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Georgia Mountain Laurel Magazine

Prepare Your Garden for Spring: Tips From Experienced Permaculturist

Jul 08, 2016 04:01PM ● By Melanie Heisinger
Gardening can be a fun hobby that is not only relaxing, but can add a little more beauty to any given space. However, a new trend that has been spreading throughout the country is the idea of growing and harvesting home-grown veggies and fruits.

But how does one get started with a task like this? Luckily, we were able to get in touch with Rob Miller, a Co-Organizer of the Trefoil Gardens and the North Georgia Permaculture Network Meetup Group, and gather a few tips for preparing your garden for harvest. 

What is the North Georgia Permaculture Network Meetup Group?

According to their Meetup page, the North Georgia Permaculture Network Meetup Group is "a group founded and led by permaculturists who have hands on experience and have received their PDC's (permaculture design certificate).

Our purpose is to learn together about the big picture of permaculture principles and the particulars of permaculture strategies; to engage in hands-on projects; and to generally share our goals, excitement, common interests, and energy. We’ll learn more, dream bigger, and get more done as a result of coming together!"

But what is permaculture? 

Permaculture is an ethical design system for supplying human needs by creating resilient, abundant places patterned after nature. It is guided by three ethics:
1) people care,
2) earth care,
and 3) return of surplus for people care and earth care.

Permaculture practices restore fertility to degraded land and make sustainable harvests possible. Each element of a permaculture system contributes to all the rest and receives benefits in turn. Permaculture is not limited to a design system for growing a better orchard or garden; it also encompasses all elements of a property design, including housing and energy, and can supply a framework for conceptualizing other human systems.

The yard before tilling.

When I reached out to Rob, he happened to be right in the middle of plowing a grass lawn to prepare for a 2000-square-foot garden, something that is exponentially large. Obviously the garden you plan on creating doesn't need to be this large in order to produce. Even a small 5 foot by 5 foot garden will produce, depending on what is planted within it.

His tips for preparing an area for a garden all begins with the soil. "We build soil before we try to plant," Rob said. "What follows is what permaculturists call a "stacking" program. We will be stacking mechanical disturbances and extra organic matter to create a soil profile that is effectively years (perhaps decades) ahead of what nature might create on its own, were this lawn left undisturbed."

Here's Rob's Step-by-Step Plan for Lawn-to-Garden Conversion:

1. Plow. I'll use a ripper to tear up the soil to a depth of 8-10"

2. Till. I will till (turning over and breaking up the soil, typically with a tiller) the surface and break up the lawn. This should kill the annual weeds and stress the perennials. 
The yard after first day of initial plowing and tilling. 

3. Wait a week or so and till again, then repeat in another week. By this time, all the plants that remain will have expended their stored energy and the few that are living should be easy to spot and remove by hand.

4. Mid-August: heavily sow the buckwheat.  Wait another week, then heavily sow (plant) the buckwheat. Buckwheat is an excellent cover crop. It grows quickly, breaks down just as quickly, and extracts phosphorous from the soil better than most grain-type cover crops, which will be essential for the next phase.

5. Top-dress. Once the buckwheat flowers, I will top-dress (fertilize the top of the land) the entire garden with aged compost/manure and turn the garden under, this time making my rows.

6. Sow a mix of daikon radish and Austrian winter peas. I'll sow a mix of daikon radish and Austrian winter peas as a winter cover crop. The radish will be harvested as needed for our own food and market garden, but their real purpose is to introduce deep pockets of organic matter into the soil: this plant is adept at mining deep into even hard-packed ground, breaking up clay and rocky soil and bringing up nutrients that were previously locked away. 

We will leave them to rot in place. The peas, being legumes, fix nitrogen in the soil. Organic nitrogen (from the air, or from the previously added manure) is stable in the soil, but unavailable to most plants. Bacteria convert the nitrogen to a less-stable but available inorganic nitrogen compound.

Legumes have a special relationship with these bacteria, allowing them to store that nitrogen in nodes on their roots. This slows down the loss of that nitrogen to leaching from the soil, and stores it for other plants that come after the legume is dead. 

A Gilson "Mule" hand tractor.
7. Early spring: Till. I'll till (just the surface couple inches) one last time to incorporate the green parts of the radish and the peas into the soil, along with a light dressing of shredded leaves, then begin to plant my garden.

My isles will be filled with shredded leaves and the beds will be mulched with them, as well (where appropriate). For example, in the spring garden I would not use mulch around my carrots or lettuces, but will around my turnips and beets. This is more about making it easy to harvest than it is about plant health, per se.

A note on shredded leaves:

I have an agreement with a couple of landscapers who do leaf removal service for their maintenance clients. They are happy to dump as many loads of their "waste" as I will take.

"Leaf mould" as it is called is a "cold" compost. It is broken down by fungus, rather than bacteria. It adds a good volume of fluffy organic material to the soil, and since bacteria aren't eating it, nitrogen is still available for the plants. It also makes an excellent mulch that can be turned into the soil on the next tilling, adding even more organic material and boosting important microbial activity.

This garden will be in what is called a Small-Plot Intensive rotation.

Crops will be sown so that there are a predetermined number of "units" coming into maturity every week. As soon as a crop is harvested, the space it occupied will be replanted with a succession crop. This way, we can get 3-4 plantings per growing season for every inch of space used.

This is not "permanent agriculture", per-se, but it is a sustainable system to produce a massive quantity of food on a small piece of land where people live, so in that sense it does meet permaculture ethics and principles. 

Content courtesy of Rob Miller of the Trefoil Gardens and the North Georgia Permaculture Network Meetup Group.

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