Garden Update

IMG_20190130_154702201The recent warm temperatures, although fleeting, seemed almost a consolation prize for having made it through the impact of the polar vortex.   Though it’s rewarding to finally find enough time to clean last year’s popcorn crop, I think it fair to say cabin fever had set in for not only me, but for most folks here in the metropolitan Saint Louis area; the opportunity to emerge with the groundhog from our winter slumber to grab a bit of fresh air was most welcome, albeit very deceptive.  We went from -7F to 67F over just a couple days; unfortunately, many people in the area have succumbed to influenza.  And now at the end of the week, back into the deep freeze we’ve gone.  Despite the best predictions of meteorologist rodents, and in spite of the stock we put in them, we’re most decidedly still experiencing winter.  Signs of spring abound, however, and I was grateful to take in many of them last weekend while knocking a few things off the to-do list.

Hamamelis virginiana (Witch Hazel) is in full bloom, inviting closer examination and perhaps a sniff.

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The apple, pear and cherry trees have all been pruned.  All have set nice buds, promising a decent amount of fruit this year if all goes right.  Both the Gravenstein and Golden have grown upright and proud, while the dwarf Winesap has taken on a more shrub-like form.  I’m a little concerned about the long term viability of the graft (healthy for now, but with a very pronounced scar).  I’ve refrigerated some of the scion wood for grafting, if I find the time.

The pear wasn’t getting enough light where I had originally placed it a few years ago, so last winter I pruned it back hard, dug it up, and moved it to a new location with more light.  Throughout the heat of summer it dropped a few leaves but held its own.  The twenty foot tall specimen seems to have established itself well as all the new buds look healthy and are beginning to swell.  I’ve pruned back the all the raspberries to around 10″ above grade, and spent veg and forb stems in the production beds to about 4″; most of the rest of last year’s growth in perennial beds still stands- a source of seeds and insects for hungry finches and cardinals.

IMG_20190124_165453876The birds are more active these days.  Even on damp, colder days like yesterday, bird song is on the increase.  The finches work as a team, scouring over the garden like a wave, thinning out the red clover seeds I scattered, no doubt.  Glad I broadcast them with a little extra exuberance; hopefully, enough will sprout to give me a decent cover crop to chop and drop before the bulk of spring planting begins.

I’ve spotted a daffodil or two emerging from the leaf litter under the apple trees, but only barely.  They are more patient and probably have more sense than us.  They know rodents are notoriously untrustworthy.

Last year I set up a rabbit fence along one property line to keep out the ever-present groundhogs. Naturally, one found its way into the garden and over the summer dug a couple holes on the north sides of some hugelbeets, all the while sneering at the traps I set.  As the ground had thawed completely last weekend, I pulled all the stakes and removed the fence such that if the groundhog were to reemerge and decide things smelled enough like Spring to look around for a snack, he/ she might be compelled to cross the boundary line, squeeze through the cattle fence without getting stuck, and return to the lake.  Needless to say, I’ve not yet seen my uninvited guest, but February is longer than it seems, and we’re only a week in.

I started a variety of eggplant seeds back around the third week of January.  Many sprouts were tall enough to touch the domes over the germination trays, so I took a little time this week to move the sprouts up to their own individual containers.  At this point, I have just under 60 plants of seven varieties: Black Beauty, Listada de Gandia, Korean Red, Astrakom, Thai Long Green, White Egg, and Ichiban.

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Greens are doing so well; I started a second batch.  As there was a dearth of greens from the garden last year, primarily due to bad timing on my part early and pressure from cabbage whites later, I’ve sought to make up for that this year by trying to start more indoors and earlier.  There are five varieties of lettuce and some lovely Asian mustards, amaranth, and chards.  I’m looking forward to huge salads come April.  Naturally, pictures will follow.

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I had a little leftover leaf mulch at the end of last season and decided well before things froze solid to spread that thinly around on the salad beds.  Temps in January were warm enough and soil conditions one day were dry enough to run though three of these beds with the broadfork; just enough to lift the soil a bit and allow some of the organic matter to fall into the voids left by the fork.  Over these beds I’ve already broadcast some arugula, leek and carrot seeds.  I’ve learned that it’s really never too early to plant these.

We’re off to a decent start for 2019.  Looking forward to warmer days ahead, moving some of the greens outside, and freeing up some space on the grow racks for peppers, which will need to be started within the next ten days or so.

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A Healthy Dose of Hope

IMG_20190125_170724630.jpgThis past week, I attended one of the 2019 Conservation Cropping Seminars sponsored by the American Farmland Trust, Illinois EPA and Department of Agriculture, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Bayer, and others including the Illinois Corn Growers Association, Illinois Stewardship Alliance, Illinois Farm Bureau, and The Nature Conservancy.

I always appreciate the opportunity to come in out of the cold.  Learning a few things while thawing out is always a good thing, but it’s even better when a hot lunch is served.  Lunch was healthy and free of single use plastic and paper products, which pleased me to no end.

Keynote Speakers Ray Archuleta and David R. Montgomery were both direct and honest about the reality of soil degradation and loss due to agricultural practices.  Montgomery (who I had the opportunity to meet; very nice guy) summarized the findings laid out in his 2007 book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilization, namely, that overworking of the soils to point of failure and without amendment led directly to the collapse of great civilizations past.  His presentation of how turning the soil destroys both organic matter (and with it, moisture retention and structure) and the insect and microbial life feasting upon it, was clear and engaging.  The images of extreme erosion due to unwise farming practices were as alarming as they should be, but the second half of his presentation, which was a summary of his most recent works The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health and Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life, focused on the rebuilding soil life and microbial communities through the use of a duff layer of carbon and cover crops.

Archuleta provided a motivational response to the helplessness I’m sure many in the room felt as they viewed the images of the land laid to waste, and he is the perfect spokesman for the gospel of soil protection and regeneration through the use of cover crops.  He spoke honestly and directly to everyone in the room about how they aren’t doing themselves any favors financially if they continue to abuse the soil, and I think he reached most of them.  His message of salvation via imitating nature through cover cropping appeared to give a fair amount of hope to the mostly commodity farmer audience.  By the time he finished his message, I think mostly everyone in the room not only got it, they were ready for more.  The excitement Archuleta sparked with the audience was enough to carry us all through the next couple presentations, which were more about details of how to go about planting and working with cover crops to enhance soil fertility in a manner that is effective and timely.

The presentation by Dr. Amir Sadeghpour of Southern Illinois University Carbondale detailed the results of his one year study on the use of wheat in cover cropping systems.  His research will prove to be very useful in understanding when to terminate the cover and when to plant in it, and I look forward to seeing the results of his future research.  He was followed by Sarah Carlson of the Practical Farmers of Iowa, who gave a practical on the what, how, when, and why of cover cropping systems.  Of all the speakers, I think Carlson was most successful at putting things in terms the mostly farmer audience understood.  I was a little taken aback by the extensive focus on the application of synthetic fertilizers and the achievement of termination via herbicide “burndown”, but I considered that omitting such information in the spirit the first two presentations, namely that of promoting soil life, wouldn’t necessarily be in the interests of some of the sponsors, so I rolled with it.

Seeing a roomful of conventional farmers engage in the discussion with Carlson gave me a healthy dose hope, for what these farmers carry away from seminars like these might just be enough to help them significantly reduce their use of chemicals and the chances of those chemicals ending up in our streams and rivers.  It might just be the impetus required to set them on a path of someday going organic, maybe finally achieving some financial security without having to “go big” for fear of going broke, maybe having then the opportunity to invest more in their rural communities.  I hope their journey leads them to going beyond organic to explore how they can contribute to creating a more regenerative agriculture and a more permanent culture.

Lao-tze said the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  That step is being taken by farmers, even conventional commodity producers, and it is an exciting event to witness.

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Best of the Garden 2018

This gallery contains 162 photos.

Happy New Year!  I wish health and happiness to you in 2019!  In celebration of the resurrection of this blog, here are a few of the best images of the garden from last year.  Enjoy!  

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Project Update- Lyman Trumbull House

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Alton, 1930s, as viewed from the American Beauty flour mill. Photo by Virginia J. Ennis.

I recently completed the first phase of the landscape installation at the Lyman Trumbull House in Alton, Illinois.  I have long held a special place in my heart for this historic riverfront town of brick streets climbing steep hills.  Alton is where abolitionist Elijah P. Lovejoy stood firm on freedom of the press, and where he shortly thereafter was martyred for the cause.  Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas concluded their senatorial debate tour there in 1858.  Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis was born there in 1926.  It was a real pleasure working in Alton, not only because it is a wonderful town full of great old residential structures, but because it is still home for me in so many ways, nearly four decades after I was born there.

My family’s connections to this town go back at least 200 years, to before the town was founded, but mainly it served as a stopping point on their travels to richer lands further north.  It was not until 1913 that it really became home to my family.

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Allen Reuben Laslie, 1913

At the beginning of the 20th Century, the economy of rural Kentucky was in shambles thanks to decades of abusing the land through the growing of tobacco.  Very few jobs were available to young men, but industrial powerhouses in the north, such as Alton, beckoned my Great Grandfather Allen Reuben Laslie and others like him to hop on a train in search of a new life.  He went to work at the glass works, met and married my Great Grandmother Bessie, and upon deciding to try his hand at farming, moved the family back to the hills of Kentucky.  This didn’t last long: a couple years later, they were back in Alton and Allen found his niche as a carpenter, building many of the new homes in the new post-war subdivisions in Upper Alton.  A few years later, his son John, my grandfather, worked his way out of the brickyard to become the most talented bricklayer in the area.  In time, my father joined him on job sites and became quite skilled in his own right.

Being presented with the opportunity to be the fourth generation to shape a portion of the built environment of this town was truly an honor.  I enjoyed my time in Alton immensely: from daily conversations with my clients and their neighbors to the regular concerts of church bells.  I truly felt home again.

I am grateful to the clients for their patience and for their labors; they started clearing the hillside and even washed up some of the old paver bricks found on site to use in the expansion of the public walk.  Thanks also go out to Lenhardt Tree Service, who not only took out all the old overgrown and unhealthy trees and shrubs, but who also came back upon my request to grind a massive stump down another few inches so I could install the step stone walkway.  I am grateful also to the material suppliers who provided quality mulch, planting specimens and hardscape elements: St. Louis Composting, Sonnenberg Landscaping Material and Supply, Joe’s Market Basket, The Greenery, A. Waldbart & Sons Nursery, Effinger Garden Center, and Home Nursery.

The project is far from complete, but the rain garden, the trees, and most of the shrubs are in place.  The berm adjacent to the public walk will in time feature a holly hedge, but considering how prone hollies are to winter burn, and considering that we would essentially be planting them in what is presently a frost pocket, we thought it best to wait.  Also yet to go in, the central “ghost stair” and most of the perennials.

Instead of writing a tome about the installation process, I’ll let the pictures and their captions tell the story.  Needless to say, it was great being in Alton again.  I enjoyed the daily exercise of working on such a steep slope (as did my hamstrings).  There were days when I felt like an archaeologist (discovering an Auburn Rubber toy car from the late 1930s) and a sculptor (pounding handfuls of clay into dams to create wells on the hillside to support the Fothergillas); it was great fun.  I look forward to going back next year for Phase II.

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Project Update- St. Charles

All plantings have been selected and a couple renderings have been drawn up, and with that, the design development phase of the St. Charles project is complete.  When the plan is implemented, this suburban property will look, and function, completely unlike anything in the area.

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At the front of the property, a significant portion of the rainfall collected from the front roof will be directed toward a very large rain garden filled with Echinacea purpurea and E. pallida (Coneflower),  Iris virginica var. shrevei (Southern Blue Flag), Equisetum hymale (Horsetail), Rudbeckia missouriensis (Black Eyed Susan), Asclepius purpurea (Purple Milkweed), Hibiscus moscheutos (Rose Mallow), Liatris aspera (Rough Blazing Star), Monarda bradburiana (Wild Bergamot), Veronicastrum virginicum (Culver’s Root), Carex muskingumensis (Palm Sedge), Carex haydenii (Hayden’s Sedge), and Chasmanthium latifolium (Northern Sea Oats).  Not only will the rain garden utilize an untapped resource, but it will teem with life, hopefully attracting many Monarch butterflies.

Other areas near the street will be xeriscapes, landscapes designed to survive long periods with no water except for what Nature provides.  Around a couple Rhus glabra (Smooth Sumac), one will find Potentilla fruticosa, Amsonia hubrichtii (Threadleaf Bluestar), Callirhoe bushii (Poppy Mallow), Artemisia ludoviciana (Wild Sage), Vernonia altissima (Ironweed), Sedum spectabile (Stonecrop), Eryngium yuccifolium (Rattlesnake Master), Andropogon garardii (Big Bluestem Grass) and Schizachirium scoparium (Little Bluestem).

At the center of the front yard, beneath and near the existing Oak, a (mostly) native woodland and medical garden will be featured.  Here one will find Ceanothus americanus (New Jersey Tea), Matteucia struthiopteris (Virginia Bluebells), Aegopodium podagraria (Bishop’s Weed), Polystichum acrosthichoides (Christmas Fern), Tanecetum parthenium (Feverfew), Stachys officinalis (Wood Betony), Scutellaria galericulata (Skullcap), Hydrastis canadensis (Goldenseal), Valeriana officinalis (Valerian), Hypericum perforatum (St. John’s Wort), Melissa officinalis (Lemon Balm), Agastache foeniculum (Anise Hyssop), Achillea millefolium (Yarrow), Thapsus verbascum (Mullein), and several other species.

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The rear of the property features a very large and bridged rain garden with many of the same species as in front, but also including Typha latifolia (Cattail).  A pergola will be constructed on the back of the residence, extending its shade for a salad greens garden.  Behind an low urbanite wall at the west end of the property, the children will be able to plant a Three Sisters polyculture (corn, squash, and pole beans) on the edge of their very own garden area.  Here they will be able to enjoy their play structure under the shade providing branches of a pair of Pinus strobus (Eastern White Pine) and a Carpinus caroliniana (American Hornbeam), which in time may be coppiced for poles to build garden structures.

At the rear of the property a series of wood chip paths and ramps will lead one past a grape cordon and bermed bed (no stooping to plant!) for annual vegetables to a hillside edible forest garden, complete with two varieties of Pyrus communis (Pear), one variety of Prunus persica (Peach), three columnar varieties of Malus domestica (Apple), Rubus idaeus (Raspberry), Rubus fruticosus (Blackberry), shortbush Vaccinium (Blueberry) varieties, Lonicera caerulea (Coralberry), Rheum rhabarbarum (Rhubarb), Asparagus officinalis (Asparagus), and many other species.  There will also be sets of logs inoculated with Pleurotus ostreatus (Oyster Mushrooms) and Lentinula edodes (Shiitake Mushrooms).

This Autumn, work will commence on the hillside food forest.  With the owner at my side, we plan on doing all of the grading of the swales and paths, the installation of a very thick blanket of leaf/ compost mulch, the creation of the composting bins, and the installation of the wood chip trails, log stair and a few of the fruit producing specimens.  As the oncoming El Nino promises to make our winter very harsh, we’ll probably leave it at that for the year.  Photos will be posted as we make progress.

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Posted in Energy Descent, Home Eco-nomics, Organic Gardening, Permaculture, Planning & Land Use, Project Updates, Resilience, Self-Reliance | Leave a comment

Project Update- Lyman Trumbull House

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Work has commenced on the implementation of the master plan for the Lyman Trumbull House!  Almost all of the old trees and shrubs from the front of the property are being removed as they are a) inappropriate to our climate (Blue Spruce), b) damaged by previous storms (Foster Holly), or c) just plain ugly and too difficult to maintain (Yew hedges).  Soon, I’ll arrive on site to commence with the site excavation and grading.  More updates will follow, but in the meantime, take a gander at the big Spruce coming down (video courtesy of my client).  Good riddance!

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2014 Garden Report #5

DSCN9690I have hesitated to write another garden report as of late because of the fact that a huge section of the garden, namely the “Three Sisters” portion, lies in utter ruin thanks to a small gang of marauding squirrels.  I had planted 80 corn plants and yielded a total of 10 ears.  Needless to say, this event, plus the recent drought, have been terribly demoralizing.

But there is some good news to report.  We’re still harvesting zucchini and yellow crookneck, okra, kale, rutabagas, turnips and beans.  The peppers are finally coming into their own.  And the tomatoes are rolling in faster and faster now.  Very soon, I’ll be canning sauce.

The photo above gives an idea of the kind of diversity I wanted to see when I originally planned the garden last winter.  On either side of the image are red cherries, black cherries (my favorite), and a copious Ildi grape tomatoes (my better half’s favorite).  The sauce tomatoes, Goldman’s Italian-American and Striped Roman are at top, and at bottom are the slicers: Cherokee Purple (my other favorite), Yellow Mortgage Lifter and Green Zebra.  Somewhere in there you’ll also find a rogue Beefsteak.  That is nine out of eleven varieties; still waiting on the two Brandywine varieties.  We’ve had some lovely Caprese salads as of late.

So until I can get large sections of the garden replanted for Fall, this will be the last garden report, unless certain individual items of produce are especially worthy of a post.

And as always, I move forward.  It’s a little hard to sulk with the juice of a ripe Cherokee Purple streaming down one’s chin.

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