I stopped by my friends Fred and Deb’s house the other day and noticed they had their seed catalogs out with pages of heirloom plants already bookmarked. As early as it seems, within the next couple of months Fred will have his grow light going and his heat mats out warming spinach, kale and lettuce seedlings sprouting on long tables in the basement. By early spring the plants will be re-potted and out in the cold frame ready for planting.
For those of you already looking forward to the planting season, here are three earth-friendly gardening techniques, adopted by the Community Unitarian Universalist Church in Plano, you may want to consider when planning your gardens.
The garden at Community Unitarian Universalist Church on East Parker Road now has a food forest, keyhole garden and hugelkultur bed. “We were looking for something more sustainable,” says Carrie Dubberley, a landscaper who also teaches gardening classes at Collin College. She established the food forest, and fellow gardener Deb Bliss helped start the keyhole and hugelkultur projects. All are methods of permaculture, agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable, self-sufficient and mindful of conserving resources. It’s about using plants and techniques that work together, says Dubberley, 57. She had planted fruit trees along one side of the garden with little thought to it being more than a small orchard. A client gave her a book that included information about food forests, however, and a new concept took hold. “We are mimicking what nature does in a forest,” Dubberley says. There are layers of plants that help one another out, she explains. A tall oak tree drops leaves that serve as mulch. Fruit trees provide light shade for the plants beneath their boughs. The plants shade the soil to help it retain moisture. Medium-size shrubby plants, like asparagus, form a border. Mustard planted around the edges helps keep weeds out, herbs help bring up nutrients from deeper underground, and root vegetables aerate the soil. Now, like the hugelkultur and keyhole gardens, the food forest is planted with hardy greens such as lettuce, kale, spinach and bok choy. In the spring, Dubberley says she will install a “three sisters” companion planting of corn, pole beans and squash. It is a traditional garden practice borrowed from the Iroquois, with each plant helping support and sustain the other two. The keyhole and hugelkultur gardens also are still producing, despite the sustained freeze and ice storm. They have greens, broccoli and cabbage, Bliss says. She and others were harvesting cold-weather crops from the keyhole garden. “We were talking about how little work it takes,” she says. The keyhole garden looks like a 3-foot-tall brick pie with a slice cut out. The missing piece allows gardeners to reach into the cylindrical hole that runs from the top, through the garden to the ground. Kitchen waste goes into the unplanted center and, as it decomposes, water and nutrients leach into the soil to feed and water the plants around the circle’s edge. The garden needed additional water to get the vegetables started but has needed little extra water since, even with the drought. Building the structure took about two days, requiring a third day to fill it with compost and soil, Bliss says. It works well with smaller plants or vines that can trail over the side, Dubberley says. “You don’t want okra. The garden is already 3 feet high and then with okra” — it can grow to 6 feet — “how would you harvest it 9 feet in the air?” The Sri Sathya Sai Baba Center of Dallas, an Eastern-spirituality group that meets at the church, has assumed most of the responsibility for the keyhole garden, Bliss says. Bliss’ newest project, the hugelkultur bed, mostly is a mound with plants on top. (Hugelkultur is German for mound culture.) The bed begins with piled logs and twigs topped by compost, then soil. Vegetables are planted in the soil with mulch around them. The wood base slowly decomposes (hardwood can take more than 20 years), draws water in and retains it. You don’t till the top but plant directly into the soil. Mulch helps keep the weeds down and the water in. Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts are flourishing. The gardeners used limbs, small branches and leaves from trees on the property. Much of the compost came from the community garden’s piles. There are soaker hoses for really dry times. The garden can be renewed each season simply by adding fresh compost. The gardens provide more than vegetables for those who tend them, Bliss says. Half of the produce goes to food banks. Dubberley says she also hopes the gardens can be used as a teaching site, demonstrating the different ways you can cultivate food crops. “If you are going to have a garden, why not plant food?” she says. “That’s what we want to do, is educate people.”
You can find Karel Holloway’s entire article here.