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Garden Blogging: A Very Weedy Starting Point

by: Jill Richardson

Sun Oct 07, 2012 at 15:55:02 PM PDT


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I hope that I can share with you my new yard's transformation from its current state to a haven of permaculture, agroecology, and Grow Biointensive gardening. I figured a good idea is to start by sharing what the yard looks like now.  
Jill Richardson :: Garden Blogging: A Very Weedy Starting Point
The History
I'm fortunate that I've got some background on the yard's history. From what I've gathered, the house is 63 years old and a married couple lived here for years and years before. It's a good bet there's some lead paint in the house's past. The woman in the couple loved gardening.

At some point after that, my own friend Rachel lived here, and she's a fantastic organic gardener. Her landlord assured her a long lease and she and her boyfriend brought in a bunch of soil and began work on a greenhouse. Then the landlord decided to sell the house and gave my friends the boot. Rachel and friends took their soil with them when they left and actually dug up fruit trees and took those too.

That was when my current housemate and landlord Jeff bought the place. Both Rachel and Jeff assure me that the yard was a mess. Jeff began renovating the house, planting fruit trees, and installing drip irrigation and greywater systems. He put in a few raised beds too. But shortly after he moved in, he went through some life changes that made gardening fall from the top of his priorities, and at some point, the garden fell into a bit of disrepair.

When I moved in, renovation was continuing, although it appears to be mostly complete. It also appears that the construction guys - who are extremely good at their jobs in all other respects - do not share Jeff's concern for the environment. I caught the painter dumping paint in the yard, right in the spot where the downspout pours all of the rainwater from the roof into the yard. I put a stop to that but by then, the painting was almost done. From what I can gather, some of the paint is acrylic and some is latex.

A Photo Tour
You might recall that I already put a swale along the contour of the front yard:

It looks messy now but once the perennials I planted along either side grow in, it will look very nice. I swear.

I plan to have a path on either side of the swale so people can walk along it and gather herbs or prune the plants. On the other side of one of those paths, I'd like to put a four foot wide bed for veggies. I've mapped it out here with some wood I found lying around. I'll have a path on either side of the veggie bed so that people can tend the bed and harvest veggies.

That's more of a long term plan though. If you dig up an entire yard on a slope like this and then you get a good, strong rainstorm, say goodbye to your topsoil. So I'd like to let the perennials get established a bit before I do any more digging in the front. What I AM doing out there is planting sunflowers in a circle to make a "sunflower house" for my ex's daughter. She's excited to have tea parties in it, and I'm excited because sunflowers remove lead and other heavy metals from the soil. (I haven't tested the soil here yet but better safe than sorry!)

Now we move to the backyard. FYI, the lot has a main house, where I live with a roommate, and a cottage in the back where Jeff lives. Here's the big picture:


The back yard

Nice raised beds, eh? Take a closer look:


Weeds! Bermudagrass and nutsedge

This is the smallest raised bed and it was literally FULL of nutsedge, this evil little weed that spreads under ground via horizontal roots that form little "nuts." When the plant gets some moisture, each nut sprouts roots and grows a grassy sedge above the ground. You can only see a few right now - but just you wait until it rains this winter. I spent HOURS this week removing nutsedge from this particular bed. I plan to plant garlic here very soon.

Here's the next raised bed:

OK, so it needs some work. I saw a neighbor removing some bits of his palm tree and I asked for them, and that's what you see on top here. I think I'll probably move them over to the chickens' area as bedding soon. I also added some seaweed.

It appears that Jeff started this out with sheet mulching - what some call "lasagne gardening" - where you layer cardboard and other materials and then let it all break down in place. He did this a lot, which is really, really great. However, as anyone who composts knows, organic materials lose volume as they decompose. That's at least a partial explanation for why the beds look about half full of soil.

Here's the third (and most successful) of the raised beds:

I added seaweed here too. Jeff's got a few very successful chard plants here, as well as a parsley, some nasturtiums, and a summer squash plant that just quit on us after producing an awful lot of yellow squash. He also had some brassica (cabbage family) plants growing here when I first visited and I removed them.

The brassica plants were really suffering from the summer heat and a horrible attack from several species of stink bugs. I've seen harlequin bugs and other stink bugs on brassica plants all over the neighborhood here, actually. I pulled those plants and stuck them in the compost pile to take away the bugs' food source. We also brought in my friend's chickens for a few days to eat the bugs, and I did a few rounds of hand picking them and drowning them in soapy water. I don't want to have such a big population of those bugs around in a few months when it IS time to grow brassica family crops.

In this bed, I hope to grow potatoes (the kind that mature quickly, before it gets too cold) and I plan to add a LOT of mulch.

Here's the fourth and last raised bed, which appears to be the point where Jeff just plain gave up:

First of all - don't judge the guy by this! He has a full time job AND runs a private business in another city, and has to spend a lot of time traveling for it. Plus the life changes he went through that I mentioned before. So it's kind of a miracle that the garden looks as good as it does. That said, whoa, look at this! Hello, bermudagrass! I don't look forward to weeding this! The two trees in pots here are avocados.

We've got a few other beds that aren't necessarily raised. First, we've got this little bed near the fence with some rosemary and whatnot:

Over here, there are several artichoke plants growing under a tree I don't recognize, with a tiny pomegranate tree next to them:

There's a very happy basil plant surrounded by many very happy bees:

And underneath the basil there's another squash plant, still going strong producing more squashes than any sane person would wish to eat:

Oh, and then there's this shit:

No doubt from the construction. That'll have to go somewhere, eventually.

In the middle of the yard, we've got a big, mature meyer lemon tree with a wasp's nest in it:

If you stand by the meyer lemon and face the house, you'll see three fruit trees. First, to the left, there's an apple tree planted next to a larger tree Jeff wants to remove and in front of a small compost bin:

There's a reason they don't call our city The Big Apple, but we can still grow some varieties of them here, I'm told.

If I'm not mixing things up, there's a peach tree in the center and a pear on the right. Or it's the other way around. Each one of these has four different varieties of fruit grafted onto the same rootstock.

I hope to put a swale in between these four trees (the meyer lemon, apple, peach, and pear) that will collect water as it flows down hill and let it soak in for the trees to take up. Only, here's a problem with that:


Painty water dumped in there by the painter.

The downspout is on the house a few feet above the row of trees, and the painter put the paint here, just below it. This will all run downhill into the swale the next time it rains if we don't do something about it. I'm having thoughts that involve a rain barrel that redirects its overflow directly into the swale.

There are also an awful lot of paint chips in the soil in many parts of the yard - in particular near the house. I think right along the house, I'll put a row of non-edible perennials. AFTER I grow a bunch of sunflowers to remove any lead that ended up here, that is. And you better believe that I'll be looking onto phytoremediation for getting paint out of soils too!

Midway down the yard, just below the patio, we've got this little space in between the patio and the shed. This is where the chickens will go. We'll have a small coop and the rest of the area will be a little chicken run:

As you can see, there's a fig tree right there. Deeper back into the space, there's a large mature orange tree that produces tons of delicious fruit too. They aren't easy to peel, but they are juicy as anything I've ever tasted - and they are mostly seedless!


Paint chips in the soil

The soil in the area that will soon belong to the chickens is covered in paint chips. I brought a shopvac down there and vacuumed a ton of it up, until the shop vac felt so heavy I couldn't move it. Then I started just scooping painty soil into buckets and carrying them down to the trash can in the alley, which was a physically demanding job. I mostly finished yesterday but then stopped. I've found a guy getting rid of 2 welsummers and 2 langshan hens, all six months old and about ready to start laying, and I want the place to be ready for them.

Nearly at the bottom of the yard, below the big basil plant, there's a banana tree too:

Just below that, in the bottom bed, there are strawberries:

Down in that area, there's another bare bed covered in construction crap, and a little tangerine tree that is laden with fruit:

By the way, remember those squash plants I mentioned?


The squash - minus one that became four loaves of zucchini bread and a stirfry

Jeff said that he planted four varieties of squash and only this one took off. I joked that perhaps it was only this one that could survive his hands off approach to gardening. He took it as a joking critique but there's actually a LOT of value in finding out which plants can tolerate and even thrive when you do nothing to help them. I'm saving seeds from this squash and planting them next year! I mean, why plant a really needy variety when you can have one that can survive just about anything???

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acrylic & latex, re house paint (4.00 / 2)
FYI, acrylic is a subset of latex paint, label-wise. Most paint, interior or exterior, is some form of latex these days. (synthetic latex, of course)

Latex just means "water-soluble". the "acrylic" part is the binding agent, that holds the pigment to the surface. There are a bunch of different types of plastic-polymer molecules that are used, different ones are variably dangerous to humans, but it's probably not a good idea, indeed, to let them into organic garden soil (or any other soil!).

for example, some of the other components, the solvents (VOCs) won't break down at all without oxygen or sunlight on them, so they REALLY don't want into the soil. The acrylic molecules may not be able to travel through the soil very far, before bonding to things; the solvents may go much further, in my science-guy's opinion.


thanks (4.00 / 1)
in this case we're talking about ethylene glycol

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

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