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We are at the center of our field, hoe in hand, determined to start our first synergistic vegetable garden. But how do we proceed?
The moment in which we go to set up the garden is fundamental, since the organization of the space that is done on the first day will remain permanent. So it's worth it stop for a moment to think about how to arrange the raised flower beds (pallets) on which our horticultural plants will live.
Here a practical guide to take the first steps: from the design of the garden to the construction of the pallets and mulching.
Observe and plan
If you are determined to embark on the adventure of a synergistic vegetable garden, the first step is observe the place where you intend to make it. Observe the exposure to the sun and wind, the shaded areas, the spontaneous plants that have covered the soil that can tell a lot about him and do some research about it. Even if you still do not consider yourself expert enough to design the garden taking these variables into account, take note of them anyway, so that subsequent experiments will give you a way to learn from mistakes and also from successes.
The second step is to get a nice squared paper and a pencil e represent the available space in proportion, even in a very simple way, for example by drawing a rectangle (if your space is rectangular) in which each square corresponds to one meter or half a meter. If there are trees, hedges, buildings or shelters, make a note of them in the drawing and consider them as likely sources of shade. It may therefore be useful to evaluate the position of the cardinal points, taking into account that the shadow is projected particularly towards the north. Do research on the trees present, their development cycle and their interaction with the plants you intend to grow.
And now the fun part begins: the design. Observe the field traced in the notebook and begin to imagine how to place the pallets, the raised flower beds on which you will cultivate.
Don't be in a hurry: when you feel overwhelmed by impatience and the desire to get to work immediately, remind yourself that the synergistic vegetable garden is a permanent structure! You will design and "build" it only this first time and then, after having made the pallets, you will have a structure that you will have to take care of for years to come without major alterations.
Then count to ten, hold the pencil and the eraser firmly and make several attempts to optimize the use of space, drawing the pallets of the most appropriate shape, perhaps alternating spirals and curves with linear pallets, where necessary.
The measures of the pallets
For proper design, however, you will need to keep in mind some basic measures and proportions of the synergistic garden. Let's see them together.
- Width of the bed at the base: 120 cm
- Walkways on both sides of the pallet: at least 50 cm
By respecting these measures it will be possible to work on the pallet while staying on the paths, since cultivated land must never be walked on.
So if you are planning a sequence of linear pallets, consider that each of them will occupy about 220 cm in width, but since the central walkways are in common we can consider one pallet every 170 cm, to the sum of the 170 cm pallets add the 50 cm of the last walkway. The length is at your discretion.
If you are instead going to make a spiral to respect all the proportions without too many complications you should have a minimum width of 5 meters.
Preparation of the field
In the synergistic garden, plowing and turning the land are allowed only once: the first year, when the pallets are built. To begin with, it will be necessary soften the soil and clean it of spontaneous plants. Then with the help of the hoe and a lot of good will you will go to work and move the soil for the first and last time, removing all the roots well, by hand and with the help of the rake. These must be dried completely in the sun, before introducing them into any composter.
Speaking of cleaning the soil from spontaneous, try to identify edible varieties, such as dandelion and plantain, and leave a certain number of specimens lying around, perhaps in the border areas where they will not hinder the implementation of the project.
At this stage it is important observe the consistency and color of the soil, the most present spontaneous herbs and above all the small animals which hopefully populate the land: they are all fertility indicators of the vegetable garden.
For this stage of preparation it will be allowed, if you want and you think it appropriate, to enrich the soil with compost or manure (of which it will always be better to try to ascertain the origin).
Now that the soil is soft and nourished, we can finally move on to the construction phase of the pallets!
Delineation and construction of the pallets
As we have seen, the benches are raised cultivated flower beds built by accumulating the land of the place to form mounds, on whose plan and on whose inclined sides we will place vegetables, herbs, flowers, etc.
These mounds (which seen in section have the shape of a trapezoid or a triangle with the upper corner cut off), of course they must never be stepped on: in this way the soil will always be soft and airy, also thanks to the action of the roots of the plants that will be grown there. This will make it possible to avoid any subsequent plowing and working of the cultivated soil, so as to preserve its nutritional cycles and to have a permanent structure on which we will limit ourselves to alternating the crops.
Building the linear bed
After preparing the soil, the first step to simplify the work is to draw the pallet in the field, that is to have a trace to follow, which can also be delineated with lime: to trace the contours of a linear pallet I usually fixed in the ground, one in front of the other, two pegs joined by a cord of the chosen length for the pallet.
Always keep in mind the measures: as we have seen, the optimal dimensions of the pallets are 120 cm for the base, 30-40 cm in height, 40 cm for the inclined side, 60 cm for the top and 50 cm for the passages, i.e. the corridors between a pallet and the other.
To proceed with the construction of the pallet will be sufficient remove the earth from the passages and accumulate it in the center, building the aforementioned mounds of earth which, in the end, will be leveled on the top with the help of a rake and hands.
How to build a spiral bed
If building linear pallets is really intuitive, also building the spiral pallet is not difficult, but it requires minimal care in drawing it on the ground so that it has a harmonious and regular shape.
For outline the spiral, my advice is to proceed using them pegs and lanyard (much longer this time), which, however, will be used as if they were a compass: fix a stake in the ground, in the center, and use the other to draw concentric circles of the width of the pallets and walkways.
Once you have traced the concentric circles that outline the pallet, choose some points to join them, in order to obtain the desired shape, i.e. a single concentric snake. Once you have a satisfactory spiral trace, you can proceed to construction taking the earth from the passages and accumulating it on the nascent pallet.
Remember to always create openings, interrupting the snake approximately every 5 meters, to allow you to access the various points of the spiral more easily without having to slip into a labyrinth each time.
Mulch: what it is and what it is used for
After building the pallet, we can devote ourselves to another typical practice of the synergistic garden: mulching. It's about a ground cover made with natural materials, usually dry organic material, which in the synergistic garden will be distributed both on the benches and in the walkways.
This ancient good practice protects the soil from frosts and sudden changes in temperature, from washout in case of heavy rain, from drying out due to the effect of the sun, keeping the soil moist for longer and thus allowing to optimize the use of the most precious resources: the water. It also facilitates the spread of earthworms and microorganisms in the surface layer of the soil, slows the growth of spontaneous plants and, once decomposed, naturally nourishes the garden.
Before mulching, it may be worthwhile to set up a drip irrigation system on the pallet.
Usually a synergistic garden is mulched with straw, possibly biological or in any case of safe origin, which must be copiously distributed. Although straw is the most adopted and probably the most functional solution, a permacultural approach would suggest looking around and evaluating the use of dry organic material that may be present on site, such as leaves, plant residues of other plants (without seeds), bark, etc. However, do your research before using any materials on site. For example, the use of eucalyptus and coniferous leaves is strongly discouraged (except in particular conditions) and also chestnut, walnut, oak and oak leaves should always be used in moderate quantities and together with other materials.
Remember that it is important to cover with mulch even the steps, for which it is sometimes used the packing carton (strictly neutral, not bleached or colored), to prevent the pallets from losing moisture from the sides, to slow down the growth of spontaneous plants in the walkways and also not to compromise our shoes when it rains!
In any case, once the synergistic vegetable garden is launched, I guarantee that in the summer you will have a fair amount of dry organic material: the removal of spontaneous grasses that develop and risk suffocating the cultivated plants, in fact, also guarantees the availability of mulch. Be careful though: avoid the distribution in the garden of spontaneous plants still attached to their roots and flowering plants rich in seeds.