Monday, January 23, 2017

The Foretaste of Spring in Winter

Even though the calendar and accompanying thermometer insist that it's still the dead of winter, the foreshadowing hints of spring are already peeking out from under the blankets. Garden seeds have long-since been in hand (though a few keep trickling in along the way) and a shipping date has been set for the seed potatoes a mere 6-weeks down the road.  Days are growing longer since the winter solstice – by minutes, to be sure, but lengthening, and already enough to encourage the chickens to lean ever-so-slightly in the direction of more active egg production.  In the wake of a couple of farming conferences we have begun to reconceive our garden layout for a massive overhaul that would enable a completely different (and hopefully more companionable) cultivation practice. More and more convinced that we are squandering a valuable opportunity by keeping them separate, we have made conscientious plans to create a workable access integrating the chicken yard more functionally with the garden. In recent days we took advantage of the milder weather to make needed repairs to the wind-whipped deer fence, re-securing the garden perimeter for the nearing days in which something is again inside to protect. Half of the fruit trees have received their winter pruning.
And over the weekend we brought home 45 bags of organic compost and potting mix from our Wisconsin supplier. Seventy-two cubic feet of “stuff”. Now neatly stacked in the barn, the compost will eventually benefit the fruit and nut trees and flower beds, with any leftover heading for the garden. The potting mix will be transformed into soil blocks -- brownie-sized cubes that will host the variety of seeds for their first season of growth in the greenhouse.
And then it all accelerates from there -- the watering, the transplanting, the weeding, monitoring for insects and disease, and, with any luck, the harvesting. Sitting here comfortably on the sofa before the glowing fireplace, it seems a bit of a mirage – the ephemeral flickerings of a possible reality yet a long way off.  And in some ways it is. Between now and spring’s actual arrival there will almost certainly be snow to shovel and blow, insulated overalls to keep pulling on and off, ice-broken branches to gather and stack for later feeding to the chipper, more workshops to attend and a greenhouse to ready.
But the process is starting. It's time to sharpen shovels and blades and make sure everything is in working order. It's time to inventory the rest of the tools to determine what needs replacing and simply needs to be brought closer to hand. It's time to start conceiving which crops will need to rotate to where.
All of which already begins to sound like work.
But last night, nestled squarely in the middle of January, rummaging through the freezer and drawing out greens and peppers and apricots from last summer’s bounty while considering options for the last remaining potatoes, we savored again a few of the reasons why we do it, and why we already looking forward.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Prepared to Prepare, But Left Instead to Repair

Over the weekend I completed an online certification course in fruit tree management – an increasingly pressing matter given the ongoing establishment of our little orchard populated now by 3-dozen fruit and nut trees that have yet to experience a trim.  Pruning was a major focus of the course – how, when, where and why.  We learned to recognize the difference between platform branches and scaffolding branches, the suckers and the leader branch.  We differentiated between blossom buds and leaf buds and to know the varied purposes of winter pruning and summer pruning.  And I'll have to admit that as daunting and intimidating as was the initial idea, nervous about imposing serious arboreal injury, I'm now somewhat eager to begin.

But nature may beat me to it. 

Overnight and through the day freezing rain has glassed the driveway and sheathed every blade and branch.  Various parts of the city have reported power failures from weight-broken lines, and more locally miscellaneous branches already litter the yard with almost certainly more to come as the Swarovski yard of the moment threatens to become a horticultural holocaust tomorrow.  Less of a pruning than a purge, this thinning has more in common with last week’s fox invasion of the chicken yard that left multiple hens indiscriminately killed.

Perhaps I'm being melodramatic -- I'll admit to that level of guilt.  But nature can, indeed, be brutal.  The ice is beautiful, to be sure, but we’ll see how the juvenile trees withstand the assault.  And then we will see how to pick up the pieces and go on.  Literally.  Stick by stick this week as it was feather by feather only days ago.  In both cases nature’s random abortion of potential fruit.

It makes me look forward to summer’s drought…or will it be flood…or yet some other way the realities might intervene in the imagination?  We’ll see. 

For now I've got my pruners handy.  On the off-chance they will still be needed.

Less in order to prepare, I'm guessing, than repair.

Friday, January 13, 2017

A Friend in the Midst of Nature's Harder Edge

Carol King many years ago wrote the soundtrack for the evening: “You've Got a Friend.” Which is good, because as it turned out I needed one.
It was time to close up the chickens for the night -- dusk, or a little after. Perhaps 15 minutes before I had checked out the window and observed them still out and pecking about so I hadn't rushed. I hauled myself into an overcoat, pulled on gloves, grabbed the spotlight to check all the nooks and crannies and headed out.
I heard the commotion, but only in that vague, scratching-at-the-edges-of-consciousness way that is muffled by more preoccupying thoughts. My first real sign that something was amiss was bumping into Sam the rooster up near the deck and heading for the front yard. Glancing past him I saw the girls scurrying all around the coops, at least one on top, full of agitation. And a blur near the fence, sprinting away. As I surveyed the area with suddenly sharpened attentions I noticed first one still mound, and then another. And then another. Three dead hens. Three of my precious favorites I would later realize -- a Lavender Orpington, an Ameraucana and one of the young Bantam Dark Brahmans.
"Did you see the foxes?" a voiced interrupted. So lost in trying to assemble in my mind the reality of what had happened I hadn't noticed my neighbor approach. “We saw two in our front yard moving this way. Then we heard the commotion up here, and all the alpacas were out, looking this way.”
He joined me in the chicken yard as we surveyed the carnage and gathered up the remains. He stood watch as I secured the survivors and commiserated alongside of me. “I'm so sorry,” he said softly. “I know how attached you get to them. Do you need some help carrying them?”
“Oh, I can manage,” I started to respond, willing the sick taste and emotions back down my throat -- and then remembered the truant rooster. “But you could help me find the rooster and get him back inside.”
As it turned out, he hadn't gone far. We spotted him up near the driveway beyond the front porch. But as Art and I eased behind him to encourage him back toward his enclosure it became clear that he had no interest in returning. Rattled and disoriented by his own particular PTSD, the closer we maneuvered him to the chicken yard the more averse he became until the only recourse was to wedge him between our crouching bodies long enough for me to grab him and forcefully carry him inside -- further agitating well as me.
All the while Art stood nearby, sympathizing, opening doors and securing gates and willingly serving as my compatriot in sadness. Together we took one last walk and look around. Finally we snapped the gate closed behind us and paused -- one last fragment of shared silence between us -- and went our separate ways.
Lori and I keep reminding ourselves, whenever such sadnesses occur, that "this is nature”. Though I suspect I will never adjust my soul to the hard truth of it, the reality is that it’s not all pastoral serenity and bucolic bliss out here a few miles remote from the madding crowds; more than quietude and harvest and the daily simplicity of gathering eggs. Here in the rawness of God’s order are pests and diseases in the garden and thieving birds and squirrels in the orchard. There are moles tunneling through the yard, and there are predators above and around the chicken yard attentively watching for and eventually seizing their hungry opportunity. It's beautiful out here, and serene, but it's also torn feathers and blood, rot and thorn.
Thankfully, in the midst of it all, there are also friends who appear when you need one, who stand nearby pretending not to notice the tears, who volunteer to help carry the carcasses and, from their own experiences with this hard and natural order of things, understand.
When you're down and troubled, and you need a helping hand...” the lyrics spontaneously recalled, “'ve got a friend.
I'm grateful, because I needed one. In more ways than one.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

In Case the World Could Use the Help

The New Year's sun rose to welcome guests in the prairie. It's not unusual. Last evening dusk scooted 10 deer, this time all does, along the tree line between the barn and the labyrinth-- amblers not too hurried to pause briefly to supervise my evening walk with the dogs. It's always dangerous, of course, to anthropomorphize animals in the wild, but we like to think it's a sign the deer feel comfortable here. A refuge of sorts; safe, never mind the loud "pops" we hear from time to time in the near-distance. The dogs carry on animated conversations with them as they graze, though the talk is quite one sided. The deer never respond in kind, except to look up and stare in the direction of all the commotion before taking a few more satisfying chews and then their leave.
It's too early to know if the gentleman who has kept bee hives on the prairie off and on will be back this spring with more, but we are hopeful. We like the thought of hosting nature's interplay -- the essential giving and receiving that makes all fruiting possible, be it the sweet fruit of the hive, the nourishing fruit of the garden and orchard, or the enlivening fruit of civilization. It's part of the reason we replanted the prairie with native grasses and pollinator wildflowers. It's part of the reason we cultivate milkweeds in addition to vegetables. It's part of the reason we bucket manure from the alpacas next door into the compost pile, where it joins the spent bedding from the chicken coops, grass clippings gathered from the yard and leaves from the trees. Partly to remind us that “waste” is an obsolete and artificial concept born out of ignorance and a lack of imagination.  All that, plus the constantly-needed and tangible reminder that none of us, as the old English poet noted, is an island.  We are threads in a web of reciprocity.
It's not quite the "Peaceable Kingdom" the biblical prophet imagined, and I know from bloody experience that nature isn't all bucolic tenderness. That, and this is a mere 10-acre theater; hardly a global stage. Still, it is our determination to honor the natural processes here, to learn from them and partner with them rather than coerce them into submission to our own extractive benefit. And who knows where that could lead? If Lori's Permaculture Design instructor is correct when he posits that "You can solve all the world's problems in a garden,” then the sky is the limit.
So bring on the deer, the bees and the worms; bring on the chickens and the seeds; bring on all the mulch and compost of the New Year. Together we've got work to do in this garden we are called to tend.
Not that the world has any problems.
But just in case, we are trying to do our part.