Sunday, November 3, 2013

The gardener's shadow

Steampunk pteradactyl
I find Halloween week exhausting. We take our costumes seriously at Several Gardens Farm, but we don't usually make decisions till days before the event.

This year, we had something going on every night for over a week leading up to the great day.

We squeezed in costume making around the edges, but got it done at last. Noah and I walked the candy beat, while David stayed home to greet other people's goblins and fairies.

I knew in advance how wiped out I would by and took Friday off. A weekday off! A day without work, without family. A day without events.

Amazingly, there was no rain, either, and I decided to take advantage of what might be my last bright, dry day to do some tasks to put the garden to bed for the winter.

There is an old proverb that the best fertilizer is the gardener's shadow. In other words, however much I understand my garden in theory, it doesn't exist in theory but in fact, and I need to walk around it, learning how things stand, touching things, thinking about them and knowing them.

So when I told David I wanted to give the falling leaves a light spray of fish emulsion, and he offered me the use of his pressure washer to spray them down, I declined. We have done this before, and it can create a nice fine mist that doesn't hurt the plants. But I didn't want to work in noise and the smell of gasoline, and I didn't want to wear ear protection. I wanted to be outside, looking and listening to my surroundings.

Reinactment - I don't really dress like this to spray fish emulsion!

So I hitched on my backpack sprayer and went around Several Gardens Farm, spraying a mixture of fish concentrate and neem oil on the fallen leaves of the apples and pears, and on the trunks, bark, twigs and remaining leaves on the trees.

This year's apple crop was badly infected with apple scab, a fungus that leaves dark spots on leaves fruit and sometimes actually cracks the skin or deforms the symmetry of the fruit.

Apple scab overwinters on fallen leaves in the orchard floor. In spring, when the temperatures rise, the rains cause the fungi to ripen spores which are released into the air and infect the newly growing flowers and leaves. A tiny apple that has just lost its petals can already hold the start of a new round of infection. It's sad to think of.

Fighting apple scab can go in a number of directions. Some varieties are much more resistant to it than others. Unless we are desperate for a certain variety for some other reason, when we get a new tree we choose it for its resistance.

But our old trees didn't get the memo. Some of them are very scabby, and if the scab is bad enough with them, it can overcome even the resistant varieties.

Besides, I want to see our old apples at their best.

But I'm not wild to spray fungicides on the trees even though some of them are organic. Sulfur and Copper are both organic, but they are both also nasty. They also both have to be applied at specific times in spring, to keep ahead of the rain that washes them off at the same time it activates those spores. I can't  plan my life around having a day off on the right day to spray my trees, and having it miraculously not rain that day. Seattle beats that kind of nonsense out of a person after time. Besides, I will need my emergency days off for baby goats!

Our beloved mushrooms
Most importantly, Several Gardens Farm is not just home to apple trees.

We have found eight varieties of edible mushroom in our one acre farm.

We do not want to create a place that is hostile to fungi, if for no other reason, a pound of wild mushrooms is worth a lot more than a pound of apples!

For every problem fungi, there are dozens of harmless or beneficial ones.

The fungus in the soil helps it hold nutrients and partners with plant roots to maximize growth.

Many beneficial fungi also, given a chance, will outcompete scab in the soil and on the trees.

We love our fungus. Why kill it off?

So instead, we are going to try getting the leaves to be gone by the time their scab spores would activate next spring. This is a two stage plan.

Uncomposted leaves - hotbed of scab!

Step one is to encourage them to decompose.

Leaf meal, 1 year later - no scab!
Leaves break down into wonderful, sweet smelling, rich textured loam all on their own, but it takes a long time.

By adding nitrogen and trace nutrients I hope to start the process sooner and have a goodly portion of the leaves already decomposed by next April.

My pictures of lovely leaf mold never look very good but trust me it smells like the sweetness of the earth itself.

Meanwhile, we will collect up as many fallen leaves as we can to compost in one, hot pile to make extra sure the spores get knocked right out of commission.

Just past 50% leaf fall Nov 1
The problem is always time and timing. Not every apple tree is the same, even in the same garden. On November 1 our orchard ran the gamut from fully covered in green leaves to nearly bare.

I want to hit the trees when they are about half bare. My best chance of hitting leaves is while they are still on the tree - so I don't want to wait till they have all fallen. But if they haven't started to fall yet they may still be feeding the tree. A shot of growth-stimulating nitrogen right now would be very bad timing. The tree would want to grow just as winter sets in.

Here is where the gardener's shadow idea comes in. If I were the perfect gardener, I would come back each day, assess the trees and get each one at the right time. If I were not observing, I would just get them all. I fall somewhere in the middle. I waited a bit too long due to work and school obligations, and all but one of my trees is somewhere between 60% and 80% bare.

The exception is the enormous King apple which dominates the orchard. It is still completely leafed out. The last thing on earth I want to do is stimulate new growth in this behemoth. I would rather have scab. So I leave it unsprayed. I will monitor and if I can do it, I'll either spray it when it actually starts to denude itself, or I'll pay some boyscouts to clean up every leaf once they fall.

Giant King apple, fully leafed out when everyone else is bare

As I spray the trees I ponder how much of scab resistance in apple varieties depends on timing. Leafing out a few days later must protect the tree from some of the spores. The trees all have their own schedules. I've also noticed the apples with a lot of natural waxy cover (like the King apple) or with heavy, russetted skins seem to do better. And certain trees grow branches in crazy directions, like pointing back into the tree's crown. This winter, I will do a story on pruning the orchard to let in air and light.

Walking around, quietly spraying nutrients into bare trees, feels like a form of active meditation. I feel the weight of my sprayer. It digs into my shoulders but it doesn't really bother me. I keep my back square and my posture good. I note the bark on each tree. The goats have favorites, which they gnaw on. They dislike pear, and they prefer the bark of the same apples whose fruit we like. There must be more sugars in their sap and later in their fruit. After applying fish spray I will go back and paint those trunks with a mixture of lime water and hot pepper oil to deter chewing.

Celia just wouldn't stand still for this picture! But trust me there's a hole in her foot.

The ducks are not bothered by the smell of fish.

They waddle over and I notice the hole in Celia's foot web is healing nicely.

I don't know how she got it but duck feet appear to be suitably tough and resilient.

Poor Nuiki is taking forever to regrow her feathers.

Chickens molt every fall and get nice new feathers. Imagine a feather growing through your skin! It can't feel good even though they are coated in a protective sheath.

I give her a good rub to break up the papery covering over new pinfeathers.

It must be very uncomfortable; she loves being scratched.

Cosmo and his little friend seem to be incubating a huge duck egg.

The messy, wallow-like "nest" a duck makes is like a giant crater for a couple of bantam chickens, but they seem ready for the challenge.

Lightning was very noisy and obnoxious when she saw me come out, but she settled down and is happily resting on her day perch now. She is getting less jumpy around people.

The quiet and mysterious black cat is never far away, and the backyard crow follows nearby.

A V of geese is calling up in the higher layers of air, scarily close to the landing patterns of the runway. I know the airport does everything it can to keep large birds out of its flight zones but this time of year must pose extra problems. I know a biologist at the port - I make a note to ask her.

I scoop up leaves from the huge old maple and and berries from the Madronas that overhang our driveway. I use a snow shovel, and toss them into the rolling trash can. The neighbor comes over to offer me his leaf blower but again - the noise! I want peace.

Anyway, I want to roll the leaves out to the barn and fill it up with them.

The goats quickly eat their fill and go back outside.

Then the chickens start kicking around looking for the odd Madrona berry.

Leaves are fun for the animals to play with - just as they are for us.

The bees are very active today - all but one box. It has some activity but it's ominous.

The bees are flying in high and fast as if they have nothing to contribute. Signs of robbery.

Below the hives, yellow jackets wrestle drones to the ground, chew off their wings and carry off their living victims to feast on in private. But their numbers are thinning. I see a bunch in the wasp trap and plenty more lie dead on the ground, probably normal fall die off for them.

My paper wasp nest is long dead; somewhere under bark on a tree, the next year's queens are hiding.

What I am doing today is husbandry. To husband ones strength or ones resources means to use them carefully.

Husbandry is the keeping of things through active care and through constant observation.

It is a meditation and a job. When two people of either or both sexes marry, they really should both become husbands of each other and of their marriage.

And we should be husbands of our surroundings, near and far. Keeping an eye out on things is meditative but it also calls for action. I enjoy this quiet day on the farm and try to use it to recharge to go take action in other parts of my life later.

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