Interest in small-scale gardening is booming. According to the National Gardening Association, more than one third of American households now grow at least some of their own food. But with so many choices of seeds and plants and books on how to grow them, the big question, for many, is where to start?
"Landscaping With Water: A Permaculture Exploration" was presented Saturday morning by Paonia resident Ryan Strand. The two-hour class is a collaboration between the Elsewhere Community Garden and The Learning Council, a North Fork organization "supporting life-long learning and education as a resource for everyone."
Permaculture was derived in the 1970s in Australia as a holistic approach to landscape design and human culture. Strand said he became interested in the concept while studying sustainable agriculture in the Pacific Northwest. After moving to Paonia about four years ago, he put the concept into practice by creating the Paonia Community Garden.
The small urban garden located in the alleyway between the 200 blocks of Grand and Main is an oasis in the downtown core. Strand created it as an educational resource. But when he first dug in, the ground was in "utter disrepair" and contaminated with nails, glass shards and other trash, and oil from a nearby garage once operating on the site and from water flowing from the alley and nearby parking lot.
Today it's covered in fruits and vegetables, herbs, cover crops, and pollinator-attracting flowers.
It's also still a work in progress, said Strand. Getting things to grow in the poor soil presents problems common to urban gardeners, and that's where much of the educational component comes in. As with any garden, water is the most important and most limiting factor to consider. Strand urges students to consider how to make the most of every drop. The recent legalization by Colorado of residential rain barrels helps, but there are limits to how much water can be stored. In addition, Delta County is located in a semi-arid region. According to U.S. climate data, the North Fork area averages about 15 inches of precipitation annually, and Delta averages about 10 inches.
The class focused on eight principles, including beginning at the high point of the area and working downhill, planning for water overflow and how to use, and maximizing living and organic groundcover to help the soil retain moisture and nutrients.
He also urges new gardeners to start small. While the goal is to create a big garden, it's better to start small, experience success, and add to the garden over time. That also allows the gardener to assess each addition. "If it's not working right, it's not a good idea," he said.
One such section in the community garden was planted early on, and at a high point in the garden, but has struggled. Strand called it a perfect storm of all that can go wrong in a garden. While the rest of the crops look healthy, the plants in this section look weary. A plum tree has been slow to grow and bears little fruit, and the herbs wilt in the morning sun. It's struggling due to poor soil quality, dries out quickly due to a lack of shade and other factors.
To help capture rain water, students dug a shallow trench on the uphill side of the patch, and built a berm by placing logs around the bed. Compost is then packed around the logs to help retain water and help the logs break down, providing nitrogen to plant roots for years to come. The logs are also inoculated with oyster mushroom spores, which provide beneficial microorganisms and help absorb the oil from the soil and runoff from the alleyway.
As the vegetation gets healthy again, it will provide more shade to help the soil retain water.
The community garden is open to the public. Work parties are held every Saturday morning, and there's always a learning component, said Strand. After the work is done, participants are welcome to the harvest.