Garden Experiments

It is starting to feel like fall, and the average first frost is only three weeks away (source). That means we’re thinking about next spring and starting preparations. Here are three experiments we’re undertaking.

Smother Beds with Wood Chip Paths

Two smothered beds.

Instead of double-digging garden beds — the back-breaking work of using a shovel to turn over the O-horizon (organic layer) of the soil before planting — we’re trying smother beds. The idea is to chop down and disturb the existing less-desirable growth of weeds and grasses and then smother the stems and roots with a mat of wet chopped grass or straw. We recently bought a scythe for mowing the lawn and side areas, which has provided us with ample wet, heavy, freshly cut grass and weeds. By piling this on the bed areas, it creates a heavy mat that heats up as it decomposes, killing the underlying vegetation by heat and blocking out the light.

We’ve signed up for a load of woodchips to be dropped off using the free service Chip Drop. We’ll use a flat-nosed shovel to skim the walkways of the top layer of organic soil (which also disrupts the vegetative growth) dumping it on the beds and then pack in about 6 in of woodchips to keep our walkways clear.

Self-Seeding Bed of Must-ale, Kal-tard, or Kustard

Kustard going to seed in a bed.

A few years ago, I planted my mustard and kale too close to one another and they interbred. Usually this yields poor results: a plant similar to one of the parents but weaker or less usable. In this case, we got accidentally lucky: a plant with the firmer texture of kale but with the strong flavor of mustard greens. We’ve been trying to come up with a good name for this cross, and I think “kustard” sounds better than “kal-tard” or “must-ale.”

While weeding the kustard bed this year, I thought to myself: weeds seem to keep popping up in the same general area each year without me doing anything, yet I have to save seeds, start plants indoors, transplant them, and then nurse them along until they’re robust. Why don’t I treat my desirable plants more like weeds? So as an experiment, I am letting me kustard go to seed like I normally do, but instead of saving all the seeds, I am going to let most of them drop right into the raised bed. This fall, I’ll amend with compost to keep the bed fertile. In the spring, I’ll keep weeding the bed until kustard becomes the dominant plant, but I’m interested to see how long I can keep this plant reseeding itself. I’ll also start some kustard in the greenhouse just in case.

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em: Wild Raspberries

Raspberry trellises behind beginning of woven fence.

When we moved in, the grounds hadn’t been cared for full time for about five years. People from the community had gone through and kept walkways mowed and the most egregious weeds down, but the property was pretty overgrown. I had started to pull out these raspberry briers in places where I wanted to put garden beds, but then the season hit and I realized how great the “black cap” raspberries were. Instead of trying to eradicate the wild raspberries only to have to buy other raspberry bushes, I’ve started transplanting the briers to the epicenter of raspberry bushes in the back corner of the garden area.

I’m building a trellis system that puts the raspberry bushes in a labyrinth, so one can walk the complete circuit and gather all ripe berries in one go. This area will be separated from the garden with a woven fence. The experiment is in transplanting the briers and seeing how well “wild” bushes like being tamed into manageable hedges.

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