Thursday, May 18, 2017

Permaculture Foundation Planting

I am really excited about a new garden area that I've been thinking about for over a year.

When we bought our house a decade ago, it was basically brand new and it had zero landscaping. We started a garden and began to add fruit trees early on, but the areas along the foundation of our house remained depressingly bare. We've finally made a start towards fixing that with a permaculture food/flower border.


When I was designing this border, I wanted it to fulfill several functions. First, I wanted it to take advantage of the microclimate. The south side of a brick house is a great place to grow more tender plants. I also wanted to mix edible plants with those helpful to pollinators. Lastly, I wanted it to be attractive.

My initial planting plan

Sheet Mulch

Last spring we sheet mulched a long bed around the west and south foundation of our house. First, a layer of cardboard was laid to block weeds and grass. This was topped it off with some good quality topsoil left over from our hugelkulture project, some compost, and then a 6" layer of wood chips. We let it sit for a full year.

By this spring the wood chips had decayed significantly and the soil underneath was rich, black, and full of worms.

The plants

The first plants I selected for the border were fig and wisteria. The fig I chose, Chicago Hardy Fig, is, like its name states, a more hardy selection, but it will greatly benefit from the warm southerly aspect. Wisteria is a nitrogen fixer, and native American Wisteria (Wisteria frutescens) is much less likely to grow out of control than its Asian cousins.

I also knew I wanted to try rhubarb and rosemary in this location. Rhubarb is a perennial, and I think its leaves are quite dramatic and will be a nice contrasting foilage. I have never managed to over-winter rosemary successfully in other locations on our property, so I decided to nestle in a plant close to the fig tree and hope for the best.

The other main nitrogen fixer I chose is Lespedeza thunbergii 'Gibraltar'. I have wanted to plant this for years and finally located it in a specialist nursery on the east coast. It is a truly gorgeous plant that is covered with blossoms in the fall. It will make great mulch as it has to be cut back each year, releasing nitrogen to feed its neighbors.

I decided against comfrey in the border. Comfrey is incredibly useful and (I think) beautiful, but once you plant it, you'll have it forever. I didn't want to make that commitment in this location. I decided instead to plant borage. Borage is also a great mulch plant. It self-seeds readily, but doesn't have such a tenacious root system.

The last plant I decided was a must-have is Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii). I know this is a controversial choice as it is not native and can be invasive in some areas. Although butterflies like it, as a non-native, it does not provide all the necessary food, habitat, etc. that natives do. After weighing it out, I decided to go ahead and plant it. I don't think buddleia is particularly rampant in NE Kansas. I will be providing many native plants, both in this border and throughout our property. The structure that a medium-sized bush will provide to the design will be welcome.

The remaining plants are a variety of flowering herbs chosen for beauty and value as medicine and/or for pollinators.

It doesn't look like much now, but with time, it will be lovely and productive

Plant List and functions*

-American Wisteria (Wisteria frutescens) 'Amethyst Falls' - Nitrogen fixer, invertebrate shelter, nectary
-Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida) - nectary, wildlife, possibly medicinal
-Blazing Star (Liatris spicata) - nectary, medicinal, wildlife
-Borage (Borago officinalis)  - edible, medicinal, nectary
-Bush Clover (lespedeza thunbergii) 'Gibraltar' - Nitrogen fixer, nectary
-Catmint (Nepeta) - nectary
-Chamomile (Matricaria chamomila) - edible, tea, medicinal, nectary
-Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) - edible, aromatic confuser, nectary, dynamic accumulator, ground cover
-Coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillata) 'Moonbeam' - nectary, groundcover
-Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus)- nectary
-Daisy (Leucanthemum x superbum) 'Becky' - nectary
-Fig 'Chicago Hardy' - edible, medicinal
-Hyssop (Agastache) - Invertebrate shelter, nectary, medicinal, aromatic confuser
-Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium dubium) 'Baby Joe' - nectary, medicinal
-Phlox (Phlox paniculata) - nectary
-Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) - tea, medicinal, invertebrate shelter, nectary
-Rhubarb - edible, medicinal
-Rosemary - edible, tea, medicinal, nectary, aromatic confuser, invertebrate shelter, wildlife
-Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) - edible flowers, possibly medicinal
-Salvia 'May Night' - nectary
-Sedum 'Autumn Joy' - nectary
-Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) - culinary, tea, medicinal, wildlife, invertebrate shelter, nectary, aromatic confuser
-Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) - medicinal, invertebrate shelter, nectary, dynamic accumulator, ground cover, aromatic confuser

*Functions taken from Edible Forest Gardens, Volume 2 by Jacke and Toensmeier

The future

This is definitely a work in progress. I looking forward to watching all the tiny plants fill in and to add more to the border next year. I am particularly interested in more perennial vegetables and greens. I want to add more ground cover-type plants and dynamic accumulators as well. I also plan to plant some saffron crocus bulbs. It is a bit too cold up on our windy hill to grow saffron, but I'd like to try it in the warm south-facing border.

A New Peach Polyculture - for free

We've slowed down significantly on our poultry projects. I've stopped selling hatching eggs and have only sold the occasional gosling this spring. This is mainly because I have put all my extra effort into planting and maintaining our food forest. We have been using every extra moment this spring to get a ton of trees in the ground. We had break from planting last year while the tall, dark, and handsome member of the family recovered from back surgery, so we are making up for it this year.

In addition to planting new trees, we have put together our very first food forest polyculture and we did it for absolutely free.

What is a polyculture?

Polyculture simply means growing different kinds of plants together in a way that benefits the whole. A good food forest polyculture will include plants that create mulch, fix nitrogen, repel pests, attract beneficial insects, and build soil minerals.

The bones of this polyculture

The polyculture is formed around two semi-dwarf peach trees that we planted in 2013. One is 'Intrepid' and the other is 'Red Haven'. The 'Red Haven' tree bears the most delicious peaches I have ever eaten and so has a very special place in my heart. Last year I planted a bunch of nitrogen-fixing bushes that I bought from the Kansas Forest Service throughout our food forest.  In this area there is both a False Indigo (Amorpha fruticosa) and a Siberian Pea Shrub (Caragana arborescens). There was also a Russian comfrey plant grown from roots that I traded hatching eggs for a couple of years ago.

'Redhaven' peach tree in mid-May. The leaves are slightly white due to the kaolin clay spray we apply for a month after petal fall for pest control purposes

So the trees and nitrogen fixers weren't free, but every other item used in this project was.

Next Step - Sheet Mulching

We sheet mulched the area in the fall to kill off the grass and make way for the plants we'd add in the spring. My husband and kids put down a layer of cardboard and I dumped a wide variety of organic matter over the top - used litter from my chicken and duck houses, fall leaves, and wood chips. We ended up with a good 6 inches of organic matter by the time I was done.

After I pruned some bushes this spring I put down some of the twigs and small branches as a path through the polyculture. Such ramial wood is a top food for the beneficial fungus we are seeking to partner with. If I had a chipper on hand I would have used it, but whole twigs will decompose, too, albeit at a slower rate.

All the other plants in this polyculture were either started them from seed that we were given, transplanted from volunteer seedlings or divisions from other parts of our garden, or were received the plants as free bonuses from a nursery. Quite a number of the plants were started from expired seed that was discarded by retail stores. Most seeds will germinate quite well even after several years, so when we had the chance to get expired seed packets for free, we loaded up.

'Red Lake' currant
more Comfrey
Lemon Balm
Garlic Chives
Flanders Poppy
Butternut Squash

I plan to allow all the herbs to go to seed and to spread, creating a ground cover that should choke out grass and weeds while yielding us product. If they get too rampant, a little chopping and dropping in place as mulch will keep them in check.

The new polyculture right after planting

I'd like to add some more plants with tap roots, such as horseradish or daikon radish, and more comfrey and other mulch plants but otherwise I am very pleased with what I ended up with for absolutely FREE.

Monday, May 4, 2015

A Pond for the Ducks and Geese! Swales in Action

We installed a swale water catchment system in our orchard area last month.  A swale is a sort of ditch laid on contour. Its job is to collect water, slowing its movement down so that it soaks into the soil and forms a "lens" of stored water beneath a berm. Anything planted on the berm benefits from this natural irrigation. You can read about how we installed our swale system here

The north swale on the day of installation. Photo courtesy of Steve Moring, Vajra Farm LLC

It has been pretty dry, so we really haven't seen it fully in action until today. As of this writing, we have received nearly 3.5" of rain over the course of about 3 hours. It is clear how useful a tool the swale system is going to be. 

After 3.2" of rain, the water in the swales stood about 15 inches deep
Our swales are relatively shallow because our soil doesn't percolate water very quickly. Depending on your soil type, you may have deeper or more shallow swales.

If you look carefully in the lower lefthand corner, you can see the white overflow drain that feeds the pond.

Our swales not only water the trees and other plants on the berms but they also serve to fill our new duck and goose pond. Once the water in the swales reaches a certain level, it flows into an underground drain pipe that connects the two swales.

The pond filling up! You can see the water entering from the swale drain on the left. The pond was completely empty prior to today's rain. The pipe on the right is an overflow outlet. 

The water then flows via gravity through the drain pipes downhill into the pond. The pond is approximately 20 ft. across and 5 ft. deep. It filled in less than 3 hours.

All we need to do is figure out our fencing situation and the ducks and geese will be able to enjoy their new pond. This is a considerable upgrade on the kiddie pools they've been using!

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Monday, April 13, 2015

Swale building!

We had the honor of having members of the Kansas Permaculture Collaborative over for two "permablitzes" on our farm over the past couple of weekends. We had people drive in from as far away as Salina and Kansas City to help us complete a swale building project for our food forest. I can't describe how thankful and humbled I feel after the outpouring of help and comraderie. Permaculture people are good people. 

The southwest edge of our property will be devoted to a food forest planted around a hugelkulture bed and two swales. Excess water from the swales will be diverted to the duck and goose pond

We enlisted the help of Steve Moring of Vajra Farm LLC in developing a plan for our property. I have read about permaculture for years but felt like I lacked the experience needed for planning the water catchment systems in particular. Steve's help has been invaluable for putting my ideas into practical action.

The main plant elements on the plan. This does not list the many varieties of berries, herbs, flowers, etc. that will be planted around the larger trees.  

Like everyone else on the planet, we are on a budget. We can only afford to put part of the plan into action this year, so we thought it was smart to get started on the swales and food forest.

First, a little terminology. To quote this excellent overview, swales are "water-harvesting ditches, built on the contour of a landscape." Our orchard area is located at the bottom of a slope and swales slow water down as it moves through our property. Slowing the water down gives it a chance to soak in and do the work we want it to do: watering our trees and filling up our new duck pond. 

The first step was to get a laser transit and to find the level contours along the hillside.

They are hard to see, but the orange flags mark out two swales running through our existing orchard.

We marked off the contours for two swales running through the orchard as well as a hugelkulture bed (more on that later) near the house.

We set out the swale lines in February and two months later had our first permablitz event. We shoveled out a thick carpet of wood chips five feet across and topped it off with a blanket of manure.

These swales didn't seem so long until we had to cover them with woodchips and manure! 

Swales still going...

...all the way to the west edge of our property

Once we had the wood chips and manure laid out, it was time to get heavy equipment involved. We hired a contractor to come and dig out a trench 6 inches deep and five feet across and mound it over the top of the woodchips/manure swale line. He also dug out the duck pond and installed pipes underground to link the swales with the pond. When the swales fill with water after a large rain event, the excess water will be diverted to the pond.

The north swale

The following weekend we had our second permablitz. We had a fellow with a tractor till up the swale berms to remove the largest chunks. We also spread gypsum to help break up our heavy (heavy!!) clay soil as well as another hefty helping of manure. Then we sprinkled a cover crop (peas, vetch, lentils,etc.) over the top before rolling aged prairie hay over the top for mulch.

So thankful for friends to help us with this huge task!
We did not buy all of the trees for the food forest this year; trees are expensive! I hope to complete the main plantings this fall and next spring. The last thing we accomplished on the permablitz day was to plant the trees I did have along the berms. 

One of the Chinese Chestnuts

That was one full day! 

Swale doin' its thing

We got over half an inch of rain that night and got to see the swale system in action the next day.

The pond slowly starting to fill in

Still to do: 

Hugelkulture bed-to-be
The hugelkulture bed up by the house needs completed. The contractor dug a ditch 24 inches deep and it is partially filled with woodchips. We will add wood, more wood chips, soil and manure to create a fertile mound to feed the black oak and Bradford pear trees we are planting as a windbreak for the house.

We have nitrogen-fixing plants (false indigo [amorpha fruticosa], seaberry, goumi, and brushy clover [lespedeza bicolor] and comfrey to plant throughout the food forest area.

Lastly (I think), I need to sow red clover on and around the pond berm. Lots of progress and lots to keep us busy.

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Saturday, April 4, 2015

How to Plant Blueberries

Blueberries have a reputation for being somewhat troublesome plants. The major issue is that they like acidic conditions and most of us do not have naturally acidic soil. No worries! If you plant blueberries correctly, you can give them exactly what they need and pave the way for bountiful harvests in the future. 

My go-to book for all things fruit is the The Holistic Orchard According to the author, Michael Phillips, the first thing you have to do is dig a proper hole.
Hole-y cow!

As usual when you are planting fruit, you're going to dig a much larger hole than you probably think is necessary. This hole is about 3 feet across and 12 inches deep. We currently have four northern highbush-type blueberries ("Earliblue", "Bluecrop", "Blueray", and "Jersey" varieties) and have spaced them out five feet apart in a sunny area adjacent to our tree crop plantings.

Now comes the fun part. And by fun part, I mean the really tedious but important part. Instead of adding back only the soil you just dug out, you are going to fill in the hole with materials that are going to nudge the pH of your soil in the acidic direction. Phillips recommends that you use 50% peat moss, 40% native soil, and 10% compost for a proper planting mixture.

A note about peat moss: the peat moss that you buy at a garden center is very dry and compressed.  It is better to moisten it ahead of time.

My peat moss has sprung a leak! 

Take the bale of peat moss and cut a hole in the top of the plastic. You can stick a hose down inside and fill the bale with water. It will hold A LOT of water. Let it sit for a couple of days to get thoroughly moistened.

We were a bit perplexed as to the best way to insure that we got the proper amounts of soil, peat moss, and compost mixed throughout the planting hole. We ended up using a 5 gallon bucket as a measuring device and filled it up with the correct proportions of each of the ingredients. It took a long time, but it was a good way of mixing everything.

As you fill in your planting hole, you also need to sprinkle in some soil amendments. Every blueberry bush received 1 cup of rock phosphate, 1 cup of elemental sulfur, and 2 cups of greensand. The rock phosphate stimulates root growth and the greensand and sulfur will help with the iron uptake/pH concerns.

Greensand, elemental sulfur, and rock phosphate

We layered in buckets of the soil mixture, sprinkled in the amendments, and gently tucked in each plant.

This freshly planted blueberry was 2 years old when we purchased it.
It began bearing fruit the next year.

After we finished this project, I needed to be gently tucked into bed. Alas, my job was not done. Blueberries are one of those plants that need consistent moisture. Mulch will help keep moisture in the soil and also keep the weeds back.


We used a mix of shredded tree branches and grapevines for mulch at the time. Now I generally use the material I clean out of the duck and chicken houses (manure + pine shavings/pellets) as mulch.  
A month after planting you need to fertilize the blueberries with an organic fertilizer for acidic plants and repeat that again in the fall. In subsequent years, fertilize in the fall only. Blueberries need a minimal amount of pruning to remove old branches as they age. Easy peasy! 

A year after planting we started getting blueberries! (Shown with raspberries)

Blueberries in a Permaculture Guild: 
Right now our blueberries are not integrated into any other plantings, but I have been doing some research on possible guild plants that would work in conjunction with blueberries, contributing nutrients and assisting pollinators. The main concern seems to be the fact that blueberries have a very shallow root system and do not like it disturbed. Here are three discussions (Page 1, Page 2, Page 3) about plant pairings with blueberries. Lots of food for thought here. 

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Monday, March 30, 2015

How to Make a Dust Box for Chickens

Chickens naturally take dust baths as a way to get rid of external parasites. They throw themselves down in a dusty spot and roll around until they get dirt in all their nooks and crannies. Dust baths are very effective but even so, chickens can still suffer from lice and mites. You can soup up your chickens' dust baths by providing them with a box filled with pest repellent materials. Here's how to do it.

Go and get the biggest litter box you can find. 

This giant litter pan is 34.5" x 19.5" x 10". Two chickens could bathe in here at the same time. The depth is the most critical dimension. You want all your bathing materials to stay in the box when the chickens do their thing. (Ever watched a chicken dust bathe? They can go kinda crazy.) 

Adding the first layer of peat moss 

You can fill your dust box with any number of materials. Harvey Ussery recommends peat moss, dried and sifted clay, and/or small amounts of wood ash.  I used peat moss because I had some on hand plus some sand I had left over from another project. 

Food-grade DE. Do NOT use any other type of DE with your poultry. 

Now for the good stuff. You can add garden lime, food-grade diatomaceous earth (DE), or elemental sulfur powder to really sock it to those parasites. Remember to wear a good dust mask whenever you work with DE. It is really fine and you'll breathe it in and irritate your lungs. 

I should mention that Gail Damerow, author of Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens, doesn't think you should use DE in dust boxes for parasite prevention. Chickens can be prone to respiratory problems and breathing in DE is not a good thing for anyone. Damerow thinks you should only use DE and other heavy-hitting anti-parasite products when there is an obvious infestation. Herbalist Susan Burek has also been outspoken about her opposition to DE in her articles in Backyard Poultry Magazine. Harvey Ussery, on the other hand, routinely uses a small amount of DE in his dust box. You'll have to decide where you stand on this issue. I do generally use DE as part of my dust box mix. 

I also mix a little DE in with my chickens' feed. Some people claim that feeding DE to poultry will serve as a natural dewormer. Gale Damerow has a negative opinion of that as well. She says that DE only works to kill worms, etc. when it is dry. Once it has made its way through the chicken's digestive tract, it is not dry and no longer has any of the microscopic cutting edges that serve to kill the bad guys. I still do it on the off chance that it will work!   

Peat, sand, and DE, ready to be mixed

The dust box should be placed where it will stay dry. 

If the mixture gets wet, it defeats the purpose. You should place it in a sheltered area or in your coop if you have room. 

That's it! Pretty simple for something that can really improve your chickens' quality of life. 


1.The Small-Scale Poultry Flock: An All-Natural Approach to Raising Chickens and Other Fowl for Home and Market Growers by Harvey Ussery
2. Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens, 3rd Edition by Gail Damerow

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Friday, March 27, 2015

What is Permaculture? Our Farm Goals

I've always been interested in homesteading. I'm sure it is partly the result of reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's books over and over as a child. Milk a cow? Preserve jam? Make cheese? Yep, that sounded like fun to me from a young age. I clipped articles out of magazines on growing citrus trees in pots and sighed over the descriptions of the heady scent of old-fashioned roses that I read about in library books.

And now that I am an adult with a few acres of my own to play with, I've already made quite a few of those childhood fantasies come true. The plan our permaculture designer (Steve Moring of Vajra Land Management) came up with will take us to the next level.

Some readers might be unfamiliar with permaculture and I think the easiest way for me to explain it will be to list the farm goals Lee and I gave Steve as we started the design process. Permaculture will make all of these possible.


- To create a resilient, food productive landscape. We know that through good design it is possible to work smarter, not harder. We want to use our land to the utmost, especially from the standpoint of water conservation. With the climate growing hotter and drier, we believe this is critical.

Our current kitchen garden is composed of raised beds surrounded by chicken runs. The chickens
really help keep bugs down and they benefit by the close proximity by getting lots of garden goodies. 

 - To create a more sustainable system that utilizes our poultry. Currently we are buying lots of inputs (poultry feed, fertilizers, compost, etc.) We'd like plants we could use as forage for poultry (and possibly the cattle we are getting in the future). Once we sort out fencing arrangements we plan on allowing our geese to free-range full time and our other birds (ducks and chickens) part-time. Since we breed several rare varieties some birds will unfortunately will not be able to free range (I refuse to allow coyotes to eat expensive birds), but most should get at least some range time.

The barn we built in 2014. The breeding pen fencing will also serve as a trellis for
grapes. The grapevines will provide summer shade and of course food.  

 -To create pond area for the waterfowl.

There will be a small pond that will be fed via a swale system through the orchard.

 - Going along with the idea of working smarter, not harder: to create areas for perennial vegetables as well as more areas for annual vegetables, compost crops, etc.

Geese in the garden eating weeds

 - To continue to develop our orchard, adding both more of the types of trees we have now as well as new varieties. I have been following the spray protocol established in The Holistic Orchardby Michael Phillips.

Spring-time cherry blossoms

 -While we'd like to have a long harvest season, I'd prefer plants that yield their harvest all at once. For example, everbearing strawberries drive me crazy; a summer of harvesting a handful of strawberries every week is not my idea of fun. I much prefer June bearing strawberries. I can, freeze, and dehydrate the surplus before moving on to the next berry, fruit, etc. that is ripe.

Cucumbers, carrots, zucchini, and cabbage from our kitchen garden

 -To provide habitat for beneficial/predatory insects and pollinators. We hope to keep bees in the next year or two.

We had five of these spiders take up residence in our raspberry patch last year. They definitely kept bug damage to the
fruit to a minimum and helped me work through my arachnophobia. 

-To minimize the effects of wind and our colder microclimate. We don't have the time or desire to cosset plants that are not hardy.

- We confess that we both like plants in straight lines and everything looking neat and tidy and that sometimes permaculture landscapes look rather unkempt to us. I would like the plantings to be neater and with a bit of an eye towards ornamentals close up to the house and driveway.

Borage planted with tomatoes is beautiful and useful. Bees love it and it is a truly effective
repellent for tomato hornworms.

Our farm goals encompass the ethos of permaculture: using land in a way that is productive, good for the earth, and good for the inhabitants.

A gorgeous summer evening

I will share the plan Steve Moring came up with in detail in a future blog post. In the meantime, here are some resources that I have found helpful as we go through this process:

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