Get dirty, have fun and grow more food with great gardening tips from real-life gardeners.
Summertime backyard at Snarky Acres
By this time, you are probably curious what the gardens are like at Snarky Acres. To be blunt, they are not your normal idyllic gardens you see in magazines. Sure, there are plenty of edible plants growing at my urban homestead, but they are wilder than most people are used to seeing. As I mentioned in Chapter 1, weeds are a normal occurrence in my plot, but not in an “outcompete my vegetables” sort of way. I value diversity in my garden and make use of my “marginal” plants. In Chapter 2, I mention Asian dayflowers and Creeping Charlie as members of my example guild. Both of those just showed up, as weeds often do. I could go out of my way (and expend unnecessary resources) removing them. Instead, both are technically edible, with Asian dayflowers being quite tasty as a salad green.
Don’t get me wrong: there are weeds I will remove. These are mostly from the grass family—crabgrass and the like. Again, I don’t go overboard trying to totally eliminate them, but I pull them whenever I see them, especially if they are going to seed. As I mentioned in Chapter 3, protected soil is better than bare, even when covered with less desirable plants. When I put in a bed of beans or potatoes, I will pull out all the weed cover (in the form of Creeping Charlie and quickweed) beforehand. After all, I have to give my domesticated vegetables a fighting chance to get started as they co-evolved with us taking care of them.
Weeds have been the bane of gardeners and farmers for millennia. Maybe it’s time we all embraced the wilder parts of our garden. Some weeds were brought to the New World with a purpose. A common “invasive” weed in the woods next to my house is garlic mustard (discussed in Chapters 5 and 6), brought over to the New World to use as an herb. Every year for Earth Day (April 22), I make a point of cooking up batches of garlic mustard pesto and share it with everyone who cannot get away fast enough. Other weeds, like lamb’s quarters and violets, are native but not appreciated for their resilience and edibility. Incorporating weeds into your garden design is supported by permaculture principles 5 (Use and Value Renewable Resources), 10 (Use and Value Diversity), and 11 (Use Edges and Value the Marginal). What’s more renewable, diverse, or marginal than common garden weeds?
Like many permaculture sites, perennials are featured here at Snarky Acres. In nature, these come back year after year, ensuring survival of the species. Annuals, on the other hand, must produce lots and lots of seed to continue on existing. Since I’m a renter, I don’t go full tilt with trees and bushes, but I utilize perennials where I can. My favorites are sunchokes (aka Jerusalem artichokes), Egyptian walking onions, strawberries, oregano, lemon balm (mostly as an insect repellent), chives, peppermint, sage, thyme, rosemary, wild blackberries, Goji berries, and apples from two past-their-prime trees on the property. It’s extremely satisfying to “obtain a yield” every year without the effort of digging, sowing, planting, and watering as perennials tend to take care of themselves once established.
Snarky Acres’ first permaculture plot was built around the principles of observe and interact (1), obtain a yield (3), small and slow solutions (9) and edge (11). I observed that a small section (3 feet by 10 feet) at the front of my house only received one hour of direct sunlight around noon. Otherwise, it was in complete shade from the house or received dappled and indirect light until sunset. I did some Internet research and discovered a nice list of perennial herbs that could thrive in the shade. From this list, I choose lemon balm, chocolate mint, orange thyme, and both regular and garlic chives.
After the initial year, the mint dominated the site but the others also did fine. In addition, I’ve planted shade-tolerant annuals to supplement the yield including turnips, kale, and Swiss chard. I rip out the mint like I do with Creeping Charlie (which has also infiltrated the bed—it’s everywhere!) and then sow or transplant, like I do in my primary backyard garden. This edge, like my garden fencing, is self-mulching with westerly winds and a big oak tree doing all the work every fall.
As for my annuals at Snarky Acres, my tendency is to cultivate the ones at the top of my FREE downloadable Veggie Growing List (yes, yet another plug). As of this writing, the top ten annuals on my list are green beans, zucchini, garlic, potatoes, radishes, turnips, mustard, yellow squash, tomatoes, and ground cherries. One spring, I designed a new garden plot around the fact that it had been lawn the year before. My landlord tilled up the site for me (one of my few exceptions to my “no-till” rule), but the soil was compacted and full of clay nonetheless. I planted potatoes (known for conditioning clay soil), tomatoes, zucchini, garlic (planted the previous fall), mustard, turnips, ground cherries, and peppers. All did well despite a deluge in June and a moderate drought the rest of the year.
As you can see, I have embraced the 10th principle (“Use and Value Diversity”) by planting a wide variety of vegetables. In any given year, the environment (rain, clouds, sun, temperatures, pests, and storms) will vary from seasons before. My overarching goal for my property is to produce plenty of edible goodness. If it means too many tomatoes and potatoes one year and an abundance of Swiss chard, zucchini, and cucumbers the next, so be it. It’s also why I have a variety of “weeds” in my garden (see Chapter 6). Those will thrive when our more refined domesticated veggies with wither and die. I still remember the dry summer where I primarily had only purslane (a succulent weed) to eat until we started getting rain in July.
Potatoes and tomatoes growing in the new plot
After learning how to “Observe and Interact” through my permaculture design certification course,
I came to realize my main backyard garden is at the top of a ridge. This means water will flow down to a low point two neighbors’ yards over. Every time we have a large rain event, the neighbor’s valley fills with water, creating a temporary pond with ducks and everything. Through my training, I understood my garden design needed to slow water down in order to spread and percolate it for later use by my plants. Fortunately, my established garden was already set up that way. My new plot, the one with all the easy-to-grow annuals, is adjacent to the old one, so it has the same sloping issue. I purposely dug trenches as I mounded dirt up onto the potatoes, knowing these holes would hold water (and sometimes trip me up—stupid holes).
Four hugelkultur mounds cover cropped with spinach and turnips
Another technique I employed to slow down water flow and store it for future use (Permaculture Principle 2 - Catch and Store Energy) is called hugelkultur. Hugelkultur is the German term for garden beds made with buried wood. The wood breaks down over time, providing garden vegetables with nutrients and moisture (as in you don’t have to fertilize and water as much, if at all). The wood does not have to be brand new, since rotted wood is actually. This is wonderful way to “Use and Value Renewable Resources,” permaculture principle number 5.
I implemented this technique by building four 8 foot (long) by 4 foot (wide) by 3 feet (high) raised beds. In general, raised beds are beneficial; they warm up earlier in the spring, keep humans (but not my dog River) from compacting soil, and allow plants better drainage. Usually raised beds are built with a frame around the soil, but my beds have no borders. After completing each bed, I cover cropped with turnips, spinach and clover to minimize winter soil exposure and loss. Hugelkultur beds are also a great place to grow cucurbits like squash, cucumbers, and pumpkins.
Butternut tree north of Swiss chard. Nitrogen fixing green beans helped the tree to grow up healthy.
Another permaculture system I’ve put into place is to let saplings grow amongst the vegetables. Permaculture is all about succession; nature’s innate ability to go from barren soil to forest in a few short years (at least, in my part of the world). The squirrels and wind have planted several varieties of native trees in my garden, especially along the fence edge. Maples, walnuts, and honey locusts have grown up throughout the garden. Most sane gardeners would remove them either by tilling or digging, but you have to be a little crazy to practice permaculture. We have plans to someday move from this rented land and purchase a larger permanent property. Guess who’s coming with us? These free trees with several years of growth.
Maples and tomatoes growing side by side
Note: this is Chapter 7 from my book The Snarky Gardener's Veggie Growing Guide: Create Organic Abundance By Embracing Your Garden's Wild Side. If you need permaculture primer, here's my Permaculture Awkwardly Explained.
Don Abbott (aka The Snarky Gardener) is a gardener, blogger, author, educator, speaker, reluctant activist, and permaculture practitioner from Kent, Ohio. Professionally, he's a software developer but spends his spare time producing food at Snarky Acres, his rented 0.91-acre urban farm. Don is the author of The Snarky Gardener’s Veggie Growing Guide: Create Organic Abundance By Embracing Your Garden’s Wild Side. He is also the founder of the Kent, Ohio, chapter of Food Not Lawns and received his Permaculture Design Certification from Cleveland-based Green Triangle. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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