Questions Answered: Heritage Farm's Diversity Garden 2014 FAQ

I have been asked a lot of questions throughout the growing season here at Heritage Farm.

“I have little yellow bumps showing up all over my milkweed plants. What are those?”*

“Do you have any organic treatments for cabbage moths?”**

“Your corn is tasseling but I don’t see any ears. Is something wrong?”***

Some of these questions, like the ones above, I have only heard once or twice.

Other questions are so commonly asked that I have been tempted to create signs to preempt our visitors’ inquiries. But I like answering questions in the garden. It is a great way to start a conversation with students, gardeners and tourists. Finding answers for trickier questions helps me learn more about garden practices and the plants I have chosen to grow. And answering questions over and over again helps me retain knowledge.

 The Diversity Gardens at Heritage Farm are designed to illustrate examples of gardening techniques and feature varieties from our Collection and members.

The Diversity Gardens at Heritage Farm are designed to illustrate examples of gardening techniques and feature varieties from our Collection and members.

So, let’s have at it. Here are the four most common questions I hear in the Diversity Garden at Heritage Farm.

Q: What do you use for mulch? (Alternatively: What is this mulch? What do you put on top of your beds? Where can I buy this stuff?)

A: We use cocoa mulch in our display garden beds. Cocoa mulch is composed of cocoa hulls, a byproduct of the chocolate-making process. After cocoa seeds are roasted, a portion of the seed is leftover. I sometimes compare this mulch to the shells of peanuts you would find under the bleachers of a baseball game. Those peanuts have been roasted, the tasty insides consumed, and the shell and skin of the peanuts are leftover. We purchase the cocoa mulch through our local Menard’s retailer. It is packed and distributed by Hull Farms of LaCrosse, Wisconsin. Yes, it does smell like chocolate. Like other forms of chocolate, cocoa mulch can be hazardous to animals if ingested, so it is not advised to use this kind of mulch if you have pets.  

 Cocoa Mulch is a byproduct of chocolate and forms a strong barrier against weeds.

Cocoa Mulch is a byproduct of chocolate and forms a strong barrier against weeds.

We use cocoa mulch in our display gardens for a variety of reasons. For one, the dark color makes an excellent backdrop for our vibrant plants. Additionally, once the cocoa mulch is watered or exposed to rain, it forms a great barrier. The mulch sticks together to create a natural blanket that traps in moisture and prevents the growth of weeds. Finally, the mulch can be incorporated into the soil at the end of the growing season. Cocoa mulch contains nitrogen, potassium and potash, which all contribute to soil health. Who doesn’t love mulch that also doubles as compost!?

Q:  How did you make these raised beds?

A: The raised beds at Heritage Farm were constructed in 2011. First, a roller was used to flatten out the ground where the beds now stand. Then, landscaping fabric was placed over the surface of the garden. The raised beds were constructed using untreated cedar. They are held in place with re-bar stakes. We cut holes in the landscaping fabric inside of the raised garden beds so that plants with larger root systems could grow freely. Then a 50/50 mixture of local soil and compost was added to each bed. Finally, the paths of the garden were lined with straw.

 Raised beds in the Diversity Garden at Heritage Farm.

Raised beds in the Diversity Garden at Heritage Farm.

We chose to build raised beds because they add great dimension and uniformity to a display garden. The raised beds can be worked early in the spring, the soil drains very well, and the beds are easy to maintain. We try to amend the soil of the raised beds with compost every year.

Q: What is this spiky plant?

A: There are nine large cardoon plants in the center beds of the garden. Each cardoon stands about three feet tall and its largest leaves are three to four feet long. Cardoons are in the same species as globe artichokes, Cynara cardunculus.

 The raised bed in the photo is about 6 ft by 6 ft.

The raised bed in the photo is about 6 ft by 6 ft.

Unlike the globe artichoke, the cardoon plant will not produce a large fruit after its thistle-like flower blooms. Instead, the cardoon is grown for its edible stems. In early September, the base of the plant can be tied up with burlap or thick, dark paper and string. The plant will blanch throughout the fall and its tender stalks can be cut and cooked starting in November. The leaves of the cardoon plant are not eaten - only the base of the stem. These stems can be boiled and they are often sauteed in butter or cream sauces. The cardoon is a perennial plant, but in this climate it functions as an annual.

Q: Where did you get your seeds for these plants?

A: The seeds for this garden were sourced from over forty members of the Seed Savers Exchange, from our Preservation Collection and from the Seed Savers Catalog.

 Signs throughout the gardens at Heritage Farm display the name of the variety and its source.

Signs throughout the gardens at Heritage Farm display the name of the variety and its source.

To learn more about the different varieties in this garden, head over to the blog post I wrote at the beginning of the growing season. You can find many of the seeds in this garden in our Catalog and in the Exchange.


If you have any more questions, let me know in the comments below!

And for the curious:

* The little yellow bumps on milkweed plants are probably aphids.

** We occasionally treat our display gardens for cabbage moths with an organic pesticide.

*** It is normal for corn to form tassels before ears emerge.


Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit organization located in Decorah, Iowa, with a mission to conserve and promote America's culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.