The Problem Is the Solution

Reader Contribution by Charlyn Ellis
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We had a problem garden bed. It was the furthest bed from the house, last on the water line, and in the hottest part of the yard. I planted there every year — squash vines, potatoes, beans, all the heat loving crops — and they never did well. It must be the soil, I decided, and spent a year nourishing the bed with all sorts of treats. I kept the chicken tractor on it for an extra few weeks. I spread bunny manure. I fluffed it with organic matter. It was lovely soil—but nothing liked being there. I planted four blueberry bushes, thinking to turn the back bed into a visual hedge, but they were not happy, even with extra water. I was totally stumped and ready to just turn into over to fennel and rosemary and lemon balm, three plants that never die in my yard, but I hated giving up the growing space. What is the problem? I thought, riding my bike out to work on Sunbow Farm one morning.

The problem, I thought, was not with the soil. Or the heat. Or even the end of the water line….these could all be overcome. It was a dry bed by late July….and what wants a dry bed in late July? What would be the solution here? Garlic. Garlic is clearly the solution.

First, garlic is planted in October, which allows me to run the Chicken Tractor over the bed for a month, at least, before planting. This means, also, that the tractor is back in use several weeks before the potato beds are emptied, thus making the chickens more useful. Because it is the last bed, the chickens can still hop down into their summer run around the compost pile in the afternoon, but spend the evenings and mornings hard at work on the bed.

Second, garlic grows in the early winter and spring, when the bed has always been productive. The rains keep the soil moist all winter, and the residual moisture, along with the far end of the soaker hose, holds out until the garlic begins to dry down. This year, because of an early cold snap, I covered the garlic bed with a cloche made from tomato cages, laid on their sides, and a sheet of plastic. The plants loved it!

Third, it simplified the bed rotation system. When you plant seasonally per bed, garlic is hard to work in. It comes out just when seeds stop germinating in my bed, even on the potting table. Thus, it sat half empty until the next spring, as there was always a few weird plants that I had tucked into the other half of the bed, because I had them and they needed a home. When garlic became it’s own bed, this confusion went away.

Finally, what was the biggest problem is now the biggest benefit. The bed dries down just when the garlic is also drying down. I do not have to cut off water to a partial bed. I do not have to mess with damp garlic. I do not have to hand water part of a bed to keep other crops alive during the late July heat wave. I just let it be. After I pull the crop, I add some organic matter, like more straw and rabbit manure, and leave the bed alone until late August, when the chickens move in.

The problem became the solution. It was so simple. Why did it take me so long to figure it out?

To read more about the Twenty First Street Urban Homestead, check out my blog To see more of Julia Lont’s amazing artwork, go to and

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