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    Gardening Folly

    February 4, 2011 by Brandy Vencel

    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.

    Last night, while I was devouring Joel Salatin’s Holy Cows and Hog Heaven, I found the chapter on soils and fertility particularly convicting. He quotes Sir Albert Howard’s An Agricultural Testament:

    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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  • Reply Kimbrah February 9, 2011 at 11:56 pm

    Brandy- I know they will eat kitchen scraps, too. We raised pygmy goats growing up and the only warning I would give is to not feed them much grain. We lost one of our does from my brother unknowingly feeding her all grain. It heats them up on the inside and it killed her. πŸ™ They will eat pea greens, bean vines (which adzuki and mung beans grow awesome here in Bakersfield. The heat doesn’t even seem to phase them). It could be doable. Not that I’m trying to talk you into it or anything. πŸ™‚

  • Reply Kelly February 8, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    Yes, my husband was in the Air Force for 22 years but he retired in 2005.

    We have goats too, and their dung isn’t messy — not like chickens or dogs and certainly not like cows. Lots of people call it “nanny berries” because it’s small (about the size of a marble) and firm… not much different from sheep droppings, if you’ve ever seen that.

    I hadn’t thought about ingredients for a lasagna bed being hard to come by — we always have plenty of cardboard boxes and packing paper we can use for the base layer. I forget that normal people don’t have an endless supply of used packing materials. Sheesh.

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts February 8, 2011 at 4:07 am

    Kelly: Our property is huge for a normal suburban neighborhood, but it is not large by any scope of the imagination. It is just under half an acre total, including the area the house sits upon. I tried starting the lasagna gardening technique in one area to see how I liked it, and I got frustrated. I had trouble locating and/or affording ingredients, and then the layers I could afford were a pain to keep in place during wind storms.

    And we have major wind storms here.

    My biggest success has been in really babying during planting. So for carrots last year, my husband used the square foot gardening technique and prepared a foot cubed, digging deep down. He mixed that soil in with lots of compost and we had success! I know that what we lack is content–there is just no organic matter, therefore no microbial life. I am trying to figure out how to produce as many of those as we can, for it is daunting to think of affording compost for all of our garden beds. Just the pasture area for the two rabbits alone is 600 square feet…

    By the way…somehow I never knew you were military. I’m assuming you are out now, with this living in the country?

    Sara: AMEN. πŸ™‚

    Kimbrah: Darn you! I had just reconciled myself to no goats, and then you go and tell me something nice about them! I was seriously back to entertaining the idea of a pygmy dairy goat, but I had thought their manure was more of a dirty kind, and so I thought I didn’t want to risk them messing up the yard. Of course, they would still mess up the yard, just in a different way.

    My main concern with a goat is that I wonder if there is really enough room to grow their food. It seems like they eat an awful lot.

  • Reply Kimbrah February 8, 2011 at 3:02 am

    Brandy- Good post! I was wondering if you knew that goat poo also does not need to be composted, but can be put directly on the garden. It is very similar to rabbit poo. πŸ™‚

  • Reply sara February 6, 2011 at 7:01 pm

    I usually just hope for the energy to do it. πŸ˜‰

  • Reply Kelly February 5, 2011 at 6:12 pm

    Oh, when I asked the size of your land I meant to add that I like the way you’re working on specific areas — orchard with ducks, pasture with rabbits, garden… That sounds a lot better than trying to tackle one large, undifferentiated mass of land!

  • Reply Kelly February 5, 2011 at 6:05 pm

    How big is your land?

    We’ve had the same trouble with gardening, too. Being a military family and moving every three or four years we’ve never gotten to know our place before it was time to move again. We’ve been here for five and a half years but the trouble now is definitely soil infertility. It’s been farmed for a long time, and the previous owner gardened a lot with chemicals and no animals.

    We’ve built raised beds, smallish ones — 3 feet at most by 12 feet. That makes it much easier to deal with. Our best results ever have been with the “lasagne garden” technique. It does seem strange having a good half acre for the garden but only four beds, but nothing else we’ve tried has worked.

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts February 5, 2011 at 1:16 am

    Rebecca, I think the duck might object to the petting zoo concept, but I hear the Silver Fox rabbits described as “big teddy bears” and I’m hoping that’s true.

    I always wanted a lap rabbit.

    Just kidding!

    I do charge admission. The price is One Mommy.

    Ellen, That could totally be your problem, too! My guess is soil testing could confirm it. Yes, we have considered square foot gardening. I think the property is so large that we are easily overwhelmed by anything that looks like it will cost us money! πŸ™‚ We probably should have come in and attempted to fix one small area at a time. instead we tried to tackle the Master Plan and failed. But not miserably. πŸ™‚

  • Reply Ellen February 4, 2011 at 8:55 pm

    I suspect that we have some of the same problems with the drainage hills in our yard. It’s difficult to get grass to grow in some spots, and I think they did what your developers did.

    Have you considered square foot gardening in the short term? Bringing in your own soil would probably yield you some harvest…

  • Reply Rebecca February 4, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    You do know that my kids are going to want to live at your house, right? Your backyard is a pre-schooler’s paradise, what with the petting zoo, play equipment, and that trampoline. My toddler slide and assorted sand toys aren’t going to cut it anymore. So, whenever you agree, I’ll start sending the kids to your house from 12-3.

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