Friday, February 17, 2017

Mulch, Manure and the Great Circle of Life

Anticipation, yes, but preparation as well.

It was over 60-degrees in central Iowa yesterday, with higher temperatures anticipated today. It's disconcerting for mid-February, here in the midst of USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 5 more typically buried in snow for weeks yet to come. But sunny, warm and clear, we took advantage, hitching up the chipper/shredder to the Club Car and settling it in near the former compost pile that degenerated into a brush pile catch-all bound for uselessness that we intend to reclaim and repurpose for wildflowers.
Because nothing is finely useless. More and more in agreement with those regenerativists who assert that there is no such thing as “waste”, and with the first of Barry Commoner's Four Laws of Ecology that “everything is connected to everything else”, we went to work regenerating and reconnecting. In a process parallel to bucketing up my neighbor's alpaca manure -- which came out the back end after going in the front end as hay which had sprouted from the soil -- and now returning it to the soil, we fed the stalks and spent vines and branches from previous gardens into the front end of the shredder and mounded out the back end a pile of mulch that will return organic matter to the soil to nourish future vegetables and flowers.
As soon as the soil is workable -- which will likely be sooner rather than later if this weather pattern continues -- we will free and remove the abandoned compost cages, level the surface, prepare the seed bed and scatter the seeds, which will draw strength from all those apple cores, onion skins, pepper stems, egg shells and other by-products of the kitchen which had accumulated there, plus that mulch from yesterday's shredding...
...and blossom.
And the butterflies and bees will feed there, who in turn will pollinate the orchard and garden, which in turn will grow and fruit to feed us, who in turn will gather our kitchen scraps and spent branches and vines and... are beginning to recognize the circle.
 Meanwhile, we have already been busy pruning the fruit trees, and earlier this week settled into its location the new chicken coop that will shelter the several new hens that will arrive in the coming weeks. And the contractor slipped in on Wednesday and accomplished the prairie burn -- that once-every-three-year intervention mimicking those ancestral lightening-ignited fires beneficial for invigorating the native grasses and wildflowers.
Because spring is coming...and growth.
And while it's fun to anticipate...'s better to prepare.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

New Toys -- With Time to Read the Manuals

We made this move over five years ago in order to learn how to grow food on different terms -- "different" meaning without all the artificial inputs and applications now so presumed as to be labeled "conventional agriculture."  We had concerns about peak oil relative to how energy intensive agriculture has become.  We had health concerns relative to all the toxic chemicals routinely applied to fruits and vegetables we subsequently ingest.  We had culinary concerns relative to the commoditization of produce into the narrow portfolio of varieties developed to travel and pack well but not necessarily taste good.  Think about those beautiful tomatoes in the grocery store that might as well be plastic.  Try to remember the last apple you ate that actually had much flavor. 

So it was that we settled into our ten little acres, carved out a garden and went to work, immersing ourselves in more "learning experiences" than I care to remember, though I think I've written them down.  Though "this" and "that" have changed along the way as we have gained more skill and learned how to pay attention -- and to what -- several principles have guided our efforts throughout. 
  • no chemicals, 
  • a bias toward heirloom and open-pollinated seeds, 
  • and a minimum of mechanization.  
The latter of those is a balancing act between our principles and our bodies, cognizant of the reality that we didn't undertake this work as kids but at a point somewhere beyond middle-age, and nurturing the hope that we can continue doing it for some time to come.  Sustaining our bodies, therefore, becomes as important as sustaining the land.
And so it is that we are dramatically changing our cultivation plan.  Essentially patterned after the work of a Canadian market gardener named J.M. Fortier, the system inverts our current trench pattern that employs 6"-deep X 8"-wide trenches spaced 20" apart, and replaces it with 30"-wide raised beds spaced 18-20" apart. 

Why?  We have valued much of what the trench system has offered, but many of the tools we have accumulated along the way -- the wheel hoe, the broad fork, and various long-handled hoes -- are difficult to use effectively in these narrow spaces, meaning most of the cultivation happens on our hands and knees with hand tools.  The wider beds will enable us to make better use of the tools...and our bodies...standing upright.

Of course making the switch requires another tool, which was delivered yesterday.  This kind of gear-driven, two-wheeled, walk-behind tractor is common in Italy where it was manufactured, but is still something of an anomaly in this country which prefers vast fields and hulking machinery.  The implements we purchased are the standard tiller, which we expect to use sparsely, and a rotary plow which will actually create the raised beds.  Once the beds are made and functioning, the tractor will be used for occasional bed maintenance and new projects.  In between those uses, we will revert to our more basic-but-better-utilized manual equipment.

So there will be new work to do this spring in the garden that will swell to around 3/4 acre.  New lessons to learn.  New experiments.  Broadening comprehension.  And hopefully new things to eat. 

Earlier this week it all seemed closer at hand than the calendar might suggest as temperatures soared to almost 60-degrees with bright sunshine.  But as the tractor was being unloaded in our driveway it must have seen its shadow.

The sun rose this morning on 3" of fresh snow -- and counting -- with a high temperature not expected to move out of the 20's and lows tonight back down into the single digits. 

Which, of course, is fine.  It gives me time to read the manuals.