The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Small-scale chinampas

Small-scale chinampas

Baby snapping turtleAs one of our readers commented, my terraforming project created tiny chinampas.  All winter, the rye I sowed on the raised parts of the beds thrived despite the soggy aisles, and come spring, wildlife moved into the little ponds between the beds.  I found two baby snapping turtles hanging out in the shallow water this weekend, and plenty of tadpoles are escaping their eggs to join in the fun.

As long-time readers will realize, we struggle to deal with the wet ground in certain parts of our garden, so seeing how well these little chinampas do has been an eye-opening experience.  I decided to go ahead and dig the back garden into similar raised beds to ensure that this year's tomatoes don't suffer from wet feet.

Building a raised bed

You'll know if your soil is wet enough to need small-scale chinampas because rushes and sedges will be growing in the mown aisles along with grass.  To confirm that the groundwater is too high for the soil to be planted into as-is, dig around a clump of earth, then grab the grass on top as if lifting the clump up by its hair.  If the soil is well-drained, the whole clump will stay together since roots go straight down into the subsoil.  If the soil is waterlogged, the top will peel off since the plant roots stayed in the inch or two of soil above the water.

Raking a bed flat

I dug one long chinampa Monday, which is about all my wrists can take before they start to complain.  I mostly tried to place the sod grass-side down so it will rot quickly, but I wasn't all that particular about it, knowing that I can always lay down some cardboard over top before transplanting in my tomato sets.

Of course, the down-side of turning the garden into chinampas is that I may be walking through an inch or two of water in the aisles if the summer is wet.  But better my feet get wet than my tomatoes complain!  Plus, if the aisles turn into ponds, they won't have to be mowed, right?

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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I'm wondering, rather than worrying about wet aisles, what if you filled them with wood chips and punky wood? My thought is that the wood will soak up the moisture and break down quickly. Once they've decomposed enough, you could mulch the beds with it and refill - your own little soil manufacturing plant.
Comment by Daniel Tue Apr 15 08:46:57 2014
I was going to ask if you had uncovered your fig tree yet, but the photo in today's post answers that question. I guess it's a good thing too with the weather coming over the next couple of days.
Comment by Brian Tue Apr 15 09:15:23 2014
I'm wondering if your tomatoes will want to be near a ditch? But, also, how the early farmers in Latin America best raised tomatoes?good you ahve enough bats, for mosquito control! The photos of the farmer with the corn, near his water looked sort of like Mark, and I gasped, at the nearness of the water, thinking it was of your place, and what you would do if water ever gets that close!
Comment by adrianne Tue Apr 15 10:29:53 2014
Wouldn't a wet environment around the tomatoes produce more splashing in case of rain, possibly producing more tomato blight?
Comment by Roland_Smith Tue Apr 15 13:19:13 2014

Daniel --- I did put punky wood in the swales in the forest pasture, but that's because I won't be walking there much. I want to be able to walk and run a wheelbarrow through these aisles, frequently, so nothing bulky can go there. If I had spare wood chips, they would be perfect, but I never even have enough of those to mulch the fruit trees, let alone "waste" in aisles.... :-)

Brian --- I'm probably going to wait until our frost-free date to uncover our figs. Last year, I uncovered them earlier, they leafed out, and then they got nipped....

Mom --- Glad you enjoyed it! I don't know enough about whether tomatoes were a big part of their gardens at that time to answer your question, unfortunately.

Roland --- It's always a tradeoff with blight around here. My best results have come from putting plants in the sunniest part of the yard so anything that splashes up dries quickly. Of course, if I had a spot that was sunny and had well-drained soil, that would be even better, but the choices are wet soil and sun or dry soil and shade, so I chose the former. :-)

Comment by anna Tue Apr 15 13:28:54 2014

If wet aisles do become a problem, instead of all the work involved with schleppin' around wood chips, etc, just wear galoshes.

To put drainage problems in perspective, I've read that American farm production would be increased by 25% if all farmers made complete & proper use of drain tiles!

Comment by doc Tue Apr 15 16:26:20 2014

Anna, what is the difference (guess I cold have wiki'd it) between this fancy 9 lettered "chinampas" and a good 'ol fashioned "Ditch" (five letters)?

I can recall my youth, I could have told my dad I "put the car in a chinampas" and maybe he would have been less mad than he was as I put my car in the "ditch" that winter night I went out despite his advisement. :)

Comment by Eric Tue Apr 15 19:00:21 2014
Eric --- A chinampa is a raised growing area in swampy ground with ditches around it. It's really more about the growing area than about the ditches --- you just need the ditches to make the growing area work. (If you follow the link in the post, you'll read much more about it.)
Comment by anna Tue Apr 15 20:08:04 2014
Although I don't live near swampland Spring storms tend to flood lower garden area . I used this technique to create raised beds. The ditch (on both sides of beds) will be filled with shredded limbs from power lines. Hopefully the beds will drain quicker while wood chunks store the excess for later use. Best of both worlds; isn't permaculture great.
Comment by Tom Wed Apr 16 21:27:12 2014

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