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Archive for April, 2012

Wednesday, April 25:

   Although we have been gardening for most of our lives, we are always learning, or trying to learn.  The last couple of years we have been making a study of the books of four-season gardener Eliot Coleman, before whose shrine we have built many a compost heap.  This year the “big” garden, by which we mean the medium-sized garden (the New Building at Oxford was built in the sixteen hundreds, we are told) is being planted to thirty-inch beds with twelve- inch paths between, as per Mr. Coleman’s design.  The onions are planted in three such beds.

We are learning a lot.

First, as to those beds and paths.  The reality, of course, is that raised beds without retaining walls are really just flat “hills”, as we call them in South, that is, long mounds with sloping sides.  The higher the mound, the longer the slope.  In such a case as these we have been building, a twelve inch path becomes a trench some two feet wide from edge to edge with a path at the bottom, and a thirty-inch bed is only two feet across at the top.  Mr. Coleman’s specs are for three rows of onions per bed, with ten inches between rows; three rows, then, occupy about twenty inches across.  So far, so good; the outer rows should lie a safe two inches inside the twenty-four inch flattened top of the bed.

Thus, two weeks ago, we planted our onion seedlings.

WHAT WE LEARNED:

1)       Water runs downhill.  When you water the top of a bed, what is there to keep the water on top, where the plants are?

2)      More surface area means more evaporation, hence more water loss.  The plants in the side rows, only inches from the edge of the bed, are losing moisture laterally as well as vertically; dry soil means more stress.

3)      Dry raised beds tend to crumble and cave at the edges, taking with them any young plants which may be trying to root there.

4)      The chickens will always get in, and maybe they eat onions and maybe they don’t.

After two weeks of watering and watching our carefully planted alliums, we find we have about half as many as we set out.  The rest, we can only guess, have fallen prey despite our efforts to situationally-enhanced drought.   Gaps make both short and long spaces between the tiny green shoots, and the crumbling edges of the beds encroach into the rows.  So yesterday we bought a bundle of seedlings to piece out our plantings, and today we set out to right our difficulties.

First of all, we threw out the ten-inch row spacing.  If the plants can be four to six inches apart in the rows, we decided, they won’t take harm if the rows themselves are spaced just as close.  The long gaps in the rows we filled in with seedlings transferred from the broken edge rows.  In the end, each bed has only two rows, for even with the purchased seedlings we came up short; then when all the onions were resettled, we used a garden rake to redefine the sides of the beds, mounding the soil a little so that water drawn in buckets from the culvert on Jeddo’s run stayed on top of the hills long enough to soak in where the plants were and where it was most needed.  Six or seven buckets, each containing about three gallons of water, were poured carefully down the rows, and this evening when we walked down the hill to move the cows’ paddock the onions were sturdy in the damp brown soil.  From now on we will try mounding the soil along the edges of all our beds and crowd the rows a little to keep them away from the dry edges.

All husbandry is ongoing experimentation.  Success is survival.  Failure means something dies and we try again.

We shifted the polywire for the cows’ new paddock, pumped water into the high water hog, and then sat in the clover throwing rocks to the crazy dekker, Scouter, until it grew so cool we went in.  A haze is climbing in the sky up the west draw; we hope it will bring rain before tomorrow.

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Tuesday, April 24:

A quarter of an inch of ice on the stock tanks this morning, but the cow is grazing green grass and giving six gallons of milk and yellow cream a day.  If we don’t get more rain the grass is going to run short almost immediately.

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Thursday, April 19:

All the seedlings in the greenhouse suddenly need to be pricked out to flats.

We start small seeds (tomato, pepper, basil, and so on) in four-inch pots, as many as one hundred seeds to a pot, and prick them out to flats filled with a potting mix of compost/builder’s sand/soil in equal parts when they are just beginning to show true leaves.  Tool of choice – fork.  The kind you eat with.  Label of choice – plastic knife.  The kind you use at picnics.  We write the seedsman’s name, the type of seed, and the date planted on the blade of the knife with an indelible ink pen.  Simple.  Cheap.  Our flats are ancient things cobbled together about fifteen years ago out of green lumber and salvaged nails, and they are beginning to fall apart, but we are still using them and they will probably hold up for one more year.

Cold mornings, warm evenings, and no rain.  The grass in the pasture is green and beautiful, but it isn’t growing very fast.  Farming promotes a sense of contingency, a good thing if we are to maintain a relationship with either God or the earth – in either case you can only affect your outcome just so much.  You just have to take what comes, and either accept it, or give up.  Our experience so far agrees with what we believe on faith:  a disaster is an event you haven’t seen to its conclusion.  There is still hay in the barn, so if we have to take the animals off the pasture in a week, we’re ready for it.

The fall-planted garlic is knee-high and beautiful; the seedling onions are putting up a valiant struggle, but you still need your reading glasses to see them.  The water-hog by the white barn, the one we use to irrigate the lower garden, is mysteriously empty, so we drew water by the bucketful at the outlet of the culvert on Jeddo’s run and hand-watered the onions.  Nothing else is planted in that garden yet, or we’d still be hauling water.  In the raised beds by the house the spring greens are doing so well that we fill a salad bowl thinning six row-feet of buttercrunch.  The beets aren’t quite big enough for thinning, and the carrots are coming on very slowly indeed.  We’ve never had a whole lot of success with spring carrots, but we water these assiduously, and hope for the best.

We enjoyed an unexpected chicken dinner last week when the Father, driving an invasion of hens out of the big garden, and with unexpectedly accurate aim, clocked a hen on the side of the head and removed her permanently from the egg brigade.  Surprised him and everybody else.  Sadly, it was one of the Black Australorps, of which we have such high hopes as layers and mothers.  At least we are now in a position to say that they make great chicken soup.

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Saturday, April 14:

We are praying for rain.  This spring the weather is altogether outside of our experience.  In the garden the soil is dry enough to become airborne in a good breeze, and in the pasture areas which are usually sodden are showing cracks through the clumps of forage.  No doubt this will all work to good in the end but we are pensive.  One temporary advantage to the dry conditions, at any rate, is that we can turn the cows onto pasture without fear they will tear up and compact the soil – what we graziers call “pugging”.  I’m not sure where that word comes from, but it is used in ceramics as well, where its meaning is clearer:  a pug mill is a powerful screw that compacts and extrudes clay, forcing the air out of it.  That’s what twelve-hundred pounds of cow will do on less than a square foot of contact point – her hooves – if she is turned onto wet, mucky soil.

Twelve hours have passed and there is a soft rain falling.  May it last all night.

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hursday, April 12:

We have had to light the furnace.  Never mind our hope that we were done with fires for the winter; the temperatures have taken a sharp downturn and we wish now we had not switched the flannel bed sheets for percale quite so soon.  One night in two we have a frost.  On Tuesday morning there was snow on the monastery roof when we went up for holy mass, although closer to the river temperatures stayed above freezing.  Yesterday it snowed, hailed, and rained, but not enough of any of these to break our dry spell.  We have given up covering the fruit trees.  What we might save by covering them we would just knock off the tree as we took the covers off every morning.

At least weather, being beyond man’s power to control it, can be endured with the resolution that comes with knowing a situation is not our fault.

We harvested our first asparagus last night, about a dozen stout spears.  Lettuce and spinach are doing well as they don’t mind the frost, but the tomato and pepper plants in the greenhouse are growing very slowly due to the low temperatures.  We will put off starting the melons and squashes in their individual four-inch pots until the weather moderates a little; started too early and too cold, they would probably rot rather than germinate.

The woods carry a faint look of autumn as the young leaves, rust and yellow and burgundy, wait for warmer temperatures to take on their spring green.  Trillium is only now opening on the northern slopes in the woods, and there are fewer than usual, but whether this is due to the temperatures, the lack of moisture, or some other influence we don’t know.  Usually the wooded creek banks are carpeted with them, and with bloodroot’s white candle flames.  The frogs in our small pond have given up singing and gone back to sleep in their mud beds.  We think of doing the same.

Wake us up when it gets warmer.

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Tuesday, April 10:

The cows are tired of the barnyard, but it will probably be another week before the forage in the pasture is high enough to bear any real grazing.  In the meantime we have been turning them into the lane for an hour here and there, with little girls to keep them from the neighbors’ yard and from the county road.   Baby Belle had us down in the pasture this morning thinking she was laboring with the long-anticipated calf, but it was a false alarm.  From the house she looked like a very pensive animal, but when she heard the chain on the pasture gate rattle, she got up immediately to see if we would turn her out in the lane for some fresh grass.  We didn’t, but she got a nice rubdown anyway while we assessed her condition, and her baby gave us a nice kick to let us know he was still there.  Only we hope he’s a she.

Yesterday’s rain didn’t amount to much.  High winds this morning probably evaporated whatever we got, and blew the plastic cover off the low tunnel as well.  Now winter has returned for a brief encore; temperatures in the thirties and even a few snowflakes.  We hope the onion sprouts won’t feel unwelcome.

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Monday, April 9:

Did you ever transplant several hundred row feet of onion seedlings?  Not the onion seedlings you find at the grocery store in the springtime, bundled like scallions and fastened together with rubber bands.  Here in Ohio, and in Texas and Oklahoma when we were young, these and the larger onion sets, small bulbs like cocktail onions, always appeared in the produce section of the grocery store in early spring, a strange throwback to when America grew its own vegetables, and we don’t mean just  a tomato or two.  For a few weeks in spring the grocer’s produce shelves held hands across the decades with our parents’ and grandparents’ youths, and we wouldn’t have been surprised to see a pair of bib overalls come in the door, or an old-fashioned Schwinn with a bell on the handlebars leaning against the wall outside.  In our rural area they still show up in some stores, reminders that there are still a few who till the soil.

This evening we finished setting out the onion seedlings we started three weeks ago in the green house.  The package of copra seeds we received with our order from Territorial held a scant two teaspoons or so of shiny black seeds, tiny and three-sided like beechnuts.  Scattered thinly over sterile starting mix in six four-inch pots and covered thinly, they soon produced about six hundred tiny green shoots like ambitious hairs, each with a short white base sprouting maybe three roots.  We employed as many evenings in setting them out in the big garden, three rows to a bed, four inches between plants, and when we finished it looked like exactly nothing.  With a magnifying glass and a powerful squint you could maybe see about half of the feeble things.  And yet our experience tells us that these moribund threads will in all likelihood rally and produce a hundred pounds of yellow storage onions, round and hard and pungent.  All from a handful of green threads.

Nature just wants to feed us.

And maybe laugh at us just a little.


 

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