Friday, July 17, 2015

Valhalla's vegetable garden renovation, Summer 2015

The Valhalla Project's main vegetable garden has 16 raised beds
measuring 8' x 4' each. This year's crops include peas, tomatoes,
squash, asparagus, onions, shallots, bell peppers, sweet potatoes,
baking potatoes, okra, many different varieties of chili peppers,
and just about every herb known to mankind.
Many veterans who come to the Valhalla Project are eager to learn about growing their own food. Since this is an integral component in our program of self-sufficiency we’ve spent the last several years working on a model raised bed garden that allows vets to grow vegetables and herbs and discover how rewarding the deliciously edible fruits of their efforts can be.

Our major innovation this year was the addition of cattle-panel arches over the tops of our raised beds! Never seen it before, and it was the brainchild of Valhalla founder, Chris, who suggested that it would be an effective way to prevent the chickens and turkeys from tearing up the beds as well as allowing the sheep to graze throughout the garden and keep them out of the plantings. Sure cuts down on the need to mow the pathways, and Valhalla's chief mowers -- the sheep -- just love it.

Check out the asparagus supported by the new cattle panel arch -- they're standing as straight as
soldiers in formation! Also notice the removeable doors that lock out the sheep, chickens, turkeys, and 

ducks. The doors are easily removed for harvesting vegetables and weeding, although mulch 
keeps almost all the weeds out.

The concept worked better than originally envisioned. The arches not only kept the unwanted critters out but also – as a big unexpected surprise – provided structural support for the taller plants. The best
example: this season our asparagus, typically bent and sagging by midsummer, looks like the garden honor guard standing straight and tall because the individual plants extended upward far enough so that the arch strengthens them. One obviously wouldn’t bother to stake each flowering asparagus stalk into an upright position, yet the arches have accomplished what nature and labor alone could never do: the supported asparagus are now showering their seeds farther than ever before, while sunlight can more easily reach the strawberry plants below them. Will next spring’s asparagus and strawberry crops improve yields as a result? That remains to be seen, although we’re willing to bet that both perennials will benefit from the innovation. 

Some of Valhalla's tomato plants with sweet peas growing up
the sides.  It takes only a minute to drape a shade cloth over the
top on especially hot days, and we've occasionally added a piece
of tarp to prevent the fruit from getting too much water during
particularly severe rainstorms (tomatoes will split if they are
overwatered). Notice that the arch also makes it easy to hang
humming bird feeders. Click on the photo to see more details.
Tomatoes also use the arches for support while vining crops like peas, beans, and cucumbers extend up and across the tops. Easily removed clipped-on side panels, made primarily from cut pieces of shorter panels, keep any birds or livestock from damaging Valhalla’s veggies.

When the sun begins to pound down in midsummer, which the sweet potatoes and okra live for, it takes only a matter of a few minutes to spread a shade cloth over the tomato beds that would suffer from the excess heat.

This fall, we expect to be able to place a plastic sheet over the arches to retain heat and act as season extenders. By experimenting we may be able to fashion a good bed for cool weather greens and push the season out on both ends.

Our other big change this season was piling on heavy mulch around all our plants. Previously we’d been challenged by weeds, especially grasses, swallowing up the beds and making a lot of maintenance necessary as well as challenging our plants – and usually winning.

This bed didn't perform very well last year since it's soil was
basically dead... so we made it into a big compost pile with
kitchen scraps, nasty old bedding straw from Duckton Abbey,
and grass clippings. It took just a few weeks before that compost
pile suddenly burst out with unexpected plants that spread
everywhere in the back corner of the garden. We recently discovered
that the entire bed had also become a giant earth worm farm,
proving that what was basically dead dirt in 2014 had been
successfully transformed into nutrient rich soil.
So this season we used the bales of spoiled hay and straw – some two years old – that had been left to rot in the weather for mulch. As soon as plants went in their raised beds received as heavy a mulching as allowed desired vegetation to catch sun. When they grew larger we added more mulch. We piled mulch around spots where we planted seeds and when the new growth was tall enough, pulled the mulch in closer.

Not only have the weeds been largely stifled, but those that punch through are generally easier to pull out since the ground beneath the heavy mulch layer is very moist and doesn’t hold the roots as tightly. Water is retained more efficiently giving us less reason to irrigate and the soil is considerably healthier than if we allowed it to dry and harden as it has in the past. Our heavy clay soil holds moisture well if protected from direct sun, but if allowed to dry turns to concrete, even in the raised beds.

One of the major revelations for veteran participants here who are new to gardening is that they quickly realize that productive gardens take time to build and produce. Despite some marketing claims to “instant gardens that will keep you alive in emergencies,” a productive garden takes time, effort, and knowledge to bloom and grow. While there are some shortcuts available, the fact remains that vegetables produce better yields when a garden is properly constructed, tended, and maintained.

Valhalla's rooster, Franzl, isn't happy over being locked out of the
vegetable beds. We'd thought that it might be necessary to add strips
of poultry wire along the lower parts of each arch, yet so far the
chickens and turkeys haven't bothered to squish their way in.
Even though the garden has performed well this year we realize that continued improvements and careful tending are necessary. Good prior planning goes a long way. While at Valhalla our veteran participants learn that lives, even more than gardens, deserve the same treatment. Good outcomes in life are rarely easy and never free.

If you’re a post-9/11 combat veteran who might like to participate at Valhalla, we’re easy to contact. If you care for a special vet or for our veterans in general, then you can help put them on a real, proven road to successful transition.

We can’t do this alone. Please donate what you can to Valhalla and be part of our continued mission to help veterans grow and transition to civilian life successfully. When you contribute to Valhalla Project you know that all donations go directly into our programs.

* * *
The Valhalla Project needs your help and support
We need YOUR help to keep Valhalla functioning efficiently - while at the same time expanding vitally important programs to assist post-9/11 combat veterans and war zone civilian workers to transition back into the civilian world.

The Valhalla Project is a 501(c)3 nonprofit charity recognized by the IRS.
Nobody, including cadre or board members, draws a paycheck here, nor will they ever: we simply give everything we have to make Valhalla possible. 100% of your donation via Paypal will go directly to program expenses, period.

1 comment:

  1. Great garden ideas... I would have to add a finer mesh to the panels as squirrels are the bane of my gardening and bird feeding efforts this year :( They have stripped my apple trees already and are now concentrating on my tomatoes :(