This year hasn’t been one of favorable weather, as far as gardening is concerned, with warm weather slow in coming in the spring. Now, here in Virginia, we’ve had a wet summer. The water table tends to be high at our place. That means that in the low spots, there will be standing water when we have much rain.
My garden slopes to the northwest corner. The west side of the garden is the wettest in this kind of weather, particularly in that northwest corner. I decided to check just how much the drop was on the north side of my garden from east to west. I ran a string from one side to the other, using a level to align it correctly. The string was 12” above ground on the east side and 24” above ground on the west side—a 12” drop! The bed in that corner is good in the drier years, but marginal at best at other times. I’ve ignored it for far too long and have decided that I should address this problem this year.
Before I tell you what I’m going to be doing with the bed in that low corner, I want to tell you what I’ve already done in my garden to help with such issues. Although we have too much rain right now, more often, the problem is too little rain. The best place to store water in your garden is in the soil. Double digging the beds when you establish your garden will open the soil and give water a place to be. Of course, if your garden is in the low spot of your yard and you double dig your beds, you might have to dig a trench around your garden to route the extra water somewhere else to hold it for awhile in times of heavy rainfall. Double digging is a job for when the soil is dry, not something you would be doing if you currently have standing water. I know some of my readers are in drought prone areas and find it hard to imagine too much water. If that is you, kindly forward this post to folks you know in wetter areas.
Having permanent beds and permanent paths is a help. The beds are double dug to start and then not walked on. Your feet are confined to the paths, which can be mulched. Not wanting to find mulch materials for my paths, I’ve gone to growing white clover in them. When I formed my beds I dug out the1½ ft. wide paths between them and put that soil onto the garden beds. It gives the impression of raised beds without using any materials to frame them. You can see the benefit of that in the first photo. Extra rainwater can drain from the beds and slowly seep into the soil in those paths. The cucumber plants you see in that picture did fine, once the weather evened out. When that photo was taken we had had 6.25” of rain in seven days.
Organic matter helps hold nutrients in reserve for your crops, otherwise, too much water can wash them away. You can build organic matter in your beds by growing cover crops and by adding compost. I have cover crops in my rotations and regularly add compost to my beds. If you are not familiar with gardens with permanent beds and permanent paths, compost, and cover crops, you might want to watch my DVD Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden. You can see a preview of it here. Having enough cover crops in your rotation to use them as compost material enables you to avoid bringing in compost materials that might be harmful to your garden. Find out more about that issue in my post Killer Compost.
If you’ve done all of the above and your garden, or places in it, are still too wet, use this as an opportunity to explore new things. Take a good look at what is going on. It might be that you are still building your soil and things will get better. However, if you know this is a recurring problem, reconsider what you’ve been doing. You could change the crops you grow there. In 2004 I grew rice in my waterlogged corner and was successful with a harvest of 8 pounds per 100 sq. ft. However, I learned that rice needs to be hulled and I never got around to doing that. Maybe I should try that again. I could have a rotation that includes rice in several beds in that area, separate from the rest of the garden rotation.
Knowing that is the wet corner, I have basket willow and hazelnut (filbert) trees planted in that area of the garden. Take time to research plants that do well in wetlands or rain gardens. In my smaller garden I was happy to acquire some Siberian irises for the wet area when a friend was giving some away. During one year of heavy rainfall, cattails showed up uninvited in a wet area. These things are great for my borders, and I believe having a wetlands is good for any ecosystem, however, I would really like to get some vegetable production out of that garden bed in the northwest corner of my garden that is 12” lower than the other side of the garden.
I am considering building the height of the bed with hugelkultur. Hugelkultur is basically a compost pile with a thick base of wood, sequestering carbon in the soil for the long term. Sepp Holzer promotes this technique in his book Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture: A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening. I wouldn’t want to use wood big enough to burn in our wood stove, but we have some brush piles around here—a result of some much needed pruning of our bushes and trees. I could move that brush to the low bed, adding garden weeds and other green material as I go along. Some soil will most likely go into the building, but most of the soil will be on the top layer. Hopefully, this summer or fall we’ll be digging out the area where the garden washing station is and putting down pavers. I’m not in a hurry to do this work (on the garden bed or the pavers), so whenever (and if) it happens, the soil will go to the brush pile/compost pile that is on the low bed. I already build compost piles on some of my beds with the finished compost being distributed each season. What goes into a hugelkultur bed stays there. I would have to build the pile much taller than I want the finished height of the bed to be. Just as a compost pile is reduced to a lower level in the process, this bed would become shorter, also.