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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Dream of green things

Reposted from 2002; mostly written 1997. Also appears in Viewing Jasper Mountain

There is a small mountain about two miles from here that is covered with a network of trails, and is the centerpiece of an attractive county park. The mountain's south slope is a steep meadowland, interspersed with copses of black oak, and dotted with wild plum trees; the north slope is forested with second growth Douglas fir and carpeted with an understory of sword ferns, viney maples, and filberts gone wild.

We like to hike to the top, though each year we find the going a little harder, and look about us. Below, two rivers come together after dodging round the mountain toward each other. With binoculars we can find, in season, fishermen seeking steelhead and salmon.

To the north there is considerable urbanization; we can see at one glance the second largest metropolitan area in our state, but it is not unattractive as cities go, and we can forgive its noise and bustle for its not being any worse (yet) than it is.

To the south and east is the valley of one of the rivers, opening out of the foothills of a substantial and still very wild mountain range. In winter the eastern peaks are dusted white with snow, and present a dramatic and lovely scene; but our interest is generally drawn to the near view.

At our feet is a succession of habitats: the eastern ridge of the mountain, with Douglas fir forest to the left and oaks to the right, with perhaps a herd of deer placidly browsing in plain view; the meadowland within the park boundary, with a few pear trees left over from some farm venture in the previous century; the wetlands with its dark patches of sedge and the occasional blue heron.

Beyond are pastures, woodlots, filbert orchards, and fields used mostly for corn, hay, and grass seed farming. Threading among these, we see, are narrow roads along which are some two hundred houses, on properties of anywhere from one to two hundred acres, with their barns, outbuildings, and accumulated belongings left to the winter rains and summer sun: trucks, tractors, harrows, drift boats, and an occasional stove or washing machine. Most of us in this valley are not especially poor, but we are a thrifty people, many only two or three generations descended from pioneers, and we make but few trips to the county dump.

Almost no one here can earn a living from farming now.

We are an amalgam of loggers, retirees, and commuters. The commuters are of two classes: the professionals -- doctors, dentists, and the like -- and the rest. These are mostly school teachers, store clerks, and office workers.

Regardless of category, almost every one of us has a garden. We can see the gardens from the mountaintop: at every house, a brown patch within easy access of the kitchen door. Some of us have enough pasture for a horse or two, or a few steers; at Stony Run we have room for a flock of ducks and geese; but if there is nothing else, there is a garden. Gardens here have a priority over lawns. This is a thing we greatly admire in our neighbors.

If, like the people in our valley, you want to grow things, it can be a good idea to try to get an eagle's eye view. If no mountain is handy, try a map. Most gardeners know the dates of frost in their "zone," but there is much more to know. Find out the direction of the prevailing winds, the angle of winter sun, the temperature of June nights. Know the depth of the water table in August.

From the mountaintop we can see that the valley runs east and west, and that the river is nestled against the northern hills; among these is Jasper Mountain, which looks much smaller than from here than from our garden.
Our own little piece of land is in the middle distance, on the long glide of slope from the south hills to the river. There is a seasonal creek through the property, dry in summer and a raging torrent in winter. This means that we're in a low-lying spot, subject to the movement of air. In winter the wind comes from the southwest generally, in the form of Pacific storms laden with incessant rain. These winds chill the soil, and the water that drops from them saturates it and renders it clammy. Pools lie on the surface in winter with no place to drain away to, as the water table is even with the surface. Dig a post-hole anywhere and it fills to overflowing. So gardens tend to be planted late, well after the dates recommended on seed packets.

In summer the water table drops to ten, twenty, or even thirty feet, while the winds are continual, shifting daily from north to south. This is because of our mountain ranges. The sun heats the slopes, and air rises, drawing air away from the river bottom. At night, this air cools and sinks back down along draws and creek valleys toward the river.

Gardens in this drainage must be almost continually watered, as the tender plants are subject to drying out. Watering is more frequent than the books recommend; corn begins wilting within a day of its last soaking. At night the wind stops, but heat radiates away quickly among the glitterings of the stars, and temperatures can drop into the forties (Fahrenheit) by morning, even if it's been close to a hundred degrees during the day.

All this gives tomato lovers fits. But we persist.

The wiser among us build wooden fences, or hedge their gardens about with shrubbery or even hay bales, to combat the winds and the heat loss. A heavy mulch would help, but the main mulching material is straw. The straw available locally contains a lot of weed seeds, and it invites tremendous armies of slugs and snails of all sizes. No one seems to care for black plastic, which takes a lot of fiddling with in the shifting winds, or newspaper, so most of the gardeners keep their soil bare and cultivated. The majority use herbicide to control grass, which is the primary weed; I have reason to believe herbicide is the greater evil in this case, and use the straw mulch, trying to stay just ahead of the weeds by piling on more.

The vetch that we planted last fall for green manure is intact, as are the piles of leaves and the compost bin. The wintered-over red chard is still usable, and our Detroit Red beets are superb. Meanwhile, our first harbingers of spring -- elephant garlic, growing from those tiny cloves that stay in the soil when we pull the crop -- have sprung from the cold, heavy soil, dotting the view from our kitchen window like randomly dibbled irises. And on the rainy nights, between the gusts of Pacific wind, we can hear the first chirruping choruses of the green tree frogs. We found one once in high summer, napping as it were, on the shore of a pond of water in the angle of a sunflower leaf. Their sound is, to us, a promise of sunflowers yet to come. we fall asleep to their frantic cheeping, and dream of green things growing in the sun.

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