Saturday, May 24, 2014



AS THE winter rains subside slowly across the coastal and inland valley landscape, and days are sunny but nights still cool, my neighbors pile up accumulated garden and yard debris, leaving it for a few weeks, perhaps under a plastic tarp. As soon as it's dry enough out, but not dry enough to get them in trouble with the fire warden, they torch off the lot. From a mountain top nearby, one can see this activity as a kind of Civil War reenactment, with the smoke of the guns drifting from various parts of the field. Filbert farmers are prone to set off a lot of piles at once, so that their places look like some corner of Shiloh.

When we first began to accumulate such material here, we started to build such a pile, but then remembered reading a book by a maverick Japanese organic farmer. He said that he had no way to fertilize a hillside orchard until he hit upon the idea of gathering wood and spreading it around on the slopes to rot. His trees thrived. We've begun to emulate that basic idea.

Since we still use wood heat, we do try to saw up larger branches for the woodpile. The natives are ash and oak, so their smaller branches are useful for the small barbecue pit we inherited with the place. Finger-sized trimmings of oak, ash, bigleaf maple, blackcherry, and cottonwood go into low places on the land, to help build soil. When there is a lamb, much of this goes to stock feed -- cottonwood is a favorite -- as does the abundant Japanese knotweed.

Himalaya blackberry, our region's equivalent of kudzu, we leave where it drops when cut. The lawnmower will eventually chip up the drying stems. Some of them we may use for bushing peas.

We have let too much mint grow in too many of the beds, and what we can't use we pull -- and pile around the feet of the fruit trees for mulch. Old squash vines, sunflower stems, hollyhocks, zinnias, cornstalks, "mother" strawberries, and old-growth chard or broccoli plants we chop up with a machete and leave in place to be mowed and perhaps eventually forked in. Of course all the kitchen waste goes straight to the garden.

We save our dishwater, add it to some other choice "household wastewater," and feed this to fruit trees, grape vines, and flower beds. After we've done the woodcutting for the year, the driveway accumulates a layer of sawdust and chips too small for gathering up for the woodstove. This material is gathered up with a square point shovel and wheelbarrow, and added to the blueberry row.

With all this activity, we find there's nothing left over that belongs in a bonfire, so we've never had to have one. In fact, we import whatever we can find. We buy tremendous bales of straw at a few dollars apiece, each weighing about the same as the Titanic, and huff them up to the barn to spread around under the bottoms of the ducks and rabbits. The resulting fertilizer is highly prized for projects all over the farm.

In November of every year, I scout around for bags of leaves left curbside. Last year I brought home some twenty-five of these.

Some of the bags were big-leaf maple, which is said to be a no-no in the vegetable garden, but they're fine for the "low spots" and around rhododendrons and the like. Some were oak, which can be sweetened with rock lime and used wherever you like. Some were more of a beechy-sweetgum kind of thing, and these were sheet-composted on the garden.

This seems to work so well that we question the usefulness of a compost heap. By the time the pile, of whatever humongous size at first, cooks down, there's so little of it that it has to be rationed to the neediest (usually tomatoes), and the rest go hungry.

At a Hutterite commune where I was a baker, I set up a bin behind the bakery, made of three sheets of metal roofing, and while waiting for the seventy-five pound lump of bread to rise indoors, shoveled whatever I could find into a big chipper. Sawdust, mule (yes, mule) manure, kitchen wastes, grass clippings, and whole piles of cleared vegetation, including a half-acre of high-nitrogen kudzu, went into the machine, in alternating batches, so that there'd be an even mix in the bin. As soon as the bin was full, I added another one, and when that one was full, I added another. The half-acre garden, which had been in ryegrass over the winter, we tilled in, and after the crops got high enough to mulch, we sheeted the whole area with the contents of the bins. The chippings served as compost, mulch, and pathway alike.

We would show visitors the garden, and on learning that it was organic, they would invariably ask where the compost heap was. "You're looking at it." We've never bought fertilizer, except for some organic amendments for the nursery, where a more controlled acidity was called for.

I remember the nurseryman, now a famous organic truck farmer who lives in this area, did sometimes have to fight white flies, the bane of greenhouse operations whether organic or not. He set off pungent smoke bombs that were very effective. I asked what was in them. He grinned. "Nicotine. The stuff's an organic insecticide, invented by tobacco plants to kill any bugs that try to eat the leaves."

This gave me an idea. I bought a pouch of chewing tobacco (which raised a few eyebrows in the store), and make a pomade of chewing tobacco, chips left over from old soap bars, and rabbit manure, all tied up in a cheesecloth, and left the "teabag" in the watering can overnight. The resulting tea could be used in the greenhouse, on flower beds, and throughout the young garden, and fed plants yet insulted bugs effectively.

You can put a similar mix into a hose-end sprayer, but it doesn't seem to me that the resulting dilution, even at the highest ratio, has enough kick. Just keep the solution making daily in the watering can, and use it wherever it's needed most. I leave the can in the greenhouse, where the heat from the sun during the day and radiating back from the brick floor at night can "solarize" the tea. The warmth seems to be preferred by the plants over cold water, and I would do this routine of leaving the water in the can overnight even if didn't have the teabag in it.

Once you've made yourself responsible to a lot of plants, every good habit helps.

We have always been admirers of Ruth Stout, a rural Connecticut gardener who one day decided to plant without plowing. Her method was to put down hay of such thickness that weeds could not come through (this is 8 to 12 inches, my dears) and pull back the hay to work, in hills or rows, in what amounts to sheltered trenches with walls of hay. She triumphed over the dubious agricultural scientists by showing off her crops, often no more spectacular than those of her more conventional neighbors, but no less, and achieved with minimal watering and no fertilizing at all. The hay rots and/or feeds worms at the bottom, creating, she felt, a balanced diet for her plants).

We used to mention Ms. Stout to our friends, and they would respond: "Yes, but that was back East. Here the soil stays too cold when you do that, too many slugs live in the straw, it sprouts a lot of grass, and the plants tend to go yellow on you from lack of nitrogen, etc."

As time went on, we found that there was something to these objections.

Rows of beans or whatever cannot be planted as early in deep mulch as in bare earth, as there will be poor germination due to the clammy conditions. Slugs move in, in huge numbers, as they dislike crawling over bare earth but love hay. Our "hay" is straw, but weed seeds do live in it, and they do sprout, especially if you run low on straw for a year. And, sure enough, give the plants only a straw diet and they do seem starvish, especially if it's the first year.

We found, though, that we could modify the system and get some benefit.

We do turn over the garden with a fork, and then cover it with black plastic for six to eight weeks. This gives sod (which can form here even in winter) a chance to die, even in the rainy season, and kills a lot of weed seeds. It also raises the temperature of the soil. Then we strip off the plastic and immediately throw on the fresh straw. If it's over six inches deep there seems to be little to fear from compaction, so we've abandoned trying to maintain raised beds and paths -- with the straw, it's all one raised bed.

Meanwhile, the whole garden, except for peas, which can be direct sown, and white radishes ditto, is sprouting in two-inch pots in the greenhouse.

Along about Memorial Day, if we've managed to wait that long, we move the whole garden out to the garden, so to speak -- annuals to the beds, veggies to the round garden -- even the corn is grown in pots or flats to about five inches high, then moved out. Pick a spot, trowel down through the straw, pop in the plug, tamp, grab another pot and move on. The relatively cool earth is good for the roots, the straw protects the root collar and supports the stem, so there's little need for hardening off or even of flooding the transplants. There's very little shock, and the high reflectivity of the fresh straw provides plenty of strong light to the leaves from above and below, for good growth. The plants will still need nitrogen, though, so our next move is to top dress around them with rabbit or duck bedding, and provide a drink of one of our watering-can teas. After a week or two of this, the garden will be virtually maintenance-free right through harvest, just as Ruth Stout said it would be.

Oh, slugs. Yes, lots and lots. We have big brown leopard slugs, five to six inches long, medium-sized orange thingeys, and little tiny gray ones. There are also snails in stunning numbers, a mottled variety of very pretty appearance and quite large when full grown, as much as two-and-a-half inches in diameter. Of all these only the tiny grays do any harm, but they do enough for all -- more than the spotted cucumber beetles, which are numerous yet only a nuisance.

Beloved says the grays are babies of the orange ones, but I don't know how she knows that. Both turn up by fork or spade, from as deep as eight inches in the ground, in distressingly large numbers. And both are very, very fond of the straw.

I have tried the beer trick, and, yes, they like beer, but it's a tiring sort of work.

And the slugs don't care to travel far for their night of carousing, maybe because the ones on the far side of the garden haven't arrived yet when the dawn patrol kicks in. I have had success with slug bait, but it only seems to be potent for a day or so, so it's addictive, and not especially cheap.

And I suspect the stuff. What's in it? Aluminum sulphate? If I wouldn't eat it from a spoon, should I be spooning it over the garden?

I hate to admit it, but it took us a long time to notice that we have the ultimate answer to slugs right here. I was rooting around the foundation of the house a while back, and came up with one of those giant brown mottled snails, which I suspected of munching the flowers, and in a fit of pique threw the little beast over the duck fence.

The commotion that ensued was alarming.

The ducks were chasing one another in circles, with one duck in front trying to gobble the snail down while five other nipped and bashed at her in an effort to get her to drop the morsel. Aha! I ran into the house and did a bit of research. Yep. The preferred duck food above all foods, snails – and slugs. Another good reason to keep ducks. I immediately herded them to the garden, where they, hardly believing their good fortune, stayed busy for the next half hour. I would have kept them there longer, but they began eying the plants. There I drew the line.

For years, we were bamboozled by the term "fall planting." It conjured up an image of late September afternoons, dew on orb-weaver spiders' webs, and pumpkins taking on that golden sheen. The problem with putting in seeds for winter harvests in the fall is, of course, that the days are already too short for proper growth.

Eventually, perhaps in our reading, or just stumbling around in the garden, we caught on. Fall planting is done in high summer. Everything should put on height and weight before the short days. The trick is not to let the heat "bolt" things -- cause them to run to flower and try to set seed.

We've hung a shade over a bed, made from re-purposed burlap bags, and we'll hope that helps some.

I cut through the newspaper/straw mulch in one of the beds with a right-angled trowel. I'll make an opening in the mulch about seven inches in diameter. She spreads a handful of compost/potting soil mix on the spot, shake out a mix of seeds from my shaker -- beets, spinach, kale, chard, lettuce, kohlrabi, radishes, turnips, bok choi -- and spread a bit more potting soil over them, lightly, before moving on to the next spot. Later, I'll bring the watering can and soak each hill gently, with the rose of the can at ground level. With luck, in a month or so I'll get to thin the hills.

This isn't a perfect procedure. Lettuce, for example, really likes a bit more sunlight than this for sprouting. But we find that splitting the difference works okay, and gives us fewer things to have to think about. One size almost fits all, so to speak.

The resulting bed, as a rule, after thinning, has enough variety of plant life to confuse plant predators and to share space with different root systems going after different nutrients. The word for this is polyculture and we are trying it more and more.

92 in the shade ... head for the house.

1 comment:

  1. Nowadays I would not use the nicotine tea trick as it might more than insult the bees -- even though it's not a potent killer like neonicotinoids.