Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Privacy and Politics

There's been a lot of buzz about the organic garden that the Obamas are growing at the White House. Good for them. I'm supportive, but not quite as gleeful as I expected, and I think it comes down to this:

To me, gardening is an intensely private activity. While I might talk about it, or write about it, actual gardening is like meditation - or maybe it *is* meditation. The physical realities of weeding and sowing and cursing and watering are supplemental to an entire mental reality, the emotional and intellectual world of my garden that I don't discuss much.

On occasion, I joke about having a farmboy come and weed for me, or build me a trellis, but something deep within me rebels at the idea. I want my garden to be mine alone, where only I know what the sprout is likely to be, and where only I get to decide whether a plant stays or goes. The idea of having my garden in the most public residence in the land, aided by a group of children, planned by someone else (even if it's a really great chef) makes me cringe. It's hard for me to get excited on a personal level, even though I like the idea.

I think that's why I'm deeply horrified when cities intrude on the privacy of the garden, declaring wildflowers to be overgrown weeds or lawns too brown to bear. Blanket prohibitions stir the libertarian in me - if someone wants to grow a yard of dandelions, who am I to protest? (I will make exceptions for things that are a clear public hazard - no mercury in the water supply.)

This doesn't stop me from judging other people's gardens, of course - where would we be without the great Puritan pastime of passing judgment on one's neighbors and feeling superior? But that judgment shouldn't extend any farther than that, unless we can argue a serious public health or ecological disaster in the making.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Spring Restraint

There's an additional burden to reading blogs when you're trying to save the soil in the north - everyone's posting photos are all their stuff. Gardeners in DC have sprouted favas. Gardeners in the south have planted tomatoes. Meanwhile, there's still no fruit blossoms here (soon, soon), and the ground has that dangerous, boggy look to it - a couple clear days don't counter last week's rain and snow.
The favas might be fine, but I'm going to give the garden time to dry out a bit more. This will mean more weeding, and less prettiness, but I really think it is the right thing to do - for the soil, if not for my spring pea crop.
Still, it makes me jealous, seeing those favas pop up. I want *my* favas to be popping up. I am glad there's a spring here, and it's not time to plant tomatoes yet. As much as I love the tomatoes, I'd like to honor the spring crops, too.
So what I've been doing it plotting my beds with semi-obsession, until I think I've got it just right - not too many overlapping crops from last year, enough pole beans, space for herbs and flowers. Not enough cover crops, but there's plenty of beans from nitrogen. I'll continue encouraging the clover in the paths, and sow plenty of rye in the fall before it gets too cold. (I say that now with confidence -we'll see how things go.)

My beds are laid out not quite correctly - they're slightly strange sizes, depending on how easy it is to get to them. This is my general layout.
The external path is required by the garden rules, and cheerfully ignored by pretty much every gardener. Half the trouble is that things *grow*. The rest of it, of course, is our desire to grub every spare inch of space.
I'm good about keeping the path at the bottom of the garden; to the west, I tend to create a sort of barrier of old vines and sticks - compostable stuff that will take a while to break down. This is part habitat for predators, and part laziness. There's a hill next to the plot, and I can't really see anyone voluntarily walking along that side, but them's the rules.
The internal garden path - the main one - is just wide enough to maneuver a garden cart down, to dump leaves or manure. When harvesting, I'll usually pile things on my jacket or into a bag if I'm prepared for harvest that day, and carry it out to the main paths. As I said, I try to encourage the clover. I like clover; it fixes nitrogen, it's pretty, and pollinators like it. Plus, it should help reduce erosion somewhat.
Last year, Bed 1 was favas, fennel, herbs, turnips, and onions, Bed 2 had beans and my sad corn and pea attempts, Bed 3 had tomatoes, peppers, a tomatillo, and a basil, and Bed 4 had some more tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, dead squash, dead melons, and radishes. I'm doing a partial rotation, which unfortunately leaves many of the same families proximate, but that's what happens when approximately half the garden is in the bean family and approximately half is in the tomato family. Here's the highly theoretical current layout. All the brown-red dots are poles for beans. The onions are perennial bunching onions, grown for the greens rather than the root. (The lower right corner says onions - that's a lie. That's actually basils. Have I mentioned that I'm growing lemon, cinnamon, anise, and sweet basil this year?Future thoughts: I'd like to have a bird-bath and seat-like thing (rock? chair? log?) in there at some point.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Worm Bin

I've been contemplating how to compost my food scraps for awhile. This is partly because compost is awesome for plants, smells good, and makes me feel like I'm got an army of microbes at my command. Mostly, though, it's because I feel intensely guilty tossing food into the landfill. My city, like most US cities, doesn't separate and compost food scraps. For homeowners, the choices are pretty broad - you can have a compost heap, a compost bin, a turner, worms, windrows, bury your stuff in the ground, chickens, pigs, a goat, etc.

Unfortunately, budget and apartment dwelling limit things considerably. For example, I'm pretty sure the electric lines run straight through the narrow grass alleyway that is all the great outdoors I can lay claim to. Also, the ground would require a pick-axe to cleave it. So burying is out. So is heaping, as the landlords dutifully sweep through every few weeks to mow and remove extraneous crap.

Worms are the logical choice, of course. E. foetida, red wrigglers (or wigglers), are commonly used to compost food scraps. I've been wary, because I'm not usually very good with maintenance activities, and if the worms aren't happy, they can run. This sounds terrifying, as if 1,000 worms might take up arms and march through my apartment. I'm not creeped out by crawlies, but 1,000 worms trying to get out, chased by my cats, might try my patience. Also, worms are pricey - at ~$35/lb., they're not quite a bit more expensive than heaping stuff together and letting the microbes do all the work. And the warnings about keeping the right moisture levels and acidity make me nervous, because I have no idea what 60% moisture feels like. (Do you?) So like all things new, it's intimidating.

But I have a cunning plan. I rescued an old plastic organization system from the street last year. You know the type - it usually goes in your garage, and has a few shallow drawers, and a couple deep ones. It's probably 4 feet tall. My plan is to turn this into my worm tower over the summer, and if I love it, move it inside over the winter. I'm not sure how this will work out - the sides of the bins are clear, for one thing, and the shelves aren't tight together, so getting the worms to move between levels might be a challenge. But it's worth a try, especially since I have a load of cardboard boxes that are no longer good for holding things together. Those will serve well as bedding. And thanks to Geico and the local cable company, I have colorless computer paper. And thanks to my worthless union, I have newsprint! So having all that, how could I not order some worms, cross my fingers, and give it a go?

Of course, I have fantasies about using the worm castings to feed my seedlings, which will grow big and strong and feed me and the worms all over again. But even if I never use the castings, I'll feel much better having recycled some of my waste close to home.