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Monday, May 05, 2008

Not too tiring if done right

[posted by risa]

Ah, a little bit of sunshine. But Saturday I went to an all-day meeting in Salem.

Sunday, naturally, I went berserk.

Most of the activity centered around the beds we're expanding/reviving to increase our veggie production.

Most of the veggie gardening has been confined, in recent years, to a circular garden fifty feet in diameter. But as we pay more and more attention to the idea of living, year round, on home production, we find ourselves spilling over into containers and the flower beds.

There's room between the house and the grape arbor for four or more 4' beds fifty feet long. That's a lot of room. Constraints have been: water conservation, enough time. We think we can water more garden, with a little planning. And we will just have to make the time.

The perennial beds will remain mostly in flowers, as Beloved loves her bulbs and perennials (I do, too) and likes to have them along the paved pathway from the driveway to the house. I notice she's put a lot of brassicas, especially a variety of lettuces, into one of them, though.

The third bed has been mostly peas and scarlet runners for the last decade. We're widening this one, and this spring it will contain sugar snap peas and scarlet runners, kind of in succession, down the middle, on a framework of poles and wire, and onion sets, beets, spinach and potatoes on the margins. I've built a fourth bed and this one will have the peas and beans down the middle, with radishes and beets, and four rows of potatoes (Yukon Gold and the little thin-skinned red ones) along the margins. These are the early garden and with successful succession plantings, fall-winter as well.

This last bed is a sod-busting project, as what was there before was a failed blueberry planting and we hadn't had the heart to try again there for awhile. The site has a dark, very heavy clay topsoil that drains well compared to the summer garden and can be worked earlier. Even so, it would be too wet to mechanically till until some time in June, so tilling is not really an option. We draped black plastic over it during the late winter, then turned over the sods in chunks about six inches by ten, using a general purpose long-handled five-tine fork. This is what's known as "spading" but I never do it on this scale with a spade (compacts the soil and kills too many earthworms) or "spading" fork (all the ones I've seen have short handles and will hurt your back).

This is a rhythmical and satisfying activity, not too tiring if done right, bending knees, applying leverage, and not trying to lift clay with one's lower back. It's difficult to describe but easy to demonstrate. 1) Tip out one or more turves to make a start hole. 2) "step" the fork into the earth three inches away from the hole, push the fork forward to rip the roots and corms of the grass in your chunk away from those in the ground nearer you. 3) pull back, to lift away the bottom of your turf from the ground beneath. 4) Draw the turf to you, leaning back and using the straightening of your legs to lift the turf. 5) push the turf off the fork tines with your foot. 6) Turn the turf upside down with the fork, poke the tines into it, and drop it into the hole, with the roots exposed to the sun. 7) Repeat till you reach the end of the bed. 8) go back to the beginning, where you lifted out the first turves, start a hole adjacent to the first one, and begin again.

You'll have leftover turf, which can be used to level any low spots in the rough bed before chopping.

This is not the "double digging" described in all the books, but it seems to do the job, just as my bread seems to do fine without the "second rising" the bread books all talk about.

I then chopped up the chunks with a spade, then covered the whole bed with grass clippings four inches deep. Down the middle of the bed, after the clippings had dried to a tan color, I raked back the mulch to make a row about four inches wide, and spread about a half-inch layer of potting soil for a seedbed. Walking along with a piece of aluminum tubing about four feet long, I dropped radish and beet seeds and peas down the pipe, on about a two-inch spacing, then shoveled on another half-inch of potting soil, and tamped it all down with the spade handle (d-ring). And watered gently with a very light manure tea.

The seed potatoes, which I had "slipped" (cut into pieces with one or more "eyes" each) the night before, went into two rows on each side of the pea row by being tucked under the mulch at ten-inch intervals.

Each bed runs north and south, and has in it three iron tee-posts in a line, with a medium-gauge wire strung between them and staked into the ground at the ends for tautness. As the peas come up, I stake them with suckers cut from filbert, willow, and ash trees. Some years these will sprout, and I re-use them after their garden duty as reforestation seedlings. The production of these suckers for this kind of use is something of a lost art, known as "coppicing." It's a low-cost-high-efficiency way to provide yourself with stakes, kindling, and even firewood.

The circular garden currently harbors some of our perennial foods (elephant garlic, Jerusalem artichoke, several varieties of chard, celery, onions and Egyptian onions) and we have been eating from it daily, but at this time of the year, mostly what I do there is add layers of grass clippings to the mulch and attend to the sod-building grasses that invade (no doubt from seeds imported with the clippings -- sigh).

In another month, God-willin-and-the-crick-don't-rise, we'll do the summer things: beans, corn, squash, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and such.

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