ve had with math in months!

We sent in two soil tests to the University of Massachusetts, with the city easement functioning as a control because it’s all in grass, and our yard was all in grass before we moved in five years ago. (It would have been better if I’d tested the same spot 5 years ago, but I didn’t, so the easement is our best point of reference for a comparison.) The backyard had 22.4% soil organic matter (measured by LOI, or “lost on incineration”… basically, how much of its mass can burn up) and the easement soil had 10.6%. So the backyard’s soil is 11.8 percentage points higher than our control plot.

I based my calculations on research by R. Lal of Ohio State University’s Carbon Management and Sequestration Center. His article “Abating climate change and feeding the world through soil carbon sequestration” was published 2013 in an anthology called Soil as World Heritage. Lal estimates that 21 tons of carbon are sequestered per additional 1% of soil organic matter per hectare.

Our backyard measures 74 feet x 40 feet, which is 2,960 square feet. There are 107,639 square feet in one hectare, so our backyard = 0.0275 hectares. Multiply 21 tons by 0.0275 = 0.5775 tons of carbon sequestered in our yard per added 1% of organic matter. Multiply that by our 11.8, and we get 6.8145 tons (x 2,000 = 13,629 pounds) of carbon sequestered within our backyard in the past 5 years.

For reference, a mature tree absorbs about 48 pounds of carbon per year (Source: European Environment Agency), so our backyard activity has sequestered about 284 tree-years of carbon. Also for reference, nearly 20 pounds of carbon dioxide are produced from burning one gallon of non-ethanol gasoline (source: US Energy Information Administration), so our backyard activity has offset about 681.45 gallons of gasoline. (With a 12 gallon tank, that’s 57 fill-ups.)

On the one hand, it’s a drop in the bucket. On the other… in this little place… it makes a world of difference. And it’s profoundly do-able for anyone who wants to sequester carbon in their yard. A movement for “Climate Victory Gardens” has published some helpful ideas for backyard-scale carbon sequestration.

Gabe Brown is a second-generation rancher in North Dakota, and since 1991, he’s seen an increase in soil organic matter from 1.9% to 6.1%. In his excellent book Dirt to Soil, he identifies five principles for soil health that he uses to manage his 5,000 acres:

  1. Limit disturbance. Tillage releases soil carbon into the atmosphere and causes topsoil to erode away. Don’t do it. Chemical disturbances such as synthetic fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides also qualify as a type of disturbance.
  2. Keep the soil covered. Bare soil is an emergency. Covering your soil prevents erosion and provides habitat for microorganisms.
  3. Diversity. Grow as many different types of plants (and host as many different types of animals!) as you possibly can. Brown sows cover crop mixes with up to 70 different species!
  4. Living Roots. Include perennials and cover crops in your garden plans so that there are living roots in the soil for as much of the year as possible.
  5. Integrated animals. Intermittent predation by animals stimulates flushes of plant growth which pulse more carbon into the soil. Gabe uses cattle to rotationally graze his cover-cropped acres.

In conversation with these principles is emerging research from ecologists on the Intermittent Disturbance Hypothesis. Robin Wall Kimmerer, in her less-well-known book Gathering Moss, explains “diversity of species is highest when the disturbance occurs at an interval between the extremes. Ecologists have shown that in the complete absence of disturbance, superior competitors… slowly encroach upon other species and eliminate them by competitive dominance. Where disturbance is very frequent, only the very hardiest species can survive the tumult. But in between, at intermediate frequency, there seems to be a balance that permits a great variety of species to flourish.” As more research is published on regenerative agriculture practices, I bet we’ll learn that the disturbance caused by Gabe Brown’s cattle herd moving across the landscape actually supports the increased diversity of each acre they graze.

What I like about Brown is that he comes from a pretty standard (extractive, damaging) American farming perspective, and ends up becoming a champion of regenerative agriculture. We can do the same in our yards. We can convert monoculture lawns to polyculture garden beds, keep soil covered, plan for living roots in the soil year-round, provide gentle intermittent disturbance with animals, and cultivate maximum diversity.

Below, you can see many of these principles at work in my backyard: I’ve got plastic mulch I scavenged at The Predecessors under my zucchinis. I’ve removed the mulch from under my cabbages, kale, and tomatoes, and undersown a diverse cover crop mix, which is just beginning to germinate. Nearby in a temporary enclosure, the chickens are busy making compost and appropriate-scale disturbance in a bed that’s about ready to turn over to the next crop. Flowers peek out around the edges. Carbon sequestration is a joy!


Julia Frisbie has been gardening in Coast Salish territory for six growing seasons, and is thankful to learn from plants, animals, and people who have been here much longer. She’s grateful to her mom, Anne Kayser, for cultivating her curiosity, and also to Robin Wall Kimmerer for writing the book Braiding Sweetgrass, which transformed her relationship with the more-than-human world. Follow Julia’s micro-farm on Facebook, Instagram, and/or TikTok.

Potatoes, Making Beds, and Snails and Slugs

by Peter Heffelfinger

posted April 5, 2021

Potato Planting

With the unsettled weather of late, my low-lying, lakeside garden plot is still a bit too wet to plant potatoes. The winter ground cover of annual rye has been tilled twice during the sunny days in between the bouts of rain. Once the soil is somewhat drier, and the last of the rye has decomposed, the tubers can go in. To avoid having to cut large potato sets into smaller pieces, I try to select egg-sized starts. I think of laying the small ovals into the deep furrow, and carefully covering them up with soil, as a post-Easter hiding-the-eggs ritual.

Later on, the harvest of all the full-sized spuds is a delayed treasure hunt. The hope is to dig up good-sized potatoes with as little disease as possible, either black scab on the outer skin or soft brown rot inside.

Planting Potatoes (Video Guide) - BBC Gardeners' World ...

Given our relatively mild, wet winters, potato diseases tend to linger on in the soil. To prevent buildup of disease, it’s especially important to plant disease-free seed, to rotate plantings each year, and to promptly remove any potentially diseased seedlings that may sprout from unharvested tubers, missed by the potato fork in the fall. Potatoes are the one carbohydrate reliably grown in the home garden, so guard the crop each year against the spread of disease.

 

Remaking the Beds

One of the few dry spots in the spring garden are the raised beds of the over-wintered leeks. Once the last of the alliums are harvested, the soil on the high mounds dries out quickly and can be worked up easily with a fork. The soft, white leek roots will dissolve easily back into the soil, maintaining the airy tilth of the ground. Since I grow various brassicas year-round, I have to make sure there are beds opening up that were not previously planted with any member of the cabbage family. Thus, my leek beds become the first place for starts of early cabbage and broccoli. At the opposite end of the cycle, the last of the over-wintered cabbages are just being used up. The cut stalks left in the ground are pushing out small side sprouts that are perfect for stir-fries, late additions to soups, or eaten fresh.

Brassicas are easily grown in each season, but they do require protection from insects in the spring. The cabbage root maggot fly appears early in the year and it will decimate seedlings. The only protection is to cover the plants completely with floating row material such as Agribon, carefully sealing all the edges on the ground with boards, metal fence posts, or soil. The plants must be kept isolated from the small fly, which lays its eggs near the stalk of any young brassica. The maggots then migrate through the soil to feed on the soft roots, causing seemingly healthy six-inch starts to suddenly keel over.

Factsheet - Brassica club root (283)

As the brassicas grow under the protective tent, the white material can be supported by metal or plastic hoops and secured in the wind by clamps. You can water plants through the row cover, but you will need to lift the cover to remove weeds, which thrive under the slightly warmer temperatures under the small hoop house. Once the brassica plant is full-sized, and the stalk is thick, the plant is relatively safe and the cover can be taken off.

But, the next insect soon appears, the white cabbage butterfly, dancing over the leaves, looking for a mate. As long as the throng of butterflies is not too thick, I don’t mind a small number of green caterpillars that will show up later on. If it’s a problem, keep the maturing plants under the row cover until it is time to harvest.

Actually, it’s quite a thrill to finally remove the row cover and reveal mature, healthy broccolis or cabbages underneath. Almost like magic.

 

Snails and Slugs

Snails and slugs are an important part of the natural composting cycle in nature. Think of them as digesters of the plant or organic material that accumulates on the ground. In the garden, however, if you have too many, they can become a problem. They’re especially attracted to young vegetable starts, so it’s important to start removing the initial spring buildup of these creatures. I find the easiest method is to lay boards by the side of the garden beds, or near any particularly wet spot. After their nighttime forays, the snails and slugs will hide out under the boards during the day. Flip the boards over, remove or squish the critters and replace the flat traps for the next accumulation. Also, keep an eye out for any nest of small, pea-sized, translucent slug eggs in your garden soil, most likely in an undisturbed spot, hidden just under the surface. Squish again, to prevent a new wave. With the advent of dry summer weather, the population of slugs and snails diminishes.

Pin by Sandy Camp on Yard | Snail, Photo, Ipm

But it’s wise to keep the numbers in check all season long.

Snails will also gather on the large stalks of over-wintering cabbage, kale and Brussels sprouts, hidden by the thick layer of leaves and protected by their hard shells. My understanding is that the local population, which arrived here as an invasive species a few decades ago, are Asian land snails, not the edible variety consumed in Europe. Nor are they the small, but tasty Turk’s Head snails served along with sushi in Japan. A flock of free-range ducks would gladly eat the snails in your garden, but that involves another level of animal husbandry.

Note: I use Sluggo pellets in small amounts only when necessary to protect small starts during very wet weather. Any paste or liquid snail bait can be fatal to birds, who pick up the chemical on their feet.

Spring Weather

By Peter Heffelfinger

posted March 22, 2021

With the recent clear, cool nights and sunny days, spring has arrived several weeks early. The key difference is the relative absence of sustained rainfall. We’ve had a few sudden downpours, and even a bit of sleety hail, but not the sodden, extended weather that is expected around the spring equinox in the Pacific Maritime Northwest. The usual signs of spring are here: the red flowering currant bush is blooming and the Lenten hellebores are in full display, with the overwintering hummingbirds buzzing around both sets of blossoms. And, atop the highest fir tree the local pair of bald eagles have been making incessant calls to each other, as if to get the nesting season started early.

Last year at this time the ground was too soggy to plant potatoes, which didn’t go into the garden until April 17th. This year, the ground at my South Fidalgo garden is fluffy and workable, and the winter rye cover crop is being tilled in; the potatoes will be planted in a week or so, as soon as the rye roots and leaves decompose a bit. With the start of daylight saving, the garden weather clock seems to have moved ahead as well. The jump start may seem a boon to gardeners, hoping to get things in the ground soon, but the real message is the early drop off of the winter rains. The summer drought seems to be creeping in ahead of time.

Out on the Flats, where I have a large plot of garlic, the dry weather has caused the clay soil of the Valley to harden into a solid cake. Last year I applied a layer of woody compost to both deter the weeds and lighten up the ground, but the garlic crop suffered with a high percentage of moldy bulbs, approaching 30% in some beds. So, this winter I kept the beds bare, applying the usual mid-February fertilizer to jump start the garlic growth in the cool winter soil. (Note: I just use my standard, all-round organic fertilizer mix, not the blood meal or high nitrogen application often recommended.)

Of course, the ever present weed seeds also appreciated the sudden nutritional boost, forming a thick carpet of shot weed and other common occupiers of open soil. I’ve had to spend long hours using my stainless steel Japanese hand weeder, with a very sharp cutting edge and an offset blade, to cut through both the hard surface of clay as well as the already tough weed roots. Unfortunately, unless I am very careful, the sharp blade occasionally nicks off a soft garlic shoot. Hopefully the few plants sacrificed now will be less in number than the many that had to be thrown away last summer. Thankfully the mold last year was just common botrytis, not the feared white root rot that permanently affects garlic plots. Ultimately the cleaned garlic from last summer stored well, with the cloves just now starting to sprout or turn soft.

To preserve the remaining surplus of stored garlic I peel the good cloves, process them with a bit of olive oil and canning salt, and pack the rough mixture into pint jars for freezing. The mix can also be safely stored for a few months in the fridge, with the garlic bite turning very sweet. Be sure to keep a thin layer of oil on the surface to keep the garlic ‘refrigerator jam’ from drying out. You can also do a quick pickle of garlic. Whatever method you chose will serve to bridge the fresh garlic gap between now and the appearance of the first scapes in June.

I’ve also been making a traditional Spanish garlic soup: lots of sliced garlic sautéed with olive oil, paprika, cayenne and cumin, then mixed with chopped ham and chunks of day-old baguettes. Heat with stock or water, add whatever chopped spring green available and garnish with some newly-sprouted garlic chives. A proper spring tonic at the end of the garlic cycle.

Peas, Spring & Fall

For me, spring means fresh peas. It’s been many years since I grew traditional shelling or English peas. I now prefer Snap peas for quick eating or cooking in the shell, while my overall favorite is the Oriental Snow pea, particularly the variety Mammoth Melting Sugar. I find other varieties of snow peas to be not as large, sweet or tender.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In order to avoid spotty germination in the cool soil of early March, I bought starts of Super Snap peas and transplanted them in a raised bed lined with cedar boards. I kept the plants covered with large pots for a few days to shield them from the sun and wind while they develop their root systems. After I removed the pots, and the peas were standing 4 inches tall, I unfortunately forgot to cover them with my usual low arch of chicken wire to fend off any rabbits that might make it through the outer fencing. When a large gate was left open one night, the pesky critters trooped in and neatly trimmed off the tops and most leaves of the peas. There’s always a chink in the armor. So, once again giving thanks to local nursery suppliers, I replanted with fresh starts, which should still provide a slightly delayed, mid-spring taste of fresh peas.

The Mammoth Melting snow peas, which I dote on for stir-fries, have not been available locally as starts for several years. So this spring I soaked the seed overnight and planted it in the relatively dry soil of the same raised bed as the Sugar Snaps. To support the 6-8 foot tall pea plants of both varieties I’ll be using 4×8-foot cattle panels instead of makeshift arrangements of tall poles and twine. Not quite as homespun, but effective. I also bought extra snow pea seed for a late summer planting, which will supply a second crop, given the increasingly warm and dry autumn growing season. As the climate changes, fill the gaps.

Peter Heffelfinger

Starting Seeds in Soil Blocks

By Julia Frisbie

Posted March 18, 2021

In an effort to reduce my garden’s reliance on single-use plastics, I use a soil blocker instead of plastic 72-cell trays to start my seeds. This method was popularized by Eliot Coleman, and you can find lots of good information about it online. But the actual tool that you use to make the blocks ishttps://www.theseasonalhomestead.com/homemade-soil-blocking-mix/prohibitively expensive upfront if you just want to start a few trays of tender annuals. I have a stand-up 35-blocker because I’m a garden tool junkie, and it seems silly to keep it all to myself. You’re welcome to come use it on my front porch. Text me at 503-975-3778 and we’ll work it out. Bring your own trays and soil.

The benefits of soil blocks are:

  • Seedling roots run into air at the edges of the block rather than plastic, so they don’t wind around and around. They just stop growing (this is called “air pruning”) and wait to be plopped in the ground, which means they do better after transplanting.
  • You can fit more seedlings on a tray. For people with indoor setups, space on the heating mat and under the grow lights is often at a premium.
  • I can fill trays faster with my soil blocker than I could if I were hand-packing damp substrate into plastic 72-cell trays.
  • No more throwing away cracked and nasty 72-cell trays at the end of the season!

Here’s how it works:

  1. Dump substrate in a flat-bottomed bin. Some people use complicated recipes, but I just use the Black Gold potting mix with the orange label. Unfortunately, it comes encased in single-use plastic. Even the complicated recipes involve bagged ingredients like peat moss. A locally-sourced recipe that uses zero bagged ingredients would take a lot of experimentation. Sounds like a fun project for a retired master gardener, but I have a full time job and a four-year-old and escaped ducks running all over the neighborhood and a sink full of dirty dishes, so I’m not investing in research and development at this point.
  2. Add water, mixing as you go, until it’s slightly less wet than brownie batter, but wet enough that when you pick up a handful and squeeze, a little water runs out between your fingers.
  3. Push the soil blocker down into the substrate while doing a little twist-and-shimmy until you can hear and feel it scraping against the bottom of the bin.
  4. Lift it up and set it down into the tray where you want the blocks, and squeeze the two handles while gently lifting to release them.
  5. Repeat two more times, and you’ve got a full tray! My blocker makes blocks that measure 1.125” square, and 105 of them fit in a standard 1020 tray.

Newly planted seeds should never be allowed to dry out before they germinate. Soil blocks are best watered from below, since there’s no plastic holding them together. I pack my blocks into mesh-bottomed trays, and then I set them into a solid-bottomed tray with water in it for a few seconds, letting moisture wick up from below. I’ve also put soil blocks on aluminum pans and plastic lunch trays and poured water in from the sides, tilting the lunch tray so that every block has a chance to wick it up.

You don’t need soil blocks for everything. Many vegetables do just fine direct-seeded into your garden. Some even prefer it! Others– especially the ones with big starchy seeds– I like to pre-soak indoors and then plop directly into the ground. The ones I raise in the soil blocks are the real divas, the long-season veggies that can’t handle a frost. Here’s a simplified, non-exhaustive list of who gets what treatment in my garden:

TRANSPLANTS (VIA SOIL BLOCKS)

  • Nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants)
  • Cucumber family (cucumbers and melons)
  • Squash family (including zucchini and summer squash)
  • Sunflowers
  • Zinnias
  • Cosmos

PRE-SOAK

  • Peas
  • Beans
  • Corn
  • Nasturtiums

DIRECT SOW

  • Root veggies
  • Leafy greens
  • Herbs
  • Wildflowers

Another thing I think about when I start my seeds is whether or not each type of seed has a belly-button. The belly button is the point or the little mark where it was once attached to its mother plant. Think about the little mark on the middle of a bean, or the pointy end of a squash seed. If I can see a belly button, I plant it facing down or sideways, never facing up. That’s the place where the seed’s first rootlet will emerge from, and the rootlet has to find its way downward before it can push its cotyledons out of the soil. I learned this from the book Better Vegetable Gardens the Chinese Way by Chan and Gill, and from my seed-saving mentor Rowen White.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you’ve never started veggies inside before, it bears mentioning that setting them next to a window really doesn’t provide enough light. You need a fluorescent shop light, and you need to hang it so it’s inches (not feet) above the top of the plants, adjusting it upwards as they grow. And most of the veggie divas who need to start life indoors germinate fastest when the soil is around 77 degrees, so stick them and their light in a warm place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It also bears mentioning that indoor- or greenhouse-grown seedlings need to be “hardened off” before planting them out into the garden. Basically you carry them to and fro for a while. It’s a hassle. Actually, this whole seed-starting process is a huge hassle. But can I stop myself? No! Because springtime is too exciting!!! While unearthing supplies in the shed this afternoon, I caught myself humming, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year…”

Julia Frisbie has been gardening in Coast Salish territory for six growing seasons, and is thankful to learn from plants, animals, and people who have been here much longer. She’s grateful to her mom, Anne Kayser, for cultivating her curiosity, and also to Robin Wall Kimmerer for writing the book Braiding Sweetgrass, which transformed her relationship with the more-than-human world. Follow Julia’s micro-farm on Facebook, Instagram, and/or TikTok

Turning a Lawn into More Planting Space

By Julia Frisbie

Posted Wednesday, March 10, 2021

In January 2016, we became homeowners rather than renters for the first time, so naturally, we set out to destroy our newly-purchased lawn.

 

So boring. So unproductive. It had to go. Here’s what we did, and how it turned out!

 

 

 

We decided to use sheet mulch. First, we flattened and peeled the tape off all our moving boxes and laid them out on the lawn as a weed barrier, and watered them so they wouldn’t blow away.

 

 

(We used straw bales for raised beds during our first growing season, because we knew there wouldn’t be time for all this cardboard to break down and let plant roots through before summer. It’s better to start the sheet mulch process in the fall if you have time.)

Then we brought in 17 cubic yards of compost. The ground was wet, and the truck sank into the backyard and almost got stuck. Total disaster. We like to live life on the edge.

17 cubic yards is a lot of mulch. But for the record, you can use this same technique on a smaller scale: you could build the frame of a raised bed directly on top of your grass, line the bottom with cardboard, and then fill it with bagged compost. We used a dump truck load because we essentially wanted to turn the ENTIRE YARD into a raised bed.

Anyway, we spread that stuff all over, laying down more cardboard mulch underneath as we went. Extended family members who had come to see the new house were quickly drafted.

After we ran out of moving boxes, we used wide rolls of extra-thick kraft paper. Sometimes we had to lie down on the paper to keep it from blowing away before the next wheelbarrow load was in place. Large-scale mulching is a team sport.

 

We planted perennials like herbs and blueberry bushes by cutting through the mulch and paper layers and putting their roots directly into what used to be the sod. Because it was the beginning of the growing season, we also transplanted some shallow-rooted annuals like onions and lettuces right on top of the compost. We planted our deep-rooted annuals (like nightshades, squashes, and brassicas) on the straw bales that year, because we knew their roots wouldn’t be able to break through the cardboard and paper layer until after at least one rainy season’s worth of decomposition.

Then, because we didn’t have mulch to spread over the fresh compost, we broadcasted wildflower and clover seed all over the place as a cover crop.

Our cover crop helped build more soil while (mostly) crowding out weeds. The wild birds loved it, and they came and pooped new weed seeds everywhere. Oh well! Still, we had a glorious first summer in the new place, with a few veggies, a lot of flowers, and very little mowing.

 

Our big break came months later when I heard a chainsaw and a chipper in the neighborhood. I literally chased the truck down the street barefoot, begging the arborist to drop his load of chips for us to use. He did– JACKPOT!!!– and our neighbor yelled at us about it, so the first thing we had to do was shovel the entire load (about 10 cubic yards) out of the easement and into the backyard in one evening. We didn’t have time to mow the cover crop first– we didn’t even have any houseguests to recruit. We just laid down a deep layer of arborist chips over everything. There are no pictures, because it was pitch dark by the time we finished. But it was time and energy well-spent. In the short run, it smothered the cover crop, suppressed weeds, and looked nice. In the long run, it composted in place and fed the soil, because arborist chips contain both green material (shredded leaves) and brown material (chipped wood). Five years and three additional truckloads of arborist chips later, this space is still feeding us and the wildlife with glorious abandon!

Why should you mulch your lawn into oblivion, rather than sod cutting, rolling it up, and hauling it away? Because of geology. Our island is what’s left after the rest got scraped away by a giant glacier. We’re pretty short on topsoil. Losing even two inches of organic matter was a price I wasn’t willing to pay– and besides, it composted in place in less than a year. Soil organic matter feeds microbes and absorbs water, cutting down on long-term water needs. And it’s like compounding interest; the longer you do it, the better it gets.

Fall is the ideal time to make new garden beds, but in a pinch, you can pull it off in early spring. As with other gardening topics, there are many good ways to do something, but no single “right way.” That said, here’s what I can recommend because it’s worked for us:

  1. Lay down a compostable cardboard or paper barrier on top of your grass.
  2. Get the barrier all wet.
  3. Dump a bunch of compost on it, and spread it at least 4 inches thick.
  4. Broadcast seeds for a cover crop. American Meadows is a decent source if you want to buy wildflower and clover seeds by the pound rather than the packet.
  5. Make holes in the barrier and plant perennials straight through. Plant shallow-rooted annuals right on top during the first season. Remember to water well, because plant roots probably won’t make it through the cardboard and paper layer until next season.
  6. Cover with at least a four-inch layer of arborist chips no later than the following fall. You can request arborist chips from local companies on getchipdrop.com and they’re FREE!
  7. The next spring, gently rake the arborist chips out of the way and plant your annuals directly into the compost below.
  8. Follow up with additional applications of arborist mulch on an ongoing basis every fall, or whenever things get weedy, or when you need a good workout, or whenever you feel like things are getting too peaceful with the neighbors.

Now, for a few warnings:

DON’T STOMP AROUND IN YOUR NEWLY PURCHASED PILE OF COMPOST BAREFOOT because it might contain silverware. Somehow this happens to us every time, no matter which of the two local suppliers we order compost from. I have a slight preference for Skagit Soils, but no compost you purchase by the dump truck load is going to be perfect.

DON’T PAY FOR FANCY WOOD CHIPS. They’re all brown material, rather than a mix of green and brown, so they won’t compost in place and they won’t be as good for your soil. Just get the free stuff from your local arborists.

DON’T MIX THE ARBORIST CHIPS INTO THE SOIL. That will tie up all the nitrogen, which will starve the plants. Just lay the chips on top like a blanket.

DON’T FREAK OUT WHEN WILD MUSHROOMS POP UP. They mean your soil is happy. They don’t compete with your plants, and they can’t poison you if you don’t eat them. Treat them as honored guests who bring good news and let them live their lives.

THERE WILL BE WEEDS. Why? Because the polyculture you’re creating is more attractive to wild birds than your boring old lawn used to be, and bird poop is full of weed seeds. The time you used to spend mowing, you will now spend weeding. But the more years you spread arborist chips, the easier it gets to pull the weeds, because the soil gets so spongy-soft. I’d rather be down on my hands in the duff than pushing some stinky old mower any day.

 

Julia Frisbie has been gardening in Coast Salish territory for six growing seasons, and is thankful to learn from plants, animals, and people who have been here much longer. She’s grateful to her mom, Anne Kayser, for cultivating her curiosity, and also to Robin Wall Kimmerer for writing the book Braiding Sweetgrass, which transformed her relationship with the more-than-human world. Follow Julia’s micro-farm on Facebook, Instagram, and/or TikTok