The Backyard Ecosystem

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(A lonely side garden, which held two dead bushes and some scrap when we moved in, is now home to dozens of pounds of pending potatoes.)

When I was on a recent trip, I left Phil what used to be referred to as a Honey-Do list (who comes up with these things)?, with the top item, starred and underlined: Hill Potatoes.

We’re growing a lot of potatoes this year. Every year we grow a few more, and this year we not only have some thriving ones I rescued, sprouting, from our pantry in the spring, but a couple of official varieties from Seed Savers Exchange. The one I’m most excited about is an all-purple number called Adirondack Blue. The four-year-old down the street who loves all things purple and sparkly was fascinated when we were planting it; she’s coming back to help dig them up in a couple of months.

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(See the touch of purple on the leaves of these Adirondack Blues?)

But hilling potatoes. If you haven’t planted potatoes, here’s the routine: You put a piece of potato, with a couple of eyes, in the ground fairly shallowly. The eyes start growing greenery that emerges from the ground, at which point you bury (hill) the greens to a couple of inches. You can do this several times to create a good mound that the underground potatoes can grow in. Later in the summer, two weeks after those greens have died, we’ll dig potatoes out of those hills. It’s all very exciting and treasure hunt-like.

So armed with his honey-do list, Phil went to our compost bin of aging kitchen scraps and our compost pile of aging garden waste and grabbed wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow load of dirt to hill the potatoes. Because I went overboard on potatoes this year, it took pretty much all of our usable composted dirt to finish the job, but since compost is renewable, starting from ground zero is really what you want.

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(It’s not the prettiest part of our yard, but it the compost corner does a lot of hard work.)

A few years ago, when we were just starting to garden, I had about lost it with the huge pile of leaves Phil had been piling for years in our back corner. One weekend I was planning to finally deal with the pile in the manner I learned when I was growing up: Bag them and leave them on the curb for the garbage man to take to the dump. I was also planning to go to Home Depot and get hundreds of pounds of plastic bagged dirt to fill the raised garden beds I’d just made. But when we dug into the leaf pile, we found that just below the surface of leaves was the most amazing, loamy soil. I filled the garden boxes with that soil and crossed two big tasks off the weekend to-do list.

While we live on just a small suburban lot of around a quarter acre, I’ve started noticing that the backyard is slowly becoming more self-sustaining with fewer trips to a garden shop to support my garden habit.

  • All of our kitchen scraps go into our compost bin, get turned periodically, and produce rich black dirt, teaming with earthworms.
  • Likewise, all of our yard waste (leaves, pulled plants) go into that leaf pile I raged against and slowly break down into great garden soil.

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(Garlic Jungle: Thriving in beds fortified with compost and covered in straw for the winter.)

  • The used duck bedding, rich with nitrogen (IF you know what I mean) gets either added to the leaf pile or used as a kill mulch to break down over the winter. To expand our garden, in the fall we’ve been laying down about 10 layers of newspaper and putting a thick layer of duck straw or composting leaves on top. This matter breaks down over the winter, and in the spring, the plot is ready to be planted. The expanding strip of garden next to our driveway began as turned-over sod, but the last couple of installments have been accomplished with kill mulch, and the mulch is MUCH easier, believe you me.

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(Well, hi, there, Dixie. Thanks for the kill mulch!)

  • When I want to give the ducks a treat, I grab a couple of pitchforks full of garden compost, which is always full of the insects and worms the girls love, and let them go to town. Between their snuffling for bugs and tromping the pile, the compost disappears in their enclosure, and the protein goes to making richer eggs for us in the fall when these girls start laying.
  • We’ve been trying to plant more butterfly- and bee-friendly plants like butterfly bushes, lavender, and garlic chives to keep the butterfly population safe and to bring more pollinators to our garden.

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(A butterfly bush about to bloom.)

  • Because I’m not yet ready to have beehives in our yard, we’ve been putting out bee houses, like this Mason bee house, to attract more bees. Mason bees don’t make honey, but are apparently 100 times the pollinators of honey bees; and word on the street is that they’re very gentle and don’t sting. I’ll let you know.

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(A new Mason bee house, waiting for occupants.)

When I was sitting on a plane recently, I stared out the window and started daydreaming about the day when we get farmland. And then I realized no one but me and Sylvia wants a farm, and the desires of a five-year-old can be fickle. But even if we never actually have a farm with tractors and horses and threatening calls from the mortgage company about our late payments, I figure we’re sort of building a mini-farm here, conveniently located a couple of blocks from Starbucks.

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4 thoughts on “The Backyard Ecosystem

  1. Your neighbor loves your suburban farm. I can’t tell you the absolutely JOY – and that is truly the emotion I experience – oh the JOY of ducks quacking!!! Thank you for that. I feel we should till up my back drive for more garden space….?

    • Oh, I’m so glad you haven’t gotten tired of the quacking this year. The new girls are a little more vocal than last year…. πŸ™‚ And yes! Your backyard would be the best place for growing salad greens. Just sayin’.

  2. Welcome back! Speaking of butterfly/bee attractors–have you considered Monarda? It’s easy to grow, flowers throughout the season, and can be found in many colors though it spreads rapidly if not controlled. (I once saw it described as “the zucchini of the flower garden.”)

    • No, I haven’t checked that out, but will. As someone who has tried, unsuccessfully, to grow zucchini for three years, it’s hard for me to understand the analogy. (Will Monarda thrive for a month, and then get killed by Monarda bores? πŸ™‚ ) Thanks so much for the idea!

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