Friday, March 30, 2012

Only 20 More to Dig

Stooped back.  Sore Muscles.  Plenty of sweat.  Remind me again why this sounded like fun.

It's L.T.'s fault.  L.T. is the Guyana-born physician-turned-farmer whose Community Supported Agriculture farm we have been members of these past few years.  To hear most people tell it, L.T. is non-traditional.  To hear him tell it, it would be hard to get more traditional than the farming practices he employs.  Instead of tilling up a plot of ground, he digs narrow trenches in the style of his ancestors, leaving the spaces between them unharmed.  The turf-covered paths make it easier to work the vegetable plants sown in the trenches, and keep the soil from eroding.  The grass -- along with other miscellaneous flowers planted nearby -- fix nitrogen naturally in the soil, and provide vegetative alternatives to insects.  As L.T. puts it, "If the only thing bugs have available is what you are hoping to harvest, you are going to lose."  So, generously providing "bug distractions and alternatives" is key.

The trenches, in addition to disrupting as little of the soil as possible, also make weeding simpler and more concise, and provides frugal stewardship of moisture.  True, heavy rains in the early stages of growth find the trenches vulnerable sloughs; but everything, I am discovering about farming, involves some kind of risk.  If it isn't flood, it's drought.  If it isn't excessive heat, it is a freakish frost.  If it isn't fungus, it's predatory bugs.  If...  You get the idea.

The problem, of course, is digging the trenches.  It's not quite as miserable as it seems, but only by degree.  My intrepid 8" Honda power tiller accomplishes much of the work, chugging and ripping along.  But after six or eight passes along the 29' width, you have to stop and remove the loosened turf and soil.  It is always demoralizing how little depth is accomplished after so much effort -- and the goal is to excavate down below the root line, six or so inches.  The removal process is aided this year by a prehistoric-looking implement brought back from Central America for me as a gift by the church mission team last spring.  Called an "acedong", it resembles a wide hoe on the equivalent of an ax handle.  Slightly angled and sharp, the acedong turns out to be the perfect width for the trenches and both accelerates the turf removal with its sharp edge and neatly scoops the loosened soil almost shovel-like.  None of this is accomplished, of course, without some stooping and forceful swinging; and it's always a race to see if the tiller or I will run out of gas first. 

The good news is that all this labor is an investment in the future.  Minor reworking should be all that's required in subsequent years -- plus soil health management and species rotation.  And reduced weeding will be added reward.  In the meantime, it is glacially slow work.  Today, then -- not quite half finished with this great earth-moving expedition -- finds me doubly grateful.
  1. God has seen fit to grant us extra weeks of spring in which to get this preliminary work accomplished.
  2. It rained hard through the night, leaving the garden too muddy this morning to work in.  
Ah, luxuriate O screaming muscles, in the brief but blessed reprieve!

Monday, March 19, 2012

999 Yet to Go

Progress is slow, but if the seeds are any teacher it is steady.  The kohlrabi, tomato, purple onion, tomatillo chive, sage, strawflower and marigold sprouts are continuing to mature; and today the first two pepper varieties showed a little green.  I trust that more will follow, but everyday takes me gently, ever so subtly by the hand and leads me forward.  The almost wholesale decimation of winter by onsetting spring has been a similarly compelling teacher.  So it was this morning that the snowblower was traded out, with the help of a mechanically savvy friend, in favor of the mower deck.  As he put it, "with all the forecasted rain and the kind of sunshine we have been having, that grass is going to start taking over."

In that same spirit, I determined to get the trenching underway.  Jostling the tiller out of its hibernation, I gassed the tank, checked the oil, primed the choke, and pulled the cord.  I know it won't always work this well, but miraculously on the second pull it roared into life.  And off I went. 

OK, so I didn't get far -- merely clearing away the ground cover on two perpendicular strips; there are layers and inches yet to go, to say nothing of the 42 yet to begin -- but as the ancient Chinese proverb points out, "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." 

So, consider the first step taken.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

All to Good Use, and Right Timing

It is not the kind of March we have learned the hard way to expect.  Record setting warm temperatures have jump-started trees into early bud break, and me into an early apprehension that perhaps I got seeds started too late.  The average late freeze for this site isn't for another 5 weeks, but all nature has seemingly thrown caution to the wind, forging ahead with its own kind of bull market.  We will see if the spring bubble bursts.   Meanwhile, we have dragged the grill out of mothballs, are negotiating the early onset of allergy season, have been enjoying long walks, and Tir and I are enjoying the sunrise, the bird songs, and the donkey brays from the relaxing comfort of the deck.  It is precisely the location from which the three of us bid yesterday good night.  The deck; in March; in Iowa.  My, my! I can't, of course, speed the seedlings along but I can begin to lay the ground work for their garden debut.  Yesterday, with tape measure, twine, wooden stakes and mallet in hand, I took more accurate measure of the plot.  Staking out the corners I discovered that my autumn eyeballing had abbreviated the northwest corner.  The reel mower, I confirmed, isn't really designed for prairie grass, but it cleared well enough to suffice for the moment, though my pushing muscles have been angry ever since.  Subsequent stakes and joining twine now demarcate the center aisle (obligatory for a minister’s garden I think) and the first levels of trenching.  The fencing arrived day before yesterday, but I intend to stage that project after the trenches are dug. Now the guesswork begins -- or is it the crystal balling, voodoo, or rolling of the dice?  When do I get started?  I can surely begin digging the trenches, but I don't want the ground opened sooner than is useful. I will need to prod delivery of the load of manure, but it will then need a place to go. As I mentioned, I can't hurry the seedlings, but fully two-thirds of my seeds can go directly into the ground.  As long as it stays this warm and doesn't revert to winter.  They could certainly go first, and be joined later by the seedlings when they are ready.  Or I could wait until early May as originally planned.   I don't have to decide right away; besides, more rain is predicted for much of next week.  There are, nonetheless, preliminaries to address -- sooner, I think, rather than later.  There are tomato cages to conceive and acquire. There are tools from last year to refresh.  There are deer to start more diligently shooing away. There is that manure to schedule.  And, of course, the trenching.  Who knows how long that will take.   In the meantime, the sun has breached the eastern horizon, my coffee cup is empty, and it is time to make good use of the day -- now that this extraordinary morning has made good use of me.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Cool Efficiency of Nature

I haven't a clue how it got there.  From the looks of things I'd say it easily could have shinnied its way into the thicket and couldn't get out.  The brush, after all, was virtually impenetrable; with dagger-like thorns snagging any form of soft tissue.  It could have gotten trapped.  Or maybe it was injured and was simply looking for a protected place to morph into the next of its remaining lives.  All I know is that when I finally cleared away enough of the brush to see beyond the perimeter of the trees I discovered a stiff cat well into the throes of rigor mortis.  Since I was, first of all, in the "brush clearing" mode and not the "dead cat clearing" mode; and since I was, second of all, exhausted, I chose to turn a blind eye to this inconvenience in my front landscaping.  What could it hurt?  Who knows how long it had already been there?  Besides, this is the country -- rural life at its most bucolic and natural.  Admittedly, dead cats don't usually fit into discussions of aesthetics, but the "natural" part fits.  Critters live; critters die.  It's "natural." 

I'm not ashamed to say, however, how impressed I was this morning -- the day after the aforementioned discovery -- having strapped on my safety goggles and fired up the power trimmer, to find that particular patch of feline mortality...abandoned. 


Devoid of all but twigs and thorns.

The cat, as it were, was gone. 

Now, either there was at least one of those nine lives remaining and I happened upon the cat in liminal transition, or, as I rather suspect, I have simply been a witness to nature's incredible efficiency at cleaning up after itself.  Either way, I'm happy to be rid of it.  Now, if whatever carried it away would only return and help me get rid of all these trimmings.

Monday, March 12, 2012

At the Very Least, A Kick

I feel like I should pass out cigars.  Before leaving town on Saturday I slipped out to the greenhouse to water the seeds.  This, after all, is the disciplined season of gardening -- performing by rote the daily duties of nurture devoid of any visceral reinforcement.  You simply do it because you know it has to be done, trusting that somewhere down the line the benefits will be apparent -- maybe even tasty. 

That said, there is something almost meditative about the duty.  It is possible, of course, to simply hoist the watering can and mindlessly slosh the water over the thirsty cells, acquitting yourself of the task until tomorrow.  But I rather like to linger over the trays -- voicing encouragement, sprinkling gently, paying searching attention.  This is, after all, a kind of sacred time when subtle, almost miraculous transformation is underway.  I planted those seeds.  I know what they looked like as I fingered them into the soil -- tiny, nondescript nibs of silently infinite potential bearing the capacity to produce not simply a plant and its eventual fruit, but the seeds of successive generations.  All that, and my dreams as well. I watch and sprinkle that brown potting soil carefully; expectantly; prayerfully.

And so it was that the tiny, emergent sprouts in the kohlrabi cells came into view.  A birth, so to speak -- or maybe not so much a birth as the sensation of a foot kicking in the womb.  The sprouts have a long way to go before stretching tall enough, rooting deeply enough to be transplanted outside in the raw soil; a longer way to go, across the distant horizon etched with weather, sun, insects, nibbling animals and my own horticultural ignorance, to finally arrive at harvest. 

But it is a gloriously giddy start. 

And just to punctuate the moment, upon arriving home last evening and taking up once again the watering can, I noticed yet another sprout -- a red cabbage, red enough to almost disappear against the backdrop of soil.  But being careful in my watering...

...I noticed.  Feel free to light the cigar.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

With Rain in the Forecast

Scooping out coffee for a second pot, I noticed the interesting little factoid printed on the side of the bag that over 98% of coffee is water.  It was, I initially thought, an unnecessary statement of the obvious, but I appreciated its service to a larger point:  the water is important.  However precious and perfectly roasted and ground may be the beans we select, the water that drips through them may well hold the trump card.  Water, I'm guessing, deserves more of our attention.

Beyond my cup of coffee, what about the rest of my tiny little world?  I read that up to 60% of my body is water -- the brain sloshing around as 70% water, while the lungs, in an apparent echo of amphibian genes in our heritage, are nearly 90% water.  In the plant world, most are anywhere from 90 to 95 percent water.  Which is to say that H2O isn't only critical to my morning brew.

I have no particular reason to believe that the water spilling out of my faucet is in the least bit tainted, never mind the potential implications of whatever chemicals are used to purify it.  I have a hunch that my seedlings have no particular use for extra flouride, however, and though averting costly water charges might have played some part in our decision we did purchase four rain barrels shortly after moving in.  And the natural purity ought to count for something.  The water splashes off the roof of the barn and garden shed, down the spouts and into the barrels.  From there we filled every receptacle we could find around the house for storage and use throughout the winter.  The spinach, lettuce, mustard and arugula we have eaten these past few months owe their turgor to that collected rain.  Gallons of that harvest remain in the greenhouse, but since the seeding project began I have been going through it like...well, water. 

So, with rain in the forecast, along with warmer weather, I decided to move the barrels from their winter storage in the barn and relocate them to their respective stands beneath the spouts.  Rain being unpredictable at best, readiness seems the prudent course. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Awakened From a Drowse by a Fallen Branch

"Chores, chores, chores.  Places to go, things to do.  Then occasionally I wake from my drowse and for a few minutes every toad becomes a dragon, every lilac is a fiery fountain, and I am walking on pure light."  (Scott Russell Sanders, Staying Put:  Making a Home in a Restless World,  p. 137)

With the seeds assigned their imperceptible work in the greenhouse and the weather moderated and clear, we confronted the tangled thicket between the house and the road.  Driven in part by a desire to improve the appearance of the yard, and in part by a latent but resurfacing longing to fire up the power trimmer hibernating since autumn in the barn, we donned gloves, heavy clothes and safety glasses.  Without a shred of embarrassment, I retrieved the trimmer's owner's manual, reacquainted myself with the button and knob labels, perused the starting instructions, took a deep breath and pulled the rope.  A few times.  A cough.  A gasoline-laced sputter.  Ignition!  Strapping on the shoulder strap and palming the handle bars (this isn't, after all, some puny twine spinner) I proceeded into the sapling jungle like a gladiator into the coliseum, revving the engine every now and then as a kind of high combustion sneer.

The tri-point steel blade slashed and pruned and sawed and trimmed until, after what seemed like only minutes but proved to be more like an hour, the engine sputtered into silence; thirsty and out of gas.  I paused to survey the carnage.  To be sure, severed branches littered the area, waiting to be dragged out and piled.  We had, indeed, made a credible start.  What sobered me, however, was the slightness of the dent we had put in the task.  Surveying the still-impregnable regions beneath the trees I tried to imagine the number of subsequent afternoons far more intensive than this one that would surely be required to accomplish prideful results.  Chores, chores, chores strung together in infinite line.  Peering into the thorny fortress I half expected to see a gingerbread cottage and Hansel and Gretel's wicked witch interrupting her sweeping to crook her ugly finger beckoningly, menacingly in my direction. 

And then a broken branch caught my eye. The diameter of my leg, the long branch had broken off high up the trunk and rested now, horizontally, on the tops of lesser bushes well out of reach and fortressed by the dense thicket surrounding; the victim of winter's winds and storms.  Cradled there now, silent and stripped of its pride, it took on a kind of fascination.  My first thought was a kind of scorn -- "felled by a puny winter such as this one?"  But scorn quickly gave way to wonder.  This branch, I reflected, knows more of this place than I.  How long has it grown here?  What has it observed; what has it shaded?  What storms has it survived all these years, and what flaw -- what weakness -- caused it to succumb this particular year?  At first glance it appears a mighty and sturdy appendage, making its obvious vulnerability all the more surprising.  But isn't it more a wonder that any branch actually survives -- bent and laden and blown about?

I will yet need to hack my way in so that I can reach its lower extremities to pull and dislodge and, with any luck, extricate the woody corpse.  But leaving it for now, I offer an appreciative benediction for the stately life it has both witnessed and embodied...

...high above it all.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Seeds Amidst the Snow

Common among childhood Decembers are the countless reminders that, while Christmas is surely coming and nearing, it is not quite yet here.  There are cookies baking in the kitchen -- but to be given away.  There are stockings hanging from the mantle -- though empty.  There are presents beneath the tree, colorfully but effectively veiled from use or even view.  "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas" wafts from the speakers as an anthemic ode not only to seasonal fancy but to the very essence of anticipation.  It's coming, but not yet.

And yesterday, awash in a sunny fifty-degree day, I planted seeds and secured them in the greenhouse as a down-payment on spring, only to be greeted this morning by more snow.  It is, in a way, a climatic representation of this whole phase of the gardening season:  a taunting, near-whiplashing reverberation between giddy busyness and clock-ticking stillness.  There are seed catalogs to digest, orders to assemble...and the waiting time until they are delivered.  There are garden designs to draw...and then shelve until post-freeze.  Eventually there are seeds to gently lodge in the potting soiled followed by the days -- how many days? -- of imperceptible growth and activity.  Now descends the glacial pace of germination when, at least by eye-measure, absolutely nothing is going on.

But if nature is taking its course, growth is subtly, miraculously transpiring. 

The greenhouse depends upon radiant heat from the sun; far from sealed tight, it is vented by design.  A space heater can't possibly sustain all the warmth on which the fragile seeds depend.  Nonetheless, according to the remote thermometer it is over 50-degrees inside, with the larger warmth of the day still to come.  Tir and I will eventually head out to survey the invisible progress and sprinkle on the day's drink.  In the meantime, suspended between the "already" and the "not yet," I'll relax and enjoy the snow.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Hoping for Productive Sleep

After yesterday's near-70-mile-per-hour winds and cold dampness, Tir and I stepped off the front porch early into a clear and welcoming morning.  The winds had stilled, and warmer weather was forecasted -- although I've noticed that the weather doesn't always watch the 6-o' clock news.  The sky, at least that part of it that had crept out from behind the darkness, was blue; everything seemed to validate the item on the calendar page inserted rather naively months ago:  seeding day. 

Earlier in the week I had readied the seed cell trays, distributing them on tables in the barn and filling them with potting soil.  Yesterday I had resorted the seed packets according to planting time, with those requiring 6-8 weeks of sheltered early start waiting by the door.  Nothing else was allowed on the schedule.  I had no idea if this would be a 15-minute little project, or one that would chew through the better part of the day. 

There is something awe inspiring about sowing of seeds.  I don't mean to make too much of it -- after all, I had done it with reasonable success last year in the sunlight of our townhome's living room window -- it's just that, leaping mentally ahead to the eventual plants in the garden, the seeds seem so tiny, so whispy, so fragile and inauspicious.  Fingering inside the envelope of Brandywine tomato seeds -- one of the heirloom varieties that inspired this project -- I weigh the disparity between the fleshy softball-size fruit to come and this tiny little seed hardly bigger than the period at the end of this sentence.  Amazing.

The "blow-by-blow" is hardly worth detailing; marigolds and strawflowers on the aesthetic side, with tomatoes of wild variation and peppers spanning hot to sweet, tomatillos, cabbage, eggplants, kohlrabi, purple onions and a few herbs on the other.  Some are surface sown; others 1/4" deep.  I marked with popsicle sticks, sprinkled with water, and then arranged the flats on the greenhouse shelves beneath lowered and helpfully aimed and timed light fixtures.  Switching on the heater just to give the atmosphere a boost, I smiled, swept the space with my eyes, whispered a prayer, and closed the door.  If anyone is taking notes, it all took a total of 3 hours.

In a few hours, the timer will switch off the suspended lights, and then perhaps all of us can get some sleep.