The Grovestead

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Tag: Blueberries (page 1 of 2)

Back to Eden Garden Update

Garden Update -- Blueberries & Cherries!

It’s a happy day when blueberries and cherries are ripe for picking!

We spent the the evening in the berry patches after dinner. Strawberries have come and gone, blueberries are ripe right now, and the raspberries are a few weeks away from fruiting.

Raspberries

The raspberry canes were cut to the ground at the end of last season and heavily mulched. But the soil underneath is so healthy they have grown to enormous proportions. We’re still enjoying raspberry jam from last year’s harvest but we expect another huge harvest this year.

Garden plot as of July 2016

The main vegetable plot is much smaller this year as I slowly transition to a Back to Eden (deep-mulch) approach. I can only make the space as big as I have wood chips to fill it with.

I first experimented with a Back to Eden plot two years ago. The results were incredible. Minimal weeding, no watering, and much larger produce. But not having more wood chips I decided to go back to the traditional tilling method last year. Despite a herculean effort to keep weeds out (I even used black plastic and mulched the walkways), I was still overwhelmed. I probably spent 3-4 hours a week weeding, but a short vacation in mid-July was all it took for the weeds to gain the upper-hand. It became a lost cause by late summer.

I am happy to report the Back to Eden method virtually eliminates the weed problem altogether. Since planting I have spent no more than an hour weeding all year! Whatever does come up is simple to pull because the woodchips are so porous. I haven’t watered either.

However, I have had the same problems with germination as I did a few years ago, due mainly to woodchips falling back over the soil I had pulled back to plant. Being one of the wettest Springs on record, I also had a lot of problems with slugs (wood ash takes care of that problem… until the next rain).

But the biggest problem has been the overall tepid progress of the garden as a whole. It’s as though the garden is about a month behind schedule. This has been quite disappointing and confusing because I experienced the opposite result when I tested this method out a few years ago. And this time around I even gave the wood chips a full 6 months to break down.

What I was finally able to discover was the difference in quality of compost I laid down before adding the wood chips. In my experimental plot a few years ago, I laid down several layers of high-nitrogen fertilizer (litter from my chicken coop) before adding the wood chips. This offset the nitrogen-robbing effect of the carbon in the woodchips.

Wood chips will eventually break down on their own releasing both carbon and nitrogen back into the soil, but it’s a long process. Many people I have talked to with Back to Eden Gardens have said that it wasn’t until year 3 that they really saw their gardens take off. And each successive year is better than the previous because the soil continues to build.

B2E gardens are definitely a huge time savings in weeding and watering. But if you want a really productive first year,  it makes a difference what kind of compost you use. I know this to be true because of the mammoth growth of our cherry tree planted in our chicken pen.

Cherry bomb

This tree was planted a mere 9 months ago, in the Fall. But it is the most productive vegetation on our entire property, producing a full crop of cherries in its first year and prompting my sister-in-law to say “that’s the healthiest cherry tree I’ve ever seen!”

Here’s what the tree looked like when we planted it:

Cherry tree when planted last Fall

Clearly, the quality of compost makes a difference. Just as Paul Gautschi does with his garden, I have begun harvesting the top layer of this nutrient-dense soil as a fertilizer for the garden plot. But it will take some time to work its way down to the root zone.

Elsewhere in the garden, our Bee-Friendly Garden perennials are beginning to bloom. Purple coneflower, wild bergamot, and blue flowering borage:

Purple Coneflower in our Bee Friendly Garden

Beebalm in our Bee Friendly Garden

Borage in our Bee Friendly Garden


Garden Update

Garden beds

Tomato starts

Planting tomatoes in late Spring

Garden update 2015

With the new barn construction taking most of our attention this summer, we didn’t have as much time to devote to the garden. But we still managed to get our favorite crops planted: tomatoes, corn, peas, onions, potatoes, beets, cucumber and another testbed of watermelon (we have yet to be successful with watermelon).

Corn and potatoes

By the way, did you know beets make excellent salads? Just chop up the beets and leaves (throw the stems) and add some dressing. We’ve been eating them daily around here. In fact, beet greens are the healthiest part of the plant and are ranked among the world’s top 10 healthiest foods!

Health Beets

The main lesson I learned from last year was that you can’t slack on the weeding and “make it up on volume”. It’s much more productive to plant a smaller garden and keep it well weeded that a huge garden that doesn’t get tended. The harvest of corn, peppers, potatoes and onions last year was pathetic where I let the weeds take over.

Blueberry patch

Another lesson learned is how incredibly “fruitful” our perennial fruit plants are. The blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and apple trees are healthy, abundant, and require almost no work on my part. Minimum input, maximum output.

Strawberries

This has led us to more conversations about what other kinds of fruit we should be planting. Cherry, apricot, peach and plum trees may be in our future.

The only trick is finding ripe fruit before our kids do.

Picking blueberries


Fall cleaning

Cleaning up the garden with my favorite people

It’s the end of the season for us Zone 4B growers. My faithful standby’s Lisa and Zina, who helped me plant this Spring, joined me for a day of garden cleanup. My dad also came out to help with landscaping around the house.

We pulled up all the plastic mulch and drip irrigation from the vegetable plot. Then we re-mulched the blueberries with fresh fallen pine needles, a great natural acidifier.

Re-mulching the blueberry patch

We also fenced the blueberries because they are easy targets for rabbits and deer during the lean winter months.

I didn’t end up liking the variety of strawberries we planted (Sparkle and Ft Laramie). So we pulled all the strawberry beds and I will re-plant my newly discovered favorite Jewel next year.

Ft Laramie strawberries

The other major project was weeding and re-mulching the apple orchard. Becca and, to a lesser extent, Ivar and Elsie helped with weeding and shoveling piles of wood chips around the base of each tree.

Mulching the apple trees

Everybody worked hard. But the pay was good. Everyone got to take home a free pumpkin.

Zina's pumpkin

Paid with pumpkins.


What blueberries have taught me

Blueberry bush in full bloom

I spent an afternoon with my brother Troy working on a renovation project at Art House North and we got to talking about farming and what we’ve been learning at the Grovestead. I told him about my recent experience with growing blueberries. A lot of planning and preparation went into this endeavor. First we had to make the site more hospitable. Blueberries only grow in acidic soil, so we mixed peat moss in with the topsoil and mulched each planting with pine needles. Then the daily watering: each planting gets 1-2 quarts a day to keep the shallow roots moist. Turns out pine needles don’t provide the best weed prevention so at one point I pulled back all the mulch, weeded, laid down a biodegradable paper mulch and replaced the pine needles. A lot of work, but it has been worth the effort. In the last few weeks I’ve watched the flowers bloom and now there are hundreds of little blueberries growing in their place. I’m looking forward to a bountiful harvest of homegrown blueberries.

Or I should say, I was looking forward to it, until I stumbled across this unfortunate tidbit while researching blueberry fertilizers: “For the first four years, don’t allow the bushes to fruit at all. Strip off all flower clusters.”

First FOUR years?

Apparently, a newly planted blueberry bush will put all its energy into fruiting rather than growing roots. As with most fruit-bearing cultivars, if you strip off the flowers, it forces the plant to focus on root development. A bush that is allowed to fruit immediately and doesn’t establish proper roots may not survive the winter. But a properly established bush–one that has been stripped of its fruit and forced to do its work below ground–will bear fruit for several decades.

Troy cringed, then said that’s a good analogy for the Art House. Troy and Sara opened Art House North a few years ago as a ministry of sorts to artists. It’s a place for creatives to gather, collaborate, and cultivate their own talents as well as learn how to impact culture. But its more than that. Its also a community hub, a concert hall, a cross-pollinator of ideas.

Art House North building

The work that Troy and Sara have been doing at the Art House until now has been largely underground. The fruit isn’t always immediately evident. Some projects have taken longer than expected. Sort of like stripping the flowers off of blueberry shrubs. But all the while Troy and Sara and their children are fully integrating into their community. They are growing roots that will one day yield an abundant and unstoppable harvest.

I can think of other fitting analogies: moving to a new community, raising children, marriage… those life experiences where the hard work is up-front and there’s little to show for it. But in the long run, the rewards far exceed your inputs. In the long run, it’s worth it.

Excuse me, I’m off to pick some blueberries.


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