Sunday, December 31, 2017

Autumn Tilled Soil

Autumn tilled soil is a siren song of new beginnings, of all the weeds having gone, the dry soil a decent crumble, and flecks of organic matter the inkling of health. But that belies what is behind handing me this plot -a hardly improved repository of weed seeds set in heavy, wet clay. Few will offer a well managed tract, weeded and covered, manured and rotated, but this clean slate, its song, can inspire an inexperienced owner to have second thoughts about offering it at all.

Don't be fooled. The late summer reasoning behind offering this plot was organized by 3 foot weeds and unharvested vegetables. This plot is going to need work and I am here to make it work, but I've got eight hundred or so cloves to plant and only three days before freezing.

Before spending resources on compost, I turn to the handful of remaining dairy farmers only a few miles to our west. For most, it was late, it was wet, so try again next week, but one, the nearest one, would be ready before the freeze. I made six trips with a borrowed dump bed pickup, depositing nearly twenty five cubic yards of partially digested grasses, ochre slime and yellow maggots into a pile for decomposition. There was the good stuff, black and crumbly, but that was in the center of a ring of manure piles too wet to access. Should we want more, he said, come back when it's dry and he'll get the good stuff for 20 bucks a truck load. A steal, really, but not any good to me if I couldn't get to it before planting.

While loading, a presence must be felt at the open gate, or the cows could get ideas. If I lived in their mess, I would get ideas too. When faced with a 1200 plus pound animal, no matter how docile their eyes, a confident and ready stance is best.

In the low light of a mid November afternoon, the Bobcat disappears behind the barn, then snakes around cows, posts and tubs as it rolls through the gate toward the dump bed. The source a mystery, the barn its veil, the repeating pattern of travel suggested an infinite, sublime mountain of manure.

Temperatures in the low twenties at night froze the exposed soil, allowing the owner to spread the manure across his four thousand square foot plot. Afterward, his landscape tractor with tiller attachment turned the manure into the partially frozen clay, creating the chunky mixture, above. It was not the best preparation for the coming season, but it was a start better than not doing anything at all.

The soil had thawed ahead of the coming cold front, rendering wagons and wheelbarrows unusable as the clay gummed the wheels. Movement of soils and amendments would be made by shovel and a five gallon pail from this point onward. The soil was heavy, glued to the field, making lifting for raised beds a trial.

It was clear that the manure tilled into the clay was not enough to aerate the soil, so I decided to raise costs by bringing in four cubic yards of composted yard waste from a local composter. With shovel and bucket as the light grew dim, I spread compost along the length of two eighty foot beds.

Had I more time, more light, I may have finished the third bed, may have even moved the entire compost pile. But it was night at 5pm, and I had still to till the compost into each bed by the miniature miracle worker -a Mantis tiller (an unpaid endorsement!).

The next day, as the temperature descended, I prepared the final raised bed. Afterward I spread cornmeal to highlight the divots made by the wheeldib and, perhaps, to activate the microorganisms responsible for breaking down manure into an effective organic matter. Stooped, under cloudy skies, cloves were planted two by two. In the darkness of late afternoon more compost was spread to fill in the divots of newly planted cloves, then raked and tamped. Pro tip: an iPhone LED makes an excellent headlamp when used in conjunction with ear protection by placing it, pointing downward, under the head band. I finished as the temperature approached 20°.

Nearly a month later, I finally made it out to the rows to finish the signage. Old strains have been replaced by different strains, but the signs have never been updated. Grease pencil indicates that Rose DuVar is actually "silver" or Silverwhite, both Silverskin and color-coded orange.

Three years running, I've been lucky planting my garlic at the edge of too late. The night I finished planting, a snow fell, insulating the ground during a brief, but deep, cold snap. A few days later, the cold broke, and temps hovered between twenty five and forty degrees for roughly two weeks, after which another snow fell, insulating yet again. The snow has remained due to cloudy skies common to these meteorologically warm temperatures and the low-angled sunlight at this time of the year. For the last two weeks of December temperatures have been increasingly biting, down to -15° F this morning, but also a two to three inch layer of snow to keep the ground insulated. The straw will be used in late winter to inhibit spring weeds between the growing beds. 

Should none of this work, the season be too wet for a soil too heavy, I have planted a hedge in another neighbor's garden. The garlic must go on.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Gardening The Woods

There may have been a moment (or two) when I looked at my field of garlic, its plethora of weeds, its need for harvest, or even the bare soil in need of turning, and felt overwhelmed. Gardening the woods doesn't meet that level, it exceeds it. It is farm work spread over a decade -or more. In spring I garden the garlic mustard and in fall, I start on the buckthorn.

I refer to this process as gardening because restoration is a fallacy. There will be no restoration, only limited choices, however informed by research and good intentions. My work amounts to weeding, seeding, planting, observing and acting like any gardener would. My preference for plants native to this biome is practical and aesthetic. Practical because they are survivors that, once established, do not require my care. Aesthetic because they become part of the whole and offer surprises. I like the unexpected.

The oldest buckthorn trees line the edges of the sunny, wetland clearings where birds congregate and eat from a quantity of berries. Under roost trees, seed density can easily reach several hundred per square meter and sapling density averages 100 per square meter. As the birds move through the woods, so do their droppings. Consider the image, above, a map of bird roost sites, droppings turned young saplings in a green stream flowing north.

This panorama shows the stream of saplings progressing northward from the great wetland. It follows the bird flight pattern, but also the soil moisture of a seasonally flooded depression that in turn takes out trees that enables sunlight to hit the forest floor, increasing germination and growth. Yes, the buckthorn does grow up the slopes, perpendicular to the stream, but sporadically compared to the edges of the vernal pooling. However, in time and without my gardening, the whole of the area will become a thicket as these saplings mature and produce berries to seed the slopes.

It is early November, when all native deciduous plants have dropped their leaves in preparation for winter. This makes it simple to identify the greenery above as 100 percent buckthorn. On this southern slope, descending to the great wetland, the age diversity of buckthorn increases dramatically, topping out at mature, multi-stemmed, 25 foot trees at the wetland edge. Why such an incredible age difference merely 40 feet away? It may be because our woods have seen several mature oak trees come down over the last twenty five years, opening light to the forest floor and eliminating a thick cover of oak leaves that studies suggest limit buckthorn seed germination. More sun has broken the lowland canopy as our once considerable bank of green, black, and white ash trees die off due to emerald ash borer spreading since 2002. Dead or alive, felled trees take out additional trees as they come down, further enhancing the light hitting the forest floor.

An impenetrable thicket wasn't on this slope ten years ago. In summer, 2012 a thunderstorm took out two large oaks that were, maybe, 150 years old each. In five years this is what has become of the buckthorn seed bank.

The reason for Rhamnus cathartica's success? It outcompetes in photosynthesis, carbon gain, shade tolerance, light tolerance, moisture tolerance, earliest leaf out, latest leaf senescence, seed production, female to male ratios, age to fertility, germination rates, and mortality. It also germinates well in the particularly barren late summer soils of our mature forests, a by product of non native earthworms and growing deer populations. It's leaves are higher in nitrogen, decompose faster, and are eaten by the worms first, quickly cycling nutrients under buckthorn stands. It has no issue with anthropogenic disturbance. This plant does not create thickets in its native ranges, but it does in the midwest where it responds to fertile, calcium rich, mineral soils. As plants go, buckthorn has a lot going in its favor.

So why go after it? Why commit so much time and labor to removing it (no easy task)? Again, I liken it to the garden. Imagine your garden was only hydrangea, everywhere hydrangea, but this hydrangea never flowered and had thorns. Who would want a garden like that?