A big thank you to everyone who attended our webinar Designing for Abundance: Planning your Climate Victory Garden, with Nicky Schauder of Permaculture Gardens. We had so many great questions come out of that session, and many that we weren’t able to answer in the time allotted. You can find questions and answers below. If you have more questions or comments, please post them to our Facebook group or email us at ClimateVictoryGarden@GreenAmerica.org.
Raised Garden Beds
- If you're only working with raised garden beds, are swales or other permaculture methods necessary? Permaculture methods often prefer to look at the whole picture, your entire property and the adjacent properties, for example. But, we understand that many people focus their efforts on raised beds. Permaculture methods can be applied on the small scale, in beds in many cases. Take swales for example: you can still look at your garden beds to figure out where the water may be pooling and create channels to redirect and better distribute the water. Similarly, you may notice patterns around your raised beds. Using swales again as the example, you may find that water gathers or runs off at different points around your bed. Remedying this means less muddy boots and less potential for erosion or rot to ruin your beds.
- Is it necessary to test the soil if you're using raised beds? Soil testing can help you learn about the mineral/nutrient distribution in your soils, while also identifying possible toxins. If you’re growing in a raised garden bed with soils you know to be safe (e.g. from a trusted or tested source), then there’s no need to test soils, but you can do it if you’re curious about providing a happy balance for your plants. If you’re concerned about the toxicity of soil under your garden bed, be sure to place a permeable layer between the bed contents and the ground. Also, there are different tests available, some that are quite inexpensive if you’re looking for basic information.
- What’s the least toxic product to paint/seal wood for a raised bed frame? Some woods are naturally rot-resistant, which make them the most natural option for building a garden bed frame. Cedar, black locust, and redwood are examples of this, with lifespans up to 15 years once exposed to the elements in your garden. There are many recipes for creating natural wood sealants using beeswax, jojoba oil, linseed oil, and others. Here are some example recipes. You might also consider other materials, like pavers.
Animals and Manure
- What should I do if I can’t integrate animals into my garden? The two main reasons we suggest animals are their fertilization and pest management potential. If you don't have animals, you can find manure either from a local farm or purchase it. You can source manure from many different animals, but these often need to be used and treated differently. Some manure—like that of poultry—is very high in nitrogen and can cause undesired effects if applied directly to plants. Other manures may contain grass and weed seeds that were not processed in the animal’s stomach. Ways to combat this are to compost, age, or otherwise treat the manures. Here’s more detailed information, broken down by animal.
- How can design help with pest management, deer and rabbits in particular? For many animals, fencing is the best option. Deer fences need to be very tall, at least 8 feet. And, don’t forget that deer have terrible eyesight, so give them cues to see and avoid the fencing. Rabbits have the ability to dig around most fences, so you may need to bury your fencing up to a foot underground. For rabbits and other small animals, use a “chicken wire” type fencing with small holes and made from metal instead of plastic.
- What about rats? Gardens can be very attractive to rats. However, gardens and compost piles will not sustain them if they do not contain animal proteins and carbs. So, keep these items out of the compost and keep your trash safely in bins or other hard-to-reach areas. Pet foods kept outside can also attract rats, as does vegetation right up against your external walls (where rats like to travel). This source from the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens is full of great ideas for deterring rats.
- If my problem is too many whiteflies on kale, what's the alternative to balance them? Whiteflies are really tough! And, while it might be counterintuitive, insecticides actually make whiteflies worse because they kill the beneficial insects that eat whiteflies. So, first step is to eliminate all use of those. Infected leaves should be removed or sprayed vigorously with water. If your plants are overwintering, consider removing them entirely and replacing with a variety with less nooks and crannies for the flies to hide in (a flat leaf plant instead of a curly edged plant or dino kale for example). Keep an eye out and protect natural predators and their larvae. Neem oil can also be a good option in particularly bad infestations.
- How do I keep the wild animals and the wind from destroying my plants in a fenceless yard? Some plants are animal resistant, but this depends on what animals you’re dealing with and where you’re located. Many fragrant plants and those with spines—things like catmint and cacti—are good for deterring pests, although animals will eat just about anything if they’re hungry. Some plants are wind resistant and others make good “wind breaks” that protect your garden, like many bushes and small trees. Many of these are inedible—except nasturtium—but make good companions to your garden.
Tilling and Soil Care
- Should we test our soil before we plant? If soil testing is getting in the way of you starting, skip the test and just get into your garden! However, if you’re at all concerned about toxins in your soil, you should test if you’re growing food. If the land was previously used for any sort of industry, a dumping ground or car lot, or if you have nearby mining, you should probably test for toxins. You can also consult a professional for advice.
- What are the best plants to nourish the soil? This depends on your soil type and the nutrients or minerals it may be lacking (note: many soil test results will help you figure out this balance!). Commonly looked to plants include nitrogen fixers like legumes (peas, beans, etc.), because nitrogen is often the limiting ingredient in soil. Dense, low plants—like clover and other cover crops—are good for protecting soils and reducing weeds. Organic matter is good for all soils. We usually say “think: compost!” but nutrient rich plants can also be cut and left on the soil as “green manure”—comfrey is a great example of this.
- How do I garden without tilling? The nuance here is that you may need to aerate your soil and loosen things up for a plant’s roots to penetrate. But, the more soil we can leave intact, the better. That means less disturbance to fungi and other microorganisms’ habitat, which supports healthier plants and a soil that is better at sequestering carbon. If you do mix up the soil, for example when you’re applying compost, try to stay near the surface. Gently bury worms that may have been exposed. And, plant immediately or put some sort of covering over the soil so it’s not exposed to the elements before planting.
- How can I improve my sandy soil? How can I improve my clay soil? I love these two questions, because although you might not expect it, the answer is the same to both: increase your organic matter. In our Climate Victory Gardens, we can easily do that with compost! This balances both types of soils by helping them absorb and hold water.
- I'd like to know more about what weeds indicate about the soil. Is there a good book or other source? Weeds can tell you what’s lacking in the soil, and what may be out of balance (nutrients, composition, pH, and more. Here’s a great resource to get started: Using Weeds to Read the Soil: Some Basic Concepts to Get Started
- What’s the best way to remediate pesticides from the soil? This is a question with an unsatisfactory answer. Testing for these types of toxins can be prohibitively expensive. The National Pesticide Information Center suggests contacting state agencies for information specific to your concern. Also consider asking your local agricultural extension agent. Many pesticides are designed to dissipate from soils after short periods of time (a few years at most), while others may be systemic (which requires soil replacement unfortunately).
Permaculture and Other Gardening Questions
- What is "living mulch"? Living mulch is just a fancy way of saying “plants that cover the ground”. Regenerative gardening practices focus on protecting the soil and its ability to sequester carbon and grow healthy food. These are plants that grow so thickly they block weeds, reduce erosion, and may fix nitrogen or provide other benefits. Living mulch can be planted as a cover crop (the only crop at the time, used to benefit the soils) or as a companion plant (planted with other food crops, which work together to benefit each other and the soil).
- What are the most efficient ways to water? We received many questions about sprinklers. If you have an existing sprinkler system, keeping it may be the most efficient option if its water lines aren’t a concern for where your garden or deep-rooted plants will be. However, it’s important to pay close attention to ways you can reduce waste too. Make sure water is being absorbed by your soils, catch and use rainwater when you can, water during cooler times of day, and water directly instead of spraying in dry climates.
- How much direct sunlight is required? Will the garden work in a shady yard? In fact, some plants do better in the shade! The trick is to choose the right plants. If your garden doesn’t receive at least two hours of sun or more consistent dappled sunlight, it might not be a good fit for growing vegetables. What are options for people that live in urban areas with little to no space? Join a neighbor in their efforts, find a plot in a community garden, have a container garden, or even plant on your windowsill.
- Do you need to do crop rotation of annuals in permaculture design for vegetable garden? Yes, if you are planting annuals and want more yield, more diversity, and also fewer bugs. No, if you do not have the time and would like to establish more of a perennial system/food forest in your plot. But you have to make sure that you are constantly composting and "building soil." Trees in a food forest do not need to be rotated, only annual plant areas do. That being said, if you are a commercial grower, soil scientist Elaine Ingham did amazing work eliminating the need for crop rotation on a tomato farm (annual crop) in South Africa just by ensuring that the soil biology was balanced.
- How can I engage young children in the garden? Set a goal with the children, and expect to get dirty! Keep a bucket near the door for peeling off wet and muddy clothes on the way back indoors. Grow hearty plants that have a quick and dramatic growth curve to keep their attention, like peas and beans. Give the children tasks and even their own responsibilities and control over “their” parts of the garden.