Dazzled by the rattling music of seed packets, you buy a bunch of seeds to start a garden. Maybe for your first garden you get twelve different kinds of plants.
For two of those plants, it turns out to be too late in the season. You can’t plant them now in this region. Oops. Four of those plants you place carefully in the rich well-drained soil keeping them evenly moist and yet, they never show a sprout; they stay sleeping in earth, faces unrevealed. Maybe three of them rise up and sprout but don’t ever really seem to “go” – they stay small, waiting for some encouragement you can’t figure out how to provide; or, they grow and grow tall, your hopes riding them to the sky, only to abruptly fall over leaving some twilight mammal to delight in their lilting remains.
Then there are the two that see just how out of your depth you are and decide to take care of you. Maybe it’s peas and an unkillable purple kale or a mutant okra reaching to pierce the sky and that one squash vine that laughs at your first attempts at a “trellis” and begins conquering your rain gutters instead, fruiting baskets of ancient fruits (that you haven’t yet learned to cure, cook, or enjoy) incidental to its takeover of your roof.
Saddened and maybe even peering over the cliff of despair at the unexplained failure of all your lost crops, the two kind ones that worked become your new mother and father and cradle you. They hold your shaky hand when you offer one of your weird small eggplants to a neighbor who of course has had a garden before where they grew dozens of varieties of eggplants all just like the pictures in the brochures and yet still they graciously accept your humble offering from the earth. It’s enough to keep you going and to secretly have conscripted you for life in an apprenticeship to Emerald Growth herself as she teaches you season by season to make a home for each of her seeds.
This year was the first “big” garden I ever grew. Having apprenticed myself to plants for a few years now, I still felt the anxiety of the seeds that never broke soil, of the kales that disappeared, of the beets that could barely feed a dieting grasshopper. What would happen?
This year, a great mercy happened. The garden grew.
In the compacted dry sandy soil that was formerly pine forest and is now of a tiny shady 1/8 acre gap in the woodland, the plants that had been carrying me to this moment decided to throw me a surprise party by all at once gloriously showing up.
For a beginner, our weather had been unspeakably merciful. Things took a little longer to germinate than I expected and grew slow at first with a kind of patience I struggled to have. Come April, the plants leapt up; into May, they jungled. Now in this, my first “big” garden, I have an embarrassment of friends around me.
I struggle to have the attention span to write a how-to, but I’ll include the brief recipe for this beginner’s permaculture garden because it has a few advantages:
- It has required very little weeding which makes it dramatically different from my forest Milpa garden, a dancing weird weed haven
- It started with very low fertility and super acidic soil
- It has required no watering except to get the seeds to sprout
- I did almost no digging and certainly no tilling
- It is space-efficient
- It has had slower bolting of cool weather plants than is usual in North Carolina
- All the plants seem very happy
Easy Sheet Mulch Garden in the Woods
- Choose an area and plan as many 3′ wide garden beds as you can fit. Consider spirals, keyhole shapes, curvy beds. There are secret advantages to these shapes.
- Let the tall weeds that want to grow up grow up. Let them get tall. In fall, cut them at the low part of the stem with a sickle or scythe. Don’t dig. Lay them down in the shape of your garden beds.
- Optional – broadfork where you want the beds to be or use a digging fork (slower)
- Cover the cut greens with cardboard and / or lots of paper and / or old cotton sheets.
- Get whatever bulk organic matter you can. I used free leaves from the city leaf pile and free spent mushroom straw from an oyster mushroom farmer – so, leaves and straw – but you could use woodchips, forest leaves, grass, newspaper, straw, etc. etc. Pile it up many inches high over the cardboard etc.
- Mix in wood ash and charcoal in decent proportions. I sprinkled on quite a bit of wood ash for the minerals more than anything.
- Optional – let your duckies (if you should be so lucky to have them) hang out on it. They’ll sleep on your fluffy bed of stuff and poop all day long. If you don’t have duckies, use your pee. If you don’t have the privacy to pee on the garden, consider a pee bucket you spill out onto the garden once a day. It won’t get stinky if you empty it once a day or if you add a bunch of charcoal.
- Let it sit until early Spring. Fence the duckies out then.
- If the bed hasn’t broken down into soil (ours didn’t), make a “trench” in the center of all that partially decomposed organic matter about half the width of the bed. Dig some native soil from the paths next to the beds and mix it with an equal proportion of compost (this was our only expense – one $30 truckload of compost). Add a little wood ash to counteract pH of native acidic soil (if it’s acidic).
- Plant into this! and once plants germinate, spread the mulch in the organic matter on each side over them.
- By Fall, this whole bed will hopefully be broken down enough to plant into all 3′ width of it; but in the meantime, you get a very well mulched nutrient rich aisle that seems to be able to support dense growing of plants.
This was enough to make a home for seeds and transplants that continue to nourish us each day.