Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Infinite Possibilities of Space

When we lived in Michigan, our plot of land was tiny. The house was a mere 1400 square feet, and the property line extended just four feet from one side of the house and 10 feet on the other. The front and back yards were so confined that I actually purchased a reel mower and could complete the entire job in 15 minutes. When it came to gardening, I had to consider space carefully. I squeezed things into the tightest spots and wished, like all gardeners do, that I had more space. That was my primary focus when we went house-hunting in Florida. 

The lot in Orlando was decidedly bigger, but it never felt big enough. I wanted apple trees but had to limit myself to espaliering them. I bought a fig tree and worried it would outgrow the space. I wanted other fruit trees but realized that if I gave in to my desires, we would have no yard at all. 

And now we're here on five acres. I've always known that five acres is a sizable piece of land, especially after living on property so small it had to be measured in square feet, but the understanding of how much space I now have just hit me this afternoon. I was a little awe-struck, if not a little giddy, too.

New residents on the farm

This bolt of comprehension struck when I walked up to the garden today to check on the recent additions I made this weekend. I now have two fig trees, two plum trees, and three blueberry bushes, all appropriately spaced from one another. I was admiring how nice they made the area look when my eyes wandered to the vast open space beyond this new grove. I no longer have to restrict myself based on space. The only concern that can dissuade me from adding something else is whether a particular fruit tree is susceptible to blight or requires chemical spraying for any real success. It's all very exciting, but it comes with great responsibility, too. I've lost one censor that kept me from going a little wild, so I must tread carefully.

The same is true for the rest of the property and flowers. I cast my eyes upon a space, and suddenly I see the turf removed and a massive flower bed in its place. I assure myself that Turfman won't oppose me since there would still be so much grass left for him to fret over. I really can hardly contain myself, so I must focus on areas that are already cultivated to keep from taking these flights of fancy.

Here are just a couple of spots that are coming on quite nicely. Hopefully they will keep you occupied you and keep me away from the nursery and out of trouble.

The front flower beds are filling in


Anxiously awaiting the arrival of sugar snap peas



Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Decline that Promises Something New

October is my favorite month of the year. I've been inclined to think that good things come in October, largely because it's the month that saw the birth of my brother, one of my stepsons, and one of my nieces. It also has signaled a clear shift in seasons, a reprieve, no matter where I have lived. In Florida, where seasons bleed into one another, making it difficult to determine when one has ended and other has begun, October was the month when we could finally open the doors and welcome the fresh, cooler air of outdoors. It saw the harvesting of vegetables that I couldn't grow through the summer, such as peppers, tomatoes, and corn. In cooler climes, we looked forward to the colorful cloak that the trees put on in October, an incredible mix of red, orange, and yellow, before the leaves fell to the ground and made a crunch underfoot.

I love the grey sky days of fall, the bite of cooler air, the spices that I seem to smell in the kitchen, a reminder of celebrations to come. I love the middle of the semester, after mistakes have been made but before the final sentence has been passed and when the proverbial ship can still be righted. I love the promise of October.

We finally got rain this week--real rain. It wasn't the pathetic little showers that lasted for five or ten minutes in summer, that brought raindrops which merely smacked the hard Georgia clay, never penetrating the ground but always evaporating in the heat. The rain on Monday night and Tuesday lasted 12 hours or more. It was a heavy, consistent, nourishing rain. It made the pond look a little less desperate. I don't have any photos of the pond at its worst. I couldn't bring myself to chronicle its demise. I hope that saying it was no more than two inches deep will suffice. The new photos, however, are encouraging. The pond has expanded its margins by at least five feet on all sides, swallowing most of the opportunistic sedge grass that grew as the pond declined.

Before it looked like a mud pit. Now it looks like a flooded
area.

But it's a pretty flooded area.

As the leaves fall, I run around the property with rake in hand, scooping up the leaves and filling bags and trash cans (with appropriate drain holes) to make leaf mould. I walked down the driveway today with the wheelbarrow and rake to collect a huge pile of fallen pine needles which provided the six inches of mulch I needed to cover the garlic I planted a few days ago.

Free mulch!

October may begin the season of decline, but it is already producing the promise of future growth.






Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Listening to the Garden

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring 
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
                                             --T. S. Eliot, "Four Quartets"

I sent my students outside today with their notebooks and pens. I too often find them checking their smart phones for texts or hear them coming into class, their music blaring from their earphones, announcing their arrival well before they pass through the doorway. So many of them seem on edge, desperate for any kind of distraction at every second. In response to my asking, "What would happen if you turned off your phone for 40 minutes?" some have replied that they would likely have 30 increasingly insistent text messages from their mothers demanding that they account for their whereabouts and lack of immediate response. It all seems like a life of not-so-quiet desperation. They miss things, even though they believe that their technology keeps them completely informed.

So I sent them outside. Their instructions were to find a place to sit and observe the details of their surroundings, to record what they experienced using a thesis that I supplied for them. The results were rather surprising. One student, upon returning to the classroom, said, "I didn't even know there were birds on campus." Several remarked on the very fine smell of freshly-cut grass. One of my favorite responses was from a student who heard the repetitive thwack of flip-flops smacking against the feet of a student hurrying into the building. Most agreed that they had discovered things they never noticed in their time on campus.

I've been terribly busy lately, the kind of busy that makes the days melt into one another until I can barely recall any part of my schedule, past or future. So when I came home today, I gave myself the same assignment. I went outside and sat in the vegetable garden. I didn't pull weeds or consider where the next planter bed should go. I just sat down. I heard the quiet hiss of the water flowing from the drip irrigation. I admired the widely varied leaf forms of radishes and carrots, of beets and peas and lettuce. I felt the hot, dusty, dry clay beneath my hands as I leaned against a planter bed. I heard the neighbor working in his barn, a shuffling noise in the distance. In short, I wasted time, and it was delicious.

The beet leaves are absolutely stunning

Peas, radishes, carrots, and beets, all growing together
in harmony

The first small fruits of our labor,
'French Breakfast' radishes













Link to My Podcast Debut

I was recently invited to take part in an episode of the gardening podcast "Back to My Garden." It was quite a flattering invitation, and I had a lovely time chatting with the creator and host, Dave Ledoux. You can find our conversation here: http://BackToMyGarden.com/26

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Rain Dance

We finally got rain three nights ago. I know this only because when I opened the laundry room door to take the girls for their morning walk on Monday, I was surprised to find the walkway around the porch wet. It took a moment or two for this register in my mind as an indicator of precipitation. It's been so long since we've had any measurable rain that I felt a bit as if I were in a dream. When the reality sank in, I shouted to Turfman as if someone had left us a pile of cash outside our door.  We quickly began investigating other areas of the property to get some idea of just how much it had rained, a little disappointed at having slept so soundly through the night and missing the big event. All indicators suggested that we had gotten a reasonable amount. It wasn't until I returned home from work to find the ground in the vegetable garden still wet that I realized we could consider it a substantial downpour. The rain finally arriving was a surprise at first, but having had some time to consider the situation, I'm pretty sure I know what brought the rain.

I've always held the belief that if I didn't want it to rain, I just have to carry an umbrella with me. If I'm prepared for it, not a drop will fall. Very recently I had come to the conclusion that it may never rain here again. To that end, I spent a day this past weekend installing a drip irrigation system for the vegetable garden. If the rain refused to come, I would bring the water to my garden. I could no longer handle running around, as Alan Titchmarsh once put it in his gardening show, "like a scalded cat," trying to keep everything from withering in the parched soil. I had to make a big purchase of a splitter for the outdoor spigot, a two zone timer, and a 75' garden hose to reach the front edge of the garden. That's where I began hooking up the brilliant system components that DIG Corporation sent me a while ago when I won a contest they sponsored. (The drip irrigation system is something else I packed up and brought with me from the Orlando garden.) I laid the main 1/2" poly tubing around the perimeter of the garden where the "wall" will eventually be (lots to look forward to) and then cut a line across to the first planter bed. As I drop each new planter in, I'll splice into the perimeter water line to install another drip line. In fact, I'll be doing that tomorrow night since I just finished another planter in time for the seedlings I've been growing in modules to be planted out.

The new drip line in place


The first planter now has a twin…whose wood needs to
age a bit.

When I surveyed my work, I felt justifiably smug. "Ha!," I thought. "Who needs you, stinking rain? I can take care of everything myself!"And so the timer opened the valve every six hours to deliver 10 minutes of gently dripping water to my little seedlings. By Sunday night, the ground finally looked like garden soil instead of the hideous dust that I had been handling.

And then it rained. It rained enough so that the garden was still damp on Monday night. I had to turn off the spigot to avoid drowning my seedlings. It rained Tuesday night, but a little lighter. I didn't have to open the water valve again until this evening. 

Just like carrying an umbrella--reverse rain psychology.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Signs of Progress

I have a grand vision for the vegetable garden. I drew it out on graph paper almost two months ago. When it was finally finished, I wondered if I were even capable of bringing it to life. It requires careful measuring and marking, quite a lot of lumber, and a significant amount of physical labor. Normally, I am undaunted by such projects, but there's something that makes this particular project especially difficult--I have a full-time job now.

I am grateful for the job. After all, it gives me the ability to buy the lumber and soil necessary for building the garden, but it slows my progress almost more than I can bear. For the first two weeks after our neighbor had plowed the area for the garden, I really didn't want to see it. It felt too much like an indictment, a testament of my inability to manage my time wisely. I found it difficult to get started with the building, knowing that my incredibly slow pace would keep me from completing the project until next spring. But I reminded myself in a sort of persistent pep talk last week that it has to start at some point. So I picked up the lumber necessary to build one planter bed.

Here she is, Planter Bed #1.

I built it using untreated 2"x 6" lumber for the sides and capping it with 2" x 4" boards. Before anyone raises a big fuss, I do understand that untreated lumber will not last as long as pressure-treated. I'm an organic gardener, and I just don't want the chemicals from pressure-treated lumber in my garden. Instead, I treated it with a homemade olive oil and beeswax wood preservative. It's a bit of an experiment, but it's worth a try.

The bed is pretty large, considering the size of my planters in Orlando. At 4' x 10', it's more than double the size of anything I had previously built, but in the larger space, it looks really small. That just spurs me to build another planter this weekend to give this first one a mate and to balance out what is becoming the garden. 

One lonely planter in a very large field

The other problem that is driving me to build another bed so soon is that I already need more planting space. After we filled the first bed with a good mix of the garden's soil and some manure, bone meal, and kelp meal, I quickly went to work planting seeds for beets, sugar snap peas, radishes, and carrots. Now it's full.

The first radishes are peeking through already

A whole seed module tray is planted up, too, and with those seedlings starting to put on their first full set of leaves, they'll be needing a permanent home soon. That's why the second planter is first on the priority list this weekend. Well, that and the fact that a shipment of seed garlic is due to arrive next week. Things are getting a little urgent around here. 

Young seedlings in the market for a new home

So we may be moving along really slowly, but there are definite signs of progress in the garden. I'm sure that a year from now, I'll look at what we've built and be amazed.




Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Good Tractors Make Good Neighbors

Our new neighbor from the property behind us likes that I like to talk manure. He says it's a rare thing to find someone who knows the true value of horse manure. When I first drove up to bring them homemade bread and introduce myself, he asked me about my plans for a productive garden. Then he looked me square in the face and said, "You're going to mark out where you want this garden. Then I'll come down with my tractor and plow, and I'll plow under the field for you. And then we're going to do what neighbors hardly ever do anymore but should: we're going to garden together." Every good relationship should begin with manure and gardening, I say.

A couple of weeks ago, that's just what he did. We removed all the hunks of grass that had been torn out by the plow. He came back a few days after that with a tiller attached to the tractor, and he tilled the plowed soil.  We removed as many rocks as we could. He tilled again a few days after that.

The garden begins with Zoey inspecting
the work. (Photo courtesy of Turfman.)

As much as we love Cisco, our neighbor horse, we doubted his ability to produce the amount of manure that we need for the new garden. So we drove a little way one Sunday to pick up horse manure from a facility that boards and trains horses. It was absolutely amazing just how quickly our truck bed filled with manure when the owner used his Bobcat to load us up. We covered the pile with our tarp as best as we could, but I was a little worried about the drive home. I fretted the whole way that we were flinging poo on everyone down I-75. Imagine my extreme horror when I looked in my side mirror and saw a State Trooper. "Slow down," I said. "We can't fling poo on an officer." Thankfully, we arrived home with just about every scrap of poo in place.

Tippy and I are now officially knee deep in poo

Now the area is ready for a garden to be built around it. I had carefully drawn out a design for the garden on my graph paper, but something has been nagging at me a bit. I've been questioning whether we all need to spend so much money on building our vegetable gardens. Then I came across this article about our obsession with raised vegetable planters, and I feel a little stuck. I'm not sure how I will proceed with the design now. The original plan calls for a number of raised beds built from 2x8s. I considered dropping down to 2x6s, but I'm not sure that accomplishes much. I've been perusing photos of the walled kitchen garden at Prince Charles's Highgrove Estate for inspiration. I have to make a decision soon since I have a whole bunch of seedlings peeking their heads out of their little greenhouse beds and hoards more seeds arriving in the mail this week. I shudder when I think about the garlic that will arrive a few days later. Something must be done this weekend. It's getting a little urgent here.

Any suggestions?