Sunday, November 29, 2009

Late Fall Musings

Rick once asked me, “What will you write about in winter?” It’s true, posting has been light this past month, but not because I had no gardening activities. In fact, I just finished all my planned outdoor work yesterday. The weather has been unseasonably warm here, with frequent highs in the 50sF (our normal highs this time of year are twenty degrees lower). A couple of week-ends ago, it was so warm we worked outside in tee shirts!

It’s a good thing, too, because some of my projects took way longer than I thought they would - especially that 6th raised bed. It’s in a great location with lots of sunshine next to the lower deck. But I had to remove some shrubs and what felt like a ton of gravel before I could start assembling my compost pile or “lasagna garden.”

The prior owners must have had some kind of gravel fetish. It appears that, when in doubt about how to solve a landscaping issue, they’d throw down a pile of gravel. All the shrubs they planted around the deck were mulched with the stuff. Patricia Lanza says not to worry about removing rocks when building lasagna beds, but I think a load of gravel requires removal.

It’s never a matter of just scooping up surface gravel, either. There is gravel embedded in the soil several inches deep. When Rick built our first raised beds on the other side of the deck, we ended up sifting shovelful after shovelful of soil through a piece of hardware cloth to get rid of the stuff. I did the same with this new bed, but luckily over a smaller area. About half the new bed extends into lawn, so there it was just a matter of laying wet newspaper over turf before building my compost pile. We re-purposed the gravel to make a path in front of the chicken coop.

Next, I got carried away in the front yard marking out the area where I will transfer my herb garden in spring. It’s about 11'x19' - so lots of room for herbs and adding flowers to make an attractive garden feature in the front yard. But try collecting and hauling enough materials for a “lasagna” bed in a space that large! The layers ended up being a lot thinner than the beds I built in the back, but hey, it’s a start. Beats renting a tiller and going to all of that work any day.

I just had to smile cheerfully at all the people walking by on the sidewalk, rubber necking as I laid out my layers of wet newspaper, bedding from the chicken pen, chopped discarded produce from the grocer, and shredded leaves and hay, clearly wondering whether I had gone “mental” to use a word one of my neighbors applied to me last week. It was raining that day and I had the hose on filling a waterer for the chickens. He couldn’t see the waterer clearly over the fence and called out, “It’s raining!” “Yeah?” I replied. “So what are you watering?” he asked. I explained, and he responded, “Oh, okay. I thought you’d gone mental or something.” Ah, neighbors.

There are advantages, I’ve found, to being thought “mental.” While I was building the lasagna bed on the front lawn, one couple walking their dog past our house yanked on his leash when he tried to pee on a few flowers I have growing under a birch tree. “C’mon, Jackson,” the man said, protectively hustling his dog away from our property, as if the crazy might somehow rub off or infect his pet.

Numerous dog-owners walk their pets along our block daily, letting their dogs urinate and defecate on all our front lawns. They’re usually pretty good about picking up the droppings, but there are so many of them it becomes tedious. So if it motivates some of them keep their dogs out of the crazy chicken lady’s yard, I’ll gladly wear the “mental” label.

Which brings me to another topic I’ve been thinking about lately. Can one take minimizing purchased inputs too far? Because I think I’m on some kind of slippery slope here. It started innocently enough. I got chickens, in part, to have a source of fertilizer for the garden. So far so good. Then I began looking around for free sources of greens for the birds. They do get out in their tractor or plastic netting daily, but only for an hour or two. Dandelions are
nutrition powerhouses – for people and for chickens – and are plentiful around here. The Leaf Lady reports that:

According to the USDA Bulletin #8, "Composition of Foods" (Haytowitz and Matthews 1984), dandelions rank in the top 4 green vegetables in overall nutritional value. Minnich, in "Gardening for Better Nutrition" ranks them, out of all vegetables, including grains, seeds and greens, as tied for 9th best. According to these data, dandelions are nature's richest green vegetable source of beta-carotene, from which Vitamin A is created, and the third richest source of Vitamin A of all foods, after cod-liver oil and beef liver! They also are particularly rich in fiber, potassium, iron, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and
the B vitamins, thiamine and riboflavin, and are a good source of protein.

So after I picked our yard and bordering areas clean of dandelions, I started looking around for new sources. We have two parks in our neighborhood, the largest one just down the block from our house. I started digging dandelions in those locations, usually wearing my shabby gardening jacket, and tossing them into an old plastic grocery bag. It occurred to me that I might look like a hobo or bag lady, especially in this neighborhood of university professors, lawyers, judges and other professionals. I could holler defensively at passers-by and gawkers, “I have a PhD!” But who cares, really.

Michael Pollan, describing how he learned to forage for mushrooms, writes about how eventually one develops an eye for them. It’s the same with dandelions. I’ve become practiced at spotting them hiding under fallen leaves or tall grass. One day I was walking home from the park lost in thought, swinging my bag of dandelions, when I spotted a lush patch of the greens in my peripheral vision. I bent down to dig, then suddenly stopped myself when I realized where I was, and that the homeowner might not appreciate vagrants digging in his yard, however much he preferred a “weed” free lawn.

After I decided to build compost piles, or “lasagna” beds where I intended to plant new beds the next spring, I needed to find a free source of “greens” to combine with the “browns” I had in abundance – wood shavings from the chicken pen, twigs, and shredded fallen leaves. (We don't generate enough scraps in our kitchen to build these beds.) So I called the produce department of the supermarket where I normally shop and asked whether I might have some of the produce they were discarding.

I found that they do routinely give away “compost” and that on certain days they had regular customers. But they would save me some on the remaining days if I called that morning. The first day I brought home two large bags of garbage we were astonished at the quality of the discarded produce: Bunches of asparagus, with only one or two spears rotting, lettuce with brown edges on just a few outer leaves, a bell pepper apparently intact. Dumpster divers are right! I thought. (You see what I mean about a slippery slope?)

Last year I stumbled on this whole sub-culture of dumpster diving (I've led kind of a sheltered life), with websites, norms of behavior, etiquette – such as don’t leave a mess because the owners will eventually lock their dumpsters, and if you find something good you don’t want or need, leave it near the top for the next person. They claim that loads of edible food is discarded in this country every day. I’m a sociologist at heart (and by training), so I was fascinated.

Not fascinated enough to actually dumpster dive, mind you. (Remember, I’m also fastidious and had to gulp a few times before eating the first eggs our chickens produced.) So if you’re wondering, we didn’t eat anything from those bags. I did save some of the best greens for the chickens, and tossed them some perfectly good fresh corn on the cob which they had a great time pecking clean.

But back to whether there’s anything to post on a gardening blog in winter. The answer is YES. I’m still growing some things indoors. For example, I have two-year-old pea seeds and plan to order fresh for the spring. But I’m using up the old ones sprouting pea shoots for the chickens in a sunny window in the basement. I’m also keeping an eye on my sweet potato vines, from which I’ll cut slips for spring planting. We’re going to build two of Larisa Walk’s solar food dryers – one for us, and one as a volunteer project for the University of Wisconsin West Madison Agricultural Research station. We’re also going to build cold frames, using old windows given to us by a neighbor.

I also think the winter is a good time for reflection and philosophizing about gardening. I’m working on a post in response to a talk Michael Pollan gave here in Madison a couple of months ago, as well as posts on genetically modified (GM) seed and pesticides. And of course, I’ll be worrying about my chickens and trying to get them safely through their first winter in our care. So, posting will pick up and continue. Thanks for stopping by.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Games Chickens Play

Before I got chickens, I never had a pet or livestock animal, nor had any desire for one. As I wrote in my post explaining why I decided to get chickens, I previously had little enthusiasm for any animal. It’s not that I hated animals; I just wasn’t interested.

So when I brought my baby chicks home, I didn’t know what to expect. I’d done a lot of reading, but the books and articles I found generally focused on care, feeding, illnesses, and problems. I didn’t think to look for, and never stumbled across, information on everyday behaviors that are unproblematic.

In the past, this kind of knowledge was probably passed down orally from generation to generation and observed directly while growing up on a farm. My grandparents (both paternal and maternal) could probably have taught me a lot about chickens, but my own parents never kept them when I was growing up.

Always having been a “good student,” I made all the preparations the books recommended before bringing my baby chicks home. I tested the height of the lamp in the makeshift cardboard box brooder to get the right temperature for baby chicks, spread paper towels on the floor of the brooder and sprinkled chick crumbles (so they can find food the first few days, and not eat bedding materials), and prepared warm water with sugar. I was nervous and fearful about picking up the anxiously peeping chicks who tried desperately to avoid capture. What if I hurt them or, they me?? But I knew I had to dip their beaks in water so they’d know where to find it, and I did.

Once I had them all in the brooder, and they all appeared to be eating and drinking, I started to breathe a little easier. Then I noticed something strange going on with the littlest chick, a tiny Barred Rock. While everyone else was busily running around, checking out the new digs, eating and drinking, she stopped, her legs wobbling, her eyes starting to close. After a few seconds, she’d force her eyes open, start moving again, before becoming unsteady on her feet again.

Baby chicks are fragile and I began to fear the worst. I called my friend Marie, who is a nurse and an animal lover, with lots of pet experience. “How’s it going?” she asked. “Well, pretty good,’ I said, trying to be cool. Truthfully, I felt a little shaky and on the verge of tears. I couldn’t let on, however. Marie would get too much of a kick out of me suddenly getting all emotional about an animal. “But I think one is about to die.” I described the little chick’s behavior.

“Is she getting enough to drink?” Marie asked. “Do you have an eyedropper? Try giving her a little water with that. And do you have a hot water bottle?” Marie thought maybe the littlest chick was having trouble getting warm. I was sure I had a hot water bottle and eyedropper upstairs. As I got off the phone with Marie, the chick finally lay down and closed her eyes. This is IT! I thought. For a second or two, I debated staying or running upstairs for the items Marie recommended.

Then I frantically ran upstairs. I couldn’t find a hot water bottle anywhere; must have thrown it away years ago. Back down I went, steeling myself for the removal of a tiny carcass, and hoping nobody else died while I was gone. When I looked in the brooder, I was astonished to see the little chick up and running around like nothing was wrong!

As I sat watching them for the next two hours (I was afraid to leave!), I noticed all the chicks behaving the same way as the littlest one. They’d run around busily, then suddenly get wobbly on their legs, stop, lie down, and close their eyes. After a few minutes, they’d be up again and running around, like they just needed a quick power nap. They reminded me of toddlers who run around till they exhaust themselves and then fall asleep where they lay.

Another behavior that initially worried me, but turned out to be normal started a couple of weeks later. Two chicks would confront each other, wings flapping, chests practically bumping. I’d read so much about “feather picking” I was afraid of that horror and constantly admonished the chicks not to fight and to “be nice.” I finally realized they were just establishing a pecking order. Luckily, they never got vicious, so I quit worrying about chest bumping game.

Competition is a primary feature of chicken social organization. Our chicks compete over any and every thing, but mainly food. They spend most of their time looking for things to eat and if it appears that somebody found something interesting to snack on, the rest of them will chase her around trying to steal it. I’ve seen posters at Backyard Chickens refer to this behavior as “chicken football.” Chickens will even try to grab food out of someone else’s beak while she’s eating it – especially if it is something long like a worm or a blade of grass. They do this even if they originally rejected the item in question.

For example, last summer I found a tomato that something (probably a chipmunk) had taken a bite of, but that was otherwise perfect. I cut it in half and put it in the chicken tractor to see what they’d do, since I’d read that chickens like tomatoes. They’re curious little birds, so naturally they ran up to take a look. Then they backed away, moving their heads back and forth quickly, as if to say, “No. No.”

But then Batgirl, the bravest and most independent of our chickens, decided to investigate further. She pecked at one of the tomato wedges, decided she liked it, picked it up, and ran to a corner of the tractor to enjoy it by herself. The game was on! The others started chasing her. She’d run to a corner, set her tomato wedge down, take a bite, then see they were on her tail, pick it up and run again. After letting them amuse me with this for a few minutes, I got another tomato and cut it up so they could each have their own wedge.

But they will compete even if there are plenty of rations available for everyone. When they were little, we used one of those round feeders with holes at the base for chicks to access the crumbles. Invariably, when one chick started eating from one hole, the others would run over and try to eat out of the same hole, even though there were plenty of empty spaces around the dish. If another chick was in their way when they wanted to leave the feeder, they’d just step on her back to get where they wanted to go!

Chickens are not like dogs in the sense that they don’t care to be picked up or seek petting. Some people handle their chicks a lot when they’re little to get them accustomed to it, but my feeling has always been that if they want to be left alone, we should leave them alone. So we handled them only when necessary. As they got older, they got used to us. They stopped running away from us, but still didn’t want to be touched. If we’d try to pet them, they’d slink away, but didn’t run.

Around the time they started laying, however, they changed. They’d deliberately come close and brush by us. One day Amelia hung around me for so long, seeming to want something, I finally reached down and picked her up. To my surprise, she stood there and let me do it! As I was petting her and marveling over this novel experience, Batgirl, the other Barred Rock, came over and started hopping up, like she wanted me to pick her up, too! I set Amelia down and picked up Batgirl, but being the independent spirit she is, Batgirl quickly decided she’d had enough. Apparently she just wanted to make sure she got everything Amelia was getting.

I was pretty excited about this new development. Like Sally Field accepting an award, I couldn’t help thinking, “They like me! They really like me!” Before long, however, I had the embarrassing realization it wasn’t about “liking” me. These randy girls were looking for a roo and we were the only beings in the yard not-a-hen. As soon as we’d reach out to pet their backs, they’d immediately squat and “assume the position.” They’re now so anxious to get their groove on, they’re very easy to catch. When Batgirl made her fifth escape the other day, she at first darted around trying to evade me. When I reached for her back, this independent girl forgot herself for a moment, abruptly stopped, and squatted. Like taking candy from a baby.

The latest interesting behavior is their insistence on being hand-fed when they first see me. In a way, I can understand how this developed. Because we can’t let them run free in the yard, in the summer Rick would shake Japanese beetles off the cherry trees into a container and then hold that container at the tractor door while the chicks ate the beetles. We’d also feed them blades of grass through the fencing of their tractor from time to time. One reason I did this was to get the chicks to come to me so I could look them over and check for any health problems. Sometimes we just did it to interact with them. Rick especially got a kick out of chickens standing on lush lawn, with lots to eat, all wanting and competing over the single blade of grass he had in his hand. “You’ve got grass all around you!” he’d laugh.

So I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that now when I come to them with treats in the morning, they don’t immediately go after the cracked corn I’m throwing on the ground. They instead crowd around wanting a bite out of the container I’m carrying. They just take a bite or two; then go on their way. But they have to have that first bite directly from my hand. I have a feeling they’d enjoy the game more if I ran to a corner of the pen and pretended to eat it myself. Sorry, girls, that's a game you'll have to play among yourselves!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Nothing New Under the Sun

Have you ever had an idea for something, maybe a useful device, or, as with me, an idea for a book, then later found that someone else already came up with the same idea? It seems to happen with great regularity; individuals in different parts of the country, or different parts of the world, or even at different points in history, come up with similar ideas and innovations.

It was through Ruth Stout that I first learned about no-till gardening and building up the soil through heavy mulching with organic material. She was an original among her contemporaries, and promoted methods contrary to the mainstream agricultural extension recommendations of her day.

During the 1970s, when Ruth Stout was writing articles and books on her “no-work” method of gardening in the United States, over in Japan, microbiologist and farmer Masanobu Fukuoka, was teaching and writing about his similar method of “do-nothing” farming.

Techniques for what is sometimes called sheet composting or German mounds have been around for centuries, but proponents of new variations of the method continually emerge. The most recent incarnation of the method that I’m aware of is Patricia Lanza’s notion of Lasagna Gardening.

All of these methods involve composting organic materials directly on the site you intend to plant and not tilling the soil. As I wrote in an earlier post about Stout, she advised applying a year-round thick mulch of organic material – primarily hay. Why go to all the trouble of building and turning a compost pile, she reasoned, when one could just throw kitchen vegetable scraps directly into the garden, cover them with a layer of leaves, pine needles, straw, hay – whatever combination of these you had on hand – and allow them to decompose where they lay?

Similarly, Fukuoka advocated on site composting by leaving organic material in the fields following harvest. He wrote:

There is no need to prepare compost. I will not say that you do not need compost – only that there is no need to work hard in making it. If straw is left lying on the surface of the field in the spring or fall and is covered with a thin layer of chicken manure or duck droppings, in six months it will completely decompose . . .

To make compost by the usual methods, the farmer works like crazy in the hot sun, chopping up the straw, adding water
and lime, turning the pile, and hauling it out to the field. He puts himself through all this grief because he thinks it is a “better way.” I would rather see people just scattering straw or hulls or woodchips over their fields (p49).*

Both Stout and Fukuoka were working with previously tilled land. But what if you want to plant garden beds where you currently have turf grass? Lanza recommends beginning with a layer of wet newspaper or cardboard:

You don't have to remove existing sod and weeds. You don't have to double dig. In fact, you don't have to work the soil at all. The first layer of your lasagna garden consists of either brown corrugated cardboard or three layers of newspaper laid directly on top of the grass or weeds in the area you've selected for your garden. Wet this layer down to keep everything in place and start the decomposition process. The grass or weeds will break down fairly quickly because they will be smothered by the newspaper or cardboard, as well as by the materials you're going to layer on top of them. This layer also provides a dark, moist area to attract earthworms that will loosen up the soil as they tunnel through it.

The next step in Lanza's process is layering your organic materials as you would for a typical compost pile:

You'll want to alternate layers of “browns” such as fall leaves, shredded newspaper, peat, and pine needles with layers of “greens” such as vegetable scraps, garden trimmings, and grass clippings. In general, you want your "brown” layers to be about twice as deep as your “green” layers, but there's no need to get finicky about this. Just layer browns and greens, and a lasagna garden will result. What you want at the end of your layering process is a two-foot tall layered bed. You'll be amazed at how much this will shrink down in a few short weeks.

My only criticism of Lanza’s system is that she generally advises using peat moss between the layers of the “lasagna” garden. Peat takes centuries to form and is currently harvested at non-sustainable rates. Coir, made from short fibers of coconut shells, is a viable, sustainable alternative to peat. It does have to be shipped from outside the U.S., however, so there is that “carbon footprint” to consider. Neither are necessary to build a good compost pile.

What I do appreciate about Lanza is her “just get started” approach. In the past, whenever I wanted to start a new garden bed, I’d have to wait until Rick had time to help, and we both had the energy to tackle the job. Then he’d hitch up the trailer to the car, we’d drive to Home Depot, rent a tiller, till the turf, break up the remaining chunks, and laboriously remove all the remaining grass. It’s so freeing to just mark out your new plot, lay down wet newspaper or cardboard, and start building your compost pile.

Already this fall I’ve built two “lasagna” beds where we plan to build our potato towers next spring. I’m planning two more – one where we planned to build a sixth raised bed last summer, but never got around to it, and another in the front yard where I want to move my herb garden. I’ve been coveting the backyard herb bed to use for more veggies, and thought an herb garden could be an attractive feature in a front yard. I’ll have all winter to plan exactly how I want to lay it out, but meanwhile, I’ll be making compost on the area I intend to plant.

To build my “lasagna” layers, as always, I sought to minimize purchased inputs. For my first “brown” layer, I used pine shavings (bedding) from the chicken pen. Next, I laid down a “green” layer of roughly chopped, discarded vegetables I got for free from the produce section of the grocery store. I topped that with a thick layer of shredded fallen leaves. Then I laid down a somewhat thinner layer of partially finished compost. This consists of chicken manure, kitchen vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, eggshells, and some shredded leaves. Finally, I capped the whole thing with an 8” layer of loose hay.

It was so easy! Which, of course, is the point – to reduce and eliminate unnecessary work. Stout and Lanza focus particularly on enabling people to garden, even into old age. For Fukuoka, less work also means more time to be a full human being. He marvels that, in centuries past, farmers in Japan had time to write haikus as offerings in the village shrine. Like Juliet Schor, in The Overworked American, Fukuoka notes that industrialization has left us with less free time than low-tech cultures enjoyed in the past. He writes:

The more the farmer increases the scale of his operation, the more his body and spirit are dissipated and the further he falls away from a spiritually satisfying life. A life of small-scale farming may appear to be primitive, but in living such a life, it becomes possible to contemplate the Great Way . . .

At the end of the year, the one-acre farmer of long ago spent January, February, and March hunting rabbits in the hills. Though he was called a poor peasant, he still had this kind of freedom. The New Year’s holiday lasted about three months. Gradually this vacation came to be shortened to two months, one month, and now the New Year’s has come to be
a three-day holiday . . . There is no time in modern agriculture for a farmer to write a poem or compose a song (p110-1).*

All that free time sounds good to me. Why, then, does this particular wheel have to be re-invented again and again? One reason is that there is little to no profit to be made from these low-work, low tech methods. As Stout pointed out, “Merchants who sell fertilizers and plows and so on aren’t in sympathy with my ideas of gardening (p59).”** Fukuoka noted similarly that, “If crops were to be grown without agricultural chemicals, fertilizer, or machinery, the giant chemical companies would become unnecessary and the [Japanese] government’s Agricultural Co-op Agency would collapse (p81)."*

There seems to be a macho element as well. I don’t believe it’s an accident that non-Westerners and women predominate among proponents of these easier methods. The posting community over at, where they discuss fossil fuel depletion and the implications for society, is mostly white males (a fact they lament from time to time). When they discuss the problems of food production after “peak oil”, when fossil fuel depletion increases the cost of chemical inputs and makes it prohibitively expensive to operate heavy machinery, the conversation inevitably turns to the difficulty of producing food without the technology or brute strength necessary to enable mastery of the work.

This way of thinking is, of course, a cultural product, not a physical trait – and therefore not limited to white men, nor descriptive of every white man. But it is an organizing feature of Western civilization. It extends to the notion of controlling and subduing nature.

By contrast, Fukuoka speaks of co-existence and cooperation with nature. His notion of “do nothing” farming is not just about eliminating unnecessary work, but about interfering with natural processes as little as possible, because humans cannot fully understand or control them. Like Stout, he relied on observation of natural processes to determine his techniques for helping them along.

It’s intriguing to me that by giving up the notion that we can understand nature and thereby control it, we are more truly empowered to produce our own food, healthfully, and with a degree of self-sufficiency, right into old age. Imagine that! We do not have to be strapping young men, use heavy machinery, or rely on big corporations for seeds, fertilizer, pesticides. We can do it ourselves.

*The One-Straw Revolution, by Masanobu Fukuoka, 1978.

**The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book, by Ruth Stout and Richard Clemence, Rodale Press, 1971.

Article describing lasagna gardening by Patricia Lanza: Lasagna Gardening 101.