Saturday, December 11, 2010

Wait...what was I saying?

begin with crocus and end the season with kohlrabi

It's been about six months since my last post; time to get disciplined and finish up some loose ends before moving on.
Recall those ginkgo seeds? 
 Here they are, 1 year old, in winter storage.  (17 of the original 22 seedlings)

that fat bud is the most hopeful sign I know.  Life finds a way.  
  Coming in the spring of 2011-I hope-hackberry seedlings and more English oaks.  The hackberry, sometimes called sugarberry, is a gracious tree beloved by birds and usually left crowded into the understory with the buckthorns and Chinese elms; but given space to grow, it develops a lovely fine-textured canopy that turns a luminous yellow studded with tiny blue-black berries in the fall. It's a great native species for urban guerrilla gardening...but more on that idea later.  And the English oak?  I can't resist the acorns; must either plant them or wear them as jewelry, so the choice is obvious.

And the spider eggs?
This lady found the summer harvest so lush that she left two egg sacks

I moved both of these egg sacks to a hedgerow for more secure wintering over.  Since spring is the season of entomological fratricide, I separated them by an acre or so of snacking territory.  I'm sympathetic with their familial appetites; when you come to think about it, many things in life would be a lot simpler if we just consumed our siblings while they were young and tender.  (The writing spider disappeared about 5 days after making the last sack in early October.)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

How to know what you think you know, part 1

Two weeks have passed since I took this photograph, and I want them back.  Financing my life through horticulture means that spring brings so many chores...I don't catch my breath really until mid-July by which time another spring is history, and I am planning for autumn.  I did...long ago...follow a policy of "be here now" and a short time later a "be there next" theme took over my life.  I wonder sometimes if another person caught my Be Here Now life as it was flying by and if they are enjoying it and have thought to send me a postcard.

I began my education by majoring in art.  What art instruction does is to teach the student to see.   First you learn to reproduce what you see, then you learn to place that vision in a macro scale by studying composition, color,  light, media and so on.  Along the way, you hope to encounter some truth through the physical manifestation your creative energy.  You also go down some peculiar roads seeking the creative energy to manifest.  It's a bit exhausting really. 

If truth and creativity go whizzing through the universe at dawn, the student is apt to miss the opportunity entirely from having been up all night  pursuing it.

One day, the second best art professor I ever had asked me if I used a microscope very often, because, he said, "there is such an organic quality to your work."  I told him that I hadn't been near a science lab in 15 years and also said some other snarly, snobby, contemptuous art-major  things about science in general.  After explaining that I would have to take a few science classes to graduate from college, he said something which I have come to know as the persistent knock of an epiphany preparing to enter the has tools to take your mind where your body can not ever go: microscopes, telescopes, chemical reactions steeped in new colors, infrared light....check it out.

Well, I had to check it out because I wouldn't get the degree without it.  I registered for botany  and shortly I saw the color palette, the shapes, the composition of my developing art work on a glass slide under a microscope.  There were the cell shapes, the circulatory patterns, the energy exchanges that I'd been painting, that I'd thought were my vision,  magnified and recorded as an algae's love affair.  I saw the universe in  pollen dust.

Hmmmmm.  The epiphany, after knocking quietly at the door, tired of being ignored and suddenly exploded into the room.  The art professor was correct; science had the tools to take my mind where my body couldn't go, but there was something more wonderful than that: science insisted on truth.  Demanded it, had a system for determining it and accepted nothing less.  No fuzzy fooling around.  The next few years were tough...chemistry, calculus and yikes, you could make a career of studying cell membranes on the molecular level.  But eventually my art-trained ability to perceive  twiddled up with a science-trained ability to understand what I was perceiving and to relate that to everything else. 
I suppose I get a bit obnoxious now.

A green thumb isn't botanical voodoo; it's the ability to make accurate observations within a known context and timely decisions on when, and how, to act on them.  (Knowing the context is a subject best discussed after midnight over a bottle of wine)

 Air temperatures are, within a narrow range, life and death to mammals, but less so to plants.  Soil temperatures are more significant.  Water and nutrient uptake are soil temperature dependent.  Just because you've joyously tossed your jacket over the garden fence does not mean it's time to plant.  Dig a small hole, bury your bare foot into it and see what 55 degrees on April 10th  feels like on animal skin, and you still won't know what a root cell thinks. 

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Springing Ahead

 This is not a photo of the sky  this March morning. (Today's palette is a dozen shades of spring grey with a crocheted edging of green.) That's a Scarlet Magic Tassel flower on an afternoon in July.  I chose this photo to motivate myself out of my garden denial.  I'm still not ready for garden chores yet....this is what comes from decades of gardening.  I drag my feet a bit longer in the spring because all my time will soon be owned by plants.   Certainly, it is my own agricultural expectations that I am avoiding and as the seasons pass, I have begun to appreciate the plants that don't need me and even resent my best efforts.  Trees, for instance, live outside my timeline and will only remember my tending them with another layer of cellulose. 

I foresee the day when I will let the vegetables and flowers run amuck and only grow trees.

Here's an Audioboo about Daylight Savings Time.  I  dusted and adjusted my one analog clock this morning after noticing that the digital clocks had all sprung ahead without my input.   I'd like to have that computer chip in my head to do the same for my life.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


The link above is to my new Audioboo experiment.  By clicking the link, you should go to an audio message on an alternate method to control garlic mustard.  I'm planning on posting an Audioboo on various garden questions as they come up during the season.  Feel free to ask-in the comments section-about your garden dilemmas.  If it's bothering you, it's bedeviling somebody else too, so share the puzzlement!

But I was not standing in the woods in the photo above thinking about garlic mustard last Thursday.  (It's there, for sure, but garlic mustard is just another dull control issue; no mystery at all)

The true mystery is: where did all the leaves go?  All the leaves.  Decades and centuries of leaves, leaves all the way back to the last glaciation of Northern Illinois...and in front of me, there is only a soft mat of last season's leaf fall.  It's lovely to walk on and if I scuffle a bit, there is  vibrant green  just underneath the leaf mat....all the hardy annual, biennial and perennial species waiting for longer days, warmer nights to begin another summer.

The leaves have all been sheet composted, of course; a season's worth of sunlight, transmogrified by chlorophyll, is now part of the soil ecosystem on the forest floor.  That's not really mysterious; I've had several severe professors who convinced me to learn the chemistry.  I've seen the soil ecosystem monsters under the microscope.  They are a spooky looking club, and sometimes I hated to handle the glass slide they were stuck to even though I've never been the least bit squeamish about plain old dirt. They are astoundingly efficient too: season after season of leaves, thousands of tons of biomass, and the forest floor is not one centimeter higher; they have eaten it all.  The sun shines; the trees grow; the leaves fall.  It's a child's coloring book of the world.

The Good People in my neighborhood are raking their lawns today.  They raked them last fall too.  I  look at what's in the piles (I can do this without appearing to be a nitwit because I have a dog to walk and when the dog stops to look, so do I or vice versa) that they leave by the curb:  Austrian pine needles, browned grass, a few pine cones, leaves that blew over from my garden because I don't rake.  The forest floor basically but without the soil ecosystem.  That ecosystem never develops much complexity before somebody broadcasts a layer of weed killer and rakes the food away.

While pondering the disappearance of a millennium of leaves in the woods, I note that here is what all gardeners crave...high organic matter, moisture retentive, perfect draining black soil with a layer of mulch included.  I might possibly sprout roots from my boots if I stand here awhile; I might transmogrify myself without the blessing of chlorophyll.  I am tempted to press an ear to the ground-try to hear the chemical conversation with the universe.  But there are frequent joggers running across that bridge you see in the background of the photo, and I haven't bail money in my pocket to risk alarming them.

To the very next person who asks me a garden question, I will say: go to the woods and look for the leaves.
No, I won't say that. It's not nice to go all Zen Buddhist on people just looking to grow a decent head of broccoli, to tell them to put an ear to the earth and eavesdrop on the gossip of microscopic monsters and ion exchanges.

Meanwhile, over there to the right is a lush patch of moss, and I know a woman who is forever spraying buttermilk and green tea on logs to get a moss garden to thrive.  I will borrow a wad of it for her and explain that the way to get moss really growing is to put it on a stump amongst the leaves and lay some sticks over it.



Monday, March 1, 2010

Everything's Meant

The gift of fermented ginkgo fruit should be enough for one day.  I now have  responsibility for five pounds of ripe genetic diversity to tend to; I'm doing my part, I think.  The afternoon is wearing on and if anybody wants to bring me another present, I would like a tall cup of iced coffee, black.  But no; the Law of Unintended Consequences rules the day.  Here is a grinning fellow clutching a paper bag.
Hey ! he says, remember how you told me about the spiders?  Well, here's some for ya!

I do remember.  

This is Big Spider time...when the spiders that have been with us all summer have finally gotten too fat to hide easily anymore.  If it has been a good buggy season, their lives are nearly over when we finally stumble through their webs and do the Scary Spider Web in My Hair Dance in the garden.  I am forever trying to talk people down from their spider panic even though I've done my share of frantic scrambling after blundering into a web.  I look for the spiders all summer, program a cerebral GPS system with their location, use a foggy morning for web watching.

I like carnivorous insects; we're on the same side in the garden. ( I'm a bit disturbed by their lack of discrimination; they're as likely to eat each other as they are a Japanese beetle or a grasshopper, but then every body is meat to some body.  The lion may lay down with the lamb someday, but anything laying down with a dragonfly or a spider or a praying mantis had better keep a few eyes swiveling on the lookout.)

 As the September days get shorter in northern Illinois, the big black and yellow orb spiders-argiope, the writing spider- is nearly ready to lay her eggs.  One morning she's hanging in a web with a stash of silk wrapped lunches, causing you to leave the tomato patch unharvested, and in the afternoon she's gone.  She hasn't gone far....usually less than five feet or so away to spin a perfect  nursery act of insect faith, if insects know about faith.  I know about faith and feel that faith needs a bit of help, so I look for the egg sacs and move them to safer quarters for the winter.  Who am I to move a mother's egg sac?  I'm the Human and plenty arrogant enough to think that I know better.  Plus, I have seen the baby spiders in the spring, and the first thing that they do is eat each other, so I relocate the sac to good cover where the babies have a slightly better chance of  surviving sibling appetites and becoming my frontline troops in the Bug Wars.  It's All About Me, of course.

I encourage other people to do this also; mostly they think I'm crazy.  But, once in a while, I must make an impression that isn't crazy, or! only other crazy people listen to me; hence the fellow with the paper bag.  He's brought me two egg sacs that he found in his own garden, and he won't listen to my advice to take them home directly and put them in his boxwood hedge.  They-a couple thousand spider potentials- are a gift to me.  Share the harvest! You told me that! he says.

I'm sure I did.  It sounds like something I would say.

I bring the ginkgo fruit home to my kitchen to finish fermenting and take the spider sacs to the Heritage Garden, put one in the lavender patch and one in the indigo bush already practicing my lecture to the Volunteers next season when the spiders are noticed.  Perhaps I ask too much of these people, I think, recalling how everybody panicked over the mud dauber wasp larvae that I put in the shed last year.  (That's another story for later.)

Still.  What does it mean, ginkgo nuts and spider eggs on a September afternoon?  I have that sort of brain where everything is meant.  Meant.  Has meaning.  Something in the context may need adjusting, of course....the timing, the angle, the distance....but there is a point, right?  Right?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ginkgo Nuts and Spider Eggs and the Meaning of Life....part one

If you were to mouse over the files in the basement cubby hole in  my head, you would find a file created sometime halfway through the last century labeled, "The Meaning of Life".  The file is crammed with nervous little question marks making squeaky inquisitive noises like this: why? how come? who said? where? when? whatwhatwhat? whywhywhy? 

The whywhywhy can sometimes reach such a shrill decibel level that my brain pops up a window informing me that an error has been detected, and it is necessary to end the session now and that all unsaved information will be lost.  This is a relief actually.

The Meaning of Life file is awfully large and interesting because I stash some information in it everyday.  I never add any answers to the question of the Meaning of Life-I still don't have any-but the details are endlessly fascinating to me.  If I'm asked to stand in line, or take a number and sit down, or the traffic is slow, I open up the Meaning of Life file and worry it dog and bone style.  (Don't write to tell me that there are nice groups and medication for this neurosis; I've seen that option in the file and know all about it already, thank you.)

The ginkgo nuts and the spider eggs are in the file and here is how that came about:

One day last September, I was helping someone to decide on the perfect tree to memorialize a pet that had just gone back to the Home Planet.  This is delicate and time consuming because we must evaluate every possible tree species for grieving metaphors and its ability to someday crack the house foundation  or otherwise threaten the insurance status of the property.  Utility lines, the neighbor's approval and urban forestry regulations must all be considered.  (It's probably simpler to send Poor Fluffy's ashes on a trip to the sea, but never mind.)  A third person, shadowing our progress through the tree nursery, was following the discussion closely although I didn't register that at the time.

After reviewing a couple dozen possible trees and seeing  nothing to commemorate Poor Fluffy's eternal rest properly, we came to the Ginkgo tree.  I leave this one for last because it's not a tree for everyone.  (Plus, it's my favorite, and I hate to part with them)  The Ginkgo is slow growing-in Northern Illinois-and is often awkwardly shaped when young.  Its slow growth means that even small trees are going to be pricey.  (Many people in the speedy New Millennium prefer a Bradford Pear type tree which will have matured and toppled over in a summer thundershower onto to your pick-up truck before a Ginkgo even gets its groove on.)

A big concern about Ginkgo trees is their fruit which has an offensive reputation with some people.  (They describe it as cat uriney)  Ginkgos used to come in sexes-one of each-and you don't know which tree is which for ten to fifteen years when the females finally bear fruit.  By that time, you've fallen in love with the tree, the kids have hung a rope swing in it, the cardinals have registered to vote at your address, and you are fully capable of ignoring the neighbors who can't stand the stink.  Most neighborhoods have at least one grumpy resident who can't see the forest for the Ginkgo tree and don't care a bit about the nobler tree issues. 

But, I explained to Poor Fluffy's bereaved family, those old sexy Ginkgos are long gone; all the trees available for sale now are sterile male cultivars, meaning no fruit ever.  In fact, I am likely to go on if not stopped, we may lose the ginkgo again in this country because we are losing the genetic diversity necessary to keep a species healthy....sort of like only mating Poor Fluffy to her brother.  (Actually, I wouldn't say that last bit to Fluffy's family-only to you Dear Reader.)  Someone really should plant a few Ginkgo seeds to keep the gene pool going. 

The Third Party is standing close, listening.

With the fear of stinky fruit removed, it turns out that the Ginkgo is just the thing as Poor Fluffy's tail had a hinky kink in it just like that branch there.  So the Ginkgo goes home to stand symbolically over Poor Fluffy's memory, and I turn my attention to the Third Party. 

"Ginkgo's a messy damn tree" he says. 
"Life is messy," I say.  And the Third Party goes away.

But a couple of hours later, the Third Party comes back, tosses a rumpled plastic bag at me and says, "Here you go! Ginkgo fruit from the tree by my office.  Hate that tree. Don't know why I haven't cut it down."
Later, I track down the office and the tree, which had been planted thirty years ago about three feet away from the building, is now engaged in a deadly struggle with brick, asphalt and guttering.  The tree is doomed of course; the chainsaw will get it sooner or later, and its revenge will be the increased air conditioning costs in the building once that glorious, sheltering canopy is gone and in a little less birdsong. A fruiting Ginkgo tree is a rich ecosystem; the loss of even one diminishes all.

Still!  I have the nuts.  I am holding the future in my hands, and it does smell a little bit. Squishy, too.  A smelly, squishy future.  Not really like a cat box though...more...cheesey.  This is an interesting day, I think, and it's not 2 in the afternoon yet.....

next....spider eggs to complement the ginkgo nuts.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Beginning with an old friend...

I had intended to tell the backstory on the name for this blog as my first post, but with so many requests for information about white Dutch clover, I will follow the energy flow and begin with the clover.

White Dutch clover, trifolium repens, is now more often labeled New Zealand white clover. I've never found an explanation for the name change which seems to have happened about 15 years ago when a mysterious group of nomenclature botanists responsible for driving us crazy by renaming plants had a long lunch featuring lots of self-congratulatory cocktails. "♫ For we are jolly good fellows ♫" they sang; ka-chink! went the glasses..."Let's mess with the nomenclature!"

Trifolium repens is a legume, perennial and self-sowing in most growing zones and thrives in nearly every soil that I've asked it to grow in and that has occasionally been some very bad ones indeed. With no mowing, it grows about 4-6 inches high. Before the tyranny of lawn chemicals, white clover was considered essential in all lawn seed mixtures because of its ability to fix nitrogen and to stay luscious green throughout the hottest part of the summer with no added irrigation.

{Sidebar: before I go on to the rest of this rant, understand this: in my deepest soul, on a truly molecular level, I am an old-timey, but well educated Organic Fanatic. Despite that, I have also been a professional pesticide applicator to finance my life. (Painful story there) Because I knew the chemistry in the pesticides and understood the deadly problems in mishandling them, I considered myself to be an ethical person in their use. Oh the things we must sometimes compromise on for a paycheck....}

But as we became slaves to the monoculture lawn-which is to say, slaves to the chemical companies whose profit margin depends on an irrational fear of dandelions-white clover's photo was included on the Criminal Lawn Weeds list. Broadleaf herbicides were developed to turn a simple patch of flattering green around your house into a dangerous chemical junkie jonesing for a 2,4D fix also killed the clover, so it became important to trash talk this harmless little guy so that no one would mourn its demise.

White clover has been saved by increased organic agriculture. The Permaculture folks, who have many very good ideas, have encouraged a few university studies about the effects of white clover as living mulch. You can google around for hard evidence. What follows is my experience.

I always use white clover as a cover crop, both on fallow planting beds, or on recently tilled areas-unless, obviously, those are part of a stale bed program. The Planet loathes bare soil, absolutely won't have it, so the very instant any soil is laid bare-wounded-the pioneer species appear. This is a natural bandage to heal the soil that we have disturbed for noble purposes. We often need to assert our authority as the Very Scary Species at the Top of the Food Chain and boss nature around just to get a leg up on lunch. White clover takes about two weeks to germinate at spring temperatures, so sowing on bare soil means that it will show up about the same time as the bad boys-pigweed, lamb's quarters, ragweed etc. Don't panic. White clover is a short perennial and spreads by thinly rooted stolons, so as all the pioneer species grow taller, the clover stays low. You can mow high and set back the annual weeds-and keep them from reseeding-while the clover gets established underneath.

White clover out-competes nearly all the annual weed species over time; it will form dense colonies that while they cover the soil, are not so deeply rooted that they steal nutrients or water from your food/flower crops. As a between planting rows cover, it is truly spectacular: a 4-6 inch high path of soil saving lush green; prevents paths from becoming a mudhole;recovers rapidly from machine traffic;attracts pollinators and other beneficial insects right into the field;fixes nitrogen all season long while healing compaction and preventing erosion and rain splashing. You can also mow once or twice season and let those nutritious clippings lay as mulch. All of the above applies to using the clover as a living mulch, but now you can add moisture preservation and temperature stabilization to the list.

Whew! That's a lot already. But I'm not done yet; I can go on like this forever; you can take a break.

No plant roots grow at a steady rate. They tend to have surges in increase in biomass, then a rest and repeat. In white clover, this causes a sloughing of nitrogen rich cells on the roots. So the green manure effect tends to be a gentle, across the season increase in available nitrogen. OOOO..that's sexy!

Because, as the Permaculture people will tell you at length, most of our agricultural dilemmas are caused by our continual twiddling up the soil ecosystem, white Dutch clover can be used as a permanent cover on all planting beds. When you need to direct sow, you create a narrow trough about 6 inches wide for germinating seed. The seedlings will be well up and thriving by the time the clover recovers. If you need to till up an entire area, about a half to a third of the clover survives and that's plenty to get the cover going again.

White clover simply has no preference for soils. One of my volunteer projects is a pre 1850's Heritage Garden, and the location has some of the worse soil ever. The area varies from bad old Illinois clay that I can hardly get a tool in, to a former gravel parking lot and filled-in house foundation. White clover thrives everywhere here. I sometimes dig it under for green manure and to break up the clay. On the worst of the gravel beds, it anchors the dust and holds in moisture.

White clover makes a beautiful no-mow lawn. (I HATE lawns of plain old's one plant grown twelve trillion times over-where's the fun in that?) You do get lots of the non-territorial types of bees, but that just means not walking barefoot while the lawn is flowering. One of the best mental movies that I carry around in my head is of a clover lawn in May, patches of blue violets and yellow dandelions blooming amongst the white. Then, the Lawn of the Month people showed up with 2,4D; game over.

Unfortunately, white clover isn't much help in fighting El Corazon de Diablo-the heart of the devil-my name for those perennial weeds that we fight for decades....Canadian thistle, bindweed, creeping grasses. Generally these desperados will continue to bully their neighbors, and you need to attack them with a multi-season plan. (Future posts on that topic)

Some practical details in case you need them: the legal weight of a bushel of clover is sixty pounds. About 6-8 pounds will seed an acre and that will be a one time expense. An inoculant is recommended; this gives the plant a jumpstart in developing the colonies of beneficial bacteria in the root nodules that do the actual chemical work in nitrogen fixation. Current price at Johnny's Selected Seeds is 10 dollars per pound. I have sometimes gotten a better price at a local feed store. The seed is very tiny; don't sow too thickly. Germinates in about two weeks at May/June temperatures. I often sow on top of the snow which feels strange, but it always works. Sometimes I sow a batch in flats and transplant the seedlings as a border or edging. Seed viability is long even if you forget to store it properly as I often do.

It is good to recall that there is more actual life-by biomass-in the soil than on top of it. The plants that we tend on the surface are really representatives of the ecosystem health at their roots. White Dutch clover is another tool in your toolbox to help limit soil disruption.

Future posts: What's with the gingko nuts and spider eggs thing? Everything horticultural, agricultural which I simply call gardening; foody issues which is also gardening to me since cooking leads to the garden and gardening leads to the kitchen; my beloved Heritage Garden which involves a lot of history, nearly forgotten or mostly lost agricultural and ethnobotanical topics.

Comments, discussion, input, observation, references, argument always welcome.

Sit over here by me and let's talk about growing a new planet.....
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