Once our California native ecosystem restoration was well in hand, we began implementing the second part of our plan, which was to build and optimize production in an organic mini-farm and orchard, interplanted among the various areas of our thriving, native garden.
The first area we wanted to plant was to contain some vegetable beds. It was located in full sun, but dessicated by icy winds from the West, all summer long, which posed serious difficulties pertaining to water use and conservation. Also, the native “soils” of our yard are composed of serpentine rock and magnesium-laden adobe clay — great for building missions, but not so good for planting and growing anything other than native plants. The soil test results came back scary:
Low organic matter;
Very low Nitrogen;
Very low Phosphorus;
Excessively high Magnesium (needed corrective action to leach it out);
Low Sulfur; and
Very low in all other “trace elements” except for WAY too much Iron.
Also, our “drainage” was non-existent. Dig a 12″ hole and fill it with water. Two days later, the water is still there. Rain water simply ran off the hill without sinking in at all. In order to grow food here, we needed to get really creative. So, I hit the books.
My research on annual and perennial vegetable gardening yielded a concept called hugelkultur, which attempts to recreate the spongy, fertile forest floor of Europe, by piling partially decayed logs, sticks, and compostable materials, and then covering them with soil. But we also had the problem of solid clay which has zero drainage, and allows all rain water to race downhill to the sea, without seeping in. That means that plain hugelkultur mounds would drain out the bottom, and fail.
Research into vegetable gardening techniques used in the mountains of South America led me to the idea of terracing. And I was inspired to attempt to combine the two concepts, by digging 2-3 foot deep, clay bathtubs in the hillside, in a terraced fashion, and then build hugelkulur “mounds” within those terraced bathtubs, to retain the water and encourage vibrant soil life. We then built raised beds atop those hugel-tubs, and filled them with heavily composted and amended soil of the kind that vegetables like to grow in. Our process looked like this:
And the end result was this:
The crop plants are very happy in these beds, and since we worked so incredibly hard for every square inch of bed space, we grow vegetables according to bio-intensive gardening principles. This, in turn, made the local critters really happy. So, we built a set of hinged cages to protect our food crops, and also to support row-cover material to make mini-greenhouses for the cooler weather.
So, now, we can plant out a first crop in February, for June harvest, and then a second crop is planted in June, for October/November harvest. And the bio-intensive gardening technique really seems to be paying off: