Lessons from the Soil

It’s been just over a year and half since we found ourselves relocating to a log home in deep woods at higher elevation. It’s been a long and humbling year and a half. All my fears of bears and deer and deep shade and late frosts have proven true. But all my hopes for simplicity, family bonding, and deeply satisfying lessons learned have also proven true.

The former ornamental roses and structured gravel walkways have slowly given way to an ever-changing garden filled with many bittersweet lessons. Slowly life is beginning to find it’s way in and stay. The small garden pond will soon be once more full of tadpoles and azole, the bowers and seed flowers have attracted native birds all winter long, and the beneficial insect populations continue to grow and thrive. The ecosystem is strengthening.

By mid summer, this dirt and stick planted sun trap had turned into a thriving shelter for birds and boys alike, filled with sunflowers, Jerusalem artichokes, beans, pumpkins, peas, strawberries, lettuces and semi-dwarf apple trees.

The orchards are still going in and yet but tiny, unrecognizable sticks. These foundations will take years to fully mature. But I am learning patience and humility and enjoying the journey instead of simply charging along to reach the goal.

The garden above is a mini hugelkulture planting of elderberries, currants, blueberries, strawberries and rhubarb. Those first year sticks produced so many berries last summer the branches still sag under the memory of the weight of all the fruit they bore.

The soil is still problematic but improving. It is fully fabricated, having been trucked in first as 8 cubic yards of topsoil then amended with many loads of manure from local dairies and deep goat bedding from last winter. Add to that many loads of deciduous leaves and poultry and rabbit manure as well as blood, sweat, tears, and spent blisters.

The lack of sunlight and late hard frosts I can do little about. A greenhouse only helps if there is sunshine to shine on it. I am also struggling to create a low-maintenance answer to the particularly vicious forest slugs. The ducks were fraught with their own drawbacks and making too many changes at once proved more than I could manage so I sold the ducks off for winter and will re-introduce when I have time to properly protect the garden from their help.

I put in a garden of meandering paths, keyhole plantings and polycultures which was beautiful to behold but the maintenance of it quickly got the better part of my summer.

The non-rows made it difficult to irrigate, sow, weed and harvest. The fact that I did not have a garden to plant until late in April meant some things got in too late to form strong root bases before the weather warmed up in May and then got cold again in June, tricking the brassicas into thinking summer was over prematurely and it was time to go to seed before winter. Deceptive sun patches tricked me into planting sun lovers in the wrong parts of the garden. When the weather turned cold in June the bees retreated for another month, leaving tomatoes and squashes unpollinated and the first round of fruit set withered and dropped. The compost was not completely aged, tying up critical minerals and stunting plants. The slugs, encouraged by last year’s never-ending spring, provided some more stunting.

All in all, it was the worst garden failure I’ve ever experienced but I must admit I learned quite a bit. In the end there was enough food for my family but no surplus to sell or donate as I had hoped.

So as we are about to embark once again into gardening season, I am pondering the changes I want to make. I have tested and appropriately mineralized the garden. I will compost with only fully aged manure this year. I will reconsider the keyhole beds or at least design them around a watering system. I will not charge head long into garden folly and a summer of enslaved weeding and watering. This year my expanded garden will be more productive and less work. If nothing else, a gardener’s hope spring’s eternal.

5 Responses to Lessons from the Soil

  1. I hope things start popping together this year. I’ve never undertaken anything nearly so ambitious but I can only imagine that just like small scale plantings take time, a big system won’t get all its gears meshing right away. Wishing you many immediate successes and many hints of future synergy this year.

  2. wow your garden looked beautiful and very productive. I love the flowers and veggies all happily co-habiting. I think most gardens change over time as we learn to know our little neck of the woods a bit better.

  3. I understand your frustration, I have a dog that dug up more than half of my garden. This year I’ll keep it simple and first of all protect my garden!

  4. So good to hear a blog update! I know you’re busy with so many changes, but it’s great to *hear* your voice. Now that I have a little one, I am making changes to my system so it will hopefully be less maintenance and more reward.

  5. WOW – what beautiful pictures. I hope you have a very productive year in your garden this year! I love your tenacity, optimism and determination!!!
    I am excited about my first crop of asparagus popping up (in Texas). I hope to have Asparagus Risotto this weekend. Quick Random Question – Do you or have you used a incubator to hatch baby chicks. I am thinking of buying one and want a recommendation. Take care and keep us updated when you can! Mary

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