Friday, October 3, 2014

Crimson Clover - an ode and tribute

It’s already October - the main harvest is over
And the rain’s a harsh lover when soil is uncovered

Will erosion take over? Can the weeds all get smothered?
It’s time to discover, my one favorite cover:

Crimson Clover, Over and Over

When the long stems of barley  just seem too darned gnarly
When you want rhizome action, and break up soil compaction
If you want some good forage that’s not fuzzy like borage
It’s too cold for buckwheat and you shout out, oh  f#@& wheat
It’s too tall for my mower just give me that clover!

Crimson clover, over and over

It attracts pollinators you’ll be glad for them later
If your soils acid, lime it and you need a mild climate
Just broadcast and plant it then take it for granted
Till in spring you discover the most beautiful clover!

Crimson Clover, over and over!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Goodbye Cosmo

We are very sad to announce that Cosmo, the rooster, is gone.

Cosmo joined Several Gardens Farm as a young rooster back in 2003, as part of a group of bantam chickens given to us by neighborhood children. We did not know his age at the time, but we estimate he was between 7 and 12 months.

He was our faithful rooster for eleven years. Few humans could have show the courage, generosity or loyalty he did. He never ate anything until his hens had been given first choice. He never ran from danger until the flock had made good its escape. Then he would run screaming from his predator, diverting them from everything but the red comet of noise he could become.

He never knew how tiny he was. He took on fights with stray roosters in the neighborhood, with a huge drake duck, with his own evil and ungrateful son. Never once in his life did he win a fight. We often had to rescue him. But he was always gentle with people, to the point of letting kids pull on his feathers or cuddle him like a baby.

He never abandoned his hens, even if it meant being constantly beaten by another rooster, or stalked by a cat. He knew his duty. Once a foolish hen flew into the neighbor's yard and was attacked by their dog. Cosmo went in to get her. I went in to get him, too late for the hen.

This summer he slowed down. He became too weak to climb up to the perch and began to sleep in a nest instead. He stopped leaving the barn, except to eat, drink or sit in the sunlight. Courting the hens was ancient history.

Then about a week ago, he started wandering off. He had a very strong sense of place, and never left the yard, but suddenly he was showing up at the neighbors. He was losing weight, and looking wrinkled in his skin. His crop was never full any more, as though he had stopped eating.

I began to lock him up at night, which I had never done before. Then we locked him up in the days, too, as he couldn't stop wandering. But it was a strange wandering - he would sit still for hours, then walk off to the fence line, where he would huddle miserably. I began to make plans for his end of life. I could see it was soon. While it would have been nice for him to peacefully pass, I was getting ready to bring him a quicker ending.

Then one day, I let him out to sun himself and went away for a bit. I came back and he was gone. Three days have past and we haven't seen or heard him.

A rooster doesn't hide. Can't hide. I am certain if he were alive, Cosmo would crow. I have hunted down every rooster cry in the neighborhood. I've discovered many, well loved roosters that I knew nothing about, but none of the crowing is Cosmo.

I have to conclude he has died. I never believed that animals 'went off to be alone to die', but I can see the logic for a rooster. As head of the flock, most roosters have a huge investment in the chicks that are their offspring, and in the well being of the hens who care for them. A weak, old, disoriented rooster could bring down predators on his whole flock. Walking away, letting them catch him far from his family, might be a last service he can give to the flock he has cared for so valiantly and well. I feel guilty and horrible for letting it happen but there's a certain sense in it.

To his great credit, Cosmo has made me a lifelong fan of roosters. I will find another one - many roosters need homes. I will try to find one as gentle, brave and devoted as our Cosmic Cosmo, and I will try to let him be his own rooster, instead of making him fill the giant shoes of his tiny predecessor.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Lawn to garden conversion - first summer

I can now say with confidence, our front yard is starting to happen.

Last fall we cut up the sod, stacked it into rows to form gentle terraces in the hillside, and mulched with shredded cardboard, burlap and wood chips.

We planted trees in the spring, and I broke up lots of established perennials from other parts of the garden and stuck tiny divisions into the wet, pulpy soil in the rainiest part of spring.

Some of them looked so sad, so ready to wash away. Some of them probably did.

But we are beyond the green shoot stage now. Some of these plants have found their roots and decided to grow.

A plant that goes straight from a pot into the ground can run into trouble. If its roots had filled up the pot, they may have stopped reaching out and started curving around the edge of their little universe. When they go into the ground, if the soil is too compact it feels like the edge of the pot. The plant has learned about limits and doesn't try to expand beyond them. Whenever you plant a potted plant, break up the roots a little - just massage them hard. Break up the soil all around the hole, and fill it with water. Water the soil in around the new plant so it fills the cracks you made in the root ball. This helps the plant discover all the opportunities outside the edges it's gotten used to.

On the other hand, bare root plants are in danger from not having any contact with the ground at all. You can plant them and walk away, and they can be surrounded with pockets of air instead of nice soil. Always water them well, even if it's raining, and stamp or press hard on the soil around them to bed them in.

But when your transplant works, it's amazing. If you watch a new transplant, day by day, you can almost see the moment when the new soil becomes home. The leaf buds it already had when you planted it are all open. Suddenly a tree starts to form new leaves, or a perennial pushes out  a second shoot from its crown. The plant is no longer drawing from its reserves, but making new food for itself from the sun, soil and water in its new location.

Red currant from this year's bare root. Purple penstemon from a garden division

Our currants are ripening. We have raspberries.

While the bushes and brambles are fruiting, the new trees aren't making fruit this year. If they did we'd snip it off. They need more time to form their shapes. But they are leafing and growing. Most of the herbs are transplants from elsewhere and look pretty scrawny, but they have passed the moment where they might die. I even succeeded in transplanting a very young fennel which I will probably regret when it turns into a thicket of stems taller than I am.

There are three rows of 'retaining walls' we built out of the strips of turf cut up from the old lawn.  Stacked up five or six layers deep, it's now broken down in to fine soil and forms a long row of raised area that slows the water flowing down the hill and traps if for the plants. I planted it with divisions from plants I already had - sedum, aster, artichoke, thyme and other solid performers that will spread their roots into the retentive soil and hold it in place in the many rainy winters to come (I hope; this is at least the plan). These raised areas are the champions.

Artichoke has not been watered yet this summer!
Neither has the sedum. Just residual water from the swale-like hill structures

The trees are doing well too. They were put in bare root and I was worried they wouldn't make good enough contact with the soil. But as far as I can tell they appear to be expanding their roots into the soil beyond where they started. I'm especially proud of this shapely little quince. The persimmon appeared dead but I had already been prepared for that. They need a certain amount of heat units before they wake up, and transplants are often the last to start their first year. Now it's starting to leaf out.

I always include a pineapple sage in every new garden I plant. They smell wonderful. The leaves are nice in desserts and beverages.  More important from my perspective as a gardener, they also wilt immediately when the soil even thinks of getting dry and days before any other plants start showing stress. The are like living moisture meters; very convenient if you keep an eye on them. Late in the summer this plant will be about waist high and will suddenly cover itself with bright red flowers beloved by hummingbirds and also useful as garnishes.

There are still wide open tracts of wood chips.  Last fall I sowed oats, which died over the winter, fava beans which were mostly eaten by squirrels right after their first true leaves appeared (here's one that survived) and crimson clover, which made a miserable show but at least gave it a try. Wood chips aren't a great place to grow unless you're a mushroom.

There are spots where you can see the burlap bags we put down over the lawn, and there are a couple of places where grass and hawkweed have pushed through the layers of cardboard, burlap and wood. Here and there, a plant struggles with compacted soil.

But in this hotter, drier than average July, none of the plants here are showing drought stress and the soil even a few inches below the wood chips is rich, damp and squishy. I think the plants are digging it.