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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