Let me tell you a story.
When we first bought our house five years ago, I went to turn over the area of lawn I wanted to make into our garden and ended up breaking the shovel, the soil was so compacted. I finished turning over that postage stamp sized patch of hard packed ground with a pick axe, a thankless task that took three hours. (Daughter no. 2 is standing next to me reading over my shoulder and is howling with laughter. Ha ha.)
For the next several years, I dutifully kept this garden mulched as heavily as I could to increase the soil biota, and every time I changed crops, I would dig it over as deeply as I could and add more compost. Sometimes a little was all I had, sometimes I had a lot. I would also amend with a broad spectrum fertilizer and calcium lime each time. Last year, I did two things that were a tremendous help to the tilth of this section of garden, which has continued to be one of the weakest patches of dirt. The first was that I added about six inches of compost and an inch or two of ramial chipped wood (basically wood chips that are predominantly small branches and thus high in bark content), and the second move was cover cropping this area after the main crop was done, using all the random leftover seeds at my disposal. Mostly peas and beans. When it came time to dig over this section of garden this spring, you could distinctly tell where the cover cropping had been compared to the paths and even adjacent garden beds.
And I was amazed at the improvement in the soil. I would go so far as to say it was good garden soil at this point. But here is the point of this story: sure, it's good garden soil now, but for every year up until now, it has been producing some kind of crop for us. Faithfully, year in and year out, this patch of neglected dirt has been giving back to us some measure of what we have poured into it. The lesson for me here is clear: Don't wait for things to be perfect to begin. Because so often, beginning is the step that starts the process of getting there. This soil needed plants and all the amendments and attention that comes with that to reach its current potential. And all of the meals it has given us along the way? Those are as real and valuable as the meals it will give us from this point forward. So if you have access to some soil, by all means, do what you can to amend it, improve it, make it flourish. But don't wait to plant those seeds. Because the act of planting IS a part of that larger process. Think what we would miss if we held back from beginning because we thought we weren't ready. We would never begin.
Yesterday was a sunny, springlike day after a day of getting three inches of wet wet snow. Thankfully it all melted, so we were back to stuffing the ground with as much as we could. We planted another row of sugar snap peas (we had planted some three weeks ago that are just germinating now, these extras were the insurance policy against the first wave rotting in the ground), some lettuce, radishes, turnips, an entire bed of carrots and another bed of onion starts. That basically fills out our available space, but I'm sure we'll be adding things here or there. The point is, once it is warm enough, there is no excuse for not having every bit of ground filled at all times with SOMETHING. You pull a crop that has bolted, you immediately amend with fertilizer/compost and resow. If you wait, a week goes by while you forget about it, and gardening is all about seizing the moment and not letting a day go by that could be working for you. So not that it's warm enough for everything except the frost sensitive stuff, we just go go go.
If you have seeds and ground to stick them in, get on it.
I just had the kids help me plant out the seedlings I talked about in yesterday's post. Then I had them write down what they did with the hopes that it would help them remember it. I thought I would write it down, too, so that you can remember it with me.
First, I am a believer in just getting things in the ground without creating an elaborate hole with compost and fertilizer. The thinking is that this encourages the plant to send out lots of roots to find nutrients, rather than just swirling around in the space you created with hyper nutrients and making itself rootbound from not wanting to leave the pot within the soil that you have essentially created. So for many bare root plants, I just open up a slit in the ground with the shovel, crumble some soil down around the roots so they are don't have air pockets, and then tamp the slit shut. It takes five seconds. For anything with soil on the roots, I do the same thing, but dig a hole instead of just opening up a slit, and I rough up the roots so they are more inclined to go out into the surrounding soil.
Before planting I take care to make sure the bare root plants don't dry out too much, and after planting I water everything in. I make sure to plant things without burying the stem of the plants and without leaving roots sticking up out of the ground. I try to make sure they will have the light they require, not shoving tree seedlings too close under the canopy of mature trees, and when necessary I use stake and string or rocks to keep from accidentally walking on the plants. I also try to plant them where I will naturally check up on them, next to existing paths , or where they will perform the function I intend, like a shade tree in exactly the right spot on the lawn. With plants that will grow big, it is important to envision them at mature size, which might change where you choose to position them. And for trees especially, envisioning them at full size helps you anticipate what they will shade and how that my change how you use a certain space.
That's it! It took us 25 minutes to plant 23 things. If I wasn't showing the kids how to do it, it would have taken me 15. It doesn't have to be complicated or take a lot of time.
Yesterday our bare root seedlings arrived from Fedco Trees up in Maine. A walnut, a sugar maple, a cedar, some rosa rugosa, a peony, and three blueberries. I've scheduled a couple of hundred dollars of buying new plants for the property each year. While we don't have it in the budget to spend thousands to just buy and plant everything we could ever want at one time, we can pick away at it and over time it really adds up. The bare root seedlings are much less expensive than potted up stuff from nurseries, and I find that each year I have goals, some of which work out and some that don't (I'm looking at you, grape vines), but if we just keep planting year over year, we will eventually build up a really diverse home landscape full of the plants we want, where we want them. But the trick is to never stop.
I failed to write a blog post last night, because instead of sitting around in evening working, I had a date night with my wife in the kitchen. We put on Moroccan music, made a poor substitute for the amazing mint tea that they serve at our favorite Moroccan cafe where we always go on date night, and lit some candles. So now you know my plea. Guilty as charged.
I would just like to point out that if you deliberately plant, oh, say, a bunch of raspberry canes and flower seedlings the day before you receive an inch of rain, you do not need to water them in. I am clearly feeling pretty smug.
I'm not always good at this, but today I oiled all the garden tool handles, something that desperately needed to happen as some of the handles were becoming quite cracked and rough. I used linseed oil, brushing it on, and did several coats before wiping them down with a rag. I also filed the edges on the shovels and hoes, which makes a tremendous difference in how easy they are to use. I usually aspire to do this work in the fall as part of putting the garden to bed, but this year it didn't happen and I could tell it was starting to take its toll on the tools.
It only takes a few minutes, but it makes a world of difference.
Today we planted a fifty foot row of raspberry canes. This is the time of year for thinning the herd, so if you have a neighbor or family member with a raspberry patch (we got ours from my mother-in-law), you can just ask if they have any explorers pushing out beyond the boundaries of their bed. Given half a chance, raspberries are vigorous and spread through the roots, so we planted them at the top of the orchard, where they are hemmed in at one side by the woods, and they can take over a nice swath of sunny meadow before interfering with anything. We staked a rotten log into the grass to form a bit of a terrace in the long run, dug over the uphill edge, tossed some compost from the chicken run into the holes and planted the bare root plants, watering them in with buckets from the spring.
There are two types of raspberries: early bearing ones that you prune each spring by removing the canes that bore fruit the previous season, and fall bearing ones that you cut to the ground each spring and that bear fruit on first year canes. These are the second ones, which are vigorous and tasty (believe it or not, there are many varieties of raspberries, not all of them that tasty). We will probably get a small crop of them this year, and hopefully in two or three years we will have an abundance. This is a great example of a group of plants that you should be sourcing now from your neighborhood. Berries, comfrey, nettles, mint, all manner of spreading plants.
Go get em.
Way more time than you think. Best to get used to it, plant it and forget it. And, just when you start to truly stop thinking about it, it starts to be ready to harvest.
My blog has evolved into a series of short essays on the nature of entrepreneurship, craftsmanship, and their overlap. If either of these topics is something you think about, you will probably like this.