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Tuesday, July 23, 2002

Duck feed


Beloved and I 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 the response was always the same: "Yes, but that was back East. Here, the soil stays too cold when you do that, there are too many slugs that live in the hay, 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 so little shock that there's almost no wilt or slowdown in growth, and the high reflectivity of the fresh straw provides plenty of strong light to the leaves, 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 greys 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 greys 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?

Good for blueberries but not for tomatoes, and tomatoes is where I need it. I could spread lime to fight it, but that takes thinking ahead -- it takes maybe six months for the lime to weather down enough to feed plants.

I hate to admit it, but I'm enough of a townie not to have known from the start that I 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 food above all foods, slugs included. Another good reason to keep ducks. I immediatel hereded them to the garden, where they, harly 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.

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