As the skies clear over the Front Range and the air begins to warm (at least for now) my thoughts are turning increasingly to designing my garden for this year. My housemates and I have already created sheet-mulched sunken beds to start the soil-building process, and now we’re starting to figure out what we want to grow and where to plant it. And while we’re eager to continue experimenting with unusual, locally-adapted species like currant, sunchoke, and quinoa, a good portion of the garden will be dedicated to traditional annual garden vegetables.

Fortunately, there’s a ton of information out there about how to get the best yield with a minimum of maintenance and resource use. Unfortunately, that info isn’t always organized in the best way for visual learners like myself – so I’ve decided to create a couple tools to simplify the garden planning process.

The first is a Denver-specific planting calendar for some of the most common garden vegetables. It’s intended to make the often-arduous process of figuring out which seeds to start indoors and when to plant them a little bit easier.

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The second is a web of companion plants to aid in designing polycultures – groupings of species that mutually aid each other. The arrows in the web point towards the plants that are helped, and the thickness of the line indicates the number of sources I found that mentioned a positive association. Red lines are plants that are suggested NOT to plant together.

Enjoy – and don’t forget to check out the Wild Green Yonder’s two-part Ecological Garden Design class this March for many more in-depth resources and ideas!

The following account of sheet-mulching a hell strip is from Denver permie and Wild Green Yonder affiliate Jonathan Hontz. Enjoy!

I have a love/hate relationship with my tree lawn.  It used to be  a 15 x 24 foot strip of weedy, sun-baked, and compacted land that neither the City nor I wanted to spend any time maintaining.  My lady Sabrina and I don’t really do much out there.  Our relationship to this lawn is predominantly visual: we’re almost always just looking at the space and not walking around within it.

My first attempt at landscaping the lawn was a half-hearted shot at making it into a wildflower meadow.  I bought some yarrow, grama grass, lamb’s ear, and blanket flower, planting them at intervals amongst the weeds.  I bootlegged and planted some sunflowers from a highway median to see if they’d like it better in our tree lawn.  After planting, I just let the weeds go, and to be honest, it was a beautiful front lawn, even if it was more wild than flower.  The weeds filled in around the plantings nicely, and created a very lush habitat for hundreds of spiders, grasshoppers, and crickets.  We had a green, healthy, if a bit alternative front lawn that I could look at with a smile.

Then the City inspector came and cited us for having our weeds taller than 6 inches.  I debated whether or not to dispute their definition of “weed”, knowing full well that any definition presented would be easy to circumvent.  In the end, though, I chose to sheet mulch the lawn to bring it into compliance. Sheet mulching, also known as lasagna composting, is a permaculture technique of building soil in place by putting down a weed barrier, layering various components of organic matter and letting them decompose naturally. I’d heard that it was a great way to bring a disturbed or neglected area to life in a short period of time, and was curious to see for myself what the process was like.

After a quick phone conversation with the inspector, who was very pleasant, I had some basic guidelines for what was allowed out in the lawn.  It’s a pretty simple matrix: keep the streets and sidewalks clear, make sure it looks as if it’s maintained, and keep the vegetation low enough around the edges that car doors can be opened without crashing through undergrowth.  Fair enough.

1. Mow and edge

Picture 1I mowed the lawn down to almost bare soil around the plantings and rounded up the materials I’d need.  Adam Brock tipped me off to a pile of brick rubble in his neighborhood that was waiting to be disposed of, and after hauling some home and laying it out, I dug out a bit of a trench to hold the bricks on end as a border for the mulched area.  We didn’t want any of the mulch spilling out into the street or onto the sidewalk, and the brick serves as our woodchip dam in addition to adding a bit of urban flavor to the area.

2. Weed barrier and carbon layer

 

Picture 4Next, I had an opportunity to use some weed-blocking fabric that we had leftover from another project.  Sabrina had acquired several garbage bags full of shredded office paper and some mulched up leaves, which form the bulk of the mulch for the project.  After cutting the brick trench out, I started spreading the office paper down, mixing in lots of the leaf matter to a depth of 3-4 inches, and then covering it up with the fabric.  I cut around the existing plantings and left room to develop small plant guilds around them next year.  The fabric lasted longer than I expected, going all around the perimeter, and even a strip into the center of the lawn.

3.Top Mulch

Picture 7The next day, each layer of mulch got a thorough soaking to help the breakdown of the materials. Our neighbor’s landlord had a few cubic yards of woodchips to get rid of, and this is what I used for the top layer.  I hauled it over in our recycling bin, and laid it down about 2 inches thick on top of everything else The look of the finished lawn is quite sparse – I’d like to eventually figure out how to integrate something edible.

Reflections

Of note here is that this process differs from most recommendations for sheet-mulching in one significant way: I have no compost/organic matter layer.  I’ve instead opted to use the (hopefully) decaying weeds and leaves as a green mulch, along with all the waste paper and cardboard.  Some may cringe at my use of office paper, but it is a significant carbon source in my compost pile, and breaks down very well there.  Most printed materials now use soy-based inks, so I’m not concerned about contamination.

Also notable is that this project cost exactly nothing but time and labor for me to do.  All the materials were either on hand (the fabric), reclaimed (the brick), gifted (the woodchips), or waste (the paper and cardboard).  It fits with the character of the house and the rest of the landscape, and will never need mowing or watering.  It’s also interesting that these projects are typically tried in the spring months, but without a ready supply of leaf mulch blowing around and accumulating everywhere, the project may have been more difficult.  Something to keep in mind if you’re planning on waiting until spring.

Fall Class Schedule

August 13, 2009

I’m happy to announce WGY’s fall season of Permaculture workshops, including Intro to Permaculture, Urban Permaculture, Permaculture for Renters, and Obscure Edibles for the Colorado Climate. Most classes will be held at the Denver Botanic Gardens and Denver Urban Homesteading, a brand-new local market and reskilling center.

For full descriptions and registration links, visit the classes page… and feel free to distribute the poster below!

PC-poster-fall-2009

One of permaculture’s hallmarks is polyculture: the mixed cultivation of a wide variety of bioregionally-appropriate species. In a process called “guild building”, permaculture designers select plants that will mutually enhance each others’ growth while providing their human stewards with a yield. In the classic Native American polyculture of maize, beans, and squash, for instance, the beans add nitrogen to the soil and use the corn stalks for support, while the squash act as a groundcover preventing weeds from competing with the other plants. The resulting yields of these “three sisters” are greater than if each were grown on their own.

Fortunately, a wealth of information exists in print and online for researching and selecting guilds – check out Plants For a Future and the University of Minnesota’s nursery database for starters. Still, this species information is spread across several websites, it’s difficult to sort through, and it’s rarely specific to the climate you’re in. As a result, guild building isn’t always as user-friendly as it ought to be.

In response to this challenge, I’ve begun the Atriplex Project – an attempt to create a comprehensive open-source database of useful plant species for Denver’s bioregion of the shortgrass steppe. Its current incarnation is a google spreadsheet that anyone can edit and export, although down the line it would be great to develop it into a more user-friendly standalone website.

Modeled after Dave Jacke’s exhaustive plant species matrix in the back of Edible Forest Gardens, Volume 2, Atriplex is sortable by climate zone, light/soil preferences, size, and a host of other attributes. So far I’ve got about 100 species listed, though not all have complete information. Because the google spreadsheet link is rather cumbersome, there’s a url alias at http://tinyurl.com/atriplex for your sharing convenience.

Forestgarden screenshot

As an open-source document, I intend for Atriplex to eventually reflect the collective wisdom of all growers in this bioregion. The more data that comes from our direct experience, the more accurate and useful it will be. Here are a few ways you can help:

  • If you’ve grown or observed any of the listed species, add locations to the “Local Examples” column.
  • If you know of a reliable local source of a species (whether a nursery, a yard, or a wild patch) write it in the “Seed/stock Sources” column.
  • If you have tips on how to grow or eat a species, or just want to give it a thumbs up/thumbs down, add your thoughts in the last column and be sure to write your name afterwards.
  • If there’s something you think is missing from the list, add a new species by right-clicking on a number on the far left side and selecting “Insert 1 below”. No need to fill out every column or worry about the order.

Thanks for your support – and good luck guild-building!

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