Panthers Hollow

Raised Beds a Necessity

Jennifer QuinnI’ve written before about my experiments in hugelkultur building raised beds with rotting wood and other materials. I should now explain some of the rationale for this continuing effort. Due to the wet climate and a chronically high water table, the lower part of my garden has been plagued with two problems: compacted, waterlogged soil, and the prevalence of weeds such as slender rush—a plant that grows from rhizomes deep in the soil and is nearly impossible to get rid of. So for me, raised beds are a necessity.

Fortunately, another Scott County gardener, Anna Hess, has encountered a similar problem. In her book "The Ultimate Guide to Soil: The Real Dirt on Cultivating Crops, Compost, and a Healthier Home," Anna describes one method she has used to combat waterlogged soil. Drawing on the example of Central American chinampas, she digs trenches around the beds, piling the soil from the trenches on top of the existing soil, while allowing the water to fill the trenches. I decided to try this with one of my problem beds, along with a new hugelkultur mound that I started last year, as illustrated below.

Water-filled trenches

My plan was to seed the beds with mammoth red clover, which is supposed to aid in breaking up compacted soil, as well as supplying nitrogen. But initially I made a fatal error. I dug quite a bit of soil out of a drainage ditch that had become blocked where the water runs down out of the ravine, and I thought this would be a great source of topsoil for building my raised beds. Boy was I wrong! Only after adding the soil I realized what I had added was pure silt—a material that dried to a hard crust without a speck of organic matter in it.

Nevertheless, I attempted to pound some clover seed into this material and watered it several times a day, only to have a small amount of clover germinate, then die when I inadvertently let the soil dry out. That was when I hatched the plan to dig the chinampas, adding the soil from the ditches. This waterlogged, compacted soil was only slightly better than the silt from the ravine, but this time I also added an inch or two of almost-finished compost. I had already used up most of my mammoth red clover, but I took what was left, mixed it with crimson clover and buckwheat and reseeded the beds.

The germination was still very spotty in the hugelkultur mound, but the other bed is greening up nicely with the buckwheat, and I can see little clover seedlings in the shade of the buckwheat.

Another of my chronically waterlogged plots will become a lasagna bed for potatoes next year, after resting under a kill mulch this season. One strategy that I believe has helped here was planting water-loving boneset on the downhill side of this bed, which has grown spectacularly.

boneset in garden

And the last, very large problem bed, where an entire planting of seed potatoes rotted last year, will become my next hugelkultur project.

Repurposing an Old Structure

Jennifer Quinn

compost in shelter

After losing my geese a couple of months ago, I just shut up their shelter and didn’t go up there for quite a while, since it was up on a hill behind the house where I had no other reason to go.

The shelter was a chain-link enclosure to which I added a corrugated metal roof and covered the sides with tarps and clear plastic. There was already rat wire around the bottom when I inherited it, and I initially planned to house guinea fowl and maybe some chickens in there. But as it turned out, the rat wire didn’t prevent a raccoon and her young from getting the guineas, or chickens from sticking their necks out and getting killed. The enclosure worked fine as a night shelter for the geese, but I didn’t have an enclosed yard for them and they eventually fell prey to daytime coyote attacks.

Then one day I was up there and realized it was full of pine shavings and straw mixed with goose droppings, which would be a valuable addition to my compost. I had been thinking about a location for another compost pile, since I always have piles in different stages of breakdown. Suddenly I thought: Why don’t I just make a pile of this litter in here? It’s the perfect location, since it’s protected from the sun and rain, and I can build a pile without hauling this stuff off somewhere.

So here it is, and for the foreseeable future this structure will serve as a compost hut. The only drawback is that when I want to add new materials — like kitchen scraps, or litter removed from the chicken coop — I have to march it up the hill. But at least it’s only small amounts to carry. There’s plenty of room for turning the pile, and once it’s done I can just go up there when I need some. After a week or so it was already heating up.

Now, my dream is to have a couple of miniature goats to put in there, but on my current budget that just doesn’t seem possible. Maybe I should do a GoFundMe campaign?

A Hugelkultur Update

Jennifer Quinn

hugelkultur potatoes

A year ago last November I wrote about my first effort at hugelkultur — building raised beds with rotting wood and other materials. I had sown them with a fall green manure mix, then planted carrots and potatoes the following spring. This was a bit of a gamble, since the recommendation I read was to grow only grains the first year, then leafy vegetables, then maybe root crops and so on. So I was rushing it a bit and, not surprisingly, the potatoes turned out to be rather watery and tasteless. The carrots weren’t much good either, but then, my carrots never are.

This year my plan for the larger bed was to plant spinach and carrots (again!), following the spinach with beans. I decided to devote one of the tire planters to beets, and the other one mostly to parsley. Surprise! Almost as soon as the main crops began sprouting, so did a lot of volunteer potatoes. I don’t know if I fail to dig up all the potatoes or what, but I always have more potatoes coming up the following year.

Well, I love volunteers, and I had only a small plot dedicated to potatoes this year, so I let them grow. The great thing about volunteer potatoes is that you can start harvesting them in June. So I’ve harvested a few pounds already, and I must say the quality is quite good. The only problem I’ve had is lots of worm holes and some tunneling on the outside. I can’t find the worms, so I don’t know what the specific pest is. I suspect that all the holes and gaps created by the wood allow for more movement of insects, and possibly other pests, such as voles. I trust this will subside as the wood continues to break down. Meanwhile, the top several inches of the bed is an awesome, humusy soil that I’ve never imagined having in my garden.

The spinach, unfortunately, was a bust. Out of 20 seeds that I planted, only five produced seedlings, and only three of these yielded a halfway decent harvest. Perhaps there’s not enough nitrogen yet to support spinach. Also, something must have eaten the roots of a couple of the plants, since they just shriveled up. I didn’t want to go digging for the culprit, for fear of tearing things up too much, so I guess I'll never know. The carrots, on the other hand, were doing all right until a deer got in and ate the tops. Now I have a nice crop of beans coming along, plus a few volunteer parsnip seedlings (not sure how those got in there)!

As for the beets in the tire planter, most of them got buried when I started hilling up the potatoes, but the parsley is doing nicely around the edge of the other planter.

Last fall I started another hugelkultur bed that I plan to use for strawberries next year. I know, I’m pushing things again, but I just seeded it with Mammoth Red clover, and will follow that with a huge application of compost and hope for the best. And this fall I’ll be building another large one where I currently have rather poor, compacted soil. Eventually more than half my garden will be raised beds!

Wildflowers and an Herb Container

Jennifer QuinnI’ll start with the herbs. Last year I bought thyme and lavender plants (one each) and planted them in my garden as part of an intercropping strategy. Like many herbs, these are supposed to deter various pests, so I planted them at the edges of a couple of my garden beds. The dilemma here is that these Mediterranean herbs are said to do best in poor soil. So, how in the world are you supposed to intercrop them with your vegetable crops, where, of course, you’re trying to make the soil as good as possible?

I tried to resolve this by planting the herbs just outside the vegetable beds, adding some stones and gravel to the soil to make it “poorer.” What I overlooked is that they also need special protection to keep them alive in the garden over the winter. And recommendations for intercropping suggest planting this herb with that vegetable in order to control specific pests. But how can you do that with perennial herbs when you have to keep rotating your vegetable crops?

For this and other reasons I’ve become disillusioned with the whole idea of intercropping as a method of pest control. On the other hand, I do like the idea of growing my own herbs for the kitchen; and since lavender is supposed to repel fleas, I had taken to sprinkling it in the house around where my cats lie. So, after my thyme and lavender died over the winter, I decided to try again, this time adding rosemary to the mix.

I was intrigued with the idea of growing them in a container, and I remembered seeing a stone planter in a shady part of the backyard with some irises that never bloomed (perhaps it was the lack of sunlight?). Anyway, this struck me as the perfect container for my herbs. So I dug out the irises and planted them in a sunny but very wet area of the yard, and commandeered the planter for my herbs.

The spot I finally selected was chosen for both convenience of harvesting and optimal sunlight. This spot right next to the house gets the sun all morning, so it was perfect. It just happened that I was about to seed this area with wildflowers for the second time, after an unsuccessful first attempt. No problem — I would just sow the wildflowers (and some grasses) around it, and the result should be quite aesthetically pleasing.

In the rear of the photo you can dimly make out the two survivors of my original wildflower planting — both red milkweeds — which are actually doing quite well this year. I believe my earlier failure was partly due to me not effectively preparing the soil or removing the weeds prior to planting. So last fall I covered everything but the two milkweeds with cardboard and after removing it in mid-spring found it largely weed-free. I then broadforked it (it was quite compacted!), raked it as smooth as I could, and sowed it with more red milkweed, purple and yellow coneflowers, wild bergamot, black-eyed Susans, ox-eye sunflower, New England aster, and Canada and Virginia wild rye. The last step was to surround it with temporary netting to keep the chickens out so they don’t scratch it all up.

The herb planter was so heavy I had to put it on a dolly to move it! In an effort to recreate the rocky, Mediterranean soil, I filled it about half full with good-sized stones, then dug a lot of gravelly silt out of the stream bed to add to that. Finally, I added some rather clayey garden soil, largely because I got tired of digging silt out of the stream. But I topped that off with more gravel from the very stony soil of my wildflower bed. The result seems to be a good mix, and after several days the herbs seem to be thriving. I haven’t yet figured out how I’m going to protect them over the winter, but I’ll think of something!

As for the wildflowers, it will take a couple of years to see the results, but I’m sure it will turn out better than my first attempt. My other main wildflower planting seemed to be a real bust the first year — only a few red milkweeds and one frail purple coneflower emerged in the spring. But late in the summer I noticed a few other plants emerging, including yellow coneflower, New England aster, wild bergamot, and even,I believe, a Culver’s root.  This year the planting is really taking off, with even more plants than I had noticed before. I’ll share a photo when things start blooming!

herb container

Fruit Crops: Good News and Bad

Jennifer Quinn

Apple trees with blossoms

The good news is that my two old apple trees have been covered with blossoms this spring — the most I’ve seen in the three and a half years I’ve been here. Possibly this is due to my diligent pruning over the last couple of years. Last year I was puzzled when I ended up with only about a dozen blossoms on both trees combined. Only later did I learn that many apple blossoms in the area had been killed by a late frost. I guess I was focused on other things at the time and never noticed.

Anyway, the abundance of apple blossoms has been especially comforting since I’ve had a major disaster with my blackberries. They were looking great just a few days earlier, then I went out one day and found most of the shoots dying back at the tips. Whole sections of the canes were dead while clumps of leaves here and there had wilted, and ants were crawling everywhere. Consulting my Rodale Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, I concluded that they probably had cane blight. I took some cane samples to the county extension office to have them analyzed, and the lab confirmed that was what it was.

Cane damage

Meanwhile I had cut down three of the four plants, since all the canes were affected, lest the problem should spread to the one plant that still looked healthy. Fortunately that one still looks fine almost a month later. Interestingly, it’s the one I got free at a seed swap, while the other three were purchased at a garden store. And now the others have put out new shoots.

I guess you’re supposed to dig up the affected plants and dispose of them, but I can't afford to replace them so I’m just hoping the blight doesn’t return. Still, it’s a bummer because I was really looking forward to a good blackberry harvest!

On the plus side, though, it looks like I’ll have a bountiful strawberry harvest this year. The plants have been covered with a profusion of blossoms and now have many berries developing. So on balance, things aren’t so bad.

Developing strawberries

A Sad Ending for the Geese

Jennifer Quinn

2 Geese at Tignors

Recently I wrote that I thought I had reached an accommodation with my trio of geese (“Hitting My Stride With the Geese”) by letting them out during the day now that they had begun laying their eggs in the shelter. At first they would stay on the property all day rather than heading for the creek and not returning till evening or possibly even the next day. But soon they began making frequent trips down to the creek again, often spending the day there.

At least they would return every evening and head for their shelter to see if dinner was ready. But sadly, one evening the gander returned with only one goose. I wondered if perhaps she had made a nest somewhere down by the creek and would return in a month or so with goslings. I knew the odds of her surviving along with her goslings weren’t all that great, but I was hoping for the best.

After a couple of weeks, though, the creek flooded its banks, and if her nest had been anywhere near the creek she would have been flooded out. I’ve read that once a goose is disturbed from her nest she won’t start another one, so I thought maybe she’d come home — but she never returned.

Meanwhile, the gander and remaining goose seemed to be staying closer to home. I had debated whether to keep collecting the eggs or let her assemble a clutch and have goslings. I wasn’t sure I could handle the demands of six to a dozen more geese, but a friend assured me I’d be able to sell any I didn’t want to keep. Finally, I decided in favor of the goslings.

Here’s where the story takes a sadder turn: One day I was sitting at my computer and I heard a sudden outburst of alarm calls from my chickens and guinea hen, who are in the side yard next to the house. I rushed outside and found the chickens, guinea hen, and gander all standing around looking startled, and no goose. After a quick search of the property, I confirm that she’s definitely gone.

Now, I’ve written a lot about the predator problems here at Panther’s Hollow, which have included occasional visits from coyotes or wild dogs or dog-coyote mixes — I’m never sure which. In fact, I had seen one on my property a week or so earlier just prowling around. So I assume that’s what got the goose. Apparently they’re very quick and efficient, leaving no trace.

That evening before shutting in the gander, I collected five eggs that my goose had hidden in the nest. As for the gander, I started confining him 24-7 since I expected the predator would soon return for him. So I was again trudging up the hill two or three times a day with buckets of water and piles of greens. Still, the poor fellow showed little interest in eating or drinking, and sometimes I’d return to find the food and water untouched.

After several days, I discovered that if I stayed there and encouraged him for a while then he would start to eat, sometimes with great gusto. Then he’d go over to his water pan and start drinking. Clearly this couldn’t go on, though. It was no life for a gander, and he wasn’t any use to me in the shelter. I called the friend who gave me the geese and asked if she thought she could find another home for him. Today she came and got him and said she’d put him back in with her flock, where he’ll at least have a grassy yard and feathered companions.

Obviously I don’t have the proper facilities for keeping geese, what with the predators and all. But I can’t help thinking, for the eight months or so they were here, they had a pretty good life. They had the best of both worlds — a meal of grain every evening in a comfortable shelter and the freedom to roam the meadows all day and go swimming on an awesome creek!

Hitting My Stride with the Geese

Jennifer Quinn

Geese grazing

I’ve written before about the hardships of keeping my three geese confined 24-7 now that the breeding season has begun ("The Challenges of Geese in Confinement"). I’ve vacillated between letting them go — which at first resulted in their disappearing for days at a time — and reconfining them lest one should make a nest somewhere down by the creek and be lost to me, at least for the breeding season. Not only was I concerned for their safety, but I wanted to collect their eggs after the trouble and expense I’ve put into housing and feeding them!

For a while I was concerned because I wasn’t finding any eggs even a couple of weeks after seeing the first mating activity. I thought maybe the confinement was too stressful for them, so I started letting them out again during the day. Then one evening after a long absence, I found them back on my property, lounging in and around an open shed.

As it happened there was some straw on the ground in the shed, and I noticed one of the females setting on a mound of straw. After a while she got up and left, and sure enough, in a depression in the straw, there was an egg. Then I discovered another nest in the straw with another egg!

Still, I didn’t think an open shed was the safest location for nesting, so I placed large cardboard cartons in their shelter that I hoped would make acceptable nest boxes, filled them with straw, and placed the eggs in them. Later I found the eggs rolled out or buried under the straw. But new eggs were laid, not in the nest boxes but in mounds of straw like the ones they had made earlier.

I started keeping them confined again, hoping once they got in the habit of laying in the shelter they’d be inclined to stick around. It seems to have worked. Every now and then I’d let them out for a day if I wouldn’t be around to bring them fresh water and greens. They always came back in the evening. Finally, I started letting them out every morning, and most days they haven’t even left the property. Now that they’re in a routine with their egg laying, they seem to prefer staying close to home, the gander included. And I’m getting a nice, big, goose egg almost every day!