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Inside the Deer Fence - April 23, 2010

This is what is happening in my garden
By Jane Gilbertsen

Jetfire DaffodilsJetfire Daffodils sweep around the house.  The burgundy plant coming up on the right side is "Molly the Witch", a tempermental yellow species peony from E. Europe.  Every 5 years I get another spring bloom.  Molly is teaching me patience.  I was warned.

Bloodroot, from my Grandmother's garden, is a native of Minnesota.  It loves decidious leaf litter.  It moves around and through the garden by self sown seed.  You will find nightcrawlers where the bloodroot grows.

Today, Wednesday, April 21, is a cold, windy threatening day.  Perfect for getting things done outside if properly dressed for it, but I just want to hide out and be cozy indoors. What is that about?  Is my animal nature telling me to hunker down?

It is wonderful to see the progress of Spring even if only through the window.  I watered around the house during our brief hot spell and it made things really jump up.  The dandelions along the highway by the Twisp Commons are out in full and luscious bloom.  The roadway, gravel and old concrete bridgework must increase the heat in that microclimate and be pushing the dandelions to full bloom.  It seems each side of my house with its own microclimate is enjoying a different stage of Spring.  This gives me a longer stretch of time to enjoy the daffodils.

BloodrootI have gardened here now for almost 25 years.  I never expected to put down roots somewhere where there were virtually no worms.  I did not believe people could live comfortably and naturally if the land could not produce worms.  They were the symbol of fecund growing conditions.  The reward for disturbed land well stewarded.  The first year or 2 I gardened here they were nowhere to be found.  I could not easily find and move enough organic matter and then provide regular moisture to support native worms.  It seemed impossible then to envision a garden tilled by nature's best plow but I knew if I made it right they would come.

An early soil test confirmed that our soil wasn't so bad except for the general lack of nitrogen to be expected in dry ecosystems.  Nitrogen could be provided in large part, and in a natural way, by organic matter.  But how was organic matter going to be part of the natural cycle if the soil was lean (sandy and devoid of OM) and rainfall was sparse?  Somehow I had to jump start the process.  I could not bear to wait out a slow build up of growing stuff on lean soil for years before the plants themselves produced enough matter to rot naturally.  I "solved" this problem by going elsewhere - using the fruits of other lands - the Twisp Forest Service rakings, Lehman's best weed-free alfalfa hay, Wanda Myers lawn and garden service waste, my neighbor's bagged curbside clean green from Redmond, and truckloads of purchased bulk compost hauled over from Seattle.  Oh, and I forgot the 2 dumptrucks of partly rotted bark from the old Twisp Mill site.  I used someplace else's output as my input.

All this did help did bring over the bane of the west side garden - slugs!  The commercial compost brought over herbicide contamination.  But I am greeted each spring in the richest areas by earthworms and big gorgeous nightcrawlers.  They just came when the place was right.   Seemingly spontaneous generation.

When you sustain fertility with the fruits of other lands you are adding input without earning it honestly from your own output.  This is the definition of unsustainable.  (The last 100 years of human population growth is largely attributable to the discovery of how to make nitrogen chemically, thereby, allowing more intensive and productive agriculture, thereby, allowing more population growth, and so on.)  By using OM from elsewhere and not chemical inputs you still are not truly sustainable, just healthier.

Before your land intentionally produces enough of its own organic matter regularily and if you don't keep up the "input" artificially, you will have little OM to keep going.  Heat (a typical Methow summer), water (house well or ditch irrigation) and return OM to Carbon, Oxygen and Hydrogen before you know it.  In my vegetable garden 6 inches of alfalfa hay mulch snugged up to the plants and on the paths, rots and totally disappears well before the summer is over.

The only long term sustainable solution is to design your garden to sustain itself - the inputs and outputs have to match up.  The plant choices for each location's conditions, the watering format and the grooming/mulching/fertilizing plan have to work together.  Farmers in the days before chemical nitrogen and other fertilizers solved this problem by using crops to feed animals, then returning the animal dung to the land.  WorldWatch Institute once defined the health of a people by whether they used dung to feed the soil or of necessity burned it for fuel.  If you cannot keep OM on the soil any soil not replenished by floodwater silt will eventually become exhausted and the farmer either stays and goes hungry, goes under or moves on to fresh land and starts anew.

In retrospect and from experience, I recommend using hay, preferably old weed free alfalfa hay, chemical free grass clippings and leaves.  The hay provides the perfect composting carbon/nitrogen ratio as does a good mix of leaves and grass.  A university study I read years ago recommended a thin, not thick layer of alfalfa hay directly on the soil for the maximum benefit to soil organisms thereby feeding the plants by feeding the soil (really the microorganisms, etc that live in the soil and cause the chemical and electrical exchanges that allow plants to take up nutrients).  I also recommend trying different things as available and also kind of for fun, so long as you do not bring in a significant load of weed seeds.  I had fun in the early days with OM and manure projects.  The best annual garden I ever had was the result of a hay llama poop mixture.  This year I will have my first adventure with my own chicken poop enriched compost.   I can hardly wait.  Plants should rocket if I don't burn them with excessive nitrogen from a too hot chicken mix.

So whether your babies are seedlings under your own growlight, on your window sill, or in the greenhouse or coldframe or are you are planting seedlings from one of the local growers, now is the time to get that soil ready to go.  I am going to try to not til or turn the earth this year in the areas that I heavily mulched with leaves. The soil there is loose and open.  It doesn't need to be turned, it is perfect.  I will pull back the mulch, plant, wait for the seedling to bulk up some and then pull the mulch back up to but not on the plant.

If you have already planted seeds of cold hardy things like cilantro, spinach, lettuce and the like get some compost and light mulch ready to go when the soil has a bit of a chance to warm up and your seedlings are coming up.  A little gently sprinkled on top or next to most types of seeds now would not hurt to keep the soil from sealing over, thereby closing the air spaces, and making it harder for the seedling to go up and the water and air to go down.  Save the heavy stuff for the hot and dry weather when your plants are bigger.  Remember, the magic mainly occurs in the top 4 inches!

Thanks for reading,

May 12, 2010