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Thursday, April 08, 2010

An embarrassment of riches


A neighbor, who is in her 80s, has half an acre of grass she wants to keep mowed, and can't really afford to pay to have it done. It's never been sprayed, and the clippings have been left to mulch for decades. Nice soil. So, the last couple of years, we've been mowing for her and taking the clippings in exchange for the work -- an arrangement that seems suitable to all concerned.

It's not a sustainable procedure, ultimately, as her sod is not getting its customary feed -- our garden is. Agriculture is like that. All over the planet, we rob Petra and and pay Paula, and, just to mix metaphors here, everyone hopes to be able to sit down when the music stops.

But for now, our neighbor's yard seems likely to hold out awhile. Meanwhile our garden gets to eat, without resorting to some corporate giant's wildly destructive and really unsustainable notions about what counts as plant food.

Last fall we covered it with opened and flattened cardboard boxes and covered that with straw. Shredded leaves went over the beds, and in late winter, the barn bedding went on over the leaves. Now the clippings are being used over the bedding, right over the humps of bedding that were used to cover the chitted seed potatoes, which will have no trouble finding their way up through the straw and clippings.

These clippings, being reasonably organic, contain wintered-over leaves and twigs from Douglas fir, oak, ash, cottonwood, willow, wild cherry, oleander, ocean spray, flowering quince, blackberries, English bluebells, chickweed, wild chamomile, wild mint, yarrow, Queen-Anne's-Lace, wild rose, moss, lichens, and who knows what else besides an assortment of grasses. Weed seeds, if any, are few at this time of the year.

A wheelbarrow full of clippings will get hot overnight; Risa has been known to plunge her hands into the stuff as a treatment for arthritis pain. The center of a load or heap will begin composting right away, and become anaerobic and slimy. So she doesn't leave piles of it around but takes it straight to the garden to spread relatively thin, so that it will break down slowly and thus serve as a combination compost and mulch.

Spread over the garden, it's a diverse environment of a kind, and rots down into such an array of trace nutrients that the PH of the garden always tends toward neutral, and we've never seen any sign of nitrogen deficiency. Undoubtedly the chicken manure in the bedding cancels out any nitrogen loss from the rot-down of grass clippings. We're not sure and also we're not worried.

And you should see the worms! The cardboard especially seems to attract them, and when it's gone they start in on dessert. There are three basic kinds here.

The big brown ones with the eel-like tails are nightcrawlers. They retreat deep underground during the day, but if you go out on a damp night with a headlamp on its red-LED setting, or a flashlight with a thin film of red plastic over the lens, you should be able to see many of them up close, lying half out of their holes. Touch one and it zips away quickly. If you have fast and unsqueamish hands, you can collect a very effective fish bait this way.

Another kind is smaller, greyish and translucent, and a bit lazy. These, I'm told, are the common garden worm. We find them in tough sod that does not much attract nightcrawlers, but they do prefer the permanent-mulch garden.

The true test of garden richness, though, is the presence or absence of red worms. Smaller yet than the garden worms, and very squirrelly when brought to light, these prefer compost or manure. I've heard them called manure worms or red wigglers, and both names seem accurate. They're pointy at both ends and reddish with orangey rings, like striped pajamas. Red worms will find, and concentrate in, your compost heaps and manure piles, but if you find them in your garden beds, then you have created some very good soil. Their approval may be the highest compliment your micro-farming can receive.

In the picture, you can see Risa went overboard planting out elephant garlic. Sometimes she pulls a smaller one, peels and eats it on the spot. Other times she'll bring one in, to dice very small and add to the potatoes and eggs. But if more of the stuff gets in the way of other plans than we can eat, out it comes and into the compost barrel. We think there is nothing more fun than deciding what to do with an embarrassment of riches.

"If every restaurant got just ten percent of its food from local farmers," Tod boldly proposed, "the infrastructure of corporate food would collapse."

Ten percent seemed like a small pebble to aim at Goliath's pate. Lily picked up her spoon and dipped into Rock Bottom Farm's maple ice cream. We could hear the crash of corporate collapse with every bite. Tough work, but somebody's got to do it. -- Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Vegetable Miracle

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