New Native Nation Swampy Garden


Stuck in someone else's frames? break free!

Swampy Garden
By: Shelley Garrett Smith

Many years ago we moved from the city to a rented duplex with a large but low-lying yard backed against a forest. To two country people this was nearly paradise after city living and inevitably we wanted a garden. When we asked permission from the landlord, a Simon Legree type, he said, "Sure, as long as you put it there", pointing to a soggy corner of the yard that dipped down to the edge of a shallow swamp.

"Impossible", our friends said, but, dang it, I wanted a garden. I had been reading about housing renovation, dreaming of someday owning my own home, and ran across references to dry wells. Dry wells basically were trenches full of sand, gravel and stones dug close to a house's foundations to keep water away. I thought I had the answer to my swampy garden problem if I combined dry wells with raised beds. It was a very labor intensive answer but we needed the exercise anyway.

We had almost no money for this project so we had to be innovative in using what we had and could get for free. Some of our materials were not the approved ingredients in the garden magazine articles but they worked well enough in the end.

Stones for the dry wells were no problem since we lived in New England and stones were in every shovelfull of dirt. If we didn't have enough, our neighbors had piles of stones sifted from their own gardens and were quite happy for us to carry them away. Sand and gravel were had free in small quantities from the town garage and from gravel quarries. When we ran out we just called another quarry for permission to take a few buckets-worth.

Since stone was a significant part of the dirt's volume, once it was taken out we needed more soil. We had very unfinished compost piles of leaf litter and grass clippings but needed more than that. Sawdust, we discovered, was free at Home Depot if we bagged it and carried it away ourselves. We could also bulk up the garden beds by digging deep and laying sand and gravel down under the soil to help drainage. Some dirt we got from the quarries but it was poor-looking dusty light-colored stuff, so we didn't use much of it.

We marked out a bed about 3 feet wide by 12 feet long and laid tarps uphill of the bed. Digging down about 2 feet, and throwing the dug soil up onto the tarps, we laid down a bed of sand and fine gravel a few inches deep. On top of that we layered a 6 inch mixture of sawdust, quarry dirt, and our unfinished compost. After sorting out the stones, we threw the dug soil back onto the bed.

On the downhill side of the bed we dug a trench about 2 feet wide, 12 feet long and 2 feet deep. After stone-sorting the soil it was thrown up onto the garden bed, raising it another 8 inches or so. We filled the trench with sand to about 4 inches or so, followed by gravel, and then by stones. We put the biggest stones on top of the trench and covered it with sticks from dead wood in the forest behind us and sawdust to give us a garden path between beds.

We were able to claim 3 garden beds from that boggy section. They were not raised beds in the conventional sense because we had no lumber to make the sides of a raised bed. Our style was more of a mounded area of worked soil between paths. We maximized production by combining companion planting with square foot gardening and Ruth Stout's kind of composting-in-place mulch.

And so we made a small but useful garden in an "impossible" location and our dream of country living was a little bit closer.

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