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.

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