December 30th, 2011 §
There’s a big pasture full of ex-rodeo bulls near my house. Didn’t they win the lottery—Free Union mountain views vs. slaughterhouse!
I walk Tuck on the gravel road past their farm every now and then. Last weekend, for the first time since I got him, Tuck was able to calmly watch this bull from the fence without a single bark. Progress!
December 28th, 2011 §
This post has been kicking around in my head for the past four months as I’ve thought about what went well with my 2011 garden, and what didn’t, and what to change for next year. I’m at the point in the year when dripping heat and humidity are but pleasant memories—imagine that!—so if I don’t get these thoughts down now no wisdom will be recorded to guide my future choices. So without further ado, I present 2011’s Garden Winners and Losers.
Winner: Squash bugs
To kick things off I’ll go right to the top of my list of 2011 garden frustrations: insect pests. The squash bugs slipped their menace into pretty bronze egg clusters and though I popped and squished as many as I could find, the resulting nymphs soon hatched and decimated first my squash and zucchinis, then my pumpkins, and finally went to work on my cucumbers. I pulled and burned each overtaken species to no avail trying to minimize the damage. The minuscule marauders marched on, leaving in their wake smoldering vines and my dreams of a roadside pumpkin stand. However, that brings me to my next 2011 garden winner.
My beautiful big BTU blaster, my final recourse in the fight against…pretty much anything to which it’s applied. When faced with the devastation described above, my only consolation was seeing some of the offending species tits up and crispy.
As those of you who follow this story know, 2011 was the first year for this garden that I carved out of a square of pasture. The dirt didn’t look too bad when revealed, and I added some of the good stuff in the way of compost, sand and peat. But when I put my first seedlings in (admittedly in a muddy deluge) and they failed to thrive, I knew something was up. A quick soil test revealed a nitrogen deficiency. I chucked some blood meal into the beds, which got me back on track and through the season, but I knew it was a temporary solution and I would need to make a serious investment in soil if I wanted performance to improve. I also suspect that many of the insect problems can be traced back to the soil and its inability to nurture plants that can defend themselves. Thus, this fall’s sheet mulching adventure. I am excited to see if next spring’s soil test shows improvement.
Though I was gifted with beautiful young plants lovingly raised from seed by my father, my tomato harvest failed to meet my expectations. In all fairness, I do place part of the blame on suspected poor soil quality. And I place the rest of the blame on benign neglect. I admit I did a cursory amount of staking and tying with these plants, packed them in too closely, and failed to pamper them with weekly deluges of MiracleGro. I suppose one bright side is I didn’t seem to suffer any of the blights that plagued me in my community garden plot, so I am hopeful that with richer soil and more attention I’ll be back on the tomato express and be forced to take up canning.
Some flowers just beg for exclamation points after them. Dahlias! are one. There are few flowers that bloom so profusely, juicily and with such lurid happiness. I love dahlias for these reasons, as well as for the chemically green smell their stems have when cut. My dahlias, which I picked up on a whim from a 50% off bin in Lowe’s, got a late start and didn’t come online until August. With our very wet September they took off and bloomed until frozen. I had flower arrangements lining my windowsills for months.
Winner: Deer Fence
One of the best investments I made in this garden was to fence it properly from the beginning. I knew I’d be fighting deer and goodness knows what sort of smaller munchers, so I enclosed the whole deal in a high fence reinforced with buried chicken wire at ground level. Though it may not be the most aesthetically pleasing, it was affordable and I am pleased to report I had zero damage from deer or other mammals and no weeds grew up among the netting. Now if I could only enclose my whole property in deer fence and really get to gardening…
This recap could go on forever, but I choose to let the rest of the wins and losses roll under the wave of time like the squash bugs, the tomatoes, the dahlias, and ultimately any living thing. Instead of lamentations of last year I choose to focus on the future and my next post: 2012 plans.
December 25th, 2011 §
December 13th, 2011 §
Is known as the Cold Moon. Which was appropriate as it coincided with a cold spell that left the frost unmelted on the North side of the house for two days straight.
December 9th, 2011 §
After the cardboard went down, I trekked into the woods to raid the pile of soiled guinea house bedding.
I found lots of nice worms in this material—no doubt because I recently released my “house worms,” which I’d kept in worm bins for the last four years, here.
That layer was followed by a good 8″-12″ of straw.
With this addition my beds were definitely what you’d call “raised!”
Finally I applied a thin layer of compost on top of the straw, mainly to hold it in place and to help seal in moisture. I also went ahead and mulched under two beds of winter greens, but not before I harvested the last kale and bok choy. I left only one bed untreated—figuring it will provide an interesting control!
And so with some gift compost, old boxes, and a couple of bales of straw—along with several weekends of nonstop shoveling and wheelbarrowing—I’m left with an overuse injury in my elbow and what looks like a graveyard in my pasture.
The best part is that now all I have to do is let the garden sit for the next five months while the worms and bacteria and microorganisms do their good work. Come April, I hope to be sowing spring greens in rich hummus.
I’ll report back next spring and let you know how my first sheet mulch performed!
December 6th, 2011 §
Since late October I’ve been working on putting the garden to bed for winter. As I started to explain in this post, in year’s past I just ripped out the frost-blackened vegetation and made sure there was a thick layer of straw on the ground before abandoning the garden over winter. That worked well, but with this new garden I wanted to try harder. I also sensed that my soil fertility might be low. I know that soil is something that’s built over time, but I believe that some of the trouble I had with insects could be resolved by improving soil fertility, which leads to more resilient plants that are better able to defend themselves. Enter sheet mulching.
I’d read about sheet mulching in Gaia’s Garden, what some consider to be the Bible of permaculture, and which I found to be one of the best books I’ve read on gardening. I came to the conclusion that sheet mulching is basically creating the optimal home for worms to set up housekeeping, and as a big fan of the power of worms for improving soil, I was sold.
First I pulled out the really big, tough dead plants—the tomatoes and the toughest parts of the dead dahlias. I cut the rest of the lightweight vegetation to the ground and left it lying in the beds for a layer of nice, nitrogen-rich greens. I still had three beds producing winter greens and salad lettuce under row covers and plastic, so I left those standing.
Next came even more high-nitrogen material—first a nice scattering of blood meal, much to the delight of the dog who was helping me assemble my sheet mulch, and then I added a thin layer of grass clippings I raked out of the field.
Then I shoveled on a thick layer of well-rotten horse manure compost, delivered by my dad from his private stash.
Finally it was time for the fun part: adding the cardboard boxes. If one were sheet mulching over existing turf, the boxes would form a light-impenetrable barrier that would smother all existing vegetation. I was working with already-prepared beds so I wondered if this was necessary. But then I remembered how much the worms I kept in worm bins loved cardboard—and my herbalism teacher mentioned that worms are attracted to tasty sugars in the cardboard and work their way through all the layers of sheet much to get to the banquet—and by doing so create rich soil.
So down went the boxes, some of which I’d had for almost ten years and that had seen me through cross-country moves. In the small apartments I lived in before moving here I’d kept these boxes stashed under my bed, always ready for the next move that undoubtedly was just a couple of years away. There was something so sweet about finally retiring these boxes and using them to build the future of the food for this home.
Another important tip for sheet mulching—lots of water. Each layer needs to be soaked with water so that the worms are well-plumped and everything gets nice and rottey and just right for decomposition.
Stay tuned for the finished project later this week…