Backyard Permaculture

One of the non-negotiable things I wanted when we were looking for a house was a big back yard. I had a vague idea that I would grow lots of food and pretty flowers, and that everyone would love spending time out there. There would be a variety of fruit trees, raised irrigated beds for annual crops, and a treehouse/playscape for the kids. We ended up getting a house sitting on a little under half an acre with a smallish front yard and and a big back yard that measures about 170’x80′!  Plenty of room to make my garden dreams come true! Except at first I was a bit overwhelmed and didn’t know where to begin.

Figuring out how to integrate all the components I want in this space has been a challenge for me and I’ve put a lot of thought into it over the past 4 years and feel pretty good about moving forward with all the major projects that creating this garden will entail.To get a good visual on where the space is headed I drew up this schematic:wp-image-1126340518jpg.jpg

The semi-enclosed area will have a small patch of grass bordered by beds that will contain a small raised bed for annual crops, some fruit trees, flowering bushes, lots of herbs, and various groundcovers. As you move back you come upon several large raised beds for annual crops and to the left of that where you see all the x-marks are potential fruit trees which will comprise the orchard. Directly behind the orchard will be a planting area for tall grassy crops like corn, sugar cane, buckwheat, etc… Around the huge oak tree we will build a treehouse and have a natural playscape area underneath and around it (the pink area).

I have been studying the fundamentals of permaculture and the methods of lasagna gardening, deep mulching, backyard orchard culture, and hueglekultur and have devised a course of action that will use them all to eliminate most of the grass that currently covers about 80% of the yard. These methods will work together to create lots of fertile planting areas and a clear “forest floor” for paths and play areas. Simply put, I will lay down cardboard to smother the grass and layer compost/manure with grass clippings and leaves to create rich friable soil teeming with healthy micro-organisms.    Above is a picture of the semi-enclosed garden area when we first moved in. I thought it was really beautiful but it was all ornamental plants (except for a minimally productive blackberry vine). Most of the plantings needed to be tended with rather intensive and frequent thinning and pruning sessions or it would become quite wild. Also there was a small in-ground pond that required regular maintenance and was a hazard for small children. The dazzling gumtree is shading the raised beds too severely and is encroaching on what will be the orchard. It will be removed before spring, I will miss watching the leaves change from one electric color to another before finally dropping in the early winter. Maybe I will find a place for another one in the very back.

     And here is the semi-enclosed area today. My main focus has been outlining the new beds and laying cardboard down. I have topped the cardboard with a layer of mulch for now and as I plant things I will amend the soil in those spots specifically. I have already planted a lemon, lime, persimmon, and avocado tree in this space and built a small raised bed along one of the walls. I am currently trying to figure out how to place all the shrubs, bushes , herbs, and groundcover in a way that will deter mosquitoes, look beautiful , and make for easy harvesting of the frequently used edibles like herbs, onions, garlic, lemons, and limes.

    All of this will take time. I can only collect materials and plants as my budget allows and creating healthy soil certainly can’t be done overnight. Even if I were to till the ground  and amend it heavily, it still takes time for the bio-environment to develop and stabilize in the soil. This layering/hueglekultur/deep mulching method is simply mimicking nature and nature works at her own pace. Part of the reason I am documenting this is because I know over time it is easy to forget how far you’ve come, right now all those little pots look pretty spare but they will eventually lush out. looking back always encourages me to continue moving forward.

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Early Summer Veggie Garden

Here are a few pics of the veggie garden beds, they look pretty wild, and I have a few issues with bugs, viruses, and shade but have collected lots of bush beans, tomatoes, mustard greens, anda couple cucumbers. I don’t have much time to put into the garden to remedy my issues, it’s been raining ALOT and  I have to keep turning off the drip irrigation timer. I try to go out there for 5 minutes or so everyday to pick weeds and harvest. My neighbor sourced some straw from a friend’s farm and I am really intrigued with deep mulching methods. Unfortunately the hay had seeds in it so weeds are popping up, I try to pull them so they don’t go to seed and become a continuous problem. In the fall I plan to mulch with shredded leaves since we have leaves in abundance with all the trees.

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Speaking of trees, I have a sweet gum tree whose leaves are a radiant kaleidoscope of color in the fall that I adore but is shading the beds from the west and my neighbor has a lovely pecan tree shading my garden on the east. My neighbor actually kindly trimmed some of the branches that were hanging over the beds yesterday. Nonetheless, I will probably have the gum tree removed next spring and build even more raised beds. Ultimately, I want a backyard that is low maintenance, high yield and keep all the trees to the periphery. I already have peach, plum, 2 banana, and an orange tree back there so don’t feel too guilty for eventually removing some mature trees that are problematic for the vegetable garden. We will still have plenty of mature trees in the very back of yard. That won’t b3 until next spring though, when our landscaping budget recovers. Anyway, here are a few more pics of the veggie beds, I had to snap them quick, the mosquitoes were swarming!

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Seedlings and Sprouts

So its been about 3 weeks since I last posted update on the new raised garden beds.  I didn’t have the mental clarity to be super organized and plant according to the square foot gardening method and really just tried to plant stuff in a reasonably spaced way (but still intensively).
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The bed on the left side, Station 1, has 5 zones, approximately 4 sq. ft each and numbered 1-5, front to back.  In zone 1 I have some mustard greens, and a few random seedlings that I haven’t taken the time to identify exactly, zone 2- yellow squash, eggplant, and cucumber, zone 3-crimson sweet watermelon, zone 4- abe lincoln tomato and cucumber, zone 5- tightly packed corn that I have staggered 3 batches by 2 weeks difference, I would say approximately 30-35 corn in 4 sq. ft.
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The bed on the right side, Station 2, also has 5 zones, but the front one is 4 sq ft, the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th zone are 4’x6′, and the 5th zone is actually the part connecting to Station 1 way in the back, it is 2’x4′. Zone 1 is compost, Zone 2 is sweet potatoes, small white potatoes, and red potatoes, Zone 3 is All Sweet watermelon, and Zone 4 is Peppers, Okra, and Eggplant, Zone 5 is Zucchini and Tomato.
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Some of the seeds may not have come up or been poorly so I plucked them up when I was thinning. Being inexperienced I am not sure what is what, and will just wait and see. I’ve been mulching with grass clippings and currently need to spread it thinner. I plan to mulch the potatoes with mostly leaf mold as soon as its dry enough to rake some up in the back of my yard. We have had extremely heavy rain on a regular basis here in Houston for the month of April and I have turned off the drip irrigation for the most part.

In the next few weeks I will continue mulching and will be putting together some type of trellis structure for most of the trailing vegetables. I hope to use mostly tree branches from some pruning we did to our mature trees to build them and possibly twine or metal wire. I have already spent so much money on soil and amendments this year that I would like to not spend another penny on those garden beds this year, I may have to get creative:)

Raised Garden Beds

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The past few weeks we have been getting our raised garden beds together. I built two 22ft x 4ft boxes, going lengthwise north to south. They are running parallel to each other and are spaced 4 ft apart. I will attach them with a 4ft by 2 ft box at the south end. I have installed drip line irrigation on a timer.

How they were constructed:

The first, most eastern box, was constructed using 40 cinderblocks which costs a total of $60, so that the internal dimensions are approximately 4x20ft. The second was constructed using 2×4 braces and cedar fencing boards, these materials were salvaged and free:) I used weed blocking lining paper and recycled cardboard to line the bottom of the cinderblock bed and the wooden bed has no lining since it is 18″ deep.

How they were filled:

The cinderblock bed was first filled with as much homemade compost and leaves as we had, which only filled the bed 1/3 of the depth. The rest of the depth was filled with 2 ($22 each) bags of vermiculite, 15 ($2 each) bags of manure humus, and 2 ($8 each) bags of peat moss.

The wooden bed was filled with yard waste and compost to about 1/2 the depth. I plan to fill them 3/4 of the way with manure and then top them off with homemade potting mix.

How they were irrigated:

I used SoakerPro System ($25) an additional 25ft line ($10) and this Orbit watering timer ($45).

Today the plan is to finish constructing the compost bin that will be at the northern end of the wooden bed and the 2×4 ft bed that will connect the two beds at the southern end. I will also go buy about 20 bags of manure and fill the beds with them. I will also start some more seedlings today.