Traditional raised beds going in. This was on a rental property. Although the back was mostly weeds, and I had permission to grow a garden, the landlord was furious.
There are many, many approaches to gardening. I recommended reading about all of them, just for fun, but also because you might find something to try. I talk more about books and such on the last pages of this section; here I'm just stating some of the major "gardening tactics" and why they are problematic in the West.
Ruth Stout: The No-Dig Dutchess
Ruth Stout was to gardening what Julia Child was to cooking. A down-home woman of no-nonsense facts, her books are lively and wonderful. Ruth's basic strategy was to throw down about a foot of hay on her beds, scape it away to dump in transplants and never dig the soil. She lived into her nineties and grew all her veggies and flowers with this technique. She incorporated almost everything into her mulches. The downside of Ruth's technique for much of the West is that it's just too dry to rot down hay mulches and it's too windy. Even pebble mulches are a problem in the west. Bark blows away, pebbles get washed away in uneven rainstorms, everything else blows to Kansas. Although mulches are an excellent idea for the West, given Ruth never had to water, they have to be thought through pretty carefully.
Many people put chicken wire on top of mulches and bark to keep them from blowing away. This still doesn't solve the problem of the fact that three inches of mulch, even a foot is not going to get wet enough in most of the West to rot. Mulch may rot in winter, but it also cools the soil, a definite no-no in cold climates. Mulch is hard to do on raised beds. Mulch may be great for desert climates, but again, it doesn't rot and it blows.
This doesn't mean that Ruth's not worth reading, not at all. What you have to do is get a little creative. In the West, soil is precious. Hide it. Hide your mulch and soil underneath a layer of rocks or gravel. Yes, this will get into the beds and be a mess, but you can also mulch for a while under black plastic and over drip irrigation, which will both heat the mulch to rot and keep it wet. Then cut holes in the plastic to plant out seedlings. Other things to use instead of black plastic are garden fabric, wood, even regular fabric if you want to keep the soil cool instead of warm it up. Most of the time, Western gardens need a bit of man-made help.
The French Method - Raised Beds and Double Digging
Most of the "new organic" gardeners recommend the French raised bed method, popularized by the educator and creator of the Waldorf Method, Rudolph Steiner, an Austrian. John Jeavons, pictured here, wrote a very popular book: How to Grow More Vegetables than You Ever Thought Possible which further popularized this method of growing. There is little wrong with it. The beds are warmed up fast in the spring, you plant closer together because your soil is healthier, you incorporate compost and loosen the soil to a depth of two to three feet down. I followed this method for many years, despite the problems. First, you need to be aware that Jeavons grows in California. He may have had clay when he began to grow, but he says right away in his book that you can't expect high yields until your soil is healthier. He's one of the only people who actually tells in his writings how long stuff will be in the ground, what kinds of yields to expect and what you need to eat to survive.
Having said all that, why don't I practice his method? Many reasons. I'm not a big person. Although I like digging, I've found with most Western soil, that, unless you're gardening in an established garden, the soil is very toxic with salt, very alkaline and it's much better to layer on top of the soil rather than try to break up hard-pan and adobe. Sand is as much a problem and is so attractive to fire ants that you have to do more than incorporate a bit of compost into the soil to deter them. I would layer three feet on TOP of the ground before I would dig three feet down into much of the West's soil.
There are many books talking about sheet composting and layering, often called "Lasagna Gardening." The problem is, of course, finding enough material to go into those layers. Many people have leaf litter, much of the West does not. Finding organic material to go into a pile is often more difficult for Westerners than anyone might suspect. My solution is this. If you're planning to spend any money at all, spend it on a load of compost from a landscape guy. You can get around everything else but soil. Even if the topsoil or compost is full of weed seeds, that's better than what you may have out there, baking in the sun. Getting it delivered is not as expensive as you might think. It's better than wasting money on fancy beds or additives or shovels and all the work you might do to try to make that adobe into soil. One of the weird disconnects about the West, is that often we don't have soil. Soil is that dark, friable stuff that plants grow in. Like you see in the supermarket in bags. We have dust and clay and rock--not much soil. It comes in all colors--except dark brown! I always thought bagged soil was fake until I happened to once get a "real" garden with "real" soil. It was an eye-opener after years and years of red clay, gray clay, yellow clay, gray sand or green clay. "Wow, this is...like...real soil." Westerners, gotta love 'em.
Growing in the Open
The easy way to go is to buy a load of compost and some cardboard, lay the cardboard down, then put down two feet of compost or topsoil and go. You can make beds or not, depending on what you want to do, but permanent beds keep you from compacting that expensive soil. You'll think more of it for having paid for it. DON'T walk on it. Get pea gravel to walk on. You can build beds out of anything handy or just do them the Jeavons way, slope in the sides a bit and plant and hope the sides don't cave in before the plants can hold onto that soil. I recommend buring "leaky pipe," a porous hose that is much, much better than most drip irrigation. It won't hold up to sun, so bury it. If you have extremely hard water you may have to replace it more often, say every five years rather than every ten.
Here are problems that you might want to consider before starting a garden in the open:
- How rural are you? What kinds of critters are around you? How many deer?
- How dry is it where you are? Do you feel dry and wrinkled all the time?
- How many storms do you get? Hail? Snow in summer? Wind?
- How much wind to you get? Constant? Gusty? Is it dry wind?
Most people in really bad climates turn to green houses. This is certainly an option if you have the money. Even cheaply, you can build a pit greenhouse given the strength to dig, your own property or landlord's permission, and a few dollars for glass or plastic and framing materials. However, if you are in a rental or not able to invest the money, you can do one of two things. You can cold frame, which works pretty well, or you can do a tipi garden. The deciding factors in cold framing are: sunlight, wind and snow. If you have heavy snows, heavy wind, or intense sunlight, consider tipi gardening.
Here's my stick drawing of good ol' Western Joe Organic Backyard Farmer and a tipi. Before you admire my drawing skills too much, Joe here is just to show you the size of a tipi. Basically, a tipi is a shape that has stood the test of time for wind and snow, thanks to our Lakotah teachers. The size of a tipi has to be no larger than is comfortable for you to reach into. If you cannot easily reach into the center of the tipi, you'll have to make it smaller around. Another alternative is to make a wide bed and stick the tipis into it, but the trick is that they can't be four-sided or three-sided. A tipi has to have five poles at the least. This is because of the wind. If you always get wind from one side, you can make a boat shape, but this is still less sturdy than a tipi because the wind will still catch one side and pull your creation over. I grew my beans and squash on four-poled "tipis" in Florida in raised beds and the monsoon winds just pushed them right over.
Which brings us to the rocks. Most people in the West grow rocks. So use rocks. It's also very hard to dig into the "soil" in the West, so often I just build up a base with rocks and fill it with compost and real soil. Let the rocks anchor your tipi poles. If you can get them into the ground, great, if not, either build a base of of strips or more poles and lash your tipi poles to a hexagon or pentagon (or whatever-gon) and then anchor it. But beware, without something to REALLY anchor it, it's a wind tease. If you live in a wooded area, anchor your tipi onto a two-tall log pentagon. Whatever works, whatever you have at hand.
Lashing was a tough one for me. I used twine because it thought, "how nice, it's biodegradeable." Whoops. Our nice Western UV does in twine pretty quickly. I've never had twine hold up for an entire growing season. I'm against plastic rope, but I'm always swimming in twist-ties, especially the nice long ones that they wrap around organic produce in the store. Wire or twist-ties are your friends. Wire is reuseable, often will not rust, and can hold up to the sun and elements. I don't use wire on plants because it'll burn them, but go ahead and wire your poles together before you use twine.
Here is a cross-section of two tipi pits. I haven't quite got the poles right, but I wanted to show you the simplicity of a pit versus a bed for a dry climate. In the desert, people grow in pits. In Florida, growing in sand, watering was a joke, so I cut "rivers" down the center of my raised beds and flooded the beds. The water stayed near the plant roots long enough to do some good. Of course, you can use Leaky Pipe in beds or even in the pits, but here is a cheapy solution that I've used often.
If you have access to plastic bottles that people buy coke or booze in, get some. The longer, narrower ones are good, but they have to be large enough, a liter or so. I cut off the bottom of the bottle, but some people leave the bottle in tact and use those expensive, fancy doo-dads to stick into the mouth of the bottle for vacation watering. The proplem with them is that you really need an air hole for the water to go down into the soil. What also works is to leave the cap on the bottle and puncture some holes in the sides. I cut the bottoms off the bottles so I can fill the bottles. Otherwise, you have to make some hole for the hose, or pull the bottle out every time you need to fill it. That seems kind of stupid. But if you have clay and want to water while you're on vacation, you can fill the bottles, leave the caps off or get those fancy cap thingies and then jamb them upside down into the ground next to your plants and hope they don't fall over.
A note about jars of water and "Wall o' Water" and plastic or glass with water. Don't put it near your plants. The sunlight will shine through the water and sunburn your plants. I thought "Wall o' Water" was a cool idea, but again, for the East. The sun out here will heat that water up so hot and sunburn your plants. If you fill a coldframe with jugs of water, keep the jugs away from the plants. But this jug is buried. The trick also here is to slightly slope your raised pit down to the bottle of water. Put your water bottle in the soil high enough so the soil doesn't just fall into the water.
Here is a little picture of some tipis from the top. Note that you can use different numbers of poles. I've got them a little too close here, you should have room to walk between them. However, I show you this picture to show you that you can place them fairly close and save a great deal of space if you think that a whole lot of cirles are going to take up way more space than a nice long bed.
I'm pretty tall, with long arms, so I would make my tipis about five feet in diameter. Using a little geometry (oh, no, not math!) which would be pi times my radius squared, or 2.5 times 2.5 times 3.14 or 19.6 feet squared. My little center bottle is about six by six inches, so let's say that I have about 19 square feet of growing space here. So, for 2000 feet of space per person, I need quite a few tipis. 210 tipis? Well, that's a bit crazy, but the tipis are for plants that need protection. There are many, many plants that do well outside without this much help. A wall of tipis will defect the wind and you can plant some circles (or rows or beds) in their lee. Also take into consideration that if you grow a normal sized garden of about 500 square feet, you would need 26 tipis. That still sounds like a lot, but a greenhouse with that much growing space would have to be 15 feet by 50 feet. Look up greenhouses on the web and the normal one for a few thousand is about 15 by 10 or smaller. That's why it's technologically heavy to grow in the West and why people don't do it. However, if you get about $200 a month in groceries out of your 26 tipis, all year 'round, that's $2,400 a year in savings for a bunch of poles and rocks and empty bottles. The real cost is still that nice soil.
In an old garden on your own property, you should take up permaculture. Eventually, you will have that windbreak that everyone talks about in the books. You would also grow hardy plants, but you still might like some tipis for melons, squash, tomatoes and other tender goodies.
Covering the tipi is important. There are many options. If you live where it is cold, cold, cold, and no summer is frost-free, plastic is an option, but not the best. The best might be a gardening cloth, but it usually runs about 25 cents a yard. You could cover one tipi for about $4 if the base of your tipi is five feet wide (5 times 3.14 equals roughly 16 feet circumference.) You can also use that netting at the fabric store that goes into little girls' ballet skirts or cheese cloth which is a open-weave muslin that won't take the UV, but is also very inexpensive. I'm against plastic for two reasons: one is that it doesn't take the wind and sun very well. The wind will tear it to shreds. This is because it becomes a wind barier. Why you want cloth is for a wind break, not barrier. The cloth will also cut a little bit of the power of the sun without heating up the plants too much. Good garden "blankets" will offer frost protection down to 24 degrees, which gives you a huge advantage in growing zones 4 and lower. The garden cloth holds up several seasons and is usually UV resistant. If you do use plastic, leave a vent at the top of the tipi. You don't want to grow brassicas in the winter at 90 to 100 degrees inside that tipi. Think of how warm your car gets or your sunroom gets in the winter with the sun shining into the room. Plants will be miserable with that much cold and hot variation, especially in the marginal months of March, April May and September and October when the sun is still high enough to cook stuff all day.
You must also make sure that you can open and access your tipi from two sides (remember the arm reach?) It will be easier to mount your fabric up down, rather than around or side to side. Put one sheet of fabric down the north side of the tipi (trim the top if you have to) and one side down the south, and access panels on the east and west out of the remaining pieces. You may have to work a little bit to get it right, so that you can stick your head in there and water and harvest! your plants.
This picture will show you the reason for the tipi. Plants get tall, even in the frigid West. What I find ridiculous about cold frames is that you can't get the plants large enough before they hit the top of the frame. They're all right for growing greens, but tomatoes and broccoli? Think again. If you live in a climate that gets much milder in the summer, you can take off your fabric about May-ish and let the plants grow on the tipi as if on a trellis. Here is a side-view of how to place your plant posts and where to grow your tall plants. Put the poles in before you cover the tipi--it's easier. Here I've shown a bit of the roots growing down into the soil.
You will find that this little bit of help for your plants will suddenly give you that advantage that you have to have in our cold/hot, dry climate. Now the advantage of growing in this pit may not seem obvious to you. But you must consider your resources. Number one is water. If you water in the center of this tipi, you can put your water hogging plants near to the water supply and the plants that are less needy around the edge. The other is humidity. We don't live in a humid climate, with few exceptions. The plants just don't need the kind of spacing that they need in wet climates. People talk about air circulation in gardening books. Fahgedabowdit. That's for Easterners and people who live through winters on the West Coast. Your plants may need water, but more than that, they need humidity. The larger the leaf, the more transpiration that plant enjoys. Great if the plant needs too cool off. Bad if it's in a dry climate where needles and waxy leaves prevail. Your plants also want to grow together. They don't want to be spaced apart in wide rows where they get plenty of air. You want to cluster your plants so that you can give them a punch of water and nutrients in the middle of their clump and not over-fertilize or water the plants that don't need it. Growing in pits or on circles helps with this gardening style.
Planning Your Garden
You must understand and learn something about plant combining to use your pits wisely. Look at this combination. Basil has to have it warm and wet. It grew wild through the summers in Florida when everything else rotted. Tomatoes like shaded, damp feet, but not too much nitrogen or they'll get to be huge bushes without fruit. They also may need to be staked. I have here some plants on the outside of the circle that will take it colder and more dry, parsley and burdock, both of them root crops. When I can, I like to grow a "living mulch" or an understory of a perennial that is not very tall. In the summer the bees like it (when you can uncover your tipi in the daytime) and it helps with other pests like aphids and ants and such to grow the mint family.
In this combination, the tomatoes are on two sides on either sides of the doors. Burdock and parsley are short until they flower and you can reach over them. Tomatoes like about two square feet of room. If your tipi is 4 feet across, plant one plant on each side. If your tipi is larger, say 5-1/2 feet, you can plant two in the same hole, clump them. But also keep in mind that tomatoes can get huge and will sprout at the bottom so one plant can become a total monster. If you're used to tiny little Western tomato plants, you should realize that, under the right conditions, tomatoes can take over a tipi, easy. But they like being pruned. Moral: know your plants.
In combination two here, you may wonder why the lettuce and celery are in the center. Answer: they are swamp plants, both of them. They like it cool, but they like more water than a lawn, about 5 inches a week. Squash needs a lot of nutrients but a little less water, especially melons. Nasturtiums and marigolds do not like too many nutrients. But lettuce and celery have to be grown fast and in straight compost, like squash. So, grow your squash up, not out. You don't have room to grow it out. It'll take over. But for winter squash, pumpkins and melons, you have to support the squash. If you have nylons, that's the best. Just slip the nylon under the fruit like a sling. Netting also works. But support the squash and tie it to a hook in your tipi. This whole affair gets very heavy and I recommend the hex tipi or the seven-pole tipi for squash. You can also group your squash into two clumps rather than three. There are many veggie shortcuts, spread out on these pages, and the encyclopedia tells it all, but the rule with squash is pretty straightforward.
Many veggies will cross pollinate. Some are pollinated by wind, some by insects. Most veggies don't depend on pollination to make delicious fruit. Sometimes, if bean cross, the beans are a big strange. Many times when squash cross pollinate, the squash is off. Here is a good lesson. Grow only one kind of squash per tipi. If you want only one or two plants of squash, grow a cucumber on the other side, or a melon, or even something entirely different, like a tomato. When the squashes bloom, you will see two kinds of blooms. One has a tiny squash at the base and those blooms are nearer to the center of the plant. That's the female squash that produces the fruit. The male flowers don't have a bulge at the base. The males usually bloom first. When you see a female flower in bloom, pick two of your male flowers, preferably from another plant of the same variety. Strip off the flowers (you can use it in a fritter or salad) and you're left with a head of pollen. Wipe those heads on the female flower head which is shaped differently than the male, like a compound head. Then tie the petals of the female to keep the bees out of it. The flower will fall off, but you will have a winter squash that will stay true to form and breed true.
Summer squash is just baby winter squash. Some were bred to be good summer squash and awful winter squash, but summer squash like zucchini must be pollinated and then left to mature to give you seeds. Once a squash matures, the plant usually stops producing squash. Most winter squash will only give you two, maybe three squashes per vine. Did you know that many, many winter squashes are delicious when they are tiny? Try blue or pink banana squash as a baby squash and then let some of them get big for winter. Yummy! I use vining squashes to tie up, even zucchini. The best zucchini, in my opinion, is trombocino, because the texture is firm and juicy, never dry or mealy. Pick all summer squash the size of your finger. They are much better tasting that way and you'll never be swamped in squash.
Here is another tender/tropical plant combination. In this combination, I have a permanent understory of clover, Dutch White works well--it's short and the bees love it. (In the daytime, open up your tipis for the bees if it's not too cold.) Okra and sesame are both tall plants. If you've never grown sesame, it's a real treat. The leaves are a bit furry, but they can be chopped up into a salad. They are a bit on the bitter side. Okra is related to hibiscus, cotton and hollyhocks. There are many wild alternatives, but okra is another plant that is beautiful and delicious if it is eaten very, very small. I hate slimy food, but my mother, who is from the South, loved okra and stewed tomatoes. Ugh! It took me a long time to brave okra again, but I like it raw, as large as your thumb or smaller and sliced very thin. Beautiful in salad, especially the red okra. The flowers are edible and the small leaves. Peppers like it drier than okra, sesame can take it dry or wet, but bell peppers need afternoon shade in the West or they'll get sunscald and taste bad and rot. Hot peppers will only get hot if they grow hot. In the South, they're fireballs and perennial. Hot peppers make wonderful houseplants. For the north, I recommend that you try the "cheese" peppers or pimentos. They have thick walls, are very sweet and make up in numbers of fruits what they lack in size. Bite sized peppers. We like them because you just use one and don't have part of a pepper rotting in the fridge. They also have more a pepper taste.
Your tipis are for plants that can't take your climate. I'm for growing stuff that will take your climate, but I'm not for cutting options just because I don't want the bother. Most season extender ideas are good in theory and don't work very well in practice. I've lost so many seedlings to early or late trial and error, but I've learned quite a bit as well. In Colorado, I grew ten different kinds of "winter" lettuce and two made it through the entire winter to give me spring greens. You will find, once you get detoxed, that you will crave different foods at different times of the year. I think my seasons are skewed. I crave fruit in May and June and greens in January. With tipis in the yard, I can cater to my cravings and not have to buy out of season stuff at the store.
I'm only showing you one more combo, because I think you can start to get the idea of the tipi as a little garden in your garden. This combo is a late fall or over-wintering combination. Although over-wintering broccoli is a tough plant, it's not tough enough to survive a killing frost like brussels sprouts or winter leeks. Lentils are a hot-weather veggie that needs a long season. If you grow them in a tipi, you can grow them into the fall and ripen the seeds before the frost hits. Fall peas are as good as spring peas. Same with carrots. In many areas, fall carrots are hit with carrot fly. Fall peas are not as hardy as spring peas. So growing in a tipi makes sense for both these fall/winter veggies.
Note that the carrots and onions are in the center of the tipi. This is one of the reasons people fail with these veggies. They don't like to have water one week and drought the next. They like moderate water, but regular water so that their growth is not checked. Carrots and onions also do not like a lot of nitrogen, but broccoli does, so alter your pit a bit to give more moisture to the carrots and more nitrogen to the broccoli. In the pages on composting, I tell you how to do this. You should also note that most books will have you rotate your crops. Legumes one season, brassicas the next, roots after that. This is good sense, but in a tiny garden, it's better to mix them together. Much of gardening know-how comes from farming. Farmers like to grow a big long row of one kind of crop. In a tipi garden, you just don't have the kinds of problems with mono-cropping and soil depletion that farmers have. Read those books with half a brain on!
I'll talk more about pit composting and sheet composting on the next page (see top) and then on to watering and come climate information that makes more sense than most of what you see in gardening books. The last advantage of tipi gardening that I will mention is compared to greenhousing. Much of the problem in a greenhouse is with the soil. People have come up with green houses on rollers to replenish the soil after a few seasons. It's very easy to stip your tipis of their cloth and use them out in the open for a few seasons. I used to be enamored of greenhouses. I still am a bit, but I'm thinking that, unless they are part of your house, they are a bit over-rated for most people. Ultimately, it would be nice to incorporate an atrium into a house. You can read about this in another wonderful book called Solviva by Anna Edey. This book also has some of the best information on green, composting toilets that I've ever read.
The important part about gardening, is to get started. Start small. You won't be surviving out of your yard in an emergency, but you are on your way with any sized garden. Little by little. One year you have a couple of tomatoes and, like me, in ten you have 4,000 square feet of all the food you'd ever need!