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Monday, April 22, 2002

Till/no till

I used to despair of ever getting the garden tilled. Here in western Oregon it generally rains, rains, and rains until about the fifth of July. Throughout this time, if you pick up a handful of "dirt" and drop it, like the tilling manuals say, it will hit the surface with a wet splapp!! -- just like a Better Boy tomato -- thus failing the ready-to-till test.

So, what's a gardener to do?

We have weeds like nobody has weeds. You can hear them growing at night. Neighbors like to lean on the fence, shake their heads, and say, "Oh, my. Need some herbicide in there!" Well, thanks but no thanks; we had a serious run of birth defects among tree planters' families back in the seventies, including mine, and it turned out to have something to do with the herbicides that were used to keep the clear-cuts free of brush. I figure the big chemical companies owe me about forty thousand dollars so far, but let's just say for now, no herbicides on this place, thank you.

So, ok, what to do? I learned, some years ago, by trial and error, that with a long-handled potato fork I could "spade" wet ground: the tines don't seem to compress the soil the way an actual spade does. I turned the clumps upside down, and the roots of sod and weeds, ripped by the fork rather than cut off cleanly by a spade, stood upside down naked in the sunlight, rapidly drying up, a satisfying scene of mayhem. But the earth itself remained stubbornly cold and damp, even for peas.

Something more was needed.

During one hot, dry summer not too long ago, I tried to water my plants from little irrigation ditches, as I had seen done in a garden book somewhere, but the plants were drying up anyway, because the rows were too far apart for the ditches to have any effect.

A little exploration with a spade taught me what most of you old-time gardeners already knew: most of the water goes straight down.

You have to water the roots of a plant to do it any good, because if the watering is hitting the ground just a little outside the reach of the plant, it will miss the roots entirely as it goes by on its way to the aquifer.


If I can water only straight down, said I to myself, then I can also DRY straight down. As with sun and shade, you can manipulate water levels by opening up or blocking paths for water -- or rain!

The next winter I bought some stuff I had been avoiding: sheet plastic. 4-mil black and clear. I experimented with both, spreading them over various areas of the garden, and found that the clear plastic seemed to actually encourage weed growth, though it did dry out the soil enough to till.

The black plastic seemed far superior. Every green thing underneath it died, and stayed dead, though worms did not seem to be at all discouraged, and moved about underneath quite freely. I've since heard that the clear does work, but it has to be tucked under the earth around all the edges -- absolutely all -- in order to deny air to the weeds and get enough temperature to kill them and their seeds. The black plastic seems much less effort.

When I don't have enough to do the whole surface of the garden (which is always), I spread out what I've got, and three weeks later, go back, pull all the the plastic away, till the dry spot, and spread the plastic over the next space for the next three weeks. Thus there is always some earth dry enough to work, even in constant rain.

Meanwhile the clear plastic comes in handy after all. In the freshly prepared ground, I can plant whatever rows of seeds interest me at the time, let it rain on them one night for sprouting, then cover the rows with a sheet of clear plastic for three to six days so the seeds won't drown, then remove. And voilá! A garden up and running, even as the cold rainwater keeps up its endless running from the downspouts round the house. Where there is a will, I suppose, there is almost always a way. Now if I could just find a way to keep my wellies from loading up ten pounds of clay every time I go outside!

Tuesday, April 02, 2002


A few years ago, we felt we should reduce our "acreage" in the main garden, so I took an iron rod, set it up in the approximate middle, and with a rope attached to the rod, made a circle about sixty feet across, planting garlic to mark the edge as I went. The garlic is up now, and one can see the size of the garden-to-be. Beloved came out to see what I had done.

"Whoa! That's way too small! ... where do the brassicas go?"

"Right here."

"Uh-huh. And the squash?"

"Sort of over here."

"Right. And the cucumbers, -- and -- and -- where does the pumpkin patch go?" Her voice seemed a bit at this point.

"Right back problem, really! Honest!"

"And your corn, beans, tomatoes and potatoes?"

"Uh, well, I thought I'd revive my little beds up in the orchard."

"I thought we were going to have a 'smaller' garden!"

"Well, that's what I remember us both saying, so I've cut this one in half. But if you need it all, I can always go back there. And the trees will need watering anyway, so I might as well..."

Etc., etc.

I figured, with all the quart jars of tomato sauce still in the pantry, I can get by on only four tomato plants this year. But I've already got a flat of two-inch pots. I

f they all make it, that's 32 plants.

Who's going to kill 28 of those little lovelies?

But let me tell you about our first year here.

I had a big tiller at the time, and dug up not one but three gardens. Beloved got the well-draining little one for spring and fall brassicas and peas, I got the orchard one, and we both got the big one. I decided to put out four kinds of tomatoes: Romas, Better Boys, Sweet 100's and some vining cherries.

So I did a flat of each, figuring on some die-off. Nope. All healthy little beasties. This was early in February, as I was having some kind of light-deprivation fit and had to grow something. So I spent the spring mostly repotting and repotting until the tomatoes were shoving the lids off the cold frames.

After ruthlessly giving away all the plants that anyone who knew me would take, I still had 72 tomato plants. So I put them all in the ground. I had forgotten to lime, so there was some blossom-end rot, but not much, as it had fallowed a few years. There were tomatoes, tomatoes, and tomatoes. Big ones, little ones, round ones, pointy ones. I gathered all the pointy ones and sauced till I dropped.

The pantry shelves groaned.

I chased the kids through the cherries and Sweet 100's and told them that was their dinner for tonight -- and all month, same menu. I sliced the big round ones and added them to every conceivable dish. But more kept coming.

One day, late in August, I picked a perfect one-pound Better Boy and looked at it in misery and disgust. A surfeit of your favorite things will, sooner or later, turn you against them, and with a kind of strangled cry I pitched the tomato as high in the air as it would go. It came down in the middle of the duck pen with a satisfying splapp! of water-balloonish disintegration.

One of the ducks ambled over to see what the fuss was all about. Idly, almost absentmindedly, she nipped at the remnants of the once-proud Better Boy. I could almost see, from across the creek, her small eyes widen.


She burbled to the others in Duckish, which was a mistake, as the others came boiling out of the shade to take the rest of the prize from her.

Ah, said I to myself. Duck food! I threw bombs into the sky with abandon, and as three were coming down among the ducks, three more were launching into the air. At about this moment the neighbor, a tradition-minded stalwart citizen of some seventy-two years, decided he had better investigate.

"So, uh, what are we doing today?" came his voice, from right behind the merry bomber's back.

"Oh, hi, Mr. Trueblood! Feeding the ducks!" I launched three more missiles. The ducks, who by now had gorged themselves, showed no further sign of appetite and were mostly just dodging the incoming shells.

"Right. Feeding the ducks. Well, nice weather, huh?" He watched me closely for signs of more erratic behavior, but none was forthcoming; my arms were tired.

Every day until frost, though, I fed the ducks. It was good for my pitching arm, they clearly liked tomatoes a great deal, and were good for about fifteen Better Boys a day.

The next year, I put in thirty-two plants.

The year after that, sixteen.

This year, four for sure. Well, maybe eight?


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