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The garden in July: insects, mounds and milk crates

The way it comes together!
There may not be the explosive growth of the warmer and wetter months but the plants that appreciate a bit of chilling start doing their mid Winter thing. And you still get new growth. The seedlings come on. Plant cuttings take root. And the garden's navvy gets to work longer shifts in the cool and sunshine.
No sweat. Nothing gets away from you and you can engage more with the dirt.
It's potting about weather.
Insect Hotel
A friend had a wee small hostelry for insects. The horticulturalist I work with who is new to the area bemoans the shallow local bee population. And I, to my credit, was renovating my two ponds when  I thought in a sort of 2 plus 2 equals five moment...I'll go into the hospitality industry.
So the last few days I've been collecting bits and pieces from around the yard and recycling them into apartments for insects. Re-imagining yourself from the house hunting insect POV is a lot of creative fun. With so much old bamboo about the place my industry had ready hardware. Saw up a few canes. Chop through some pawpaw trunks. Recycle some old bamboo curtain beads. Make use of some old containers...Hang em up. Attach them.
I already had structures: Sculptural local woods laid and strutted together around the ponds and skywards for a wind chime,  so I simply inserted the apartments among all that. Clambering over these was some keen growth: nasturtium, Bolivian cucumber and a coastal legume.
So now, all I gotta do is wait for the clientele to come visit. Here and a the local school gardening project  methinks stingless native bees may be an option...
It makes me distinctly uncomfortable to be obsessed with a gardening contour that no one else (on this continent at least) seems to indulge in: mounds. (See the recent: Notes on Mounds)  I may be an eccentric gardener but I do not garden in the nuddy. I do however build up mounds of dirt, shove a terracotta pot in the top as a flu and grow stuff at an angle of  45 degrees.
I grow at an angle... I'm telling you it works!  45 degrees. 45 degrees.

My mounds aren't Polynesian/Melanesian huge. My mounds are little islands rising up out of the detritus like a volcano in a shabby sea.

On these pet knolls, I've planted out a lot of stuff. A lot of different stuff to see how it grows.
I've got potatoes, oca (NZ Yam), pole beans, tomato, zuchini, coriander, Sunchokes, spring onions, carrots, sun jewels, sunflowers, sweet potato, pumpkin, purple yams, aloe vera, cannas...planted atop or on the sides of my wee hillocks.
Truth to tell I thought such a polygamous mix was sure to be a hard ask of elevated soil, but each mound is becoming its own micro-climate. Each is its own fantasy land.
I'll need to christian each and everyone of them. That's a lot of champagne!
Indeed when I look at what can happen at 45 degrees and then gaze  at the flat beds,  the horizontal beds seem desultory and vapid  in comparison. But here's the thing: I can see these islands'  flora  easily  because the convex contour offers a 360 degree look around. In a polycultural gardening indulgence such as  mine, that's a real plus.
Gardening is easier...because it's diced up into manageable parts.Wee round beds: O-O-O all about.
While the initial mound I built this year is so verdant -- I cannot see anything at all except jungle -- the others are likely to follow suit. I'm now meditating on the option of engineering mounds on my east/west beds. My north/south beds are so far gone that they'll all metamorphasize into mound-dom within a few months. Any delay in earth moving is simply about waiting on what's there now to reach harvest.
Between the mounds I throw all the brush and cuttings I collect and tramp it all down as I traffic hither and yon.

Garden vistas

Looking south: poles supporting aerial lines for climbing plants; seedlings on the go at bottom right;    
behind them a two mound bed buried under growth; milk crate garden bottom centre. Click on image to enlarge view.
In my mix are a lot of climbing plants. The old garden hoses I strung through the air across the garden are now supporting feeder lines both vertical and horizontal as I drop twine down to pole beans, Bolivian cucumbers, Mouse Melon, an exotic cucurbit (so exotic I can't recall or pronounce the name) and choko. The advantage of taking these plants so sharply skyward is that this time of year they don't shade their neighbours so much and I get to plant climbers more or less where ever I like without having to build trellises. No need to clump plant. I'm still gardening with an eclectic polycultural, companion planting, mix.
I give aerial gardening with jute twine: nine and a half out of ten
As the Vulcan salute says, "Live long, climb up and prosper."[ Or should it be?: " Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to bravely go where no plant has gone before".]
Milk Crate Gardening.
Not my norm, but I'm experimenting with container gardening. Usually I hate containers as they are so routinely thirsty.
I'm a milk crate junkie. Can't live without them. And now that I've found a regular supply of these design masterpieces at the local tip, a lot can now happen.
At the local school gardening project  we've been vertical gardening with pallets and I passionately hate them. I think the whole exercise is absurd. So in looking around for useful hardware, that could use weed mat in its walls, I  researched  milk crate gardening as an option.
Bingo: crates have wings. 
The pros of milk crates as gardening containers are:
  • milk crates are cheap ( I pay $1) or free.(Retail: $12)
  • milk crates offer good volume to grow stuff. Indeed a milk crate on average has a volume of around 27 litres.
  • milk crates neatly butt against one another so they are easily arranged into 'garden bed' shapes.
  • milk crates when butted together insulate one another and the soil they may contain.
  • milk crates can be stacked so that a quick 'raised bed' is a milk crate atop a milk crate.(You can also create vertical gardens this way if you must.)
  • milk crates are sturdy and moveable so they can be shifted about with changes in the seasons and weather.
The one drawback with  milk crate gardening is that when filled with soil, a milk crate is a hefty lift (over 30 kgm I'd guess) -- so moving them about may (or 'should' for the back conscious) require the use of a trolley.
Are they worth the effort -- collecting them and fabricating with weed mat?  That's why I'm experimenting. My beginner plant is tomatoes. I suspect crate gardening will also suit sweet peppers and cucumbers...and they may offer me the advantage that some of the fungal diseases my garden is prone to will be  less when the plants are grown above ground in a crate.
Or so I hypothesize...

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Comment by Elaine de Saxe on July 17, 2015 at 15:23

I was wondering how they grew sweet potato in NZ given that the most northerly part of NZ is about level with Sydney and hardly sub-tropical. Now I know. Stones in the soil!

Comment by Dave Riley on July 17, 2015 at 8:17

Just a final referencing on the angle of repose. I'd think 'content' would facilitate shape. The New Guinea highlanders use a sort of composting mix with soil atop in their mound making that begins to heat up like Hugelkultur mounds.

Further south, the Maori worked to modify the soil in their mounds (and other structures) If the existing soil was heavy and less desirable.

They mined gravel and sand (from areas called borrow pits) and added it to soil. There are several advantages to modifying the soil:

  • stones warm the soil, extending the growing season
  • better drainage
  • water condenses on the gravel at night
  • encourage kumara formation (size and uniformity)
  • protects leaves from the damp soil.

They also added charcoal to retain water and to help warm the soil. The kumara were planted into mounds (puke) and arranged into rows. (ref)

They also used no manures:

Using manure was strongly repugnant to Maori, probably stemming from their belief that the Earth Mother, Papa, provided food, and it would be unwise to offend her by using something 'unclean'. Their agriculture was thus probably unique in that manure was never used as fertiliser. Manuka wood ash was used as a fertiliser on soils such as one matua (a firm loam) but not on friable, fertile soils.

The use of gravel to build up a coarser layer on the original soil into which kumara were planted depended on soil type:
    one matua needed to be gravelled
    one parauma (a dark, friable soil) required gravel only to prevent the kumara leaves getting muddy and wet.

(Go here for interactive tables that explore Maori soil science.)

The inputs worked:

These ancient Maori garden sites have long been recognised as the most fertile soils on the Waimea Plains. Even after sixty years of European cultivation, farmers in the 1920s who were situated on the ‘Maori soils’, required only a fraction of the added phosphate, potash and lime needed on the neighbouring ‘natural’ soils. The enhanced fertility is accounted for, not just by the burning off of the original forest which had been growing on these lands, but by generations of repeated ash deposits obtained by burning ‘imported’ timber – driftwood from the nearby Waimea River and Estuary and from the forests growing on the adjacent river flats and on the Moutere Hills, some one to two kilometres distant.

It is because of the added gravels, that the soils of these old Waitaha gardens also drain much more freely and, being almost black, the heat absorption is much greater. The predominance of large flat stones in the upper soil layers indicates that the gardeners placed a stone mulch around the crops to further enhance absorption of solar heat during the day, for slow release during the cool nights. All of these factors combined to enable ancestral Maori to grow to maturity crops, such as kumara, for which the local growing season was otherwise too short and the climate too temperate.(ref)

Comment by Elaine de Saxe on July 16, 2015 at 17:36

Many variations on the garden bed theme. All have their upsides and downsides. Amazes me the elegant variety of traditional growing methods.

Comment by Dave Riley on July 16, 2015 at 16:24

But a raised bed's sides aren't where you can plant as it is a wall of edging. Indeed I'd guess they'd also be the driest and hottest portion of the bed.

I found that stones on the edge were moderating and insulating, in the same way that a terracotta pot offers  better insulation than plastic.

But ' a bed' is usually rectangular or square  variously on a east/west or north/south the analogy is compromised by geometry.

Of note is that all the raised bed systems regiment their beds like bumps in the same growing patch. The American Indians  used a formula for the plantings for successive mounds.

Te Parapara Maori Garden with Kumara (sweet potato) mounds

I don't know for certain, but the impact of the raised bed system of gardening may have been popularized  by the French market gardeners of the late 19th century --La culture maraîchère.

Comment by Elaine de Saxe on July 16, 2015 at 4:59

A raised bed usually has an edging to it which supports it in a different way. Without the edge the heap of soil would assume its own angle of repose.

Comment by Dave Riley on July 16, 2015 at 1:22

You'd assume that mounds would not be stable -- that weathering would quickly flatten out their elevation. But I guess they are very much the norm under conditions in Australia -- as Fred Williams painting (left) suggests.

The other core factor is their diameter which rules their height. A Melanesian mound is quite big but the traditional American 3 sisters mound has varying   heights and diameters, and tends to be be flatter.

I think at about one metre wide, these mounds I'm working on,  make for manageable, functional units.

Of course I'm building them to also accommodate a central terracotta pot....and I think the pot, with its lid, also protects the original shape -- like a pylon that  attracts roots.

The increase in surface area, because of the convex shape,  is quite significant, but it's all really about what happens underground: what the roots decide to do.

The other interesting feature of 'round' and 45 degrees is how that shape interacts with the sun in its daily arc through the seasons. One side will be hotter and get more direct sunshine than the other.

I wonder how these factors compare to a standard 'raised bed' --which, after all, is 'raised' for different reasons.

Shape and sunshine is only really gonna matter while the plants are small. After that --as a jungle sets in -- it's more about plants relating to one another as they all have to share the same mound.In that the advantage is that plants that ramble or cover ground will fall away towards the valley as they give into gravity. This is what the Three Sisters squashes did. While the beans and corn were uprights.

Comment by Elaine de Saxe on July 15, 2015 at 20:33

Physics are behind everything you can think of from cooking to gardening and much else.

Didn't know if my 'angle' was still the description, I heard it so long ago (several lifetimes ago).

Erosion happens when there is nothing binding an area (eg tree roots) and it cannot maintain its natural angle (in repose ;-) then slips and slides downhill. The grains just roll around with nothing to stop them - there would be a proper scientific description but that's more or less what happens. Soil/sand/clay/gravel grains going wild with nothing to stop them and force them to assume or maintain their angle of repose.

Comment by Dave Riley on July 15, 2015 at 18:31

You've got a point there, Elaine. I'm smarter than even I think. The angle of repose is for real.

The angle of repose or the critical angle of repose, of a granular material is the steepest angle of descent or dip relative to the horizontal plane to which a material can be piled without slumping.

Not quite the same thing as 'eroding'  but the same  Physics are in play, I'm sure.

Sand's 'angle of repose'

Sand (dry)
Sand (water filled) 15–30°
Earth 30–45°

But my 'sand' has humus and other stuff in it so I have an option to flatten out a tad. Is that an advantage? I don't know.

Maybe I should lay back, repose, and think about it...

Comment by Elaine de Saxe on July 15, 2015 at 15:23

There's this wonderfully poetic description: 'angle of repose'. It's the angle at which various materials will hold and not keep sliding downhill.

Comment by Dave Riley on July 15, 2015 at 8:27

AFTERTHOUGHT on mound gardening:

Do I get erosion? Yes I guess. Why don't I get a  lot?

  • I'm stable at 45 degrees slant.
  • The plants root and hold the terrain together
  • I use mulch...but not just any old mulch. I use cut grass clippings, and mowed grass clippings seem to keenly mat the mounds like a coat of fur.They 'fit' because they settle into the shape.
  • Since I have inserted the terracotta flues, I don't need to water that much. Just a light sprinkling so that the seedlings can come on.

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