Hugelkultur gardening uses raised beds over decomposing wood and compost.
If you’re like me, for the last several months you’ve been drooling over glossy, full color images of juicy red tomatoes, crisp green lettuce and luscious ripe peaches in the gardening catalogs. You’ve probably been dreaming of the coming spring’s garden, remembering last year’s successes, forgetting the failures, and making wish list after wish list of the new fruits and veggies you want to try (without regard for how you will actually fit 50 varieties of heirloom tomatoes in your garden).
But now that we’re in the fourth week of February with temps 30 degrees lower than average, I’m starting to wonder if spring will ever come. I’m trying to hold out hope, but in the meantime, the planning continues.
The first big project I’m jumping into as soon as the weather breaks is the construction of my new hugelkultur beds. I just learned about hugelkultur (a German word roughly translating to hill or mound culture) while attending the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association Conference.
Hugelkultur essentially replicates the natural process of decomposition that occurs on the forest floor—think of all that beautiful rich, black hummus that occurs when branches, logs and fallen leaves decompose. The beauty of the hugelkultur method is you can create nature’s perfect growing media in full sun, right in your backyard or wherever is a convenient location for the vegetables and fruit you want to grow.
Some of the benefits of the hugelkultur method include: better moisture retention in your growing beds, improved drainage, increased soil fertility and soil biota. This is a no-till method of gardening, and if you use biointensive planting or a square foot gardening style, very little weeding needs to be done.
The most commonly recommended size to start with seems to be a 6’ long by 3’ tall hugelkultur bed, but I may get creative. I’ve seen images online of some really beautiful hugelkultur beds– Schooner Farms in northern Ohio has created a replica of the ancient Serpent Mound using hugelkultur. Beds can be constructed on top of lawn or existing garden space. You may also choose to scrape off the top layer of grass/topsoil and use this on top of your bed when finished.
To create your bed, simply arrange the logs in the size/shape you want your beds to be, pack leaves and wood chips tightly in between, use branches to create an interlocking “frame” for your bed, pack straw and compost tightly between the branches and finish off with topsoil. Plant your seeds/plants and cover with a mulch.
Hugelkultur seems to be a perfect choice for my tiny homestead. We live in a partially wooded area so we have access to fallen trees, branches and leaves which all need to be cleaned up and used anyways. The hardest part may be deciding what I want to plant in my beds once I get them built. I suppose I may have a few more weeks of winter planning to figure that part out!
With all the plotting, planning, and assessment of variables – prepping to start a vegetable garden sounds much like going to war. Fortunately, it isn’t! Here’s some inside intel (read: start-a-garden tips) to help you out.
Make a map
Not talking about bringing in a cartographer, just grab a pen/pencil, a piece of paper and make a map of the land available for gardening (to scale, preferably), marking out the sunny, shaded areas. This will help decide the best locations for your vegetable plants and overall organization process.
Do a soil test
Get a good soil test kit and ascertain the nutrient levels and imbalances in the soil. Many county extension offices offer soil testing services for cheap – check with yours! You’ll want to make the necessary amendments – organic matter if the soil is too acidic, lime if it’s too alkaline – to the soil before planting.
Plan for irrigation
Regular irrigation is paramount to the success of this operation (i.e. your new garden.) Check the varieties of seeds you’re planning for, and determine whether the soil is too dry or too wet for your selections.
By targets, I mean the vegetable varieties you want to grow. List your favorite vegetables by family. It’ll help you plan rotations in the future. Write down the estimated planting date, days to maturity and harvest for each variety. Oh, and remember to identify and mark the ideal spots for every variety on the map. Take your time when you’re at it, organizing individual vegetable varieties such that they’re getting the right conditions and companions for optimum growth.
Study the space allotted to each plant variety in your map, consider the space a single seed or plant will require and ascertain how many seeds and plants you’ll need to buy.
Next step, order your seeds and get ready for some fun in the sun (and in the dirt!).
Fruits- the sweetest source of dietary fiber, essential vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other nutrients, and for many, the very reason they started gardening. Growing fruits is about as close us grownups can get to the excitement of stealing them from some unsuspecting neighbor’s garden. Growing new fruit varieties, now that’s even closer! Take a look at some of the newest additions to Gurney’s roster- the hottest new fruit varieties for 2015.
Grape lovers, we bring you the break-through in the world of grapes- RazzMatazz WOW Fruit Now! This sumptuous seedless self pollinator combines the disease resistance and hardiness of muscadines with the tender-crisp texture of table grapes. The result is sumptuous deep burgundy grapes that produce hearty yields right from midsummer to the first frost. No need for spraying! This sun loving variety is a must for grape lovers in Zones 7-9 – those Southern regions where fruit can be tough to grow. RazzMatazz is the first-ever continuously fruiting seedless muscadine grape – meaning that you’ll see continuously growing bunches of grapes all down the vine!
Early Blue and Sunrise Honeyberries
Fruit growers in Zones 3-8 will have a wonderful year with Early Blue and Sunrise- two new honeyberry varieties that better the deliciousness of the best of blueberries with an amazing sweet-tart flavor. Gurney’s “blueberries with an attitude” are the earliest (ripening in late May-June) and the tastiest of all honeyberries. These wonderful honeyberries require no spraying and relish partially shaded sites (Sunny planting sites recommended for regions in the far North.)
Romeo Dwarf Cherry
Finally, a cherry that’s larger, juicier and sweeter than Carmine Jewel. It even has the same great plant habit! These full sized cherries are a glossy deep crimson, with amazingly rich sugar levels for a tart cherry type. Romeo Dwarf is a sun loving self pollinator with exceptional cold-hardiness and high flesh-to-pit ratio. An absolute must for fruit gardeners in zone 2-7.
Sea beats are common ancestors of spinach, chard and modern beets.
[Image by Rmrony, via Wikimedia Commons]
Every garden tells a tale. Seeds, the smallest, single most essential constituent of a garden, have their own stories- ancient, diverse and very intriguing. These produce vegetables have been propagated for centuries, and have evolved from wild species to the cultivated vegetables we know today! The stories of evolution of beans, beets, chards and many of your favorite vegetable seeds can give valuable insights into their characteristics and growth mechanisms – and this knowledge can help us succeed with our modern plants!
Bean and Pea seeds
The wild forefathers of beans were quite dramatic – seed dispersal involved a literal explosion of the pods, which would result in seeds getting scattered as far as 10 feet away from the parent crop. Modern day bean and pea varieties might be a lot less dramatic, but they remain viable for several years. The young plants are a big hit with rabbits, mice and other animals and ergo, will do well with some protection in form of row covers. The flowers of both beans and peas are self pollinating, so you need not worry about the covers keeping out beneficial insects.
Beet, Chard and Spinach seeds
Beets, chard and spinach all belong to the same plant family – with this in mind, we can find many similarities between these vegetables.. Modern day beets and chard are the ancestors of wild sea beets, coastal plants prevalent in West Asia and Europe. Like their wild ancestors, chard and beet seeds are salt-tolerant and primarily wind-propagated. They’ll sprout in clumps that require thinning. Spinach seeds, much like their aforementioned relatives, are cold tolerant and may not germinate if the soil temperatures are too high. Luckily, there’s a way around- germinate spinach seeds in a cool place and then move the seedlings to your late summer garden. This will set you up for a superb fall crop!
The road to getting healthier is paved with green. And what better way to start than with a hearty helping of healthy green salad?! But salad greens aren’t all alike- some are tastier, crunchier and perhaps more importantly, more nutritious than others. So does that imply it’s hard to make the perfect green salad? No, certainly not with Gurney’s Superfood Salad Blend! Here’s a blend of salad greens that are easy to grow, delicious and rate sky high on nutrition. It’s new for our catalog this spring, and we’re very excited about it!
Gurney’s Superfood Salad Blend comprises spinach, chicory, endive, chard and beet greens, forming an intriguing, very flavorful mix of tastes and textures- everything you can ask of a nutritious salad. We’ve chosen individual salad ingredients not just for their taste and nutritional value, but for the wonderful way they compliment and accentuate the texture and flavor of all the other ingredients. Warning: You’re never going to want to go back to your regular green salad once you’ve tried our salad blend.
Why Grow Greens?
Greens have always been a staple of healthy eating, and they’re becoming a favorite of healthy foodies as calorie-conscious bloggers and chefs create recipes that incorporate spinach and chard. Tender baby greens make a great salad, but you can also allow the salad greens to mature for use in stews, casseroles and juicing. Always nice to have more options, isn’t it?
Growing these leafy greens is cheaper than picking them up at the health food store or supermarket, so take advantage of the growing season this year!
A Triploid watermelon is a seedless watermelon hybrid. Seedless watermelons are created through traditional breeding techniques and were first produced over 50 years ago. The process involves no genetic modification. These melons tend to be high in flavor and better for storing and shipping. Without seeds and seed cavities the fruit does not break down as quickly and thick rinds offer better fruit protection.
The science behind the seed:
Standard (seeded) watermelon varieties are diploid, meaning they have two sets of chromosomes (2x). Seedless watermelons are triploid, containing three sets of chromosomes (3x), they are sterile; or seedless. Triploids are created by crossing a diploid parent (2x) with a tetraploid parent (4x). Each parent gives one half of its’ chromosomes to the resulting offspring, giving us a (3x) triploid melon. A similar comparison is crossing a donkey and a horse to create a mule.
How to Grow Triploid Watermelon:
Triploid (seedless) watermelon cannot self-pollinate! Therefore, in order to get fruit formation you must plant a diploid watermelon alongside your triploid planting. Don’t let this fact deter you; there are many terrific diploid watermelons that will also serve as a pollinator for your seedless melon. Try planting our Gurney’s Delight Hybrid (seedless) watermelon along with Sugar Baby (seeded) watermelon as your pollinator. Both melons are terrifically flavorful and very attractive!
Checking out the rhubarb flowers.
I was a tiny bit overprotective when my first son was born. He never touched a floor without me first throwing down a freshly laundered blanket. I bundled him up in three layers and then covered him up with a blanket before leaving the house. That was September; you can imagine what January looked like. Then he started crawling… Ok, really he would just drag himself across the floor with one arm; we called it “the army-crawl”. I was still learning to let go of the utopia I had created for him when I walked into the kitchen one day and found my precious baby covered in compost! He had “crawled” over to the kitchen cabinet, found my compost bucket and dumped it all over himself. Sticky onion peels were glued to his bald head, coffee grounds covered his face and tiny hands. I looked down at him in shock; he smiled back at me with an accomplished grin.
My horror quickly turned to joy as I realized this was just the beginning of the fun we would to have together. He had rolled in compost and survived it; what else could this tiny human endure? Until now, he’d watched from his stroller while I planted seed, hoed weeds and harvested dinner from our large vegetable garden. It suddenly felt cruel to keep him from joining in on the fun. From that point on he was my constant companion in the garden. He put things in his mouth that didn’t belong there, he was dirty more often than he was clean; we were known to skip play dates and skip to the backyard garden instead. In summary, this kid was having real fun. Not the kind of fun we create at amusement parks and movie theaters, but the kind of fun that just exists all on its own. He was exploring nature, learning the seasons, touching plants, and eating real food.
My second son was luckier, he joined us in the garden long before he could crawl. The feel of soil in his tiny hands, the warmth of the sun and the smell of fresh herbs have always been a part of his life. As the boys get older their interest in the vegetable garden comes and goes. They like to help plant in the spring then tend to forget about the garden until there are peas to eat. The first time we can harvest enough fresh basil to make pesto is always a celebration; the second harvest is taken for granted. But just when I think they have forgotten the garden I’ll catch them walking their friends out to show them around; proudly offering up fresh strawberries or cherry tomatoes. They like to play hide and seek in the popcorn and make a teepee out of the pole beans, they do not like to help weed.
I’m not worried when their interests take them away from the vegetable patch, they will always have a strong bond to their food and to nature because the garden is there. That garden is a daily part of our lives weather we are eating canned spaghetti sauce on a cold January night or fresh salsa on a summer evening. My kids will always know where real food comes from, they will know how to prepare it, how to preserve it and how to appreciate it.
If you are looking for some gardening ideas for your budding botanist, check out our children’s packages; developed especially for kids and inspired by a compost covered baby!
Children’s Herb Garden
Children’s Easy Peasy Garden
Kids Garden Collection
Jack and The Beanstalk Garden
Children’s Sensory Garden
Children’s Sweet Treats Garden
Children’s Rainbow Garden
The boys set up their own animal trap one year when something was eating their strawberries!
Chickens do a great job of ridding the garden of pests and rotted veggies.
When I decided to start raising chickens, I was thinking only of high quality, fresh eggs. But, I soon learned that my feathered friends had far more to offer – bringing chickens onto the property was one of the best things I ever did for the vegetable garden! They help turn my compost pile, clean up the garden, and turn unwanted insects and food waste into valuable compost. Having free range chickens in your vegetable garden can be a bit tricky. I’ve learned the hard way that they like to eat many of the same things that we do!
Floating row covers keep the birds from pecking at seedlings.
I love to see my chickens out frolicking in the yard, but there are certain times of the year when they have to stay in the coop for the sake of the garden. Once I’ve sown seed in the spring, the girls are no longer allowed out to play. They love to take dust baths in freshly-dug soil, and they’ll quickly destroy a planting bed.
As soon as the spring seedlings are up and well-established, I welcome the eager hens back into the garden. They may nibble on a leaf from time to time, but the damage is minimal and the benefits are many. Then, once again it’s back to life in the coop when the tomatoes and peppers start to ripen. Chickens are very keen at finding a perfectly ripe tomato! Don’t feel too bad for the caged birds; they get so many garden scraps during the summer season that they turn up their beaks when I visit them with the compost bucket.
The flock is back in the garden again in late summer and through the fall and winter. I plant a much smaller fall garden, and use tomato cages, fences and floating row covers to protect delicate seedlings from my birds’ constantly pecking beaks. It’s well worth taking the extra time to protect the fall seedlings so the chickens can be in the garden. I find them especially helpful at cleaning up the garden this time of year when neglected and rotting veggies are inevitable.
I caught one of the “girls” helpfully chasing moles from the vegetable garden!
The routine I’ve established is just one of many ways for your chickens to coexist with the vegetable garden. A few other options that gardeners may use include chicken tractors, garden fences, or portable chicken fencing. Whatever method you chose, there are many benefits to free-ranging the flock! Free-ranging chickens require much less store-bought feed, and their egg yolks take on a gorgeous deep orange color. They keep the yard and garden clean of fleas, ticks and other unwanted insects; I’ve even witnessed my girls killing moles and garden voles. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, chickens are ridiculously entertaining and make great companions!
The flowers from many of your favorite herbs are edible – and delicious!
When a friend shared her recipe for cilantro root pesto, I was immediately intrigued. All this time, I had been wasting a perfectly edible plant part? At the first opportunity I dug up a plant and tried her recipe. The results were amazing – stir fries will never be the same again! Since discovering the glorious flavor of cilantro root, I’ve been on a mission to discover and use the lesser known edible parts of my garden plants. Here’s a list to get you started on your next culinary adventure!
Cilantro (Coriander)-Chop the roots in a food processor with olive oil, garlic and pepper. Add this to stir fries, salad dressing or soups. A little goes a long way; the roots are full of flavor. Flowers can be used as garnish, or in salads. Seeds taste best when crushed just prior to using; often used in Indian and Latin recipes.
Parsley– Roots can be eaten fresh, roasted or added to soups and stews
Dill-Add flowers to pickles, or potato salad. Seeds are used toasted, fried or added into soups, salads and pickling brine.
Basil/Chives/Mint/Rosemary/Thyme/Sage-You can eat the flowers of all these herbs; flavors are similar to the leaves.
Arugula-flowers taste similar to the leaves, add to salads, or use as a garnish
Pea – Add the young tendrils, shoots and flowers to stir fries and salads. Pea shoots can easily be grown indoors for winter greens.
Squash- Add young shoots to salads or lightly sauté with garlic. Flowers are wonderful stuffed, baked, or fried. Toasted seeds makes a great snack or salad topper.
Watermelon-Pickle the rinds
Sweet potato leaves– Braise leaves and stems with garlic.
Garlic– Use the gorgeous flower scapes as you would use the garlic bulb. They are also good pickled, or made into a pesto.
Popcorn– Young shoots are super sweet and very attractive. Add to smoothies, salads or soups.
Sunflower-Young shoots taste much like the seeds.
Nasturtium– The spicy flowers are a great addition to salads. Dried flowers can be added to salt for a tasty and attractive alternative. Leaves make a lovely garnish and are also good in pesto. Seed pods can be pickled and used as capers.
Radish– Seed pods can be pickled, tossed into stir fries or sprinkled on top of salads. Leaves can be eaten as salad greens when young or sauté older leaves with garlic. The flavorful flowers can be used as a garnish, or added to salads.
Carrot– Toss greens in a salad, quickly blanch, or make a pesto. Remember to save your seedlings for this purpose while thinning.
Beet, Turnip, Kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts – Eat the young leaves as a salad greens, or lightly sauté the mature greens. Grow for sprouts.
Cabbage, Broccoli– Stems can be eaten along with florets, chopped into a slaw, or added to soups and stews. Toss leaves into smoothies, stir fries or salads. Grow for sprouts.
This year at the Research and Development farm we grew a lot of popcorn. We’ll be doing taste trials once the cobs all dry down. In the mean time we are playing! Did you know you can put a whole ear of popcorn in the microwave and pop it right off the cob? Simply put the cob into a paper lunch sack and roll up the end a few times, making tight folds (for extra hold, use a piece of masking tape). Place the bag on its side in microwave for 2-3 minutes. Stay near the microwave and listen closely; times vary by machine. Stop the microwave as soon as the popping slows down, it burns quickly if left in too long. The popcorn will pop right off the cob and fill your bag! The kernels at the tip of the cob tend not to pop. You can either break this off prior to popping, or expect to see a few remaining on the cob after popping. We trialed our Mauveless variety and it works great. Try it for yourself, I guarantee your family and friends will be impressed!