Thursday, July 27, 2017

When the Garden Talks

I often get insights while doing common repetitive tasks like washing dishes, ironing (yes, I still do some times), weeding, shelling peas. This morning while washing dishes I realized that my garden has been talking to me, guiding me, teaching me.

This is a different garden, though in a part of what I have been gardening since I got here, eight years ago. It is different in how I planted it and therefore how I work it, but I never expected the changes to be so dramatic.

I have only twice before had the space for what I consider a large garden, something measured in a hundred feet or more on a side rather than tens of feet on a side. One was in virgin sandy soil, along a stream bed in western Colorado and the other was a wonderful, existing and previously small commercial organic garden in eastern Washington state. The first flooded and we moved shortly thereafter and the second had been well established and was easy to tend with just the family to help.

Garden at 100'x100'
June, 2015
Moving onto this 4 acres, with Tractor Guy wanting to help, but being unable to work for reasonable periods, while standing or bending to use hand tools, I laid out the garden with very widely spaced rows. The plan was for him to control weeds (many were the ubiquitous runner grasses that had claimed this former potato field long ago) by cultivating between the rows with his tractor while I weeded in the rows by hand and by hoe. We struggled with this plan until last year, when I cut the garden size in half and the row spacing as well. My plan was to weed the smaller garden by hand and it worked almost as well as the previous widely spread/with help set up. Which is to say, not well.

Most of my gardening life, though, I have had to make do with smaller plots, tucked into back yard corners and worked around existing trees and bushes. In these smaller plots, every square foot of earth was valuable beyond measure and because of the smaller size, I could easily add sufficient compost and manure to keep the plants well fed. At the peak of the season, a visitor to the garden would have speculated that I harvested by suspending myself from a hidden crane or had mastered levitation, as there were no visible paths or places to stand. The were there, though, under the leaf canopy. You just had to have seen the garden earlier in the season and learned where the virtual stepping stones were placed.

This year, as I continue to move toward subsistence farming and become aware that my energy is a finite substance, I downsized the garden dimensions again. This year's plot is a nominal 50x50 feet and, in an effort to squeeze in all the species and varieties that I wanted to grow, I pushed many of the rows closer together than in the recent past.

I have been applying truck loads of manure regularly, as well as the tractor-bucket loads that Tractor Guy brings from the horses next door and the soil is showing me that it can adequately support the increasted plant load.

The smaller garden and shorter rows has also meant that it has been much easier for me to keep up with the weeding. At present about 1/3 still needs serious attention, and will get it in the coming week.
The weeded section; except for garlic
(left) more recently planted

needs weeding - earlier plantings
 Much of the section that has been weeded is the most recently planted; herbs, some grains, lettuce, beets and carrots.

But what really spoke to me over dishes this morning was a result of the time spent tying up tomato plants recently. I have a new tomato trellis, made from metal conduit and the tomato plants are secured in an upright position, keeping the fruit off the ground, by
Tomatoes secured to trellis
means of string and small clips. The tomato row is on the west side of the garden, placed there so, if necessary, we could secure it in place with guy wires against our sometimes considerable west winds.
Between tomatoes
and sunflowers!

To the east of the double tomato row is a row of "flowers" that turned out to be mostly sunflowers, which yo can see peeking over the tomatoes in the picture to the left. Now, remember I said I was cozying up the rows, closer together? The photo to the right shows what I saw when I started up that row, securing the tomatoes new growth to the strings. On the ground there were very few weeds, and to the east of the sunflower row, the spring wheat is starting to head up in the afternoon shadow of the tomato/sunflower rows.

A bit farther to the east, the pea row (badly supported by plastic step in posts and plastic mesh) which will be getting its own metal trellis next year, also gives afternoon shade to carrots and beets in the next easternmost rows.

“Full sun” means at least six hours per day, but some plants such as vegetables really need eight to ten hours per day. “Partial sun” or “partial shade” means that the plant needs 3-6 hours of direct sun per day. Here in the northlands where I live, all the plants west of the crops providing shade easily get the required hours of light in the morning to early afternoon, so what my garden has taught me this week will impact how I plant next year. 

With tomato, sunflower and pea rows producing shade, I shall experiment placing my lettuce and spinach, at least -- plants that really do not like the heat and do not especially require extra sunshine -- directly next to the taller crops. 
"Three Sisters" traditional
inter-cropping: dent corn,
beans and squash

As you can see, the traditional pairing of corn, beans and squash/pumpkins seems to be quite happy. The corn in the foreground is Darwin John, an heirloom flint corn for which I was gifted 12 seeds, which is also traditional.

Which brings us to native American wisdom, and to connections that came up this morning. Back in May, I spontaneously decided to attend a talk by Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. As a result of attending her talk, I purchased the book, though as is my tradition, a study of it will wait until the dark season. However, her talk prompted me to consider how I look at, and talk to, and listen to my plants. And I attribute my insights today to this change.

The garden is always willing to talk; we have to be willing to truly listen.