It seems that every year at this time, I get my hopes up about gardening. Maybe this year it will be different! And I suppose each year is a little bit better. But other than growing exceedingly large sunflowers, my garden here on the microhomestead has never been very fruitful.
Wendell Berry says it takes time to get to know your place. We are going on three years here, and I think that we are finally starting to comprehend the great magnitude of its problems.
Our house is on an unnatural hill. The purpose of the hill deals primarily with encouraging drainage in the neighborhood. I am fairly certain that the dirt used to create the hill was dug out from the earth somewhere around here, and packed down good by heavy machinery.
And no one bothered to put any topsoil on top.
I actually like the hill. It’s the lack of soil life that gets to me.
I was relieved, upon viewing the house for the first time (it was a foreclosure) that there were few weeds on the property. I had no idea that was because the soil wasn’t even fit for weeds.
We drew up a plan, but many of our attempts have been foiled by land that refuses to cooperate.
One time, I planted six pumpkin seeds, thinking that would be plenty (we never had these problems at our old place). We had a germination rate of 2 in 6 (or so I thought). Later, my flock got into the garden and ate one down before I could stop them. So I babied the one last plant.
I turned out to be spaghetti squash.
Not that I have anything against spaghetti squash, but I was sort of hoping for a pumpkin, what with planting pumpkin seeds and all.
To this day I don’t know if I planted the wrong seeds, or if none of my pumpkin seeds sprouted and instead I ended up with spaghetti squash because my duckies (who adore squash seeds) inadvertently planted one for me.
Considering my germination issues, I suppose I should thank them.
Two years in a row we have planted a garden that has failed. The first year, we planted a lot. The next year, we tentatively planted a little. Both years, our only successes to speak of involved sunflowers.
It has only been recently that I read that sunflowers like alkaline soil.
After five or six separate attempts, Si has managed to establish a lawn for the children to play on and the flock to graze on. The issue there was alkalinity as well.
So here I am, facing another spring. What should I do with this dead soil that I wish so badly to resurrect? I literally pray for my land.
We finally decided to buy rabbits and grow rabbit food instead. No matter which farming genius I am reading–whether it be Gene Logsdon, Wendell Berry, or Joel Salatin–there is universal agreement that animals heal the soil. The combination of pasture plants, which fix nitrogen and cover the soil like a blanket, allowing for the accumulation of topsoil, and animal manure, is a brilliant antidote to the injury of land from which vegetables and grains have wrung every last ounce of nutrition.
Of course, in our case vegetables might have little to do with it, as chances are the soil came from an area near here with alkaline water.
I attempted pasture a bit last year, but our alkalinity problems (again) foiled my plans. This year, we’ve already sulfured part of the property once, and we plan to do it again before we attempt a real and varied pasture.
I have one spot of land that I’ve never even attempted to cultivate, and it is there that I’ll plant a (fenced) garden of root vegetables to supplement the rabbits’ supply of hays and grasses and clovers.
The main characteristics of Nature’s farming can therefore be summed up in a few words. Mother earth never attempts to farm without livestock; she always raises mixed crops; great pains are taken to preserve the soil and to prevent erosion; the mixed vegetable and animal wastes are converted into humus; there is no waste; the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another; ample provision is made to maintain large reserves of fertility; the greatest care is taken to store the rainfall; both plants and animals are left to protect themselves against disease.
Perhaps rabbits can do for my garden beds what ducks have been doing for my orchard. The ducks, you see, exist harmoniously with the trees, eating bugs which might bother them, eating weeds and weed seeds that might threaten them, and all the while side-dressing the trees with nitrogen via manure.
The eggs are a bonus, of course.
Rabbit manure is the only known manure that does not have to be composted. It is perfectly safe just sitting there in the garden. I can even plant something right there without worrying about disease.
And the rabbits we’ve selected are darn cute, if I do say so myself.
So I find it is true what they say about hope springing eternal. Once again, spring is coming, and with predictable regularity, I hope for a healed and fruitful land.
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