Beardsley Community Farm is a non-profit organization situated within Malcolm-Martin Park and adjacent to the Wesley House Learning Center and the remains of Knoxville College. Beardsley’s mission is rooted in growing food through environmentally sound methods and distributing it to communities within food deserts. Part of this methodology has been the keeping of bee hives both for their honey production and for their value as pollinators. Early attempts were made to create an apiary, a space where the bee hives could exist safely and conveniently for health check-ins and harvest. However, encroaching invasive plants around the hives facilitated invasion by pests such as beetles and mites. To enable future success for the apiary, our goals were to remove the invasive species and create a ground plane that discouraged future growth while still allowing for beekeeping activities. Beardsley also organized with the Knoxville BeeKeepers Association to use the space for outdoor learning. The BeeKeepers Association would benefit from a yard to teach and cultivate in, while Beardsley would have a dedicated group overseeing the health of the hives.
The apiary sits at the far north-east corner of the farm. At our first visit the fenced area was crowded with hackberry trees and bradford pear in the canopy layer, while Johnson grass, english ivy, poison ivy, and winter creeper ran across the ground and entwined through the chain link fence. Black, plastic landscape fabric was laid across the site, temporarily reducing the spread of invasives until a more permanent solution was available. Minor grading had been achieved to keep the hives level, and a cinder block-rebar retaining wall was present at the back of the space to account for significant slope.
This is a space where people actively work, so it must be navigable. A set of terraces were designed to allow for easy movement up and across the slope. These terraces are designed wide enough for moving hives and harvesting equipment, while also allowing multiple people to occupy the space. Crushed, compacted stone makes a ground surface that is easy to navigate and suppresses invasive plant growth around the base of the hives.
Due to the heavy clay content and areas of shallow soil on the terraces, our intuition for a design was to install multiple pocket meadows. Meadow plantings would provide food for the hives, create habitat for predatory insects and birds to keep mite populations in check, and would not obscure observation of the apiary. To prepare for a meadow, the tree canopy had to be thinned to let in more sunlight. Shade cast by the canopy not only suppresses growth of flowering meadow plants but impacts the daily rhythm of the hives. Sunlight warming the hives is a trigger for honey bees to wake up and begin their daily foraging.
As anyone who has maintained a chain link fence can attest, keeping the base clear of vines and sprouts can be challenging. We decided to use deep rooted grasses, such as Yellow Prairie Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), not only for their outstanding ability to control erosion, but also as a kind of living weed barrier both above and below the soil. Behind the apiary we designed a thicket composed of Prairie Willow (Salix humilis), Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa), Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), and Chickasaw Plum (Prunus angustifolia). As this area matures it will spread and shade out the ground layer, limiting further germination of invasive seeds. Even at full maturation, the thicket will not reach a height that would shade out the hives or pocket meadows.
Trees like the hackberry and bradford pear had to be removed to open the space to more sunlight. The chainlink was removed before felling the trees. Ground layer invasives were then removed through a combination of cutting and painting, and by scraping the root layer with bladed weed-eaters.
Once invasives were removed from the soil, excavation of the hillside began. Approximately 100 cubic yards of soil was excavated to grade the terraces and make room for a future storage area next to the apiary. Footers were dug to prepare for the retaining walls going in next. Gravel back filled the retaining walls to keep them stable and allow water to properly drain. Remaining space was backfilled with the same soil previously excavated. Throughout this process it was important to keep planting zones marked so that a workable soil depth could be maintained while also supporting the wall. In the meadows on the terraces, soil depth is about 16 inches before reaching gravel fill. This condition highlights the benefits of native plants that can thrive in shallow soil.
Upon completion of hardscape, we were able to begin planting. One set back we faced was a high degree of soil compaction where skid loaders and other heavy machinery had operated. Picks, maddocks and other heavy tools were necessary to break up the compacted clay to give the new plants a foot hold. We expect that over the next year, roots will work to break up and loosen the soil in these zones.