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.

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