Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Hay and Potatoes, Potatoes and Hay

Funny how quickly your plans can change when you get new information. I was on the phone today with Shari—friend of the blog—and she has a lot more experience with hay than I have. She was describing in very clear language what happens to hay that gets wet and stays wet. I can't remember her exact words, but I got a clear image of a big pile of moldy compost so wet and heavy you can't pull it apart to spread it, or if it's big enough to get hot, it catches on fire. Not exactly what I want to have happen, so when the showers broke for a while this afternoon I went down and threw a tarp over my bales.

My goal was to stop them from getting rained on but let air circulate enough in hopes that they will sort of dry out.

I also decided—since my potatoes are already sprouting after just ten days out in room light—to go ahead and plant the ones I have room for now, and start using some of the soggy hay. I planted the Rose Finn Apple Fingerlings and the All Blues, ten of each. Then I spread the hay—just about the outside inch all around was wet, so it wasn't hard or too disgusting to pull it into loose hay.

The really surprising thing was how far it went. I put 6" to 8" of loose hay over the whole fenced area except one path, and used only two-thirds of ONE bale! Unless the hay breaks down really fast, those eleven bales are going to last me a long time! At this point I just don't understand why Ruth's friend Dick Clemence would say you need twenty-five bales for a 50x50 garden. I'll have to measure my garden again. The third of a bale chunk I left sitting in the garden, where it will continue to get wet. I'm curious to see what happens to it as it gets wetter, and it's a small enough amount to not be a nightmare if it just makes a mess.

I did not check the soil temperature today, and after the 1.7" of rain we've had in the last three days, the soil was pretty wet. I hoed a shallow trench, popped in the potatoes, covered them with an inch of soil, then 8" of hay right on top of them. Sort of a compromised Ruth planting.

One thing I am really happy about is that there are lots and lots of nice big earthworms in the dirt where I put the mini-poop. More worms than in the surrounding soil that didn't get pooped.

I have more plants that will be ready to be planted soon.

On the left front  are my five cardoons, and the rest (except for the suspiciously weedy looking ringer in the lower right corner) are kohlrabis, and one collard that got mixed up with them while I was potting up the peat pellets. Only one of my collards came up, and after I got them mixed up I found some pictures on the web that show that collards and kohlrabi are pretty much indistinguishable at this age. Oh well. I was really disappointed that the collards didn't sprout better, but I'm sure it was something I did, like planting them too deep. I'll try again. I checked my seed packets and I've got eight more different kinds of seeds that I can plant outside now, before our guaranteed frost free date.

Obviously, I need to make putting up the rest of my fencing for the second area a real priority. At least I know I'll have enough hay!

Sunday, April 2:
I just went out with my tape measure and measured the fenced garden, and it's not 13' x 15', it's only 8' x 15'. That makes it only 120 sq. ft. that I spread that 2/3 of a bale over. So if Ruth's garden was 50' x 50', that was 2500 sq. ft.! So my little plot is 1/20th the size of Ruth's! Well, yes, I guess I do have enough hay. The extension I'm adding (I got the fence up last Friday but didn't level it or anything else) is 9' x 15', so I'll have about 255 sq. ft. total. So if the hay amounts scale—and they should—then 11 bales is probably 2 years' worth for the whole spread. Not bad. Not bad at all—that's completely manageable for me.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Sunbreak! Everybody outside!


Mother Nature wants me to get out in the garden and start working. I know that because she's giving me sunbreaks in the middle of the day when it's over 45º outside. In another couple months I won't have to put my work clothes in the dryer to warm up before I put them on.

Soil not so deep
Right now I'm working on getting the fenced garden ready for planting. Last year I only broke the hardpan where I was actually planting something, so this year I do have to do the rest of it. This is how far I can push my fork in—about 4"—probably not deep enough for most veggies. I'm not turning it, just breaking through the crust, which is 3-4" thick. Below the hardpan, the soil is fine. Devoid of humus, but fine. I was wondering if they rent girlie jackhammers at Home Depot, but fortunately if I stand on the fork and rock it side to side for a minute or so, I can get it down through the hardpan. I'm just hoping the fork holds up long enough for me to finish this task. This really uses the back of your arms.

Halfway dug
I can only do it for about two trips from border to broccoli before my arms give out for the day, but I'm about half done now, two more days will finish it. I've put in onions and garlic and I think I've got room for two rows of potatoes now, and the row of bush beans that will go between them later. The other book I've been reading all winter is Great Garden Companions by Sally Jean Cunningham, and she says potatoes and bush beans keep each other's major pests away. Works for me!

Potatoes busy thinking about sprouting

The potatoes are inside the house pre-sprouting because my soil is still languishing at 42º, and taters want 45º or 50º. Now this is different from what Ruth said—she put hers out without regard to soil temperature, however, she was tossing hers on top of the previous year's mulch. Since there's nothing but a thin layer of mini-poop on top of my very wet sandy clay, I'm going to wait those three more degrees. I don't want the spuds to think I don't love them. I hope they like jazz because I've got them right in front of the radio. Pre-sprouting is supposed to take 2-4 weeks in a medium-lit room;  I'm betting my soil will be warm enough by then, and everyone will be happy. I've indulged myself with 3 different kinds of sets—Pontiac redskins, All Blues, and Rose Finn Apple fingerlings. The Rose Finns have peachy pink skin and yellow flesh. I have lately become hooked on fingerling potatoes, nuking a few of them for supper and anointing them with olive oil and garlic salt. Little nuggets of potato wonderfulness.

Mulch making more mulch

My hay, in the meantime, is wondering when I'm going to do something with it. I'm taking Ruth's advice and waiting till I plant the taters, to get as much sun on the soil as I can before then. That's also why I poked the onions and garlic into the soil, instead of tossing them on the surface as Ruth did, same as with her taters. They don't need any hay on them yet, but they'll get it next month. The hay is growing nicely, though—I don't suppose it will grow me another bale...

My rhubarb has really taken off. Two weeks ago I was down there pulling up the giant weeds and saw this little thing next to the tiny 2" leaves that looked like a rounded, smooth, shiny, cherry pink grape. When I realized it was part of the plant, I figured it was some kind of new growth. Today I could see that it splits apart at the top and a new leaf comes out of it. Like a frost cover, I expect. Cool. Smart plant!

Happy rhubarb!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Straight from the horse's other end

Since even Ruth Stout says that putting down 8" of mulch on cold, wet, clay soil isn't the best thing to do, I'm holding off on spreading my hay on the fenced garden until the soil and air temperatures warm up a bit more—probably later this month—and I can start planting peas and potatoes. But I couldn't not do anything when we've had a 24-hour dry spell and 50º of heartwarming mildness, so I laid on a thin layer of mini horse poop. When Ruth says in her articles that she didn't use manure any more, I take that to mean that she did use it, before her soil had become so fertile there wasn't any need for it. And since the soil in my fenced garden hasn't ever gotten anything on it but some long-gone leaf prunings and cardboard from a few years ago, I figured some nice manure is not only justified, but deserved. This area used to be a horse corral, and when I got it, it was 4" of sandy dust on top of 6" of hardpan I could barely get a pick into. I didn't pile the poop on—just a loose inch deep. With probably 2 more feet of rain still coming to us before summer, I'm figuring it'll be mostly gone by the time I'm ready to put the hay down.

I've never put down fresh manure before, on anything. This is a first for me. Like I said, it's a science experiment.

There is one very scary factor in this garden that I am concerned about:

I'm pretty sure this is a vole hole. I have lots of moles—they run their tunnels under the trees and the big rocks where I can't get to them—but I think I have voles too. I haven't done anything about them so far because there aren't very many, and because I don't think there's much you can do except hope the raptors and feral cats get them. I'm not going to put down any kind of poison. I'm worried about what voles might do to my plantings, but maybe I'll be lucky. Time will tell.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Me and Ruth Stout, making a garden

Last year two things happened for the first time in my life. The first is that I started a real, honest to goodness vegetable garden The second is that one of the members of my local Hardy Plant Society study group made a presentation on Ruth Stout and her no weed, no dig, no work gardening method. For a whole list of reasons and excuses, I didn't get anything out of my garden last year except some really cute little spaghetti squash that never quite got ripe, and a big bruise on my hip from catching my shoe on the top of my fence while trying to step out over it, and falling on top of my fencepost. Any fencepost you can bend by falling on it is not much of a fencepost.

I didn't do anything about Ruth's ideas last year except think about them, but in January I spent a couple hours with a woman who showed me pictures of the beautiful Ruth Stout garden she used to have when she had the room for one. I found that our library had two of Ruth's books and I checked out both of them. The first one was "Gardening Without Work: For the Aging, the Busy, and the Indolent"; now I'm reading "The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book".

The more I read what she said—and said over and over—the more her method made sense to me, and the more I wanted to try it, even though I would have to spend extra money to get hay, and extra money is a little hard to come by right now. The thing that finally convinced me is that I have become a soil nut—I am 100% convinced that the life of plants depends utterly on the quality and diversity of life under the ground. Over and over I kept having this image of what a thick mulch of hay and leaves would do for the soil in my garden, feeding the bacteria, the fungi, the worms, and the rest of the host of life forms that I really don't want to get to know personally, but love and respect nonetheless.

This blog is going to chronicle what I'm starting with, what I plan for it, and how things go.

So yesterday I arm-twisted my neighbors with the big pickup truck to take me across town to pick up some cheap "feeder" hay from a nice-sounding older couple I found on CraigsList. When we got there I was instantly thrilled that I had found them, as a lovely old white-haired guy came briskly out his front door with a big grin on his face, and loped up his winding driveway, guiding us to his barn. And rather than entertain himself watching two short semi-arthritic women trying to climb up into the bed of the pickup, he threw a bale over for us to step up on, and then walked each bale over to us, showing us how to stack them to fit the most in—he was obviously the only one in the room who had ever loaded hay in a pickup. I have the feeling that not everyone you buy hay from will practically load it for you and smile the whole time, so I felt like the whole enterprise got off to a really good start.

So here it is—what I'm starting with. This is the fenced garden. You can see there are a lot more weeds in the garden than outside--that's because I spent a few hours in January whacking down the the weeds I could get to without—sigh—going to the extra effort of opening the fence gate. The fenced portion is presently about 13' x 15'.

Here's the hay—eleven 50-lb bales—all that we could fit easily in the back of the pickup. Cost? $22. I'm not sure how far it will go, but I'm hoping it will cover the main garden with a little to spare. If this experiment looks like it's working, I'll certainly have to get more in the fall.

Here's one of the four rhubarb starts I planted last summer—the crinkly yellowish leaves with vetch leaflets on either side. The weed on the left is little bitter cress, which my yard has in abundance. It's been growing all winter through the inches of rain, snow, and temps in the 20's, and it's flowering right now. I really hope I can mulch it to death.

Here are two of the three broccoli plants left from the dozen I started from seed last summer. Sharing the shot are some forget-me-nots (protected in my yard) and some miscellaneous groundsels.

This is the second part of the garden that I'm going to fence in this year, to add room for squash, potatoes, and if by some miracle it warms up this spring, some melons. I *love* melons. The topsoil in this area is actually from a decomposed manure pile about 10 years old, so I have high hopes for it.

And while I'm sharing, this is the "orchard"—or rather, what's going to become an orchard this year. It used to be shaded by 60' wild cherry trees that my back neighbor took down—for which I am eternally grateful, as that made this whole east-side garden possible. This area is about 10' x 80', and the soil is packed, heavy red clay with no visible organic matter in it despite the fact that I had it covered with tree trimmings for 3 years. I plan to mulch this whole area, but I don't have the mulch yet. I have a couple low cost ideas for that shuffling around my brain.

In January we had a couple dry days and I went down, whacked weeds till my shoulder hurt, dug 6 starter holes for my fruit trees, and filled them with the finest quality miniature horse poop, from beautiful, intelligent miniature horses fed only high-quality weed-free hay. When the best is free, why not get the best? The stick is one of the wild cherry roots I haven't lopped off yet. I'm expecting most of this manure to disappear into the soil over the next six weeks of rain, making lots of earthworms fat and happy. Then I'll dig the real holes for the trees. A smarter, less indolent person would have done this last fall. It's okay, I have excuses.

The trees that are going into the orchard are all semi-dwarf varieties: Montmorency cherry, Italian plum, Chinese (aka Mormon) apricot, Liberty apple, Bartlett pear, and a Shinseiki asian pear. All but the Shinseiki were bought a year ago and potted from bare root; the Shinseiki I bought this January and have it heeled in until I get its hole dug.

So that's my future garden. All ready to mulch.