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The pleasure of the fleeting year

And then the snow came, three days ago, at night, and in the morning I rushed out and piled some of this year's black plastic composting leaf bags -- the very same bags I banked the house with last year -- over the last patch of root vegetables.

So when I lifted the bags up yesterday afternoon -- yes! -- the black plastic had done its heat absorbing work, and the soil beneath the bags hadn't frozen, unlike the rest of the garden, and I dug up more beets, red and white, carrots, and parsnips, and piled them up on a garbage can lid. The earth was still moist, less clay-y than last year, because of the compost I'd added, and there were even a few earthworms squirming about. And a biggish soft brown fieldmouse rushed out from under a bag as I lifted it, then froze next to one of the compost bins, there to set up its home-office as soon as my back was turned. No doubt.*

Then I ripped open the bags and shook out the rotted leaves, and spread them over all the beds in the garden, breaking up frozen clumps with a pitchfork. Even while I was doing that, I wasn't quite sure why I was doing it, because leaves won't rot in the cold, but then I considered a principle of permaculture: To increase yield, mimic the forest floor through layering; that's what sheet mulching is intended to do. Then the why became clear: The leaves will capture moisture through the entire winter and into the spring, and their dark color will capture heat and encourage melt, too. So in the spring, I'm hoping that the soil (beneath the leaves (beneath the straw (beneath the newspaper))) will be biologically active earlier than otherwise. Just as, reaching toward spring, biological activity this winter has been extended; in my garden, there have been green growing plants, and not only switchgrass, right up to this snowfall, and through it. Ditto the town.** So, I collected the torn bags, and took the garbage lid of vegetables into the house.

And the time to order seeds is not far off...

Assuming I don't lose the house, of course. So, looking back over the year and assessing:


Here are the following major successes:

1. The woodchuck fence. The woodchuck fence (bottom left in photo) is a huge win. The key requirement was to protect the garden from woodchucks, whose ungainly bodies could not climb over the fence, which was sunk into a trench to prevent them from digging under it; this requirement was achieved. As planned, the fence and its posts also provided niches for twining plants (cukes, squash, morning glories, honeysuckle). However, the fact of enclosure -- sadly? Certainly unexpectedly -- had a tremendous impact. I felt much more willing to plan for, and invest in, a plot of land with a fence around it.

2. Sheet mulching is full of win. By July, all of my beds except for the squash hills were sheet-mulched: A layer of straw over a layer of newspaper over compost. In exchange for the upfront work for laying the sheet mulch down, which isn't difficult -- my main barrier, as a non-driver, was mental: figuring out that I could actually get my bales delivered from Blue Seal -- I was able to decrease the time invested in watering (I didn't water my tomato patch once), and above all almost eliminate the stoop labor invested in weeding. In addition, I think sheet mulching improves the soil: As the compost rots and compacts, an air gap opens up between the soil and the newspaper. The air gap is insulation, just as in This Old House's replacement windows, so the soil captures heat. The resulting energy gradient promotes chemical and biological activity, especially by earthworms.

3. Winter sowing rulez. Another huge win. I got great yield from squash, beets, parsnips, and even tomatoes, all of which were winter-sown in February using the milk jug technique. I planted my tomato patch with seedlings that were half from the local hardware store, and half winter-sown. In May, the store plants, having been forced, were way ahead of my own plants. In August, store and winter-sown plants were the same size, and gave the same yield.

4. Yield generally. I have a couple of months of one-person eating in the basement. I'd lose weight, for sure, but I really could eat for two months without any income; "food will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no food." I don't think that's great yield by master gardener standards, and heck, I could probably have bought a couple of pallets of canned food with the money I put into the garden, but (a) canned food tastes worse, and (b) when the trucks stop, I can still garden. Also, opening a can is no fun. Gardening is fun.

So, these are successes which, The God(ess)(e)(

s) Of Your Choice, If Any permitting, I will try to build on in the coming seasons. Right now, I plan to extend the garden in a few ways. I'd like to: (1) add drip irrigation; (2) kill off more useless lawn by turning it into a squash patch; (3) really work the garden border with onions (to repel pests) and flowers (to attract pollinators); and (4) grow really hot peppers (recycling that saved black plastic to heat the beds). And in a perfect world, if any of my ships come in, cut down some more trees on the east edge of the property to increase the morning light.

Now, failures and lessons learned, if any:

1. If I were a peasant, I'd be dead by now. Meaning: The garden is uncomfortably positioned between luxury and necessity. I can still rely on "outside sources", either from the food chain (dollar for dollar, cheaper) or from restaurants (minute for minute, less work). But this year, given a big "bucket list" software project (more, possibly, anon) which I was determined to finish before my trip to the undisclosed location, I essentially abandoned my garden after mid-August. In the ensuing debacle, all that happened materially was that the tomatoes rotted on the vine and the raspberries got eaten by Japanese beetles; the root vegetables were just fine, which is one reason I like them. So the only consequence this time around was, I am sure, commentary on the rotting tomatoes from locals passing on the street. Because they do comment. However, if I were a peasant, with not enough food for the winter, and not enough seed for the spring... That would be bad. We romantic leftie gardeners need to think about that.

2. It's easier to grow than to store. Before the fall debacle, I had every good intention of learning to can, and -- in typical guy fashion -- took pleasure in purchasing first-class equipment for work that I didn't end up doing. In fact, the only non-root vegetables I managed to preserve were cukes, using Monkeyfister's excellent brine pickles recipe! Obviously, that's not tenable; rolling the stone, or rather the vegetable, up the hill, almost to the summit, and then letting it roll back down again is a waste of energy. And psychologically, I think that "closing the circle" of the seasons -- sowing, growing, harvesting, preserving, and then back to sowing -- will have the same impact as fencing the garden; I'll be willing to invest more in all the parts of the cycle as soon as it's really turning over. Right now, I'm stuck at the preserving stage. Heck, I've just got the squash and the root vegetables in the coolish basement; that's probably less than ideal...

The good news on canning, I think, is that I can start out easily, at any time, by making things like marmalade and relishes, even if I do get the vegetables and the makings from the food chain. It might be fun, and it will heat the kitchen.

3. It's hard to be disciplined about diet. I grew terrific mixed greens, especially succulent and peppery arugula, and made some very fine salads, with the greens, and olive oil, and ground black pepper, and small cubes of cheese, and small cubes of smoked sausage from the farmer's market. (Meat is best thought of as a condiment.) With bread to sop up the leftover bits. And yet, even though the salads tasted really, really great-- good, clean, and fair -- and I really enjoyed devouring them, and they helped me lose weight, I got out of this good habit late in the season, and let the greens bolt! I don't even know why....

* * *

So, that's the gardening wrap-up for 2010. I've already ordered catalogs from DripWorks and Johnny's Seeds. I'm not sure that I'm on my way to becoming a green wizard... But it's nice to think about.

Readers, how was your gardening in 2010?

NOTE * At least, one hopes.

NOTE ** A message from the Atlantic Conveyor?

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votermom's picture
Submitted by votermom on

Btw, I am feeling very pleased with your post as I credit myself with proselytizing winter-sowing & lasagna gardening to you. :)

My own gardening has been dismal -- I blame anemia & knitting.

Submitted by lambert on

I've been trying to inspire knitting posts, on the same scale as gardening (or cats) for the longest time, but since I don't personally knit, I can't be the driver. The real issue is not knitting technique per se (although that, and images of what is knitted, are also welcome) but using knitting as a metaphor, and integrating it throughout the posts (and I can't believe that's not possible, treating knitted goods for a moment as an abstraction, as networks, as connections....)

* * *

Thanks. Lasagna (layered) gardening I learned of locally, since Zone 5b is very, very big on permaculture. And 50 lashes with a wet noodle for not crediting you on winter sowing. I process a lot of stuff....

I order seeds from Johnny's and Fedco. Zone 5b is also very big on seed companies. My local hardware store has Johnny's, and also Hart.

Submitted by lambert on

But I do think that there are other knitters here (perhaps even bitter ones ;-) who will come out of the closet if somebody posts.

To reiterate, I'm interested not only in knitting per se, but in knitting as a source of metaphor, of discourse, of people coming together around subjects of mutual interest... The way the gardening stuff works, but in this new area. So knitting prowess is not the requirement!

Valley Girl's picture
Submitted by Valley Girl on

Ever learned, ever tried?

What source of metaphor are you thinking of?

From my various internet searches on knitting, I do know that there is a cadre of male knitters out there.

Funny story- I took my exam scantrons to the testing center to be graded, and I was winding yarn from a reclaimed cashmere sweater around a TP roll center while I waited. I really like the guy who does the "scantron" stuff for me. He looked at what I was doing, and said "oh, so did you learn that from Annie Hall?". Uh, not that Annie Hall, but a person of the same name, master knitter, who taught local U evening classes. Thus he had learned to knit. Pretty amusing, just because of the odd context for this discovery.

I taught myself to knit at age 10, from library books. I'm not as rabid as my best friend. But, there is a certain "Zen" about knitting, as explored in this book:

Valley Girl's picture
Submitted by Valley Girl on

And, she has some great pix of her work at her etsy site. But is from flickr:

Hand-knit and even made the beaded handles!!!

twig's picture
Submitted by twig on

That's from a few years ago, though, when people could still afford expensive hobbies like knitting. Since then, a lot of yarn stores have closed. It's too bad, because the stores made what is pretty much a solitary activity into a social scene, which was fun!

Ha, that little bag! So funny seeing it here. All that yarn is recycled, unraveled, I mean -- like you do with your sweaters, VG. I agree, it's very Zen, like meditating. Plus, when you're done, you have something to show for it.

The only downside is that it's so addictive!

Submitted by hipparchia on

I got out of this good habit late in the season, and let the greens bolt! I don't even know why....

because you wanted them to be self-seeding for next year!

i didn't do a single gardening thing this year except read everybody's posts here, but now that i'm living in a new place, i'm looking forward to trying some of the ideas i learned about. thank you for doing this.

Submitted by libbyliberal on

when I read title of your comment! :)

My new slogan for Greens:

Greens against Greed. The Party of Conscience, Courage and Compassion.

Now I will do all I can to make it so ... for me in it. It already was but I need to walk that walk now.

hells kitchen's picture
Submitted by hells kitchen on

I hope to be able to plant mine if my garden soil is delivered in time.

I'm a very small gardener - 50 sf the last two years. But this fall I ripped up my brick patio and had it evened out and crushed stone put down. Then I put down 200 sf of garden boxes that I made (which are waiting for soil).

I use the boxes because I'm 71 and have bad knees and a bad back. You get to control the soil from the start.

This new garden is based on the French kitchen garden. The book I used for that is: Designing the New Kitchen Garden: An American Potager Handbook by Jennifer Bartley. She has a website: American Potager: Design

Submitted by lambert on

... and I hope you post on it with plenty of pictures! Or write about the design, and the decisions you made, and why!

twig's picture
Submitted by twig on

that makes sense here. Too many animals have access to the backyard -- dogs and cats, plus raccoons, etc. -- so everything has to be in a container or raised and covered. Plus the soil here is horrible - a tiny layer of clay over bedrock. Great in case of earthquake -- awful for gardening.

I just planted some gourmet garlic from Filaree Farm in boxes. Next, some peppers and dandelions for the greens. Oh, and nasturtiums -- the flowers are yummy in salads.