Bonafide Farm

Happy progress in the streetside garden

May 20th, 2014 § 2

This spring, the garden I’ve been most impressed with is the one I have spent the least amount of time thinking about and fussing over. Isn’t that the way it is with so many things—just set the ball rolling, get out of the way and wait to be unexpectedly amazed?

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The strip of garden that runs along the east side of the house was an afterthought in many ways, even though it is the garden closest to the road and should be a showpiece. When the house was built I threw some shrubs in to hold the soil on the bank—a few doublefile viburnums and some dwarf oakleaf hydrangeas, two of my favorite shrubs. Then last year I extended the garden by building the rock wall, and added some gift irises and a few more little plants as I bought them. Because there are no evergreens it looks pretty bare in winter, but this spring the bank erupted in what turned out, this year, to be a quite nice combination of bloom, leaf shape, and color variation. It’s a very old-fashioned feeling garden, with classic plants that one might find around Grandma’s country cottage.

The first to bloom are the the daffodils in late winter, and I am happy to see that their decaying foliage will soon be hid by the new growth coming in on the shrubs, just as it should be. I particularly love the variegated Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum odoratum var. pluriflorum ‘Variegatum’) at lower right, below, with its white bell-like blooms and sturdy foliage that remains attractive all season.

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The front corner is anchored by these nice catmints (Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’), new last year, that continue the lavender bloom color begun by the iris.

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The viburnums have finished their bloom, and the irises are soon to say goodbye. I have a few peonies, planted last spring to test if they liked this location, that are budding now. I will see how they look when they bloom, and if I like the effect I will add more peonies to continue the colorful blooms a few more weeks. That should take me until hydrangea time…but after that I will have to figure out what to add to maintain interest here through the dog days of summer until the hydrangeas change into their red leafed costumes for a fall display.

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Next fall I will divide the Solomon’s Seal to spread bits of it through the whole garden, and to move it more forward of the shrubs. If I can find something low and pretty all season (maybe some kind of Ajuga, which has purple blooms at the same time as the iris?) to go right along the top of the rock wall, this will really shape up nicely—almost as if I planned it!

And then just when it looks awesome there’s a good chance the shrubs will have grown too large and it will be time to pull them out and start over!

As a way of explaining some of my happiness with this garden’s progress, check out what it looked like just a bit more than a year ago:

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Seeing this photo it’s clear to me that I did the right thing by extending the garden to lessen the slope away from the house, which was making it hard to keep enough water on the shrubs to make them happy, and all the plants responded really well to the back-fill addition of forest-dug compost and a thick blanket of mulch. The border is deep enough (10 feet) that I am able to enjoy the show from inside the house, looking out through the windows, which is an aspect that is so enjoyable but that few consider when creating foundation plantings.

Tucking in the house garden for winter

November 18th, 2013 § 2

Today dawned in marked contrast to the last few days. In place of cool mist and fog were bright sun and almost 70 degree temperatures. I seized the opportunity to complete the year’s final tasks in the garden that surrounds the house.

I started by robbing my compost pile that’s been in the making for almost a year. It’s a mix of garden waste, grass clippings, soiled chicken house bedding, and kitchen scraps. Instead of engaging in a hot composting process, which requires a more precise mix of nitrogen-rich greens and carbonous browns, plus proper moisture and aeration, I just throw everything in a pile in the woods and let time work its magic. Which it does, yielding a worm-full and deeply nutritious mix that every fall gets spread about the farm.

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I forked the compost into the big tractor bucket. I prefer using this large bucket when dealing with bulky materials because it can carry much more than the smaller bucket. The downside, though, is that I can’t dig or scoop with this big bucket without damaging the tractor’s arms, so that means lots of hand forking. In many ways this is still necessary, though, as the margins of the pile aren’t well defined and the pile isn’t large enough to efficiently scoop with a small bucket anyway.

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I managed to eek two large buckets of compost out of my pile. It’s not a ton, but I spread it almost an inch thick over all the exposed dirt in the garden and even had enough to pile some extra around heavy feeders, such as the roses.

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Once the compost was down, I went back for mulch. My target was the remnants of the ten yards that were delivered in early April. They’d been spread about a bit in the field and briars and grass were starting to grow up in the pile.

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This required lots of hand forking and tedious, prickly picking through, but I managed to get four big bucketfuls out of a rather insubstantial looking pile. Not only did it feel good to reclaim something for which I’d paid good money, but the eight-month rest in the field had decomposed the mulch the absolutely perfect consistency—damp, dark, crumbly and ready to go to work building soil. It makes me realize I should be ordering all my mulch at least half a year in advance of when I want to apply it.

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Anyone who’s been reading this blog for a while knows that when it comes to mulch, I prioritize its soil-building properties over any aesthetic contribution it may make to the landscape. The key to building good soil is keeping it mulched with an appropriate material, one that breaks down and adds organic matter to the soil. When you’re working with what I’ve got here—compacted red Virginia clay around a construction site—short of digging out all the native dirt and replacing it the only way to create great soil is through repeated application of amendments such as compost and mulch. Do that for ten or fifteen years and you might get somewhere. I am three years in and my fantasies of dropping a trowel and having it sink blade deep in rich, black soil are a long way off.

But I work at it. And will keep working at it every year as long as I can wield the pitchfork.

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By sundown I could barely move but I was finished spreading compost and mulch, and I felt good about this final gardening act of the year. This is always one of the most physically demanding days of the year, and I am glad to have it behind me. Now I celebrate, and rest easy knowing I have left a nutritious blanket over my garden that will nourish it through this winter and into the spring to come. It’s a good feeling, despite the protest of every nerve ¬†and muscle in my bone-tired body. I’m headed for the epsom salts and a scalding bath, and most likely a well-deserved beer.

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The Stonehenge project: Part two

May 8th, 2013 § 0

Once all the rocks were in place, I covered the turf that extended into the bed with newspaper several sheets thick. This grass-killing trick had been effective when I used it under the mulch rings I placed around my trees. Then I went in to the woods and dug up bucket loads of loamy topsoil, mostly with a shovel so I could pick out the rocks, sticks and vines as I went.

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I dumped this topsoil into the new bed space, on top of the newspaper and up against the back wall of rocks, in effect forming a raised bed around two sides of the house.

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Then on April 10 I called my favorite mulch guy and had ten yards of double shredded hardwood mulch dropped near the woods. This is prettier—and more expensive—than the pine bark nuggets I buy for mulching around my big trees (below, on the ground). It will also break down much faster, helping to enrich the soil as it does.

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I spent a day hand-forking the aforementioned ten yards of mulch into my garden. It was super-tricky, delicate work as many of my perennials were just starting to emerge and hard to see, and I didn’t want to smother them.

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But after eight hours of mulching and only a few blisters across my palms, it was done. And looked pretty nice, I thought. There are a few spots that can use another stone or two, but I will fill those in once I’ve fully recovered.

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It’s not the fancy hardscape I’d most love, but for $285 worth of mulch and untold hours of bodybreaking labor, I finally have some decent-looking garden beds that are in keeping with the informal, cottage nature of the house. What’s more, this project massively contributes toward my goal of making maintenance around here as easy as possible. Now I just run the string trimmer right up against the rocks—which means no more futile hours spent hacking enroaching turf out of the beds. Plus, the mulch will help keep weeds out and moisture in during the hot summer while feeding the soil and coddling the earthworms beneath.

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And, I am really excited to have gained a bit more extra bed space, complete with pretty decent soil—thanks, forest! I have already started planting some fun new additions, including peonies for the shadier areas and sedums for the sunny front corner. My plan is to eventually colonize the rock wall with sedums growing over it and through the spaces between rocks.

The garden has really come on in the weeks since these pictures were taken, so a little virtual plant walk will be coming soon.

The Stonehenge project: Part one

May 7th, 2013 § 0

Much of March and April was devoted to building a rock wall around the front and road-facing side of the house. I’d grown tired of hacking turf out of the unedged beds, and the bed on the side of the house that faces the road was too steep to hold water on the plants in it. As you can see below, within the stone wall, it wasn’t a good look. Last summer I’d gotten some quotes to build a nice stone retaining wall around this end of the house and around the front, with a flagstone front walk and stairs. The quotes ranged from $8,000-$18,000, which just wasn’t in the budget at this time in my life.

So I started pulling rocks out of piles in the woods and used the tractor to get them near the house. Some of these rocks were the foundation of the house I tore down to build mine, and others no doubt came from clearing the pastures way back when. All winter long I played around with the rocks, moving them many times until I got them arranged in a line I liked and that would almost double the depth of the bed on this front corner of the house.

I had really low expectations for this project, as I think rock-edged beds can be pretty stupid looking. And I know that a proper rock wall is dug into the ground for stability and protection against frost heave. But I made peace with the idea that this didn’t have to be a perfectly permanent solution, and I figured that if I used rocks that were as large as I could handle the installation would appear more like a rock wall and less like a line of rocks, which is exactly what it looked like below, during the head-scratching phase of this project.

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I’d been having trouble with runoff from the downspout in the above photo. Every time it rained, water ran down the bed and pooled near a maple tree in the yard, messing up its mulch ring and eroding the bank. So I figured that I’d take care of this issue by burying a drainage pipe under the bed I was expanding. It was easy to dig it in and hide its opening at the inside edge of the new wall. The bottom of the pipe is dotted with quarter-sized holes that let water escape as it flows away from the downspout.

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Then I went back to the woods for more rocks, some of which took every ounce of my strength and willpower to budge into the tractor bucket. I don’t remember how many trips it took, but there are 173 rocks in this installation and many are not insignificantly sized.

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I spent days fiddling with rocks, turning each this way and that, trying my best to fit them into a wall-like configuration. Of course this week coincided with our freak 90-degree April heat wave. Let’s just say I got tan and back to my summer weight during this heavy-labor boot camp!photo(21)Web

Up next, the wall continues…

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About Bonafide Farm

August 28th, 2009 § 32

Bonafide Farm is ten acres of creatures and critters and never-ending projects tucked in between two mountain ranges in beautiful Free Union, Virginia. It’s a laboratory for an evolving list of experiments, not the least of which is seeing if I can make something beautiful out of dirt and wood and my own hard work. Since 2009 I have demolished a house, built another one, built a chicken coop, had a guinea adventure, abandoned guineas for chickens, created a garden and orchard from a bare field, landscaped a construction site, and planted more than 50 trees. Most of which while working full-time off the farm. Oh, and I am 35 years old and running this farm on my own.

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I originally started this blog as a way to chronicle my house construction project. I also wanted to have a place to share my writing and photography, two areas in which I have received professional degrees and paychecks. But, as blogs tend to do, this has grown into much more than the story of building a house. It’s a memoir of building a way of life and a memory of the joy and sorrow lived here. Creating and maintaining this blog are the best decisions I made out of the myriad attendant to creating Bonafide Farm.

None of this adventure would be possible without a green tractor, the knowledge and encouragement of my parents, who are always willing to dive into the most onerous projects with me (see here, and here for a few of countless examples), and my English Shepherd, Tucker. Thanks for stopping by—I hope you enjoy your visit to Bonafide Farm.

Postscript: In September 2014 I left my farm to study horticulture with plantsmanship in Scotland at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. It has been a life dream of mine to study plants in the United Kingdom, no doubt fueled by my experiences on Bonafide Farm, and I will continue to write about my adventures in this new direction.

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