Monday, February 27, 2012

Building a Berry Patch, Part 1: The Raised Beds

Each year, we try to add one more significant project to improve the farm.  This year, it's putting in a small berry orchard and a nut grove.  While we're waiting for our plants to arrive, we've made good progress toward building the berry patch.

For the past two years, we've been trying to get started putting in a garden.  In 2010, we thought we'd try building some raised beds using the old telephone poles left over from when the new ones got installed.  Then in 2011, we tried building beds using cement blocks.

There was nothing inherently wrong with either of those plans.  We just didn't make enough progress early enough in the spring, and then we got busy and the projects fizzled out because it was too late to plant anything that spring anyway.  But this year it's different.

First of all, we've had our Guinea Hogs confined in the garden area for several months now, and they've done a good job eradicating most of the thicket of 6' tall weeds that used to grow there, so that gives us a big head start.

This is what this area used to look like:

As you can see, the piggies do good work:

Second, we now have a cow, which means we have pretty much unlimited supplies of compost to improve the soil.  Cleaning her stall supplies me with about a wheelbarrow full of manure and bedding every day, which we then compost for use in the garden.

This is Thistle:

Here is a photo of our composting area.  It consists of several 5' x 5' squares formed from metal livestock panels, plus a larger "collecting" area at the top where I empty the wheelbarrow each day.  Every few weeks, the contents of each bin gets forked into the next bin down the line.  This aerates the mix and reactivates the composting bacteria.  So by the time the compost reaches the last bin, it has been flipped/fluffed several times and has been decomposing for about 3-5 months.

(By the way, I know some of you readers are waiting for further news about the cow.  Please be patient a little while longer!  There is a LOT to tell.  There will be a blog post coming soon detailing all my MANY cow-related adventures over the past several months.  Meanwhile, if you can't wait, you can see more frequent updates and photos on my farm's Facebook page.)

Third, we're not trying to establish our whole garden this year.  We're concentrating on putting in the longer-term plants this year:  a small berry orchard and a nut grove.  We ordered blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, and asparagus to put in the berry area, plus several types of nut trees (which will go elsewhere on the farm and will have their own blog post later).

Because our sheep like nothing more than to eat berry bushes, we needed to make sure that the berry orchard was very securely fenced.  Finding a convenient location for the patch, plus the cost and effort of building a strong fence discouraged us from thinking we could plant berries any time soon.

Then one day it suddenly occurred to me that one of our pig paddocks was a perfect location for the berries, and it was already well fenced.  That encouraged my decision to sell off enough of our pigs that I no longer needed to use that paddock.  And so, our future berry orchard was born!

Once I knew the size and shape of the plot we were going to use, I could plan out how many of what types of plants would fit in the area.

There was still the difficulty of what to do with the several long and extremely heavy lengths of discarded telephone poles that we had pushed into the paddock to get them out of the way.  Once again, I had a sudden brainstorm.  What if we used the poles to create a perimeter of raised beds all around the outside of the berry orchard?  Then I would have a safe, permanent area to begin establishing my herb beds, which I have sorely missed since moving to this farm.

By lucky chance it turned out that the lengths of telephone pole that we had lying around fit almost perfectly along the edges of the berry area, without needing to be cut.  It took a lot of muscling and levering, but Ken and I managed to roll them into position by hand without having to resort to hiring someone to shift them with a tractor.

Once the logs were in place around the perimeter, we were able to measure and mark the row spacings for our blueberry, blackberry, and raspberry bushes. 

Then we gathered up all the cement blocks that we had purchased for our previous attempt at building raised beds, plus a few more scavenged from elsewhere on the farm, and laid out two raised beds, one for strawberries, and one for asparagus.

It's harder than it looks to line up cement blocks in a truly straight line.  Ken uses a laser level to make sure they are lined up exactly where we want them.  The uneven ground also makes it a bit challenging.  We decided not to try leveling and terracing each individual block this time.  So long as the rows were straight and the blocks relatively even, we let them conform to the contours of the ground.

Although the pigs had done an excellent job eliminating 95% of the weeds in this area, that still left some weeds that needed to be dug out of the raised bed areas before we started filling them.  I spent the afternoon digging them out by hand with a trowel and fork to take them from looking like this:

To looking like this:

Meanwhile, Ken started hauling wheelbarrow loads of compost from our bins to begin filling the raised beds.

Unfortunately, we have not had the cow long enough for us to have a supply of truly FINISHED compost, so we're loading up the base layer of the beds with half-finished compost and will have to purchase a layer of good-quality planting soil to spread over the top to give the plants a good start.  Gradually, the compost in the lower layer will finish decomposing and will turn into nutrient-rich soil for the plants' roots.

While we were doing all this backbreaking labor, Thistle was on the other side of the fence, working hard too:

As were the pigs:

Once we finish building/weeding/filling/leveling the beds, the next step will be to purchase cap blocks to put on top of the cement blocks.  Not only are they essential for preventing weeds from growing up through the holes in the cement blocks, they also give the beds a more finished look, and provide a very comfortable place to sit while weeding or harvesting from the bed.

 Our plants are supposed to be shipped today, so we have to get busy and finish our preparations!


Keisha said...

Yay, I love to sniff things! Ur farm looks beautiful. :)

Amanda said...

I love love LOVE this post! It makes me feel like I'm out on my own farm, planning my own berry patch! Thanks for letting this apartment dweller live the farm life vicariously.

T. Cupp said...

Very cool! Nice post!

Anonymous said...

Hi. I just read your blog about the raised beds for berries. I'm not an expert farmer, but we have dabbled into gardening, and I found that too much cow manure compost is bad for some plants. I don't know about berries, but our tomatoes wouldn't grow in containers filled mostly with cow manure compost. In my experience, it needs to be diluted with quite a bit of soil.
Good luck, I like your blogs.