Building a New Way….in Community Gardens

I was musing yesterday as I was visiting a budding community garden. Most follow the model of outlining beds using timber and then filling in with soil. Sometimes there is a compost pile and compost and mulch are applied sparingly. What if there is another model that is yet to be implemented which is water-wise and drought tolerant? Much like the beds I saw (and posted a picture of them) in the southern Dallas county garden – outlined with logs from the property, filled with mulch several inches deep and with ollas for watering. What if hugelkultur beds became the norm – like a community garden in Plano is working toward? Or keyhole gardens? or other techniques borrowed from drought-stricken areas around the world? If we are to continue to install gardens for the community – and promote and practice farming in the city – then we need to think outside the box as water restrictions become the norm rather than the unusual.

hugelkultur bed

Hugelkultur comes from Eastern Europe, and mimics the forest floor – with wood then twigs then leaves then grasses, all of which compost and then dirt on top.  As the wood deteriorates, it creates a rich environment for the micro-organisms and fungi that are necessary for drawing nutrients from the soil and making them available to plants.  Also, as the wood deteriorates it becomes spongy and holds water.  The net result is that a hugelkultur bed, once established, needs much less watering than a traditional garden bed.  A great reference from a pioneer in the refinement of this technique is “Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture: A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening.”


The keyhole garden technique was developed by nonprofits working in dry-land Africa. The goal was to create a garden bed that would grow the maximum amount of food crops for families with a minimum of water. It is essentially a compost pile within a wall.  Once the bed is established, the central wire cylinder is the place that compost (kitchen scraps and other compostables) is placed, and any watering that is done is in the cylinder.  The moisture is then pulled out into the soil where the roots are as it is needed.  A structure of bent PVC pipe creates a framework to support either shade cloth, to protect plants from searing summer sun, or poly to extend the growing season from early spring to late fall and possibly through the winter here in North Texas.  Dr. Deb Tolman, from whom I learned the technique, says that you start with a dumpster load of cardboard that goes into the garden, along with piles and piles of leaves, newspaper, food scraps, manure, old cotton t-shirts, straw, grass clippings, and anything else that is compost-pile fodder.  These are carefully moistened as they are stomped down and compressed before additional layers are added.  Then the whole thing is topped by compost and top-soil.  And planted.  Building a keyhole can be a group party – with a large group, once the wall is built, it only takes about 2 hours from start to planting!

One important advantage of a keyhole garden is that it is perfect for someone who cannot bend over to weed or plant, yet wants to continue to garden.  It’s a raised bed extraordinaire!

Contact me if you want a hugelkultur bed or a keyhole garden to be part of your gardening experience this year!

Community Gardens Are Busting Out All Over!

potting trashThe last two weeks have been hectic.  The Community Garden Conference in Grand Prairie, sponsored by the Tarrant County Food Bank and assisted by the North Texas Food Bank, was well attended.  I was there with GROW North Texas; we team-taught a seed starting class.  Andrea, the GNT Farmer Advocate talked about soil mixes, while I got my hands dirty and muddy, mixing up the seed starting concoction, and then I lead the “trash talk”.  In other words, how to start seeds by repurposing things like toilet paper rolls and empty water bottles; how to roll a newspaper pot with a spice jar, and how to convert a strawberry clamshell into a mini-greenhouse.  It was lots of fun, and a majority of the attendees took advantage of the hands-on, to plant some seeds and make some seed-starting pots.

DK raised bed

On Sunday I had a chance to visit Divine Kinship’s project in southern Dallas County.  They are working with permaculture instructor Nicholas Burtner to transform a 3+ acre piece of property that is currently grass and cedars.  It has a lot of elevation changes, a seasonal creek on one side, and a variety of soils ranging from caliche to sand.  It’s almost overwhelming all that they have to do to transform the property into a food forest and permaculture scape.  But large jobs are best broken into manageable pieces, and they are setting up raised beds, with plans to start planting in the next few weeks.  The beds are crafted from logs, and filled with wonderful mulch that will break down into incredible soil.  The mulch will also hold water from the rains.

Note in the middle of the bed you can see some reddish bumps with white dots on top.  Those are terra cotta pots, made into ollas, with rocks covering the holes on the top.  I’ll be teaching a DIY olla class, as well as using other recyclables for repurposing soon.

Winter Vegetable Planting!

It’s still possible to plant winter vegetables and get them up before the warmth of late spring gets to them.

SpinachI’m going to be adding more spinach (40-50 days to maturity). But I could also plant arugula (40 days), turnips (50 days), carrots (60-75 days), (red) mustard (45 days), bok choy/pak choi (45-55 days) , collards (70 days), chard (50-60 days), kale (40-60 days depending on variety) and … at the end of the month … lettuce (50-60 days) and peas (snap peas as early as 55 days, others up to 70 days). And don’t forget radishes!  They can be seeded and harvested within 30-45 days, depending on the weather.

I was on a tour of community gardens in Dallas last week, and we saw someone with some peas that were at least 2′ high!  We all marveled that they had survived, given that the day was in the 20s with a wind chill! But the tour also brought home to the city planners for whom the tour was organized, that gardening can be done in North Texas year-round.

There is no right or wrong with gardening. No one is going to come and take your garden away if you don’t succeed! Your reward is vegetables.  If you plant something and it doesn’t thrive, it just means you have learned something.  You can hedge your bets by following guides for best dates to plant, but they don’t always work – particularly if we have a late freeze or spring comes early and summer heat comes earlier. Sometimes it’s fun just to try something outside of the guides – just to see if it works! Like the year I decided to winter-over my chard and I found out it can be grown in this area like a perennial.

Gardening is about finding out what works for you, for your gardening style and your location.

And remember….if our average last frost is in mid to late-March, starting some vegetables from seed 8-10 weeks earlier indoors means you’ll have transplants ready to go into the ground on time!


The North Wind Doth Blow

I spent all day readying the “homestead” for the cold, arctic front that is supposed to drop temperatures into the teens by morning.

Covered the faucets with either a bucket or, in the case of the front faucet, taped some of that airy packing material Amazon uses around the pipe.  Disconnected the hoses, to allow air space in the pipes.

For the chickens, I took out an old 18’x12′ tarp I had in the shed.  With a helper, I managed to get it over the run and enclosed the run, staking it out on one side like a tent.  BUT….I came back later and found that the tarp had ripped – well, separated is more like it – on the seams where the three 8′ sections had been bonded.  Oops!

Coop cover oops So what to do, what to do?  I used to use coat hangers for everything – they are really very handy. So I got out my wire nippers and a couple of coat hangers along with a pair of pliers and attached the top of the middle section of the tarp to the hardware cloth of the run.  Although not totally enclosed now, I’ve at least blocked most of the north and northwest winds, the chilling ones.  I anchored the bottom of the tarp with bricks and pavers.  I’ll know how effective it was in the morning – by seeing if the chickens’ water is frozen.

Coop cover FastenerAbout 8 or 9 tonight, I’ll heat a red brick in the oven to 350 degrees, wrap it in an old pillowcase, and put it into the coop.  The radiant heat will help the chickens (I know….they have down and feathers, but I worry about them and spoil them) weather the cold.

Out of the Starting Gate!

During the cold days the plants may be dormant, but we can’t be.  Too much to do – planning, mostly.  When I was by the community garden on Saturday, the giant red mustard was indeed giant – about 18″-24″ leaves.  I’d cut a few leaves from the outside about 10 days before, and it just stimulated the plant to make more leaves.  Yum.  The taste is a bit sharper than green mustard, but the greens I cooked last night were scrumptious, when mixed with chard that I also harvested.

In my container garden, however, the mustard is not growing quite so large.  Note to self – don’t plant so many things in one container!  Evenso, the mustard leaves in the container are at least 12″ when planted with broccoli and chard. As shown in the picture.


So how do I cook greens (all types)?  With garlic and olive oil.  I sautee the minced garlic in olive oil in a thick-bottomed sauce pan till it’s soft, then start adding the chopped greens, making sure they are olive oil’d before adding another bunch.  Then I add about ½” of water in the pan, and slap on a lid, turning the fire down low.  Let them cook about 10-15 minutes, till done.  I served with beans and cornbread last night, but greens alone (maybe with some pepper sauce!) or with poached egg are good. Both tasting good and good for your body.

So after all that, I’ve resolved to order more giant red mustard seeds and plant some more while it’s still cold. I order mine from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (see last week’s post for more information on this excellent source of non-GMO seeds).

Mustard seeds

The community garden’s spinach is doing well.  We planted in mid-November, alternating rows of spinach and carrots (I’m partial to the red-cored chantenay).  Both are about 4-5” high and the spinach was so thick, we thinned to 4” apart, picking the largest plants to leave room for the smaller ones to grow larger.  In about a month, we can start harvesting the carrots – they are already baby-sized and (I tasted one) so sweet.  Something to look forward to.

On another note, I visited family over the holidays, and was discussing gardening with a relative.  We looked out the sliding glass doors (okay, it was just too COLD to go out and look closely), and I saw barren beds, with dry dusty dirt exposed.  I looked at the barren trees in the yard and asked what happened to the leaves.  The yard man blows them together and bags them and hauls them off.  I restrained myself – leaves are the BEST mulch for wintering barren beds.  They preserve and nurture all those soil micro-organisms that are crucial to a plant’s well-being.  And they hold moisture in the ground so that what plants are left (like shrubs) are protected from the cold.  Since the relative had cardboard in her garage, I suggested that she put it out as mulch and wet it down good. Take a deep breath.

Now for my rant:  don’t let those leaves go into the landfill!  They are so valuable for your plants during the winter as well as your lawn.  If nothing else, put them on the compost pile. That’s how to return the nutrients to the soil.  That’s how nature does it and replenishes soils year after year – think about a forest floor, that is soft and moist and alive and rich.  That’s how all our growing beds should be.