Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Peach Blossom Spring

Things move slowly, we know, but still we expect change to come quickly. Yet quickly comes change, not often the kind we anticipate.

I am now, roughly a year, working in education at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Here stands the red barn, a relic of an old farm since annexed. The tracks lead you to the Tashjian Bee and Pollinator Center, where we hold classes for adults in a variety of subjects connected to the institutional mission and serve thousands of school children every year. My focus is the advancement and deepening of photography education. I develop classes, hire teachers, and offer insight wherever I have more than two cents to offer. This satellite of the main campus is in development around agriculture, home grown produce, cooking and methods for preservation. It soon will not be the quiet place it appears to be, but occupied by new buildings, agriculture extension staff, visitors, chefs, meals, and fields of produce. Change here will come quickly.

At home, winter is still thick as the lake ice under trucks and shacks. Two years ago this area was cleared to put up the new shop and studio. In 2016 I fall-planted milkweed and transplanted goldenrod, then winter-seeded a mix of savanna seeds in early 2017. By summer we had five foot tall goldenrod, the quickly germinating black-eyed susan, and the beginnings of a more complex blend of plants. I weeded to keep out the Canada thistle, canary reed grass and other more mysterious upstarts.

The winter snow has been permanent, cold as it has been, sheltering the seeds of milkweed, golderod, rudbeckia, and monarda fistulosa. It is one way to plant, if you can give it over to the plants and their fecundity or lack of it. If you want to get plants going with an efficient use of a dollar, avoid buying plants, bare roots, or the daunting germination codes M, E, F, G, or ?, stay off wet soils, weed when needed, and let the plants do the work.

The tiny seeds of eastern forest native Lobelia siphilitica, great blue lobelia, collected from the garden last fall. Despite having enough of these self-seeding, locally native plants to start new colonies, I am seeding it in trays this April because it will do well in sunny, wet soils and shady, mesic zones, is untouched by deer, is competitive with weeds and, with luck, garlic mustard and thistle. These seeds have the germination code C(60) and D, meaning that they will require cold stratification (as in nature) of at least 60 days, they are quite small and may require light to germinate. I will regret mixing these with damp silica sand, as they are... quite small. Next time, all code D seeds will be put on damp, white coffee filters for stratification.

In addition to the fifteen or so species collected, bagged and stratifying as I write, another twenty species has arrived from the local native seed supplier, Prairie Moon, yesterday. My first season I concentrated on milkweeds, last year on forbs and grasses, and this upcoming season on forbs and sedges. All are intended for woods, savanna, or wetland edge gardening as I make small dents in the garlic mustard and buckthorn. Come April, these seeds will be greenhouse trayed for sprouting, then moved outside. Most won't be planted until late summer or early fall in locations previously cleared of weeds.

I will end this rambling with a bit of a poem by Tao Yuanming -the 4th century writer of The Peach Blossom Spring, a tale of utopia in a time of political disunity.

The myriad transformations
unravel one another
And human life
how should it not be hard?
From ancient times
there was none but had to die,
Remembering this
scorches my very heart.
What is there I can do
to assuage this mood?
Only enjoy myself
drinking my unstrained wine.
I do not know
about a thousand years,
Rather let me make
this morning last forever.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Squirrel Appreciation Day

A few days ago it was squirrel appreciation day, but I cannot imagine that it is all too popular. We spend some time each morning watching our squirrels -their worst offense is digging up the mix of moss, creeping charlie, and grass that we call lawn in search of something to eat. We cut them some slack since the past two years have produced nearly no acorns.

This guy, above, is a Fox Squirrel. This large, solitary squirrel wakes up every morning to cross the garden, climbing 30 feet up an oak to harass a female snuggled in her drey. She pops her head out, and he prances about the nest, until getting on with the day's business of remembering where he filed his cache.

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.