An Ecologist Walks Into a Yard…

Like many gardeners, I have a tendency to be a bit overambitious. However, while many people imagine abundant flowerbeds and perfect rows of vegetables, I think in terms of entire yard makeovers. Considering that I’m a big proponent of permaculture, which is a very systems-based philosophy to growing food, this isn’t a surprise. However, it does make planning difficult.

Last year, I wrote about my attempts to reimagine the entire yard that didn’t get very far. In fact, we ended up only planting one blueberry bush, which sat in our basement for entirely too long. When we finally got around to planting it, it was so scraggly that Chris ran it over with the lawnmower by mistake. As for the rest, I was so busy with the Climate Ride and the regular vegetable garden that I never planted the artichokes or strawberries.

However, it wasn’t all for naught. Our grape vine – interestingly enough, Chris’s major point of interest – survived the winter and is now budding. Perhaps we’ll even get fruit from it this year or next. We ended up with an abundance of vegetables from the main garden, far too many for us to eat at times.

This year, my ambition is tamped back, but far from gone. Rather than following the more architectural ideas of permaculture, like placing plants in spirals, I’ve been trying to harken back to my ecology background.

First, I re-organized the original vegetable patch based both on what I learned last year and what I know of ecological systems. Last year, the tomatoes completely overwhelmed anything underneath them, even the mighty zucchini. Similarly, the large above-ground leaves of the potatoes kept the sunlight from getting to the swiss chard. Once we pulled all of the potatoes, the chard’s growth rapidly accelerated. Thinking in terms of the forest canopy, I’ve chosen not to plant anything close to the tomatoes and spaced the potatoes out much more. Last year, we had one weak, sad bean plant that didn’t produce any beans. While part of it was due to being in the shadow of the monster tomato, I think I may have damaged it when I staked it. This year, I’m putting in a number of bean varieties, all near the fence, where they can climb to their phloem’s content. Also, beans are nitrogen-fixing legumes and potatoes need quite a bit of nitrogen, I’ve grouped them together. I’ve also tried to intermix plants that have a lot of growth above ground with those that have a lot of growth below, like carrots and eggplant. My hope is that each will complement the other’s niche rather than fighting for resources. Lastly, I took my own needs better into account – we couldn’t figure out what to do with the swiss chard most of the time, so I’m not planting it again. I’ve put in spinach instead, which is much more versatile and less likely to go to waste.

Beyond the organized patch, I’ve continued to make and even carry out plans for the entire yard. Determined to get some edible fruit, I bought two more blueberry bushes a few weeks ago. Although they did sit in the car for a few days, they’re looking good so far. As blueberries require acidic soil, I was going to plant them under our pine trees. However, the combination of the tree’s thick roots, the lack of sunshine, and some problematic aesthetics shot that idea. Instead, Chris planted them up against the house, a place that previously housed a quite dead rhododendron. Although it wasn’t directly below the tree, soil there was already somewhat acid. Chris further upped the acidity by mixing needles into the soil mix, using the natural, free tools at hand rather than adding an outside chemical additive.

While he was busy in the yard, he also took it upon himself to clear out a very weedy area along our back fence. Except that what he cleared out turned out to be much more useful than a normal “weed.” It turned out we had peanuts! Noting that our squirrel friends had been leaving peanut shells on our front porch, we assumed there was a plant somewhere but had never figured out where. Turns out that the massive vines along our fence were hiding valuable nuts under the soil. Despite this treasure trove, Chris dug it up. He said the peanuts were so intertwined with the other weeds that it was impossible to preserve them . Fair enough. But it did give me an idea. Obviously, our soil is good for growing peanuts – so why not do so on purpose? While we have no idea if the wild variety was edible for humans, we now have the choice to plant one specifically developed in our region. Going with my pairing of vegetables that spread out above with those that grow below, I’m also going to plant winter squash in that bed. I love butternut squash, but their sprawling nature can suffocate everything else. Pairing them with the peanuts should provide enough competition to keep them both under control.

A revised version of last year's map. The blue circles up against the house are the blueberry bushes. The blue circle on the corner is a future rain barrel. The black circle is our composter. The purple circle is the grape vine. The orange bit is where Chris pulled all of the weeds and then mulched. I'll be lasagna composting and then planting the squash and peanuts on top of it, against the back fence.

Unfortunately, my one unfulfilled wish this year is to plant a paw-paw tree. I heard about this fruit native to the Southeast U.S. last year, when we planted a few as part of Ecolocity’s food forest. While they’re supposed to have a lovely, banana-ish flavor and texture, their complete inability to hold up to shipping makes them only the most local of foods. Then, when I saw the food forest presentation at Rooting DC this year, the idea of planting one in our yard enchanted me. Unfortunately, Chris isn’t as excited by this concept. But perhaps I’ll get to him yet – just a few more years….

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5 Responses to An Ecologist Walks Into a Yard…

  1. Eric says:

    Nice – you’ve put a lot of thought into this. Good luck!

  2. Pingback: Fruit of Our Labors « Will Bike for Change (or Pie!)

  3. Pingback: The Musical “Fruit” « Will Bike for Change (or Pie!)

  4. Pingback: A Weed by Any Other Name | Will Bike for Change (or Pie!)

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