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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